Myth as History

Myths are Legitimate History

The systematic study of myths provides a method for studying the past. However, though myths contain some legendary and historical qualities, it is important to remember that they are not accurate historical accounts. If a myth describes a historical event, person, or place, it has been exaggerated by storytellers over such long periods of time it is difficult to tell what really happened. Myths are not historical stories though they are used to validate claims of territory, power, ritual, performance, and succession for royalty. Myths cover up historical inconsistencies rather than preserve them exactly, fulfilling a sociological function in society to justify or glorify the past. Nevertheless, myths may describe an event of lasting influence, and most provide explanations of natural phenomena. In this way, myths do contain truth, either literal, historical, metaphorical, or symbolic.

Myths have been studied as a poorer version of history corrupted through the evolution of language. The corruption of language distorts the truth of the event or person and accounts for the absurdities and embellishments in the myth itself. Bernard Fontenelle (1657-1757) argued that myths are subject to degeneration when they are transmitted from one person to another but contain factual information about certain people and events. He also suggested that some Greek myths changed because people misunderstood words or rearranged the plot.


Further Reading

Muller (1856) Comparative Mythology