Myths and Folktales
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as
fiercely as if they had never happened before." - Willa Cather
Myths and folktales are the world's oldest stories, passed on by word of mouth from
generation to generation. Stories have always been important to people. The following
story, "The Storytelling Stone," comes from the oral tradition of the Seneca Indians of
North America. It explains, perhaps better than any book on mythology ever could, how
stories came to be, and why people both value and need them.
The Storytelling Stone
Retold by John Cech
In another time before this one, there was a boy who hunted every day in the
forest. Once, late in the afternoon, he stopped beside a large rock and sat down near it to
fix his bow and make new points on his arrows.
A man's voice spoke to him. "I will tell you a story,” it said.
The boy was startled and a little afraid, but he searched all around the stone to
find the source of the voice. It could only be the rock, he thought. It must have orenda,
the magic power the old men talk about. So he spoke to it. “What did you say you
wanted to tell me?”
“They are called stories; they are traditions. But first you must give me a present
for telling it to you.”
“Will this partridge do?” asked the boy, placing one of the birds he had hunted
that day on the stone.
“Come back in the evening,” the stone said, “and you will hear a legend about the
world that was.”
In the evening the boy sat on the stone again. The voice told him of the people
who lived in the sky above, the “first people,” the ones with great magic. Among them
lived an old woman who dreamed that the large tree with the white blossoms that stood in
the center of her village should be dug up by its roots. When she told her people about
this, they followed the dream’s instructions, uprooting the tree.
They were frightened and angry over the hole it left and threw the old woman into
it. She fell to earth, and the earth, which was completely under water then, had to be
brought up from the depths by the animals and put upon the turtle’s back and patted by
the beavers’ tails and allowed to grow before it could receive her who had fallen from the
When he finished the tale, he noticed the boy had dozed off and so he said, “You
must tell me if you become sleepy, and we can rest. If you sleep you will not hear. It is
better that you come back tomorrow evening, and I will tell you more. Remember to
bring my present.”
Next day the boy hunted and in the evening returned to the rock with a string of
birds. This time he did not miss a word. He came the next evening and the one after that.
"Where do you disappear to at night?” his friend asked him one day when they were out
“I go to hear stories,” he replied.
“What are they?”
“I don’t know how to tell you about them, but come with me tonight and you will
hear for yourself.”
So he brought his friend to the stone, and its voice filled their ears with the tales
of Genonsgwa and the stone coats, the Flying Heads, and the Porcupine people until the
boys were sleepy and the stone sent them home to their beds.
Soon the whole village was buzzing with the news of the stone and the tales. The boys
led the tribe to the place where the stone stood. The people carried fresh game with them
which they left for the stone. They marveled over the things called tales that fell from its
mouth. No one had ever heard about "The Master of Life" and "He Who Is Our
Grandfather,” or his enemy “He Who Is Clad in Ice." They did not know about such
things as the songs of the corn or the prayer for the harvest, and the wisest among them
knew then that they had known nothing until the stone had begun to speak. It took four
years for the stone to tell all the tales, but the nights passed quickly.
The rock called the boy one evening after the others had left and said to him,
“One day you will become old and be unable to hunt. These tales will help you in your
old age. Tell the legends to others, but make sure that they give you something in return
for them.” And after it had told the boy the last story, the stone was silent and never
The boy grew up and grew old. He did not forget the legends, and he told them to
anyone who came to his lodge to listen. Many traveled from faraway tribes to hear the
stories from the old man who had learned them from the stone when he was a boy. They
gladly gave him tobacco, meat, and pelts; for he knew the stories of their beginnings, too,
and could tell them as well as the ones about his own tribe. There were few nights when
his lodge did not have a crowd of listeners; enthralled and intent, catching the tales to
take home with them to their own hearths.
That is the way stories came to be and why there are many stories in the world
where none had been before. The people from the other world before ours, the ones who
had the strong and wonderful magic that the stone told about, are the ones we cannot stop
telling stories about, even today.
"The study of mythology might be compared to the investigation of a sealed
box. We do not know which is top or bottom, who sent it or why. "
"The Storytelling Stone" explains many of the most important things we need to know
about myths and folktales. They tell about the beginnings of things. They include
marvelous or supernatural events and tell of the deeds and adventures of gods and
goddesses, heroes and heroines.
Myths and folktales remain vital to modern readers because they reveal common truths,
patterns, and themes that are familiar to all ages and cultures.
They explain the origins of various rituals that people follow. They are passed
down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Most important of all, however,
they explain the human experience. They tell us, in poetic, imaginative terms, the most
important things that we can communicate to one another: who we are, where we came
from, and what we believe in. As mythologist Joseph Campbell once pointed out, myths
and folktales are in some ways even "truer" than history.
What Is a Myth?
A myth is an anonymous, traditional story that explains a belief, a custom, or a
mysterious natural phenomenon. The word myth comes from the Greek word muthos,
which simply means "story."
Myths had specific purposes in their cultures. In every culture, however, the main
functions of myths were:
1. To explain the creation of the world and the universe
2. To explain the human condition: how and why people were created; why they are
flawed; why there is suffering in the world; why people must eventually die;
what happens to people after death
3. To explain natural phenomena, such as the setting of the sun and the phases of the
4. To explain the nature of gods and goddesses and how these deities and human
5. To explain the meanings behind religious rituals, customs, and beliefs
6. To explain historical events
7. To teach moral lessons
"Essentially, mythologies are enormous poems that are renditions of insights,
giving some sense of the marvel, the miracle and wonder of life."
