A myth is a traditional or legendary story, collection or study. It is derived from the Greek word mythos (μῦθος), which simply means “story”. Mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. A myth also can be a story to explain why something exists.

Human cultures usually include a cosmogonical or creation myth, concerning the origins of the world, or how the world came to exist. The active beings in myths are generally gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, or animals and plants. Most myths are set in a timeless past before recorded time or beginning of the critical history. A myth can be a story involving symbols that are capable of multiple meanings.

A myth is a sacred narrative because it holds religious or spiritual significance for those who tell it. Myths also contribute to and express a culture’s systems of thought and values. Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Contemporary science is typically subdivided into the natural sciences, which study the material universe; the social sciences, which study people and societies; and the formal sciences, such as mathematics. The formal sciences are often excluded as they do not depend on empirical observations. Disciplines which use science like engineering and medicine may also be considered to be applied sciences.


The relationship between myth and science is a subject as old as that of myth and science themselves. The position on the issue taken by modern theories of myth can be divided chronologically by the centuries. In the nineteenth century, myth and science were commonly taken to be incompatible. One could not consistently accept both. Because moderns were assumed to be scientific, the choice had already been made for them: they had to abandon myth. In the twentieth century, by contrast, myth and science were usually taken to be compatible, so that one could consistently accept both. Moderns were still assumed to be scientific, but myth was now re-characterized to accommodate science. Only recently, with the rise of postmodernism, has the deference to science assumed by both nineteenth- and twentieth-century theorists been challenged. This article concentrates on the varying positions on myth and science taken in both centuries by those for whom myth and science intersect rather than diverge. Whether, as the ‘mission’ of the twenty-first century, myth can be brought back to the world – the world explained by science – is finally considered with the case of Gaia.


Lately another, more subtle, expression of the idea that myth is primitive science has been appearing: some scholars have been suggesting that our current scientific concepts, such as the theory of the Big Bang, are myths. Even Campbell did so occasionally. The idea of this assertion is that our science shouldn’t be taken literally any more than earlier ideas, because someday we’ll outgrow it—which of course is true. But scientific concepts are not derived in the same way as mythic ones; they are products of rational thought, not mythopoeic thought. Are they metaphors? Yes, certainly they are. The eminent physicist David Bohm held that all scientific theories are metaphors, including his own. But to say that all myth is metaphor is not to say that all metaphor is myth! To make no distinction between rational thought and mythopoeic thought is to define myth so broadly that the term becomes useless.

This is not to say that concepts from current science don’t pass into Space Age mythology and become meaningful metaphors there in the mythic sense. They definitely do; this is particular significant in the case of science fiction. But these concepts as conceived by scientists bear little relationship to the popular, mythic images based on them. The theory of black holes is a complex scientific idea derived through rational analysis of evidence. The idea of a starship falling into one is something else entirely—it’s akin to the Greek tale of Scylla and Charybdis



The subject matter of myths and science is a wide one Because the older concept of myth as a primitive form of science pervaded material read by scholars in other fields at the time of their education, the relationship between science and mythology is very commonly misunderstood. For instance, you will find historians of science who try to recontruct the astronomical beliefs of, say, the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians in terms of their mythology, assuming that unless most of them had believed it literally, it wouldn’t have been such an important aspect of their culture. This is comparable to saying that because Biblical imagery has been and remains important in our culture, the Bible gives an accurate description of our astronomers’ premises—the only difference is that our technology and our libraries reveal so much about our science that no hypothetical archeologist of the future could make such a mistake.

Nevertheless, by non-mythologists myth is still often viewed as something that’s outgrown with increasing scientific knowledge. An element of truth underlies this view because as knowledge increases, subjects formerly dealt with only by mythology become accessible to science also. Mythology itself, however, is never outgrown, though the specific myths that a culture finds meaningful ultimately change.

Scientists in particular are prone to discount myth as silly or childish, to believe that even when science and mythology co-exist in a culture, the people to whom myths are meaningful must believe them literally and thus be less intelligent than scientifically-oriented people. This is not usually the case. What’s often called mythopoeic thought (another term for metaphorical thought) is indeed different from logical thought, and some people are indeed more inclined to one than the other, but confusion of myth with fact in the presence of evidence is not mythopoeic thought; it is simply a case of logical reasoning from false premises. Furthermore, both modes of thought occur in all cultures—the notion that one mode is “primitive” while the other is “modern” was demolished by anthropologist Paul Radin in his 1927 book Primitive Man as Philosopher. Most of us are capable of both. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t enjoy science fiction movies.









“The Myth of Io.”. The Walters Art Museum.


For more information on this panel, please see Zeri catalogue number 64, pp. 100-101


Kirk, p. 8; “myth”, Encyclopedia Britannica Retrieved 19 January 2016. Missing or empty |title= (help)


Howells, Richard (1999). The Myth of the Titanic. Macmillan.


Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1967, pp. 23, 162.

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