Myths, Legends, History, and Fables – Some Working Definitions

Within the study of religion and beyond, we see a range of terminology shaping how we see and perceive the world. Here, I would like to address four key terms:

Myth, legen, history, fable

What I set out below is some definitions I used in my book Understanding Religion: Theories and Methods for Studying Religiously Diverse Societies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press), p. 97, box 4.3. This draws from, but also differs from, the working definitions found in: Bruce Lincoln, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 24–25.

Box 4.3 is set out below (minus the reference):

BOX 4.3 WHAT IS A MYTH? ON LEGENDS, HISTORIES, AND FABLES

A bewildering number of terms and definitions divide various forms of stories that humanity has told: myth, legend, fable, history, news, folklore, fairy-tale, and so on. Largely following Bruce Lincoln’s discussion, I set out the following definitions:

. Fable: stories widely acknowledged to be fictional.

. Legend: stories that claim historical credibility, but are widely seen as false.

. History: stories that claim historical credibility, and are widely seen as true.

. Myth: stories whose main purpose is to persuade the reader of some state of affairs or sanction certain truths, which may claim historical credibility, but whose claims do not necessarily rely upon the acceptance of those truth claims.

In this, I more or less replicate his first three, but change the definition of myth. Note that these definitions are not strict demarcations; what may be one person’s history may be another’s legend. Myth may cross over with the other categories. These definitions act as a placeholder for our purposes. These terms, moreover, especially myth, do not apply only to distant history, but may also speak about recent or current events. 

Link to the book: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520298910/understanding-religion

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