The meaning of the word Myth
The word ‘myth’ has generally come to identify any story that is believed to be a work of fiction; however, when analyzing myths and legends, it is important to understand the evolution of the word and how, using the word as it was originally understood, it is crucial to the unraveling of our human origins.
The word ‘Myth’ originates from the Greek word mythos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘tale’ or ‘true narrative’, referring not only to the means by which it was transmitted but also to its being rooted in truth. Mythos was also closely related to the word myo, meaning ‘to teach’, or ‘to initiate into the mysteries’. This is how the word was interpreted by Homer—who is generally identified to have lived in the 7th or 8th century B.C.E.—when composing his great works, including The Iliad, in which he meant to convey a truth.
As the age of science and philosophy began questioning truth itself, the meaning of the word began to evolve. Early scientists and philosophers questioned the truth, or validity, of their traditional myths, thus birthing the skepticism that would forever change the meaning of the word. About 400 years later myths became limited to fictional tales of superstition or fantasy, symbolic stories. This is how the definition of the word ‘myth’ is still viewed—a story without proof.
However, a 400-year old story should not be assumed to be false merely because the proof or evidence to support it has not been found. It is possible that myths were, in fact, a way for people to explain real—and perhaps perplexing—events using the knowledge and beliefs of their time.
In support of this theory, a number of events described in mythology, which were once considered mere fairy tales, have now been proven through archaeology to have existed. A famous example is the city Troy, which is central to Homer’s The Iliad. Long considered to be a city of Myth, Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the actual site in 1868 elevated it to a place in history. Nevertheless, the remainder of The Iliad is still viewed as a myth and fantasy without any serious attempts being made to investigate whether or not there may be more truth behind the tale.
Thus we can conclude that regardless of the age of a story, a lack of supporting evidence to its truth is not evidence of its untruth, as many stories labeled as myths may, in fact, be based in reality. Of course, it may well be the case that many myths and legends are merely fanciful and imaginative stories, though it does seem unwise to immediately discount all of them when investigating their origins through explorations such as anthropology, archaeology and other applied sciences could lead to major discoveries in the future elevating more ‘myths’ into the annals of history.
By John Black