Myth, Legend, Folklore

As may or may not be well-known, folklorists have very particular ways in which they use the terms myth and legend. Here are some:

myth: Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past.

legend: Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today.
(both p.9, William Bascom, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives.” 5-29 in Alan Dundes, ed., Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1984)

myth: A myth is a sacred narrative which describes how the world or mankind became as it is. (Alan Dundes, class notes [yes, I’m a packrat], 2 November 1992).
myth: A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form (p.1, Sacred Narrative)

A defining characteristic in common to both myth and legend, as noted in Bascom’s article noted above, is that both are considered true in their originating groups (note particularly the usage of “sacred” in Dundes’ definitions of myth, which also connotes this). While legends are considered true and either sacred or secular (“It happened to someone my friend knows”; the original usage of legend was explicitly religious, the legenda, reading, of the story of a saint on that particular saint’s feast), folktales are considered fictional and secular (“Once upon a time…”). The primary distinction between myth and legend is the age/world in which they are set. Whereas myth is set in the the far distant past, in the age and world of pre-creation with the primary characters being divine (or at least non-human) beings of some sort, legend is set amongst humans (though divine beings may also play a part) in a world substantially as it is, in a much less remote past. Bascom describes this in tabular format thus (9, Sacred Narrative):






Principal Characters

Myth Fact Remote past Different world: other or earlier Sacred Non-human
Legend Fact Recent past World of today Sacred or secular Human
Folktale Fiction Any time Any place Secular Human or non-human

Based upon the above, and in keeping with the shorter definition of myth favored by Dundes, I would suggest a working definition for legend as: A legend is a narrative, considered true, which is set in the relatively recent past of this world. We might also simply gloss myths as narratives dealing with origins, while legends are those dealing with events.

Note the particularity involved in the various definitions, especially in their reduction in Bascom’s chart form. The myth, legend, and folktale of the folklorist’s definition are hardly in mind when we colloquially use all three for something patently untrue, generally with negative connotations. The Oxford English dictionary dates the earliest attestation of this usage of myth to 1849, and of legend to 1613, so this colloquially negative usage is hardly new. Yet myth or its adjectival forms is currently often used for something or someone larger-than-life (“…of mythic proportions…”), as also is legend (“He’s a legend;” “Her cooking is legendary”), in such cases with very positive connotations. Resulting from life in a post-mythic, post-legendary world, this negative redefinition of myth and legend as false has led to only some ossified adjectival forms bearing the evidence that both myth and legend were formerly considered truthful narratives, dealing with larger than life issues of great import. There is perhaps even an unconsciously wistful regret connoted by statements such as “That basketball player is a living legend!” See now what paltry things your culture now considers a legend.

Relatedly, I’ve noticed that in biblical studies there’s a loose usage of both myth and legend, not generally adhering to these quite precise definitions of the folklorists, but informed more by colloquial use. This is even the case when, as in most commentaries on Tobit, “folklore” is extensively, yet only superficially, referred to as the source of the stories, even going so far as to utilize Stith Thompson’s Motif Index, which actually also indexes the elements of all biblical stories, as proof for the origins of Tobit as folklore! The Motif Index is a tool for indexing, not an exhaustive record of the histor
ical development of a given item. (This naive use of folklorists’ work in commentaries on Tobit is something I intend to address in more depth another time.) I think this is likely to be categorized as a shared (mis)conception of some kind of Jungian archetypal basis for folklore, founded in some “psychic unity” or other such thing. Folklore is simply any item found in common in any folk group, with folk group defined as a group of people united by even a single common factor. Folklore need not be narrative (myths, legends, proverbs, folktales), or even language-based at all. It may be material (evil eye amulets) or situational (start a journey with the right foot). All these are folklore.

It would be good to see biblical studies utilizing some of the extensive work done by folklorists, in a manner which is better representative of their work. For an approach from the other direction, see Dundes’ own recent Holy Writ as Oral Lit: the Bible as Folklore (Rowan & Littlefield, 1999) for an example of this great folklorist’s application of the methods of folklore studies to the texts of the Bible. Dundes lived just around the corner from me, and we’re both near the Graduate Theological Union Library, where I remember often running into him while he was working on this book, hogging the only good-working copying machine! Two other indispensible books on folklore are the aforementioned Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth and Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (Prentice Hall, 1965). Especially the latter will provide a solid introduction which should prevent any further naive use of folklore studies in biblical studies.

Call it a pet peeve of mine.


  1. Mr. Edgecomb,

    Where would you place the term “epic” (say, the Illiad or Gilgamesh) in the trilogy of myth, legend, and folktale?

    Ed Morrow

  2. I would say epic could fit in any and it would depend upon the subject matter. Epic typically refers to style. The adjective epic, so the OED tells us, “Pertain[s] to that species of poetical composition (see EPOS), represented typically by the Iliad and Odyssey, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic personages of history or tradition.” So, we find no hard and fast lines drawn in the OED on the subject. Given the posting above, in which I describe the differences particularly between myth, legend, and folktale, and the references to Iliad and Odyssey (and in another part of the OED definition, the Niebelungenlied) as the definitive examples of the epic style/genre/format, these standards of epic poetry would clearly be categorized as legend, as they were considered to be fact, however distantly. This would also be the case with Gilgamesh, so far as is discernible: Of Gilgamesh, the next ruler of Uruk, more stories were told than of any other name in Babylonian history. It is now clear that the twelve tablets of his exploits which were known to the Assyrians are not more than excerpts, mostly welded into an effective whole, from a much larger body of legend in Sumerian, apparently diffuse and ill-connected, but so imperfectly recovered at present that there is no following the thread of his career as it was related in compositions written down about the eighteenth century B.C. That Gilgamesh was a real character in very early history was, as aforesaid, not doubted by the later native tradition and need not be doubted now, however much may have to be subtracted from his legend (CAH 1.1, p.111).

    So, perhaps I should’ve just answered you with “legend” and left it short and sweet that way!

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