Elements of a Myth

The term ‘Myth’ comes from the Greek word ‘mythos’, which means story or word.

A myth is a story of unknown authorship that people told long ago in an attempt toanswer serious questions about how important things began or why events occurred. Myths generally involve nature or the adventure of gods and heroes. Myths follow a structure that has elements that can be identified.

Main characters: The story usually revolves around conflict between protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).

Plot: The actions and events that define the story.

Phenomenon: Anything that is extremely unusual; an extraordinary occurrence or plot device.

Conflict: This is the struggle that grows out of opposing forces between characters and events. Conflict helps to create suspense in a story.

Resolution: The outcome of a story


In this workbook, you will read each myth and then identify the elements within it. Then you will provide a 3-4 sentence explanation as to which of the four functions this myth serves using examples from the readings and stories to support your findings. Please read/review both readings provided on this assignment to help guide you as you explain the function of each myth. It is required that all four functions are discussed, they are all present here. You may notice that multiple functions are operating within each story; you are more than welcome to discuss multiple functions in each explanation. The best way to approach the functions sections is to read all the myths before you begin your written explanations. Below you will find the example of Icarus, with an element breakdown and explanation of its function.

Example: Icarus

In mythological ancient Greece, soaring above Crete on wings made from wax and feathers, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, defied the laws of both man and nature. Ignoring the warnings of his father, he rose higher and higher. To witnesses on the ground, he looked like a god, and as he peered down from above, he felt like one, too. But, in mythological ancient Greece, the line that separated god from man was absolute and the punishment for mortals who attempted to cross it was severe. Such was the case for Icarus and Daedalus. Years before Icarus was born, his father Daedalus was highly regarded as a genius inventor, craftsman, and sculptor in his homeland of Athens. He invented carpentry and all the tools used for it. He designed the first bathhouse and the first dance floor. He made sculptures so lifelike that Hercules mistook them for actual men. Though skilled and celebrated, Daedalus was egotistical and jealous. Worried that his nephew was a more skillful craftsman, Daedalus murdered him. As punishment, Daedalus was banished from Athens and made his way to Crete. 

Preceded by his storied reputation, Daedalus was welcomed with open arms by Crete’s King Minos. There, acting as the palace technical advisor, Daedalus continued to push the boundaries. For the king’s children, he made mechanically animated toys that seemed alive. He invented the ship’s sail and mast, which gave humans control over the wind. With every creation, Daedalus challenged human limitations that had so far kept mortals separate from gods, until finally, he broke right through. King Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë, had been cursed by the god Poseidon to fall in love with the king’s prized bull. Under this spell, she asked Daedalus to help her seduce it. With characteristic audacity, he agreed. Daedalus constructed a hollow wooden cow so realistic that it fooled the bull. With Pasiphaë hiding inside Daedalus’ creation, she conceived and gave birth to the half-human half-bull minotaur. This, of course, enraged the king who blamed Daedalus for enabling such a horrible perversion of natural law. As punishment, Daedalus was forced to construct an inescapable labyrinth beneath the palace for the minotaur. When it was finished, Minos then imprisoned Daedalus and his only son Icarus within the top of the tallest tower on the island where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. 

But Daedalus was still a genius inventor. While observing the birds that circled his prison, the means for escape became clear. He and Icarus would fly away from their prison as only birds or gods could do. Using feathers from the flocks that perched on the tower, and the wax from candles, Daedalus constructed two pairs of giant wings. As he strapped the wings to his son Icarus, he gave a warning: flying too near the ocean would dampen the wings and make them too heavy to use. Flying too near the sun, the heat would melt the wax and the wings would disintegrate. In either case, they surely would die. Therefore, the key to their escape would be in keeping to the middle. With the instructions clear, both men leapt from the tower. They were the first mortals ever to fly. While Daedalus stayed carefully to the midway course, Icarus was overwhelmed with the ecstasy of flight and overcome with the feeling of divine power that came with it. Daedalus could only watch in horror as Icarus ascended higher and higher, powerless to change his son’s dire fate. When the heat from the sun melted the wax on his wings, Icarus fell from the sky. Just as Daedalus had many times ignored the consequences of defying the natural laws of mortal men in the service of his ego, Icarus was also carried away by his own hubris. In the end, both men paid for their departure from the path of moderation dearly, Icarus with his life and Daedalus with his regret.

