A myth glossary

Glossaries and dictionaries of mythological figures and themes are abundant, but I haven’t come across a comprehensive glossary of myth theory (if you know one, please pass on the details). While we wait, I’ve been slowly assembling one for my own use. I shall, from time to time, post the more complete entries here, collected under the category ‘Myth glossary’.  For the first entry, I have started at the beginning; but as it’s a glossary of theories, not myths, when I say ‘beginning’, I don’t mean the beginning of myth, but the beginning of the use of the word ‘myth’.


muthos [mythos / μῦθος]

The Greek word muthos is the root of our word ‘myth’, but its meaning is not the same. It appears around 300 times in Homer where it does not have the special modern significance of a legendary, or sacred utterance. ‘Myth’ in that sense was not a distinct category in Homer’s time. Jan Bremmer, foremost scholar of Greek religion, often cites a definition of the Homeric muthos from R. P. Martin’s, The Language of Heroes: it was, ‘a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a full attention to every detail’. By the fifth century BC, Greek writers used muthos to denote a fiction, in contrast to the historic truth of logos [λόγος]. Pindar records ‘Yes, there are many marvels, and yet I suppose the speech of mortals beyond the true account [τὸν ἀλαθῆ λόγον] can be deceptive, stories [μῦθοι] adorned with embroidered lies’. Herodotus reports a ‘silly’ muthos about Heracles. Thucydides made absolutely clear the separation between truth and myth, claiming the veracity of his historical accounts, and assuring his reader ‘will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers [the prose-writing λογογράφοι] that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of the fabulous [τὸ μυθῶδες].’ In the famous discussion in Plato’s Republic about types of literature [logos] which are either true [alēthēs] or false [pseudos], muthos is the name given to stories told to children which are untrue (although they contain elements of truth). Similarly, muthos was the word given by Aristotle to describe the fables of Aesop, and the plots of tragedy and comedy. Therefore, we recognize a shift from the archaic muthos of authoritative speech to the classical muthos of a story which is fabulous and untrue.

Several Greek compound words also have echoes in the modern derivative forms: mythology and mythological, mythography and mythographer, and mythopoeia and mythopoesis. The Homeric verb muthologeuō [μυθολογεύω], to relate verbatim, has a more familiar counterpart in the later form muthologeō [μυθολογέω], to tell tales such as those of Homer, first attested around the fourth century BC by Isocrates. Two related nouns, muthologia [ἡ μυθολογία], a fiction, and muthologos [ὁ μυθολόγος], a teller of legends, are not found before Plato. The Republic also apparently coins muthopoios [ὁ μυθοποιός], the composer of fiction, and subsequently we see the verb muthopoieō [μυθοποιέω], to relate or invent a fable, and two connected nouns for the making of such stories: muthopoiēsis [ἡ μυθοποίησις] and muthopoiia [ἡ μυθοποιία]. Thus the lovely muthopoiēma [τό μυθοποίημα] found in Plutarch and Aelian. Finally, the muthographos [ὁ μυθογράφος], writer of legends, is mentioned by Polybius. From -logos, to -poios and -graphos, there is a movement from the teller, or relater of muthos, to the composer or inventor of them, and to the one who writes them down. The living speech of Homer moves into – and competes with – historical record.


References (dates are approximate)

Martin quoted by Bremmer in Greek Religion, 56
Pindar (522-443 BC), First Olympian Ode, 28-29, trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien
Herodotus (484-425 BC), Histories 2.45
Thucydides (455-400 BC), History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.21, trans. E. P. Dutton (amended)
Plato (427-347 BC), Republic 376e-377a (muthos), 394b (muthologia), 392d (muthologos), 377b (muthopoios)
Aristotle (384-322 BC), Meteorology 356b (Aesop), Poetics, passim (drama)
Homer, Odyssey 12.450-53 (muthologeuō)
Isocrates (436-338 BC), 6.24
Diodorus Siculus (C1 BC) 1.92 (muthopoieō), 1.96 (muthopoiia)
Strabo (C1 BC-C1 AD), 1.1.19 (muthopoiia)
Plutarch (AD 46-120) Moralia 2.17a
Aelian (AD 175-235) On the Nature of Animals, 7.29.
Polybius (C2 BC), 4.40.2

Helpful web resources for this entry are the Perseus Digital Library and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.