What is the Difference Between Mythology and Folklore?

What is the Difference Between Mythology and Folklore?

Mythology and folklore are two things often mentioned in tandem, and though in some cases they are very similar, they aren’t the exact same. So, what is the difference between folklore and mythology?

Similarity Between Mythology and Folklore

For us to differentiate between the two, we first must understand what makes them so similar at their very core. Both mythology and folklore in basic terms are a form of Storytelling, perhaps, the most ancient forms of narrative we have available to us today.

You can consider folklore a subset, or a branch of mythology and even vice versa depending on who you’re asking. But often, it does feel like folklore is the small fish in the much bigger pond, that is Mythology.

Where the difference between them can really be seen is within the stories themselves and what they attempt to explain to us.

What is Mythology?

Mythology often derives from what many consider to be sacred texts. It aims to tell us about the time before we existed. How we and everything around us was created. These stories were often held as the truth and so they became part of many people’s religion. They discussed deities and supernatural figures that they believed to be involved in our creation.

At a time when our scientific knowledge was very limited, these stories provided explanations to things that we’ve only really begun to understand. When religions have lost their following or when they were absorbed into others, they began to be referred to as mythology.

So, even today’s most practice religions in a couple of thousand years from now could be seen as not much more than just stories of mythology.

What is Folklore and its Difference to Mythology?

Where folklore differs the most from mythology is in time and scale. Mythology clearly focuses on the beginning of time, the explanation of Civilization and culture. Whereas the creatures, spirits and deities of folklore almost just exist without this need for a religious or cosmic connection.

Folktales are told on a much smaller scale and often tend to be exclusive to a specific village, town, or city. They do at times include gods and goddesses in their stories, but they often do so with a specific meaning or moral in mind, that doesn’t solely refer to creation or divinity.

How was Mythology and Folklore Passed on to Generations?

The way in which tales of mythology and folklore travelled was naturally quite similar because at the time they didn’t have things like printing houses and education wasn’t as widely available as it is today meaning many people just couldn’t read or write.

A select few poets and writers would eventually document these stories, hence why we know so much about certain mythologies on a global scale. Although some folklore was documented in poems and various stories, it remained a more oral form of storytelling.

A legend that you might have heard of about a witch or monster might be quite different, or even remarkably similar to one on the other side of the globe, and it’s likely that you’ll never know because many of these folktales are passed down through songs and dances. We all have that one story or legend local to our town or city.

Japan is quite a good example of a country that has a large amount of mythology and folklore that coexist. It has its two established religions of Shinto and Buddhism, where we get these tales of deities and Kami that attempt to explain Japan’s creation. But it also has a vast number of creatures and cryptids that tie into much more local folklore.

Folklore Vs Mythology — Summary

To summarise, mythology and folklore are quite similar in terms of storytelling, but the main difference is in intention—what they aim to explain. One attempts to explain the universe to us (Mythology), and the other is a much smaller scale of storytelling that focuses on specific areas and individuals (Folklore).

Featured Image: Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526. Found in the collection of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Artist: Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Jacob (ca. 1470-1533). Heritage Images/Getty Images

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