Myths attempt to explain reality in nonrational terms.
Myths attempt to explain reality in nonrational terms.

Although myths may not always be true in the literal sense, most carry a kernel of wisdom that functions as a metaphorical truth. Much like poetry, myths embody profound truths through illustrations of the truth in action, which often means personifying or animating objects or forces usually thought of as inanimate. There are many types of myths, but common ones seek to not only explain, but give existential meaning to the basic circumstances of human life.

Creation Myths

From the biblical account of the Garden of Eden to the Hopi story of Spider Woman creating the first humans out of dirt and saliva, creation stories ground cultures in a concrete beginning. The real function of these myths, however, is not to provide the culture with a list a concrete facts about the beginning of the cosmos or the given society, but rather to provide a harmonious and meaningful context that explains the present situation. Both the Hopi and the biblical stories of creation also feature the fall of humanity, pointing out that humans have free will to act in disharmony with original creation. Creation myths serve not only as historical stories but as functional allegorical lessons and warnings about proper human and societal behavior.

Myths of Gods and Goddesses

Many classical civilizations, including Greek, Egyptian and Hindu, developed rich mythologies centered around the actions of gods and goddesses. These myths usually took place in otherworldly realms: in heaven, the cosmos or mythological locations such as the Greeks' Mount Olympus. Gods usually personified both natural phenomena like the sun or thunder as well as human attributes such as wisdom, music and beauty. The interplay between these gods functioned as a sort of divine soap opera, in which harmonious or disharmonious actions between gods served as a metaphor for the reasons behind events in the worldly sphere. The story of the Trojan War, which started as an argument between three goddesses, is a good example of this.

Trickster Myths

Trickster myths center around a specific archetypal character found in many cultures around the world. Examples of trickster characters include the Norse god Loki, the Greek god Hermes and the Native American Coyote, who is prominent in the myths of many tribes. What tricksters like Coyote personify is the force that brings change to otherwise static and often rigid social structure -- the force of human experimentation and raw passion -- which is why the trickster often takes animal forms.

Myths of Death, the Underworld and Resurrection

Another common mythological theme is the experience of death, one of the most basic problems faced by all humanity. Mythological stories about a hero, or sometimes even a trickster's, visit to the land of the dead and subsequent return abound in world mythological literature. As in Gilgamesh, who journeys to the underworld to solve the riddle of human death and comes out revitalized and enlightened, the power of death is at the the heart of many a mythical account.