What makes a myth a myth

Lexicon: Myth / Mythology

The term "myth" comes from the Greek and means something like speech, story or "legendary story". The word is used differently and thus has several meanings. When we talk about a "myth" in everyday life, we often mean something invented, unreasonable or even wrong - the word is sometimes used disparagingly to present certain claims or common opinions as nonsensical or not truthful. On the other hand, the term is used positively when we want to highlight particularly famous personalities or very well-known and legendary stories or phenomena - then we speak, for example, of the "Myth of Marilyn Monroe" or the "Myth of Loch Ness".

In a different sense, myths are used to describe very old original narratives: In ancient Greece, for example, many myths of gods and heroes came about - they tell, for example, of the tragic fate of King Oedipus, who is prophesied that he will kill his father and marry his mother becomes. Although he tries to escape this dire fate, the prediction comes true and Oedipus stabs his eyes out of desperation. Or the myth of the god Prometheus, who allies himself with humans and is put in chains by Zeus as a punishment, while an eagle eats its liver every day.

What all these myths have in common is that they are invented and initially orally transmitted stories in which "supernatural" things happen - mostly the plot follows a "higher order". The ancient Greeks saw these legends as an expression of divine truth and veracity, in which the deeper meaning of man's fateful entanglements was revealed. In particular in the famous epics of the Greek poet Homer, who is said to have lived around 1,000 years before Christ, the "mythical" worldview of the ancient Greeks is reflected: They believed that what happened in the world was caused by the gods of Olympus (the "mountain of the gods "). The entirety of these original narratives is also known as "Greek mythology".

The so-called change "from myth to logos" (the Greek term "logos" means, among other things, reason) is considered a decisive turning point in European thought: Even the pre-Socratics, i.e. all Greek thinkers who came before the philosopher Socrates (469 bis 399 BC) developed a "natural philosophy" that questioned the content of the ancient legends of the gods. Above all, they were looking for explanations for the processes in nature, for which the work of the overpowering gods was no longer simply held responsible. The Greek philosopher Plato (428/427 to 348/347 BC), a pupil of Socrates, also drew attention to the questionable nature of myths. The philosopher Aristotelous (384 to 322 BC) saw myths as an opportunity to approach the truth. In his opinion, they provided authors with the material for a successful tragedy - a tragedy performed on the stage that, among the ancient Greeks, always told of the tragic fate of gods and heroes.

The great interest in the telling of myths persisted over the centuries - thinkers, artists and authors repeatedly grappled with them and reinterpreted them. In the era of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which human reason came to the fore and religious and supernatural worldviews were increasingly questioned, people decidedly turned away from "mythical" worldviews. The proponents of Romanticism, on the other hand, who accused the Enlightenment of wanting to "disenchant" the world, went back to the myths, in which, in their opinion, an all-encompassing truth was expressed. Even if the mythical narratives no longer have any claim to "truth" and "validity", their fascination remains unbroken to this day and the subject matter of myths is repeatedly taken up, further developed and reinterpreted.