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What is mythology? It is an organized collection of stories (i.e., "myths") by which we explain our beliefs and our history. Beneath the story-lines, myths usually confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level. Other myths, however, seem merely to narrate the deities' daily activities -- their love affairs and pleasures, their jealousies and rages, their ambitions and schemes, and their quarrels and battles.

Myths, legends, folktales, and fables. We commonly use the word "myth" interchangeably with the following terms, but some authorities have made distinctions (which, like many definitions, might not be valid in all cases):

1.Legends. Unlike many myths, legends generally do not have religious or supernatural content. Legends emphasize the story more than the significance of the story; we might still gain a philosophical and moral meaning from a legend, but we probably will not feel the archetypal intensity which permeates myths. An example of a legend is the tale of Atlantis.


2.Folklore.While legends and myths might be embraced as true stories, folktales are generally known to be fictitious. They are often told only within a limited geographical area -- one town, one mountain range, or one country. Examples include the stories of Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle from early American history.


3.Fables.Even moreso than folktales, fables are acknowledged to be fictional -- certainly when the characters include talking animals. A fable's emphasis is on a "moral." Examples include Aesop's fables, such as the stories of the tortoise and the hare, and the fox who complained about "sour grapes."

Mythology serves many purposes.

Myths grant continuity and stability to a culture. They foster a shared set of perspectives, values, history -- and literature, in the stories themselves. Through these communal tales, we are connected to one another, to our ancestors, to the natural world surrounding us, and to society; and, in the myths which have universal (i.e., archetypal) themes, we are connected to other cultures.

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