(Source: Transcript from live class video: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_adkins_the_myth_of_icarus_and_daedalus/transcript)

Element Breakdown

Myth/CultureMain CharactersPlotPhenomenaConflictResolution
Icarus, GreekIcarus, Daedalus, King Minos, and the SunDaedalus crafted wax and feather wings for him & Icarus to escape imprisonment by King MinosWings crafted to give humans flight, but they have limitationsIcarus’s hubris (overreach)His poor choice to fly higher melted the wings and he fell to his death

Function Explanation Example

The myth of Icarus is an example of the Psychological/Pedagogical function. The Psychological/Pedagogical function often teaches lessons and provides the reader with ways to work through the challenges that we may be presented with in life. The story of Icarus ends in tragedy and there are many lessons that can be learned from his actions. Icarus and his father Daedalus are trapped in the tower, and Daedalus is an inventor and so he crafts wings to help them escape. He gives clear instructions to Icarus to fly in the middle so they can safely get away. Icarus has seen the example of his father constantly defying the laws of gods and men throughout his life so this may have been a contributing factor to his downfall. Once Icarus is up in the air, he is unable to keep his ego in check and falls victim to his hubris. He wanted to fly higher and higher towards the sun, which in turn melted his wings causing him to fall to his death. The story of Icarus teaches a lesson about arrogance and overreach, giving the reader a warning about overconfidence and disobedience. It teaches that giving in to one’s hubris can have severe, and even deadly, consequences. 

Myth 1: Narcissus and Echo

When Zeus came to the mountains, the wood nymphs rushed to embrace the jovial god. They played with him in icy waterfalls and laughed with him in lush green glades. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was very jealous, and often she searched the mountainside, trying to catch her husband with the nymphs. But whenever Hera came close to finding Zeus, a charming nymph named Echo stepped across her path.

Eventually Hera discovered that Echo had been tricking her, and she flew into a rage. “Your tongue has made a fool of me!” she shouted at Echo. “Henceforth, your voice will be brief, my dear! You will always have the last word, but never the first. From that day on, poor Echo could only repeat the last words of what others said. One day Echo spied a golden-haired youth hunting deer in the woods.

The boy’s name was Narcissus, and he was the most beautiful young man in the forest. All who looked upon Narcissus fell in love with him immediately. But he would have nothing to do with anyone, for he was very conceited. When Echo saw Narcissus, her heart burned like the flame of a torch. She secretly followed him through the woods. She got closer until finally Narcissus heard the leaves rustling. He cried out, “Who’s here?” Echo repeated his last word, “Here!”

Narcissus looked about, “Who are you? Come to me!” he said. Narcissus searched the woods. “Stop hiding! Let us meet!” he shouted. “Let us meet!” Echo cried. She stepped from behind the tree and rushed to embrace Narcissus. He panicked and pushed her away, “Leave me alone! I’d rather die than let you love me!” “Love me!” was all poor Echo could say as she watched Narcissus run away. “Love me! Love me!” Humiliated, Echo wandered the mountains until she found a lonely cave to live

in. Meanwhile Narcissus hunted in the woods, tending only to himself, until one day he discovered a hidden pool of water. The pool had a silvery-smooth surface. Nothing it seemed, had ever disturbed its waters, only the sun danced upon the still pond.

Tired and eager to quench his thirst, Narcissus lay on his stomach and leaned over the water.

But when he looked at the glassy surface, he saw someone staring back at him. Narcissus was spellbound. Gazing up at him from the pool were eyes like twin stars, framed by hair as golden as Apollo’s and cheeks as smooth as ivory. When he leaned down and tried to kiss the perfect lips, he kissed only spring water. When he reached out and tried to embrace this vision of beauty, he found no one there. “What love could be more cruel than this?” he cried. “When my lips kiss the beloved, they touch only water! When I reach for my beloved, I hold only water!” Narcissus began to weep. When he wiped away his tears, the person in the water also wiped away tears. “Oh, no,” sobbed Narcissus. “I see the truth now; It is myself I weep for! I yearn for my own reflection!”

