What is the difference between myths, legends and fables?
Many people have asked me on my travels, what is the difference between a myth, legend, fable and folk tales?
Myths, legends and fables are old stories written for adults and children. Folk or fairy tales were written specially for children.
Myths are made up stories that try to explain how our world works and how we should treat each other. The stories are usually set in times long ago, before history as we know it was written.
People have always asked questions like “How did our world come to be?” or “Why do tornadoes happen?” Some myths answered these questions.
In other myths, gods or “super-beings” used their powers to make events happen. Or the stories were the adventures of gods, goddesses, men and women.
These myths described the big things that happened to people and the choices they made. They might be about triumph (achieving something), tragedy (losing something), honour (doing the right thing), being brave even when you are frightened, or being foolish and making mistakes. People might be heroes in these stories and gods and goddesses could use their powers to help them or make things more difficult for them.
Around the world, myths were shared by groups of people and became part of their culture. Storytellers have passed the stories on from generation to generation and through families. Some myths are told in many cultures, but with variations in the events or characters. For example, most cultures, tribes or groups of people have their version of how our world came to be.
For early people, myths were like science because they explained how natural events work. Today we don’t always know if myths are true or not. Some of the stories or characters may seem impossible, and science gives us different explanations for some of our questions. But people all over the world still like to read myths and we all like to think about what they might mean.
“Myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos” which means “word of mouth”.
Legends are also stories that have been made up, but they are different from myths. Myths answer questions about how the natural world works, and are set in a time long-ago, before history was written.
Legends are about people and their actions or deeds. The people lived in more recent times and are mentioned in history. The stories are told for a purpose and are based on facts, but they are not completely true.
Either the person never really did what the story says, or the historical events were changed. The purpose was to make the story more interesting or convincing, or to teach a lesson, like knowing right from wrong.
Examples of people in English legends are King Arthur, Robin Hood and Queen Boadicea. A man who may have been King Arthur is known to have lived in the 5th or 6th century. But the stories about the Knights of the Round Table and Merlin the Magician may not be true. The point of the story was that the knights and their king defended their people and helped them.
The character and deeds of Robin Hood may have been based on someone else. Robin of Loxley lived in Nottinghamshire around the time of the story, and he did help the poor. But did he live in Nottingham forest with a band of robbers? Probably not, but helping other people is important and the legend hasn’t been forgotten.
Boadicea was first female queen in Britain. History tells us she lived in the 1st century and led her people in their fight against the Romans when they invaded. The Romans won and conquered Britain. Boadicea was captured and died in prison, but legends say that she escaped and fought on. This story was intended to encourage people in countries invaded by the Romans, to resist and fight.
Like myths, legends are passed down from generation to generation.
How we use the word 'legend' today
Today people use the word ‘legend’ in a different way when they talk about people and their deeds. They may describe a basketball player, football player or runner as a “sporting legend”, or an actor as a “film legend”. What they mean is the person is famous because of their skills or things they have done. This is similar to the earlier use of the word, and the legend stories.
A fable is another type of story, also passed down from generation to generation and told to teach a lesson about something.
Fables are about animals that can talk and act like people, or plants or forces of nature like thunder or wind. The plants may be able to move and also talk and the natural forces cause things to happen in the story because of their strength.
The most famous fables were written by a man called Aesop. We know them as Aesop’s Fables, and he wrote more than 600 of them.
Folk and fairy tales are stories written specially for children, often about magical characters such as elves, fairies, goblins and giants. Sometimes the characters are animals.
Hans Christian Andersen is famous for writing fairy tales. He was born in Denmark in 1805. Examples of his stories are “The Little Mermaid”, “Thumbelina” and “The Red Shoes”.
In Copenhagen there is a statue of the little mermaid, sitting on a rock on the beach at the harbour, in memory of the writer.
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were brothers, born in Germany in 1785 and 1786. They are famous because they collected together many old fairy tales from different parts of Germany and wrote them down for people to read. We know them as the Brothers Grimm and their collection includes “Cinderella” and “The Frog Prince”.
F Note! Fairy Tales often involve “magic” whereas Folk Tales may not.
Read the description of myths, legends, fables, folk and fairy tales above and fill out the table below.
On your matrix outline in the correct color the stories you read based on the descriptions above.