Myths and Legends

Differences Between Mythology and Legends

Robin Shoots with Sir Guy.
Robin Shoots with Sir Guy. Louis Rhead "Bold Robin Hood and His Outlaw Band: Their Famous Exploits in Sherwood Forest". New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1912. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In common parlance the stories of the Greek and Roman deities and heroes are indiscriminately referred to as myths and legends. If we wish to be more careful, however, we can differentiate between the two types of story, and between them and folktales and fairy tales, although a story may shift between these different categories, or may contain elements from each of them.

Briefly, we can say that a myth gives a religious explanation for something: how the world or a particular custom began.

There is usually no attempt to fix the myth into a coherent chronology related to the present day, though myths or a cycle of myths may have their own internal chronology. The story is timeless in that the events are symbolic rather than just the way it happened.


In calling a story a myth we are expressing no opinion about whether it is true or not. In the days, when, at least publicly, Christianity was assumed to be true and other religions false by those writing about religion (say, the 19th and early 20th centuries), the specialists' use of the word myth was closer to the popular use to mean an untrue religious story, and it was only used for other people's religion. As anthropologists and students of religion came to take a more impartial view of the world, it was recognised that certain Christian stories shared many of the features of myth, and could be called myths if the idea that a myth was necessarily false was shed.


A legend, on the other hand, is a story which is told as if it were a historical event, rather than as an explanation for something or a symbolic narrative. The legend may or may not be an elaborated version of a historical event. Thus, examples of legends are the stories about Robin Hood, which are set in a definite period, the reign of Richard I of England (1189-99), or about King Arthur, which were perhaps originally based on the exploits of a Romano-Celtic prince who attempted to resist the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons in what was to become England.

The stories about Robin Hood and King Arthur have been elaborated and expanded on down the years.

Folk Tales

While myths and legends may be transmitted orally or in writing, folk tales tend to be transmitted orally, and although they are transmitted from generation to generation and so their origin or author is unknown, they are more definitely felt to be stories, i.e., fiction. Many European folktales were written down in the 19th century, and some at least were transformed into fairy tales, which tend to be more consciously literary productions with a definite author, such as Hans Christian Andersen. Typically, folk and fairy tales involve magic and magical creatures and people such as witches, dragons and dwarves rather than religion. Examples are Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Let's look at some examples, now, from the ancient world. First the myth of the Abduction of Persephone.


Introduction to Myth

Demeter, the goddess of the crops and harvest, and Zeus, the king of the gods, had a daughter, Persephone. One day while Persephone was gathering wild flowers she was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld where the dead live.

Distraught when she cold not find her daughter, Demeter wandered over the face of the earth trying to find out what had happened to her. She came to Eleusis disguised as an old woman, and was taken in by the king and queen to be the nurse for their son.

Each night, while the palace slept, she placed the baby prince in the fire. One night the queen peeked and saw what the goddess was doing. Not unnaturally she snatched the baby out of the fire, and had hysterics. The goddess revealed who she really was and informed the queen that if she had not interfered, the baby would have been made immortal, all the mortal parts of him having been burned away.

Demeter met Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, who told her that she had heard Persephone calling out one day, and suggested she ask Helios, the Sun, if he had seen what had happened in his daily course across the sky. Helios told Demeter who had abducted her daughter, and Demeter went off to complain to Zeus, who was not only Persephone's father but Demeter and Hades' brother. Zeus refused to intervene, so Demeter withdrew from her role as goddess. Without her no crops could grow, and the resulting famine threatened the extinction of the human race.

Eventually Zeus said that Hades would have to let Persephone go. When Persephone was reunited with her mother, Demeter asked if she had eaten anything while she was in the underworld. Persephone admitted she had eaten a pomegranate seed. Because of this, she now spends one-third of each year in the underworld as the wife of Hades, and two-thirds of the year with her mother.

While Persephone is in the underworld, her mother mourns and refuses to allow crops to grow until she gets her daughter back again.

This myth obviously explains the yearly cycle of growth, harvest, and winter. The version of the myth found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter also gives an explanation for some of the details of the mystery religion of Demeter. Another more literary version of the myth can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 5, lines 341-572 where the characters have Latin names rather than Greek (Demeter = Ceres, Zeus = Jupiter, Persephone = Proserpina, Hades = Pluto).


Introduction to Myth

  1. Who's Who In Greek Legend

    What Is Myth? | Myths vs. Legends | Gods in the Heroic Age - Bible vs Biblos | Creation Stories | Olympian Gods | Olympian Goddesses | Five Ages of Man | Philemon and Baucis | Prometheus | Trojan War | Myths & Religion |

    Collected Myths Retold

    Bulfinch - Retold Tales From Mythology | Kingsley - Retold Tales From Mythology | Golden Fleece and the Tanglewood Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Our second story is the legend of the founding of Rome by the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. Their grandfather was the rightful king of Alba but he had been deposed by his brother. Their mother was supposed to be a virgin priestess of the goddess Vesta, but she got pregnant, some say by Mars, the god of war. Their great-uncle recognised that Romulus and Remus were more than human and attempted to have them killed.