Narcissus cried harder, the tears broke the glassy surface of the pool and caused his reflection to disappear. “Come back! Where did you go?” the youth cried. “I love you so much! At least stay and let me look upon you!” Day after day, Narcissus stared at the water, in love with his own reflection. He began to waste away from grief, until one sad morning, he felt himself dying. “Goodbye, my love!” he shouted to his reflection. “Good-bye, my love!” Echo cried to Narcissus from her cave deep in the woods. Then Narcissus took his last breath. After he died, the nymphs searched for his body. But all they found was a magnificently beautiful flower beside the hidden pool where the youth had once yearned for his own reflection. The flower had white petals and a yellow center, and from that time on, it was called Narcissus. Alas, poor Echo, desolate after Narcissus’s death, did not eat or sleep. As she lay in her cave, her beauty faded away, she became very thin until her voice was all that was left.

Source: Edited from: https://www.acaedu.net/cms/lib3/TX01001550/Centricity/Domain/562/Week%2022%20-%20The%20Story%20of%20Echo%20and%20Narcissus.pdf

Element Breakdown

Myth/CultureMain CharactersPlotPhenomenaConflictResolution
Narcissus, Greek     

Which of the four functions does this myth serve? Identify the function, then provide a 3-4 sentence explanation to support your findings in the text box below.


Myth 2: Urashima Tarō and the Turtle

A long time ago, a fisherman named Urashima Tarō lived with his parents in a small village. He was a skilled fisherman, but mostly known for his kind heart. One evening, he was walking along the shore when he saw some children gathered around tormenting a large sea turtle. “Stop that!” he cried out. “How dare you torment an innocent creature?” The boys scattered at his approach. The turtle slid into the waves and swam away.

The next day, Tarō went fishing as usual, though farther out than normal. The sea was calm and quiet, when suddenly a voice came to him across the waters. “Urashima Tarō! Urashima Tarō!” The turtle was paddling toward him. “You saved my life. Let me show my gratitude by taking you to the Dragon Palace under the sea.” Startled, Tarō responded, “It is so deep, how will I get there?” I will carry you,” the turtle said. Tarō climbed onto the turtle’s shell, and it dove down beneath the waves.

After the turtle had swum for some time, a gate appeared in the distance, and beyond it a magnificent palace. They glided to a halt outside the front of the palace, where Tarō was greeted by an elegantly dressed young woman. “I am Princess Otohime. I am so glad to meet you,” she said. Inside the main banquet hall, tables were spread with every marine delicacy and exquisite sake. Soon, dancers in flowing garments swayed to the music of zithers and flutes. “Unbelievable,” Tarō whispered to Otohimein the seat beside him. “I never imagined such splendors existed.”

Days and weeks passed, one morning Tarō woke up and suddenly remembered his father and mother, their simple hut, and their sparse meals together. “I must go to see my parents,” he told Otohime. “But you only just arrived,” she said. “Why rush away so soon?” Tarō would not change his mind, no matter how much Otohime pleaded with him. At last, she said, “Very well. But take this as a souvenir of the Dragon Palace. Think of me when you look at it, but do not ever open it.” She handed him a richly lacquered box.

The turtle then carried him to the once familiar shore, but the landscape was different. He

hastened along to his parents’ hut, but it had vanished along with any sign of his parents. Even the

villagers he passed were strangers. “Excuse me,” he said to a gray-bearded man as he passed, “Do you know the home of Urashima Tarō?” “I have never heard of him, and I have lived here all my life” Tarō hurried away, what had happened? He did not know it, but the days and weeks he had spent in the Dragon Kingdom were years and centuries in the world above. Three hundred years had passed!

