The Differences Between Myths, Legends, and Other Stories

Within myths and folklore are a wide variety of stories. Sometimes they can overlap, but each type of story has its own unique characteristics.

Myths are traditional stories, especially ones that are associated with a deity or deities. They may also feature supernatural heroes and humans. Myths are used to convey essential truths about the natural world or about human nature. Some people consider myths a type of folklore, but I consider them somewhat separate because they can provide a framework for entire religious systems, which goes beyond the scope of a typical story.

Example:

The Chinese myth of Pangu is a creation myth in which the god Pangu broke out of an egg. The top half became the sky, the bottom half became the earth, and the god’s body parts became different parts of the earth.

Folk Tales are traditional stories, which are usually passed by word of mouth over time. They are almost completely anonymous, without any one author, or any specific time or setting. Language barriers don’t stop folk tales from crossing into other cultures because folk tales are more about narrative patterns than words. Folk tales encompass many other kinds of stories, including fairy tales, religious tales, and anecdotes and jokes.

Example:

How the Old Woman Got Her Wish, a folk tale from India about how an old woman tricked the Hindu god Ganesh into granting her three wishes at once.

Legends are stories that are told as if they are historical events. There can be some truth to legends, but they are generally not supported with very strong evidence, if any.

Example:

George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The 6-year-old Washington allegedly cut down his father’s cherry tree by mistake, and confessed because he could not tell a lie. Mason Locke Weems  is considered to have made up the story for his biography on Washington.

Urban legends often involves horrific, embarrassing, ironic, or frustrating events that supposedly happen to a real person. They take place in contemporary settings. On Snopes, urban legends are classified based on how verifiable they are, and the authors support their claims with evidence from their own research.

Tall Tales are greatly exaggerated folk tales.

Example:

The Tales of Paul Bunyan, in which even the main character was exaggerated. He was so big that when he was old enough to clap and laugh, the vibrations broke every window in the house!

Fairy tales are folk tales that often include fantasy characters (fairies, trolls, goblins, and the like) and some element of magic. People often use “fairy tale” as an expression for romance or happiness. However, before certain factors like Disney came along to refine fairy tales, they often had unhappy endings and could be very dark.

Example:

Cinderella, which is a fairy tale rather than a folk tale because her fairy god mother uses magic to help her attend the ball.

Fables are short stories that are often used to convey a moral lesson. Characters are animals, plants, objects, or natural forces with anthropomorphic qualities.

Example:

Aesop’s story, The Ant and the Grasshopper. A grasshopper wastes his summer, then spends the winter dying of hunger while he watches his ant friends prosper because they had taken the time to store food. This story is used to teach the moral of personal responsibility.

Parables are stories similar to fables, except that they use human characters instead.

Example:

The Parable of the Vine, from John 15: 1-17 NIV.