Mythology, stories or explanations of the origin and meaning of the world and the universe and their relation to a particular culture or civilization. Mythological stories differ from folk tales and legends in that they tend to be integrated in the religious doctrine of a particular culture and are considered sacred and factual. Mythological stories also contain supernatural and divine elements. Folk tales and legends, on the other hand, are more light-hearted, entertaining, and fictive. Though mythological stories are characteristic of the pre-scientific world many aspects and beliefs of the modern world perpetuate the mythic tradition. The most well-known myths in western civilization are those of ancient Greece. The historic sources for our knowledge of this mythology are the Theogeny by Hesiod and the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer. All three works date from the 8th century B.C. Other significant mythologic systems are Teutonic, or Norse, mythology of Scandinavia and Germany. The sources for this mythology are the Eddas (1200s B.C.). The source for the Hindu mythology of Asia and India are the Vedas (1200 to 600 B.C.) The basis of Irish Celtic mythology are three cycles of stories—the mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, and the Fenian cycle. Other significant mythological systems are those of Africa, Native America, and the Pacific Islands.
Many theories have been developed by scholars about how and why myths began. Some of the more significant theories are those of Euhemerus, the Greek scholar (3rd century B.C.) who believed that myths are based on historical fact; Friedrich Max Muller, a German scholar (late 1800s) who held that mythic heroes were representations of nature; Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, an English anthropologist (1800s) who stated that myths were an attempt to explain the unexplainable events in dreams; Bronislaw Malinowski, a British anthropologist (early 1900s), who held a more psychologic perspective; and Sir James George Frazer, a Scottish anthropologist (early 1900s), who concluded that myths reflect the cyclical nature of life—birth, growth, decay, and rebirth. Frazer is the author of The Golden Bough, one of the most famous works in the study of mythology. Among modern psychologists, the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are significant in their interpretation of myths. In more recent times, the work of Joseph Campbell in the area of comparative mythology has also made a contribution to human knowledge.