All Tarō did know was that he was stranded in a strange place with few possessions. Among those possessions was the box Otohime had given him. He studied its lustrous, black surface and thought of the bright eyes of the princess. She had told him not to open the box, but maybe it contained the solution to his problem. Slowly, he lifted the lid. A curl of white smoke emerged, rising into the air. Within a few short moments he transformed into a white-bearded old man. From the sea comes the sad, sweet voice of the princess: “I told you not to open that box. In it was your old age…”

Source: Edited for clarity from: https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/b09201/urashima-taro.html

Element Breakdown

Myth/CultureMain CharactersPlotPhenomenaConflictResolution
Urashima Taro, Japanese     

Which of the four functions does this myth serve? Identify the function, then provide a 3-4 sentence explanation to support your findings in the text box below.


Myth 3: Maui and the creation of the Hawaiian Islands

Māui, a demi-god, struggled with being a successful fisherman. His brothers would mock him for not catching any fish and he would retaliate with mischievous tricks against them. Māui and all his brothers were sons to a divine father and mother but only Māui was granted miraculous powers, which is why Māui was able to possess this magical hook made from the bones of his divine ancestors. One day, his brothers went fishing but would not permit Māui to join them on the canoe, and this irritated Maui. When they returned, Maui told them that, had he gone with them, they would have caught many more fish rather than just a single shark. His brothers considered his remark and then took him out on their next trip. They asked him where all the “good” fish were. Māui then threw in his magical hook baited with Alae birds, sacred to his mother Hina. The hook grabbed the ocean floor, pulling it upwards, generating huge waves while Māui asked his brothers to paddle fast to accommodate for the oncoming fish. They paddled with great power and were getting tired but Māui told them not to look back because if they did the fish would run away. One of the brothers disobeyed and the fishing line snapped, revealing new islands. Had nobody looked back, there would have been more islands.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81ui_(mythology)

Element Breakdown

Myth/CultureMain CharactersPlotPhenomenaConflictResolution
Maui, Hawaiian     

Which of the four functions does this myth serve? Identify the function, then provide a 3-4 sentence explanation to support your findings in the text box below.


Myth 4: Corn Mother

Now the people increased and became numerous. They lived by hunting, and the more people there were, the less game they found. They were hunting it out, and as the animals decreased, starvation came upon the people. And First Mother pitied them.

The little children came to First Mother and said: “We are hungry. Feed us.” But she had

nothing to give them, and she wept. She told them: “Be patient. I will make some food. Then your little bellies will be full.” But she kept weeping.

Her husband asked: “How can I make you smile? How can I make you happy?” “There is only one thing that will stop my tears.”    

“What is it?” asked her husband. “It is this: you must kill me.”

“I could never do that.”

“You must, or I will go on weeping and grieving forever.”

Then the husband traveled far, to the end of the earth, to the north he went, to ask the Great Instructor, his uncle Kloskurbeh, what he should do.

“You must do what she wants. You must kill her,” said Kloskurbeh. Then the young man went back to his home, and it was his turn to weep. But First Mother said: “Tomorrow at high noon you must do it. After you have killed me, let two of our sons take hold of my hair and drag my body over that empty patch of earth. Let them drag me back and forth, back and forth, over every part of the patch, until all my flesh has been torn from my body. Afterwards, take my bones, gather them up, and bury them in the middle of this clearing. Then leave that place.”

She smiled and said, “Wait seven moons and then come back, and you will find my flesh there,

flesh given out of love, and it will nourish and strengthen you forever and ever.”

So it was done. The husband slew his wife and her sons, praying, dragged her body to and fro as she had commanded, until her flesh covered all the earth. Then they took up her bones and buried them in the middle of it. Weeping loudly, they went away.

When the husband and his children and his children’s children came back to that place after seven moons had passed, the found the earth covered with tall, green, tasseled plants. The plants’ fruit—corn—was First Mother’s flesh, given so that the people might live and flourish.

And they partook of First Mother’s flesh and found it sweet beyond words. Following her instructions, they did not eat all, but put many kernels back into the earth. In this way her flesh and spirit renewed themselves every seven months, generation after generation.

Source: https://wordandsilence.com/2017/12/20/the-great-myths-12-the-corn-mother-penobscot/

Element Breakdown

Myth/CultureMain CharactersPlotPhenomenaConflictResolution
Corn Mother, Penobscot Tribe/Nation     

Which of the four functions does this myth serve? Identify the function, then provide a 3-4 sentence explanation to support your findings in the text box below.


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