Myths & Urban Legends Defined: How They Differ

Updated May 26, 2021
the word myths wooden cubes

People often confuse myths and urban legends. However, there is a significant difference between these two types of stories. Discover how to tell the difference.

How Myths Are Created

Myths are created as a way to explain an actual historical event that has no explanation. They are complex stories that weave the reality of what happened with a fictional character or supernatural entity being the cause. Historically, this type of explanation was often used before the birth of science.

For example, Greek Mythology centers around gods and goddesses who ruled over various Earthly elements, such as Neptune being the god of the oceans who, when angered, would sink ships, cause typhoons, or generate tsunamis. Demi-gods, demons, and all manner of creatures are also woven into the mythologies.

Angering the gods and goddesses always ended in some form of disaster that might not be through the elements of the planet. In fact, most of the time the whims of the gods and goddesses had a very personal repercussion. If your lover betrayed you or broke up with you, then it was obviously something you'd done to displease Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and she was retaliating against you. By the same token, if you had good luck, then you had pleased the gods and goddesses in some way.

Stories Told as Facts

Myths were also used to tell a story that had some kind of lesson interwoven. There was the human factor that often had interactions with gods and goddesses. The story then became one that would end with a moral. Myths didn't have any traceable or provable origin. However, they were told as facts in the tradition of most folklore stories, and the society believed them as facts.

Greek Gods and Goddesses

There were often symbolic people, places and objects within the myths that helped the listeners to relate to what they were being told as fact. These were often tied to some type of religion or ritual that was commonly practiced.

For example, if you were a wealthy Ancient Roman, then you would make a burnt offering in your home shrine to ask your favorite goddess or god (house gods/goddesses) to assist you. If you felt you'd done something that displeased your house god or goddess, then you would make an offering of foods, jewels, and personal prized objects while praying for forgiveness. Ancient Romans regularly held festivals with all manner of religious rituals that would include an animal sacrifice in one of the temples as a way to appease jealous and vengeful gods.

For these and other cultures steeped in myths, the social mores were shaped by these stories. Even the rules of governance were based on these myths, especially when it came to law and justice.

How Urban Legends Evolve

Urban legends are a modern creation that are fantastical tales. The urban legend, unlike a myth, is always a cautionary tale that gives a dire warning; heed this tale or you'll end up like the unfortunate person in the story.

Like myths, urban legends are told as though they are a factual happening or event. Most urban legends begin with an explanation that the person heard the story from someone who witnessed the event or knew someone who had. It is always some kind of secondhand or hearsay knowledge. There's absolutely no proof of the story having ever taken place, yet it is told as a fact and passed on to others as a truth. There can be a microscopic truth that started the whole story, but it is long lost to what the story morphed into with the retelling.

This layering and embellishing of the urban legend is often seen in the child's game, telephone, where the children sit or stand in a circle. One child whispers a sentence to the child beside them and that child whispers to the person beside them and it continues around the circle. When the last child is called on to repeat the sentence, it is never the same as the one the first child whispered.

The Cast of an Urban Legend

Unlike myths, an urban legend isn't about a god or goddess, but a human. The dire circumstance that befalls the human is purely because of a bad decision they made, a lack of paying attention to their surroundings or what they were doing. Urban legends play on fear and gain momentum through their element of sensationalism.

The star of the story is always some type of victim. The entire story hinges on the person being a victim and is often the key component of the urban legend. The person in the urban legend often dies or meets some other horrible fate because they were blind to the unfolding circumstances, even though all the telltale signs were right in front of them.

Another form of urban legend is about impossible creatures that lurk in the shadows of night just waiting to "get you." This type of spooky urban legend can manifest modern creatures, such as The Slender Man. This creepy urban legend began in an Internet meme Photoshop competition. The tall and painfully thin faceless humanoid creature with very long arms wears a black suit, white dress shirt, and a tie. The Slender Man went viral with creepypasta (online fiction) with more details added to the original story. Before long, people were reporting seeing The Slender Man lurking in the night and a modern day urban legend of a faceless creature with a penchant for kidnapping kids and unsuspecting adults was born.

The Slender Man

Distinguishing Between Myths and Urban Legends

Once you understand the differences between myths and urban legends, you begin to see how they are created. The common thread is both are fictional stories believed to be fact.

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Myths & Urban Legends Defined: How They Differ