Alana Joli Abbott (alanajoli) wrote,
Alana Joli Abbott

Friday's Guest: Mark J. Vecchio

Finally, the long awaited guest blogs! Given that the subject of the guest blogs is some riff on mythology, I thought it would be appropriate that the first entry come from an academic involved in studying and teaching the subject. Mark J. Vecchio currently teaches courses on mythology and theater (how Dionysian!) at Simon's Rock. He received his D.Univ. at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England, and his M.F.A. at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. An award winning director and published poet, Vecchio has taught courses on Greek mythology in Greece, Celtic mythology in Ireland, and Arthurian legend in England.

(As a note, any errors in presentation are mine; I am still learning html, and this is, thus far, the most complex coding I've attempted!)


Distinguishing Myth, Folk-tale, Legend, & Literature

By Mark J. Vecchio—Copyright 2006

The following is observational, not definitional. I’m less sure about the middle sections (Folk-tale & Legend), and include them mainly for a sense of arc and also to show overlap. Folk-tale & legend are represented as parallel branches, because they differ from each other in character (folk-tale more like fiction, legend more like nonfiction) rather than effectiveness (see below), in terms of which both are in between myth & literature.


  • A traditional tale: no author

  • Relevant on a tribal-cultural level; priestly or bardic transmission

  • Oral, non-literary narrative

  • Meaning is compromised when the tale is written, but once written suffers no loss of meaning in translation

  • Fully participatory† (e.g. through ritual or dramatic performance): must be immediately experienced or full meaning is compromised; a collective, not an individual, experience; participation of myth is effective

  • Occurs in cyclical, not linear, time with no simple (i.e. mappable) location in space—a.k.a. the Dreamtime; law of non-contradiction doesn’t apply (i.e. two things can occupy the same space at the same time); a-historic


  • A traditional tale: no author

  • Relevant on a private or communal (i.e. familial, rural) level; local or private transmission

  • Oral, but loses little meaning when written

  • Pure narrative: suffers no loss of meaning in translation

  • Imaginal participation only; contradicted by causal logic; usually only effective (i.e. experienced as true) in a child’s imagination (thus tales can be instructive); an individual or intimate group experience

  • Occurs in imaginary, a-historical, linear time & mappable space (“Once upon a time . . .”)


  • A traditional tale: no author

  • Variable scope of relevance; bardic or local transmission

  • Oral, but loses little meaning when written

  • Narrative only: has the quality of history; may be reenacted (e.g. in children’s games) but a legend, unlike myth, does not ritually renew (see Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return)

  • Participation is nostalgic, sometimes imaginal (as a folk-tale), but not effective; subject to belief

  • Situated in time & place as prehistory that purports to historicity: construed as prior to but on the same timeline as known history


  • Necessarily authored (even if the author is unknown or “Anonymous”)

  • Multi-genre; not necessarily a tale (e.g. lyric poetry); fuzzy distinction between historical & imaginative, but sharp distinction between fiction & nonfiction

  • Relevance not a given, but instead dependent on critical & popular reception

  • Literary, not oral: transmitted in print (i.e. published) through markets to individuals & institutions

  • Meaning is language-bound and compromised in translation; meaning is private, not public; interpretations are shared person-to-person or through secondary literature

  • Varying degrees of imaginal participation only: at most one is “transported” by a book; the least degree would be like reading a recipe (i.e. information); an individual, not a collective, experience

  • Effectiveness is potential only, & entirely indirect: rests with reader reception & interpretation

  • Occurs in linear time & mappable space; law of non-contradiction in full force; actually or construed as historical (even fiction implies fictional history)

†“Participation” in all its forms is used here in the sense in which Aquinas used it regularly, and as discussed at length by Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances. It can be thought of as sympathetic condition or activity, but not as copying. Purposely returning someone’s smile is akin to copying; being infected with someone’s smile is participatory. A parallax illustration is that the earth’s atmosphere participates the light of the sun.
‡ “Effective” in this context means capable of creating reality; e.g. participating the myth of Demeter & Kore at Eleusis was a matter of initiation, which changed the initiate both personally & socially—but because the myth-ritual was participated, the change was effected internally (the social change being a response to the essential change in the person). By contrast, in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, “effective dreaming” changes the external structures of reality: the solution to racism was not to alter attitudes but to uniformalize everyone’s skin color.
Tags: guest blog, mark vecchio, mythology

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