The Three Types of Myth

There are actually many different types of myth, not just three. In fact, there are several entire theories of myth. The theoretical study of myth is very complex; many books have been written about theories of myth, and we could have an entire class just on theories of myth (without studying any of the myths themselves). The problem with theories of myth, however, is that they are not very good; they don’t do a great job of explaining the myths or in helping us understand them. Furthermore, the myths themselves are much more interesting than the theories. For this reason, this textbook will not say very much about the theories of myth. But we don’t want to ignore the theoretical study of myth entirely, so we will limit ourselves to discussing only three types of myth.

1. Aetiological Myths

Aetiological myths (sometimes spelled etiological) explain the reason why something is the way it is today. The word aetiological is from the Greek word aetion (αἴτιον) meaning “reason” or “explanation”. Please note that the reasons given in an aetiological myth are NOT the real (or scientific) reasons. They are explanations that have meaning for us as human beings. There are three subtypes of aetiological myths:  natural, etymological, and religious.

A natural aetiological myth explains an aspect of nature. For example, you could explain lightning and thunder by saying that Zeus is angry.

An etymological aetiological myth explains the origin of a word. (Etymology is the study of word origins.) For example, you could explain the name of the goddess, Aphrodite, by saying that she was born in sea-foam, since aphros is the Greek word for sea-foam.

A religious aetiological myth explains the origin of a religious ritual. For example, you could explain the Greek religious ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries by saying that they originated when the Greek goddess, Demeter, came down to the city of Eleusis and taught the people how to worship her.

All three of these explanations are not true: Zeus’ anger is not the correct explanation for lightning and thunder; Aphrodite’s name was not actually derived from the Greek word aphros; and Demeter did not establish her own religious rituals in the town of Eleusis. Rather, all of these explanations had meaning for the ancient Greeks, who told them in order to help them understand their world.

2. Historical Myths

Historical myths are told about a historical event, and they help keep the memory of that event alive. Ironically, in historical myths, the accuracy is lost but meaning is gained. The myths about the Trojan War, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, could be classified as historical myths. The Trojan War did occur, but the famous characters that we know from the Iliad and the Odyssey (Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, etc.) probably did not exist.

3. Psychological Myths

Psychological myths try to explain why we feel and act the way we do. A psychological myth is different from an aetiological myth because a psychological myth does not try to explain one thing by way of something else (such as lightning and thunder can be explained by Zeus’ anger). In a psychological myth, the emotion itself is seen as a divine force, coming from the outside, that can directly influence a person’s emotions. For example, the goddess, Aphrodite, is sometimes seen as the power of erotic love. When someone said or did something that they did not want to do, the ancient Greeks might say that Aphrodite “made them” do it.

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Mythology Unbound: An Online Textbook for Classical Mythology by Jessica Mellenthin and Susan O. Shapiro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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