The UVic Writer's Guide


The Greek term "mythos" means simply "story." In modern usage the term usually refers to a story that was or is part of the beliefs of a cultural group, and which explains the nature of the world and social conventions as the result of the influence of supernatural beings.

A story about a protagonist who is human rather than a supernatural being is usually referred to as a legend; and stories of supernatural beings which are independent of a comprehensive mythology are called folk tales. In modern literary theory, myths have been viewed as formulas embodying universal human experiences and ideas, or archetypes. Archetypes are expressed through the recurring patterns that occur in myth, ritual, and dreams as well as literature. In literature the patterns are seen in terms of genre, plot-types, character, thought, and so forth.

Northrop Frye argues, in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957), that there are four main narrative genres: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony (satire); these genres may be considered modes of the elemental myths associated with the cycle of birth and death in nature--spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

The term "myth" has various other uses in modern usage, for instance denoting a falsehood widely believed ("the myth of progress") or the imaginary realm of a literary work ("the mythical world of romance").

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995