The servant entrusted with this task abandoned them by the river Tiber, which was in flood. They were found by a she-wolf who suckled them, and a woodpecker, who fed them. A swineherd later found the babies and brought them up.

Romulus and Remus grew up into strong young men, born leaders of the shepherds and outlaws in the surrounding countryside. Remus was captured in a brawl with some of his grandfather's shepherds. Romulus attempted to rescue his brother, and the presence of twins of about the right age uncovered the secret. With their own followers and their grandfather's men, they deposed their great-uncle and restored their grandfather to his throne. Romulus and Remus did not want to serve anybody else as king, so they left Alba to found their own city.

They chose different sites, and decided to seek omens for which would be better. Remus looked round and saw six vultures, a good omen, whereupon Romulus claimed to have seen twelve, even better.

While they were arguing, Remus jumped contemptuously over the walls Romulus had built. Romulus was made even angrier by this, and in a fit of rage, killed his brother.

Romulus buried Remus, and carried on with building his city. There was one problem: all the inhabitants, being shepherds, runaway slaves, and brigands, were men.

Romulus held games in honour of the god Consus, and invited people from the Sabine communities roundabout. While they were watching the games, Romulus gave a signal and the Romans seized the young Sabine women who were attending the games and made off with them. The Sabines later tried to get the women back, but by this time they had married their abductors and some of them had become mothers. The women interposed themselves between the two armies, and pleaded not to be forced to choose between their relatives by blood and their relatives by marriage. Peace was restored and Romulus and Tatius, the king of the Sabines, were made joint monarchs. Tatius was killed after only five years, and Romulus then reigned alone.

After having reigned over Rome for 38 years, Romulus disappeared in a violent storm, and it was announced that he had been taken up to heaven, from where he would continue to look after Rome's destiny as the god Quirinus.

The founding of the city was carefully tied into history. The Roman historian Livy (late 1st century B.C.) wrote his history giving dates AUC (ab urbe condita = from the founding of the city). His history starts with the founding of Rome. Plutarch, a Greek biographer of the early 2nd century A.D., wrote a biography of Romulus in which he dates the founding of Rome by referring to eclipses observed in Greece.

He also mentions attempts to historicise the information by interpreting the she-wolf as a prostitute and Mars as someone dressed up to fool their mother (Plutarch Romulus). For the Romans, the supernatural details did not detract from the historicity of the events. Equally supernatural stories and prodigies of nature abounded in accounts of other figures in Roman history, down to the emperors.


Introduction to Myth

Who's Who In Greek Legend

Our final example is more akin to what we might think of as a fairy tale. It is the story of Cupid and Psyche, found in the novel, 'Metamorphoses' (a.k.a. 'The Golden Ass') written by the 2nd century AD novelist and rhetorician, Apuleius (Cupid and Psyche).

Once upon a time there was a king with three daughters. They were all beautiful, but by far the most beautiful was the youngest, Psyche. She was so beautiful that people began to neglect the worship of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.

Venus was very jealous, and asked her son Cupid (the boy with the arrows) to make Psyche fall in love with a horrible monster. When he saw how beautiful she was, Cupid dropped the arrow meant for her and pricked himself, and fell in love with her.

Despite her great beauty no-one wanted to marry Psyche. Her parents consulted an oracle, and were told that she was destined to marry a monster, and they were to take her to the top of a mountain and leave her there. The west wind took her and wafted her away to a palace, where she was waited on by invisible servants. When night came her new husband visited her, and told her that he would always visit her by night and she must never try to see him.

Although her invisible husband was kind and gentle with her, and the invisible servants attended to her every desire, Psyche grew homesick. She persuaded her husband to allow her sisters to visit her.

When they saw how she lived they became very jealous and talked Psyche into peeking at her husband, saying that he was a monster who was fattening her up to be eaten and that her only chance of safety was to kill him. Psyche took a lamp and a knife, but when she saw her beautiful husband, Cupid, she was so surprised she dripped some hot wax onto his shoulder, waking him.

He took in the situation at a glance and immediately left Psyche and the magnificent palace she had been living in disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Psyche roamed about looking for her husband, and eventually in desperation approached his mother, Venus. Still angry, the goddess set various tasks for Psyche, all of which she passed, with a bit of help from ants and river gods. At last Cupid found out what was going on, and he persuaded Jupiter to order Venus to stop her persecution of Psyche. Then they were married and lived happily ever after - and it really was ever after since Psyche was made a goddess.

The similarity to modern day fairy stories such as Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella is obvious.

Introduction to Myth

  1. Who's Who In Greek Legend

    What Is Myth? | Myths vs. Legends | Gods in the Heroic Age - Bible vs Biblos | Creation Stories | Olympian Gods | Olympian Goddesses | Five Ages of Man | Philemon and Baucis | Prometheus | Trojan War | Myths & Religion |

    Collected Myths Retold

    Bulfinch - Retold Tales From Mythology | Kingsley - Retold Tales From Mythology | Golden Fleece and the Tanglewood Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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Bingley. "Myths and Legends." ThoughtCo, Aug. 8, 2016, Bingley. (2016, August 8). Myths and Legends. Retrieved from Bingley. "Myths and Legends." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 18, 2017).