Folklore scholars generally recognize three major forms of folk narrative: myth, legend, and folktale. Myths are etiological narratives that use gods (divine, immortal figures) to explain the operation and purpose of the cosmos. Legends are quasi-historical narratives that use exceptional and extraordinary protagonists and depict remarkable phenomena to illustrate cultural ideals, values, and norms. Finally, folktales [including fairy tales] are entertaining narratives that use common, ordinary people as protagonists to reveal the desires and foibles of human nature. The following outline illustrates the relationship of fairy tales to other folk narratives.
My own definition of fairy tale goes something like this: A fairy tale is a story-literary or folk-that has a sense of the numinous, the feeling or sensation of the supernatural or the mysterious. But, and this is crucial, it is a story that happens in the past tense, and a story that is not tied to any specifics. If it happens “at the beginning of the world,” then it is a myth. A story that names a specific “real” person is a legend (even if it contains a magical occurrence). A story that happens in the future is a fantasy. Fairy tales are sometimes spiritual, but never religious.
A fire-breathing monster of Lycia, destroyed by Bellerophon (q.v.). According to Homer the Chimaera was of divine origin. In front it was a lion, behind it was a serpent, and in the middle a goat, and was brought up by King Amisodarus as a plague for men.
Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
The Centaur’s are half man, and half horse. They have the body of a horse but, in place of the horse’s head the have the torso, head and arms of a man. Most are wild and savage, known for lustfulness and drunkenness. The exception is the wise Centaur Chiron.
For the Greeks, the gods were a species of being superior to humans in three main ways: they were immortal; they lived lives of ease and abundance; and they were extremely powerful. By contrast, human life, even that of the rulers, was short and hard, plagued by disease, famine, and natural calamity. The gods were primarily involved in their own world, with their own affairs; only rarely did they intersect with the human world. They did not create human beings and did not particularly care what happened to them. Sometimes they took humans as lovers, but humans were simply not interesting enough to hold the gods” attention for very long; the gods were partial to their children and sought to advance their interests.
The most serious fault–we would probably use the term “‘sin”–of human beings was to forget their limitations as mortals. As superior beings, the gods demanded honor and respect from humans; they (usually) rewarded those who honored them and punished slights, even inadvertent ones, severely. As immortals, the gods had long “memories,” and often punished or rewarded humans for acts of long-dead ancestors. Justice was important, especially to Zeus, and would be done, but not necessarily in the lifetime of the victim.
Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths by Paula L. Reimers
review of: Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn From Myths. By Mary Lefkowitz. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.304 pp. $30.00.