Myths were created out of a human need to make sense of the universe and explain how
the world and its human inhabitants came to be.
Along with rituals, cave and rock paintings, songs, and prayers, myths were the
means through which human beings in ancient times tried to find order and pattern in life.
Myths helped people to feel a sense of harmony with a world that could be both beautiful
The Differences Between Myths and Folktales
As myths were told and retold over generations, they transformed. Not only their specific
details, but also the purposes they served in their cultures, changed. One of the storytell-
ing forms that arose from the myth was the folktale.
A folktale is a story that is created by the "folk"-the common people-and passed along
orally from generation to generation. Folktales are entertaining stories about ordinary
people who survive by luck, by using their wits, and by relying on their own natural
goodness. Folktales include legends, fables, tall tales, fairy tales, and ghost stories.
Folktales differ from myths in several important ways:
1. Folktales, unlike myths, are secular, or nonreligious.
2. Folktales were created as much for their entertainment value as for the teaching of
social or moral values.
3. Folktales feature magic, transformations, and enchantments, just as myths do;
however, although folktales may sometimes include gods or goddesses as
characters, they are usually not the CENTRAL charactors in the story.
4. Folktale heroes tend to be common, everyday folk who don't have special powers,
unlike the heroes of myths, who are the superhuman offspring of gods or god-
desses and human parents.
5. Folktales are not associated with religious rituals.
The most important difference between a myth and a folktale concerns the purposes of
each storytelling form. Myths are a direct expression of a culture's religious beliefs; folk-
tales are not. However, both myths and folktales explain important truths about life. They
address our deepest needs and engage our sense of wonder. They are the stories of the
Tales About Beginnings
Probably the very first stories human beings told were origin myths—stories that explain
how things came to be. Just as individual families have stories of where they came from,
so do people all over the world have stories about their beginnings. Many of the great
questions people had about their lives were answered by their origin myths: How was the
world created? Why do people die? Is there life after death? Why is evil allowed to exist
in the world? How did various animals, plants, and geographical features come to be?
Most cultures have myths that explain how the universe was created. Many
cultures also have stories about the end of a society, an era, or even of the world itself.
Sometimes the end comes in the form of a great flood that cleanses the earth of evil and
sets the stage for a new beginning. And many cultures have stories about a long-ago
“Golden Age”—a time when the world enjoyed perfect peace, happiness, and prosperity.
However, this Golden Age was lost when evil, sickness, and death come into the world.
The Roles of Gods and Goddesses
Gods and goddesses are nearly always associated with origin myths. It is usually a god
or goddess who forms the earth and the life on it.
Like human beings, gods and goddesses form family groups, or pantheons.
Often, a culture’s pantheon is ruled by a powerful “father” god and a “mother” goddess.
There are usually offspring and other relatives. These other gods and goddesses are often
associated with various aspects of life, from abstract values such as wisdom, fertility,
love, and justice, to concrete forces of nature such as the wind, the sea, the moon, and
The Staying Power of Mythic Patterns
The more myths you read, the more you’ll notice that certain themes, characters, and
images keep recurring. These recurring patterns are called archetypes. They serve as
basic models to which specific cultural details are added.
Archetypes are so powerful that they simply change a bit over time and reappear
in different forms in other types of literature. Thus the archetype of the lost Golden Age
might appear today in a novel about a woman who remembers a happy childhood in her
old home town but returns to it in middle age only to find that everything has changed
and that the joy and innocence of that earlier time cannot be recaptured. The myth of a
great flood might appear today in the form of a science-fiction novel about the end of the
world in which a war, disease, or alien invasion destroys almost everything, but leaves
possibilities open for the world’s rebirth.
The Purpose of Origin Myths
Origin myths gave the people who told them a sense of their place in the universe. Such
myths told people who they were, where they came from, and what their destiny would
be. The stories we tell today serve much the same purpose. All stories are outgrowths of
myths; all stories ultimately deal with the hows and whys of human existence.
ELAWLRL1.d Analyzes the influence of mythic, traditional, or classical literature on works of world literature.
ELAWLRL1.e Analyzes and compares style and language across significant cross-cultural literary works.
ELAWLRL2.d Analyzes and compares universal themes characteristic of literature from different cultures across time
and genre (e.g., cultural values, cultural tradition, archetypes, and philosophical roots).
ELAWLRL3.b Relates a literary work to the seminal ideas of the time and place in which it is set or the time and place
of its composition. i. Greek ii. Roman iii. Classical Multicultural iv. Western European v. Contemporary Multicultural
ELA10LSV2.b Delivers oral responses to literature that incorporate the same elements found in written literary
ELA10LSV2.c Uses props, visual aids, graphs, or electronic media to enhance the appeal and accuracy of
T.ELA10LSV3.15 The student creates and enhances presentations and documents using appropriate elements and
principles of design. (Examples might include repetition of a limited number of colors, fonts, or patterns, continuity of
placement of elements, inclusion of images and sounds, etc.)
ELA10W1.a Establishes a clear, distinctive, and coherent thesis or perspective and maintains a consistent tone and
ELA10W1.b Selects a focus, structure, and point of view relevant to the purpose, genre expectations, audience,
length, and format requirements.
ELA10W1.e Writes texts of a length appropriate to address the topic or tell the story.
ELA10W1.f Uses traditional structures for conveying information (e.g., chronological order, cause and effect,
similarity and difference, and posing and answering a question).
ELA10W1.g Supports statements and claims with anecdotes, descriptions, facts and statistics, and specific examples.