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The Benefits of Myths and Legends

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Or, Little Myth Fabulous

More often than not, we pair myths and legends together a bit like salt and pepper, fish and chips, knives and forks. Pairings like these each have different meanings and uses. Together, though, they make a good team. The benefits of myths and legends might not be the same as supper on a Friday, but they are healthier.

The danger in pairing myths and legends is that the words become synonymous or blurred. Strangely, some books don’t explain the difference. It is possible to assume that readers, especially younger ones, need clearly worded definitions. I do most of the time, and I really appreciate it. 

I will get to definitions in children’s texts, but for educators and others interested, the information in Exploring Children’s Literature (Nikki Gamble, Sage, 2019) is invaluable. Simply put, “myths are the oldest stories,” told to explain the creation of the world or other natural phenomena (Gamble, 2019). Stories told as if true and passed orally from one generation to the next.

I think it’s also important to point out the distinction between myths as religion and myths as stories. For one culture, a “myth” will be part of their history, identity, and personal beliefs. So, we need to handle myths carefully and distinguish between myths in living religious texts (e.g., the creation story in The Bible) and myths told as fiction (e.g., The Abduction of Persephone).

“Legends, unlike myths, are set in historical time” (Gamble, 2019). And there’s a romance to them. An element, or supposed element, of truth. Storytellers, through the ages, exaggerate, adding their own flair. Retellings, including Hollywood films, play the same part as that of a 16th-century bard with the charisma and gift of embellishment as a movie producer.

In the classroom, the benefits of myths and legends offer ways to learn about different cultures. They can be a moral compass that we can use in our lives. What’s interesting is that life lessons crop up in different parts of the world at different times. If there’s any doubt about how we should treat other people, history does not share it.

Because they are rooted in places, myths and legends also benefit people by fostering feelings of belonging. Connections to places are important and powerful, with good and bad outcomes. Nationalism often uses this connection negatively. “We are better than you,” the rhetoric seems to say. What is a nation but an invisible, arbitrary border, anyway?

Myths and legends can connect people to places, cultures, histories and other people in a way that makes us proud of these things instead of a nation. It’s easy to misconstrue patriotism. It could even open the gate to a dangerous path. So, myths and legends can work together, showing that we can be proud of our own cultures and places, but also knowing that we share the base values of humanity with others. It’s never that simple, though. Being proud of a nation that has overcome adversity is important, but one that has acted controversially? Perhaps not so much.

Myths and legends vary in length. There are epics like the legend of Beowulf, but most myths and legends are retold in fewer words. So, collections, anthologies and encyclopedias are the most common books you’ll find on the subject. A tiny book with lots of information is The Small and Mighty Book of Myths and Legends (Welbeck, 2023). Highly illustrated and colourful, this book has lots of short facts and snippets of information. It’s great to flick through and includes sections from all over the world.

World of Myths and Legends (Book House, 2010) tells of each myth and legend across a double-spread. But, there is a distinction to note around religion. Disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods were once thought to be caused by gods. Even though Noah’s Ark fits into the definition, to some, it’s not a myth. To some, it’s a widely held truth. I love that each page clearly labels which stories are myths or legends. The introduction also does a great job of their definitions.

Scholastic has a series of books with collected fairy tales, myths and legends from various places. Three of the titles are stories from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The book with Welsh stories has a brilliant pronunciation guide, which I’ve been trying hard to learn. There are short introductions to each story giving context, and I would argue that these have the most impact when connecting readers to a place. The reason why there’s a red dragon on the flag, for example. Or how real places got their names, like Llyn-yr-Afanc (Lake of the Afanc). Other titles in the series are South Asian and African and Caribbean folktales, myths and legends.

I’ve longed for a historical/cultural connection to where I’m from. England doesn’t seem to have a unified or shared culture like Wales, Scotland or Ireland. There are excellent books with collected folktales, like Between Worlds by Kevin Crossley-Holland, but myths and legends have the ability to truly root people to somewhere. Is it because the ‘English’ are too recent (historically speaking)? Angle, Saxon, and Jute myths and legends came over from the continent 1,500 years ago. Then, Norse Myths, which Crossley-Holland has retold brilliantly as well. We (the English amongst us) need to embrace our ancient Briton-ness. I feel a connection with the ancient landscapes here.

The last book I’ve been reading is Fierce, Fearless and Free by Lari Don (Bloomsbury, 2020). This book dedicates those myths and legends featuring girls and women as central characters. There are many strong females, such as goddesses, warriors, and clever and cunning girls. I did wonder why the mountain/volcano in the Sumerian myth has male pronouns. However, this book gives the role of myths and legends to unify a gender and give empowerment rather than to give a connection to a location or culture. A benefit of these stories is that they have multiple uses.

There’s scope to use books like these in a range of ways. However, I think the greatest benefit of myths and legends is that we can use them when thinking about belonging and identity. Don’t forget they’re also exciting stories too! I still think legends are best – I want to believe they’re real. I want there to have been a time of monsters and magic and heroes. These things could have happened on my or your doorstep… that hill you pass every day, mentioned in a story thousands of years old, might have a dragon sleeping inside it. Okay, it’s extremely unlikely, but to a child, it’s mind-blowing.