This site has existed for two weeks, and we've had numerous discussions about defining our scope (most of those discussions have addressed small portions of the scope -- e.g. "is greek mythology on-topic" -- rather than creating a general definition). This is an issue we should resolve sooner rather than later (although we were right to wait until we had more questions to look at): having an answer to this question will help us immensely when trying to determine what's on and off topic.

We've made the most progress on this issue with a spreadsheet comparing different topics: I would encoradge everyone to take a look at it.

(I also think we should save the question of how to deal with overlaps with other religious sites for another day).

(I'm posting this question now because I think I've figured out what the definition should be: read my answer to this question)

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    I thought the question of what to do with overlap was actually pretty clear...
    – femtoRgon
    May 14 '15 at 20:45
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    Why? What's the problem we are trying to solve here? I know we had numerous scope discussions, but I strongly doubt most of them were actually necessary. Are people actually confused about our scope? Are we getting a significant amount of off topic questions?
    – yannis Mod
    May 15 '15 at 8:35
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    @Yannis I think this would be incredibly useful going forward: I'm worried that when we define our scope we're essentially waving our hands around and deciding based on whether the story "feels" like mythology, and I thought it would be useful to have a canonical definition.
    – user62
    May 16 '15 at 0:09
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    ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​I understand and appreciate the need to stay ahead of such issues. But the site is doing beautifully. There hasn't been a single off topic question (There have been some off topic closures, but I don't agree "off topic" was the the better close reason there). Our one issue is low researched questions. And I'm not sure how much of a problem those actually are, since they usually get good answers and not Wikipedia copy-pasta. I'm worried that a definition - any definition - at this point may turn out to be an unnecessary constraint and do more harm than good.
    – yannis Mod
    May 16 '15 at 7:24
  • I'm not entirely sure that question would be salvaged by a clear definition of mythology ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​@DeerHunter. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but it doesn't seem like a question that can be answered within the strict confines of a Q&A site.
    – yannis Mod
    May 16 '15 at 11:12
  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​@DeerHunter I don't think your question has topicality issues, I more feel that questions asking for pointers to external resources don't work well on Q&A sites. Regardless, feel free to ignore me.
    – yannis Mod
    May 16 '15 at 16:03
  • @DeerHunter you're asking us to count something for you, we need to have a non-subjective definition of what we're counting. That doesn't change even if we have a well-defined scope. Your question is more of a History.SE question anyway (people who study myths usually are literature people and like to focus on individual stories), but they would have the same objections Yannis and I have.
    – user62
    May 16 '15 at 16:21

I propose this definition of "Myth":

a traditional or legendary story.

For the record, I acquired this by paring all the uncertain verbiage ("usually", "with or without", "especially") out of this definition:

a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.

So that's not much more helpful that just saying "Mythology".

While I understand the allure, I think coming up with a canonical definition by which all other topicality questions can be judged is just infeasible, and liable to cause confusion rather than alleviate it.

I think the right thing to do is deal with topicality issues as they come up.

Most definitions we come up with are going to try to narrow it down based on what the purpose of the story is, but that's the most useless possible guideline, because it's based on interpretation instead of content. Interpretations are unclear and different people come to different conclusions.

Or we try to base it on societal/cultural impact, but that's not useful either. Orwell's "1984" and Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" are two fictional stories that have had a deeply profound impact on modern society, but you likely wouldn't regard them as mythology.

Or we try to establish a type of group that must believe the truth of the story. But a religion is no good, neither is a nation. Not enough latitude. There we might start talking about cultures, but there we're back to too vague to be useful. Sure, Greece has a culture. But so does Coca Cola and a community book club. (If you ask me, the best way to make the term "myth" more confusing, is to bring the word "culture" into it)


Mythology.SE is about "culture defining stories"

What makes the stories that we study on this site unique is that these stories defined entire cultures. In many cases, these stories were religious, but not always so (e.g. Beowulf, American folklore). Rather, "culture defining stories" are stories that:

  1. Are intrinsically tied to that culture; the best example is how the Bible is intrinsically tied to Christianity. Other examples include how the Shahnameh is the national epic of Iran.


  2. Used relatively widely by that culture to "define itself". Examples include Greek tragedies, the Odyssey, various epics, American (and other) folklore. These stories are not just a product of a culture; they have come to define the morals and values of the culture.


  3. Represent one of the (relatively) few stories available to modern readers from that culture, and thus "define" that culture for modern audiences.

Does this make sense? I like this definition because I think it explains why myths are so special and why we need a separate stack exchange site to discuss them.

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