Myth a Greek term (μῦθος), which, however, is not to be found in the Sept. Even in the Apocrypha the word occurs but once (μῦθος ἄκαιρος, Eccles. 20:19, A.V. "an unseasonable tale"), and that in a general sense; while, in one other passage (Bar. 3:23), μυθόλογοι, "authors of fables," has a somewhat doubtful meaning. In the N.T., however, the word occurs five times, and always in a severely disparaging sense, and in every instance is rendered "fables" in our version. Thus Timothy is warned against "Jbbles and endless genealogies, which minister questions rather than godly edifying" (1Ti 1:4); and itgainst "profane and old wives' fables" (βεβήλους καὶ γραωδεῖς μύθους, 4:7). These "fables" are opposed to "the truth," and Titus is forbidden to give heed Ι᾿ουδα• κοις μύθοις. Lastly, in 2Pe 1:16 they are characterized as σεσοφισμένοι i, "cunningly devised," and are contrasted with the sober testimony of eye- witnesses (comp. πεπλασμένοι μύθοι, Diod. Sic. 1:93). Just so in Greek μῦθοι are opposed to ἱστορία (comp. Auson. Prof. Carm. 21, 26, "Callentes mython plasmata et historiam"). It is obvious, therefore, that in the N.T. a myth is used in its latest sense to express a story invented as the vehicle for some ethical or theological doctrine, which, in fact, has been called in later times an ethopceia or philosopheme. Yet the condemnation is special and not general, and cannot point with dissatisfaction to myths, which, like those of Plato, are the splendidly imaginative embodiment of some subjective truth, and which claim no credence for themselves, but are only meant to be regarded as the vehicles of spiritual instruction (see archbishop Trench On the Parables, chapter 2, where he distinguishes between "myth," "fable," "parable," "allegory," etc.). That there is nothing in such "myths" to deserve reprobation, nay more, that they are a wise form of teaching, is clear from the direct quotation of mythical stories by Jude (verses 9, 14), and from the use of strictly analogous modes of conveying truth (allegory, fable, parable, etc.) in other parts of the Bible, as well as in the writings of all the wisest of mankind. It must, then, have been the doctrines involved, and not the "mythical" delivery of them, which awoke the indignation of the apostles; and if, as Tertullian thought (Adv.
Valent. 3), and as is now generally believed, the "myths" alluded to were the Gnostic mythology of the "'Eons," of which the seeds may have been beginning to develop themselves when the pastoral epistles were written, we can easily understand how they would appear to bear the stamp of "philosophy and vain deceit." Theodoret, however, on Tit 1:14, refers the "Jewish fables" to the Mishna (τὴν ὑπ᾿ αὐτῶν καλουμένην δευτέρωσιν, Alford, ad loc.).
No satisfactory definition of the word "myth" has ever been given, partly because of the manifold varieties of myths, and partly because the word has been used in several distinct senses. In Homer it is equivalent to λόγος (II. 18:253), and Eustathius remarks that in later times it came to mean ψευδὴς λόγος (II. a, 29), to which definition Suidas adds that it was λόγος ψευδής, εἰκονίζων τὴν ἀλήθειαν. Plutarch, less accurately, confounds it with plausible fiction (λόγος ψευδὴς ἐοικὼς ἀληθινῷ), and in the Etynnologicum Magnunz it is made, in its technical sense, to mean a veiled or enigmatical narration (μῦθος σημαίνει δύο... τόν τε σκοτεινὸν λόγον. . . καὶ τὸν ἁπλῶς λόγον). Neither the etymology nor the history of the word help us much. It is derived from Iuvew, to initiate, or μύω, to shut, and archbishop Trench thinks that it must therefore have originally meant the word shut up in the mind, or muttered with the lips (Synon. of the N.T. [2d ser.] page 174), though he admits that there is no trace of this in actual use; and as, at first, μῦθος merely means "word," we may even derive it from an onomatopoeia of the simplest consonantal utterance (m). It is not until Pindar's time (01. 1:47; Nem. 7:34; 6:1) that it is used of that which is "mentally conceived, rather than historically true;" and in Attic prose it assumes its normal later sense of any legend or tradition of the prehistoric times. If, however, we analyze the modern use of the word, we shall find that these historical myths, or amplified legends of the remote past, generally mingled with the marvellous, do not properly represent our notion of myths any more than the wellunderstood philosophemes to which we previously alluded. We must learn, too, to distinguish between the myths and the rationalistic explanations thrust into them by the critical knowledge of a later age. If we would understand the true nature, for instance, of the Greek myths, we must discard from them the timidly rationalistic suggestions of Hecatseus, the severely common-sense views of Palcephatus, and the unsympathizingly sceptical rashness of Euemerus, no less than the profound moral intentions which have so often been transferred to them by the, speculative genius of a Bacon or a Coleridge.
A myth proper, then, is neither a philosopheme nor a legend. It is best described as a spontaneous product of the youthful imagination of mankind — the natural form under which an infant race expresses its conceptions and convictions about supernatural relations and prehistoric events. It is neither fiction, history, nor philosophy; it is a spoken poetry, an uncritical and childlike history, a sincere and self-believing romance. It does not invent, but simply imagines and repeats; it may err, but it never lies. It is a narration, generally marvellous, which no one consciously or scientifically invents, and which every one unintentionally falsifies. "It is," says Mr. Grote, "the natural effusion of the unlettered, imaginative, and believing man." It belongs to an age in which the understanding was credulous and confiding, the imagination full of vigor and vivacity, and the passions earnest and intense. Its very essence consists in the projection of thoughts into the sphere of facts ("der Grund-Trieb des Mythen das Gedachte in ein Geschehenes umzusetzen" [Creuzer Symbolik, page 99]). It arises partly from the unconscious and gradual objectizing of the subjective, or confusing mental processes with external realities; and partly from investing the object with the feelings of the subject —that is, from imaginatively attributing to external nature those feelings and qualities which only exist in the percipient soul.
