Folklore. Myths. Legends. Are they interchangeable? Not quite. So why do people often confuse these terms or use them interchangeably?

Folklore stories

Juliette Wood, author of Fantastic Creatures in Mythology and Folklore: From Medieval Times to the Present Day describes that a ‘Folklore’ is really just a general category of fictional tales. They can be set in any time or place (usually from a long time ago) and may or may not teach a moral lesson. ‘Folk’ from different cultures all over the world have their own stories explaining the world around them. One of my personal favourites is a collection of 1001 fantastical tales from the Arabian world. One of the most famous stories out of this book is Disney’s adaptation of Aladdin and the magic lamp. I’m sure everybody is familiar with the beloved character of “Genie” played by Robin Williams.

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Book cover: The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Burton

Popular Myths

Myths and legends both fall into the ‘Folklore’ category. Myths are stories made up to explain how things came to be. Why we have seasons, for example. They contain magical or supernatural elements. Although myths do not reflect a literal reality, they do portray the norms and values of a society to some extent. The word Mythology is derived from Greek words mythos, meaning story of the people, and logos, meaning word or speech.

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It is therefore not surprising that the most popular among myths are tales out of Greek mythology. Television adaptations of Greek mythology in shows like “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” made Greek myths more popular than ever. As a kid, I was hooked. I particularly loved the amazing mythical monsters like Medusa who had snakes for hair and anybody who laid eyes upon her turned to stone.

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Book cover: Mythos – The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

Famous Legends

Legends, on the other hand, contain an element of truth to them. They contain real people, places, or events. However, as they are passed on, these sort of become ‘tall tales’ where parts of the story were altered either intentionally or inadvertently in its re-telling. One of the most intriguing legends in history is that of Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt for 21 years.

It is known that Cleopatra died from poison but there has been a lot of speculation around how the poison was administered. One legend describes a Romeo and Juliet type of story where Cleopatra supposedly killed herself using a venomous snake upon hearing the news of Mark Antony’s death and to avoid being captured. While other sources simply state that she likely took poison instead of going all dramatic and using a snake. Either way, like all Egyptian tales, Cleopatra’s story is really intriguing.

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The Great pyramid of Giza in Egypt

That seems straight-forward enough so where does the confusion come in?

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How do you differentiate myths from legends?

In the wonderful world of literature, people take inspiration from what is around them, what they see, and what they hear. For this reason, we will often find similar stories with different themes and changing cultural significance. Writer’s, in their creativity, blur the lines between genres and therefore it becomes difficult, at times, to classify folklore as either a myth or a legend. Just as we’ve seen under the Myths section, the popular television show about Hercules was called “Legend” when it is based on myths alone. Why did the producers call it legend? Perhaps they wanted people to feel like there was an element of truth to the stories.   

Regardless of the classification, we can all agree that some of the best stories available today have been inspired by these ancient folktales from all over the world.

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