The myth, then, belongs to that period of human progress in which the mind regards "history as all a fairy tale." Before the increase of knowledge, the dawn of science, and the general dissemination of books, men's fancies respecting the past, and the dim conjectures of nascent philosophy, could only be preserved by these traditional semi-poetic tales; to borrow the fine expression of Tacitus, "Fingunt simul creduntque." So far from being startled by the marvellous and the incredible, they expected and looked for it; while discrepancies and contradictions were accepted side by side, because the critical faculty was wholly undeveloped. "The real and the ideal," says Mr. Grote, "were blended together in the primitive conception;... the myth passed unquestioned, from the fact of its currency, and from its harmony with existing sentiments and preconceptions" (Hist. of Greece, 1:610). To the intensity of a fresh imagination, and the necessary weakness of the youth of language, we can trace the origin of a vast number of myths. In those early days men looked at all things with the large, open eyes of childish wonderment. The majority of phenomena which they saw and enjoyed were incapable of other than a metaphorical or poetical description; and even if language had been more developed it would have responded less accurately to their thoughts, because they seriously transferred their own feelings and emotions to the world around them, and made themselves the measure of all things. Thus the hunter regarded the moon and stars which "glanced rapidly along the clouded heaven" as a "beaming goddess with her nymphs;" and
"Sunbeams upon distant hills, Gliding apace with shadows in their train, Might, with small help from fancy, be transferred Into fleet Oreads sporting visibly." Wordsworth, Excursion, book 4.
Thus the manifold aspects of nature, imaginatively conceived and metaphorically described, furnished at once a large mythology; and when these elements were combined and arranged for the purpose of illustrating early scientific or theological conceptions, and were corrupted by numberless erroneous etymologies of words, whose true origin was forgotten, we have at once the materials for an extensive and sometimes inscrutable mythology. In the early stage of the myth, confined to the period when everything is personified, it is as difficult to distinguish between what was regarded as fancy and what was believed as fact as it is to this day in the rude and grotesque legends of Polynesians and North American Indians. But in a later time, when myths were preserved in writing and systematized into dogmas, the poetical imaginative faculties had often well-nigh evaporated, and that which had originally been meant as half a metaphor was prosaically hardened into a real and marvellous fact. Thus in many myths, as they were finally preserved, we may see the mere misconceptions of a metaphor, and the guesses of a most imperfect etymology, mingling in two distinct streams with the original simple poetic tale. Any one who considers the evanescent "tradition" of untutored polytheism as it is displayed among modern savages, may watch, even at the present day, the growth and swift diffusion of myths; but we must look into various histories of civilized people (and especially into that of Greece) to see such myths first erroneously systematized into definite narratives, to be deliberately believed — then partially and timidly rationalized — next contemptuously rejected — and finally restored to their true rank as the most interesting relics of a primitive society, and the earnest teachings of a yet unsophisticated religious philosophy.
This subject would require a volume to explain it adequately; and, indeed, it has occupied many important volumes. All that we have here attempted is to remove a groundless and injurious prejudice against the word. Whether or not there be any myths in the Bible, and especially in the earlier books, is a question which must be settled purely on its own merits. SEE MYTHICAL THEORY. It is, however, undesirable that the mere word "myth" should be avoided by those who undoubtedly regard some of the Biblical narratives as containing mythical elements. Even men like Bunsen and Ewald bowed to popular prejudice in shunning the word; and of the English theologians, who rely so much on their authority, scarcely one (with the exception of Dr. Davidson) has ventured in this particular to desert their guidance. Yet the word "myth" is far more reverent and far less objectionable than "fable," which some would substitute for it; and it is, as Dr. Davidson has pointed out, far more honest than circumlocutions which mean the same thing (Introd. 1:146). It will be observed that we are here giving no opinion whatever as to the fact of the existence of scriptural myths, but merely pleading that those Biblical critics who understand the true nature of myths, and, rightly or wrongly, believe that here and there in the Hebrew records a mythic element may be traced, should not hesitate to express their conviction by the term which is most suitable and most likely to secure for the subject a clear and fair discussion.
The following are a very few of the more important books on the subject of myths: O. Muller, Prolegomena zu einer Wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (Getting. 1825 [transl. by J. Leitch, Lond. 1844]); Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie; Buttmann, Mythologos; Hermann, Ueber das Wesen und die Behandlung d. Mythologie; Lobeck, Aglaophamus; Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der Alten Volker;. Nitzsch, Helden-Sage der Griechen; Bottiger, Kunst-Mythologie d. Griechen; Kavanagh, Myths traced to their primary Source through Language (1856). The subject has of late years received three important contributions-Mr. Grote's History of Greece, volume 1; Prof. Max Miiller's Essay on Greek Mythology (Oxford Essays, 1856); and Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Nations (Lond. 1873, 2 volumes, 8vo). SEE MYTHOLOGY.