What’s the Difference Between a Myth, a Legend, a Folktale, and a Fairytale?

photo of Giant's Causeway in County Antrim in Northern Ireland

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Distinguishing between these four types of storytelling traditions—myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales—should be an easy task. After all, each has its own discrete entry in the dictionary. So a quick perusal of their definitions should reveal, with crystal clarity, the stark contrasts between them, deep lines gouged in the sand separating one from the other, myth from legend from folktale from fairytale.

When investigating specifically the differences between Irish myths, Irish legends, Irish folktales, and Irish fairytales, those lines in the sand all but disappear, they are jumbled and crisscrossed, stamped with footprints—and not from some accidental stumbling, but seemingly from intentional stomping.

Alas, life is never that easy. And Irish storytellers—the bards, the filí, and later, the seanchaí—haven’t made it any easier.

Consider the following: A traditional definition of “myth” establishes it as a story concerned with the activities of gods and goddesses, while a traditional definition of “legend” puts forth that it is a story concerned with the deeds of quasi-historical heroes. And then we have a “folktale,” and its fairy-infested subcategory, the “fairytale,” which are both concerned with the supernaturally-tinged conflicts of everyday people.

Now, consider this quotation from historian Peter Berresford Ellis:

“The Irish do appear to have made their heroes into gods and their gods into heroes. In the lives of these gods and heroes, the lives of the people and the essence of their religious traditions are mirrored.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

Lines. In. Sand. Stomped. You see the source of my exasperation? How is one to classify the stories of Ireland that have been passed down from generation to generation when Irish gods, heroes, and common folk all have the same motivations, the same narrative arcs?

When the gods are heroes and the heroes are gods and these god-heroes are really just reflections of everyday people, “myths”, “legends”, “folktales”, and “fairytales” are rendered indistinguishable from one another, their meanings corroded.

A Different Way of Thinking About Myths, Legends, Folktales, and Fairytales

four quadrant chart showing differences between myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales

It is not the fault of the Irish that today’s dictionaries are woefully incapable of encapsulating the breadth and interconnectivity of their stories. I, personally, blame those dastardly lexicographers, who clearly leaned much too heavily upon Classical Greek and Roman literature when formulating their definitions and filling out those little blue index cards. (Yes, I just finished reading The Liar’s Dictionary, what gave it away?)

The stories passed down by the Irish—and by all peoples and cultures—exist on a spectrum. Or two spectrums, really. A Cartesian plane, if you will. Some stories skew more sacred than secular (and vice versa) and some skew more fictional than historical (and vice versa). In the graphic above, I’ve done my best to position myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales in their proper locations.

The more I researched these different story categories, however, the more I realized that my quadrant approach on its own did not (and could not) address all of the attributes of inherited stories. Notably absent from the graphic above: a gauge of how symbolic or literal stories are, as well as the settings in which stories take place. So, I had no other choice… I had to make another chart.

two charts showing the differences between the meanings and settings of myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales

Keep reading to see in-depth definitions of myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales, and, in turn, to see my thought process behind the construction of the above charts.

What Is a Myth? A Modern Definition

A myth is a symbolic story concerned with the origins of a people, their world, or other natural phenomena. Myths typically take place in the distant past and feature gods, goddesses, and/or other supernatural beings as their primary protagonists. While the original adherents of a particular mythology (i.e. a body or collection of myths) believed them to be true, myths often have little or no basis in historical reality.

Like folktales and fairytales, myths are fictional stories. But instead of existing for mere entertainment, they serve a higher purpose. They are sacred rather than secular. To quote folklorist and anthropologist William Bascom, “Myths are the embodiment of dogma… and they are often associated with theology and ritual.” (source: The Journal of American Folklore, reprinted in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth)

In ancient Ireland, the filídh, an elite class of poets/druids (akin to Brahmins in Hindu culture) were entrusted with learning and preserving myths, which included the stories of the various Irish gods and god-like beings who settled in Ireland in the pre-Christian era: the Cessair, the Partholónians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Milesians. These stories would later be collected and transcribed by medieval Irish monks in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions).

Further Reading: Books of Irish Myths

What Is a Legend? A Modern Definition

A legend is a heroic story set in the recent past that is popularly considered historical but remains unverifiable. Straddling the line between sacred and secular, legends don’t usually have religious significance but often have national or cultural significance (re: King Arthur and Robin Hood for the British, William Tell for the Swiss).

Legends may be based on historical figures, but the actual adventures said figures partake in are often fictionalized or exaggerated. According to Bascom, the primary protagonists of legends are typically portrayed as flesh-and-blood humans. However, this is another area prone to embellishment. Certainly this is the case with the heroic tales of the Irish.

To quote historian Kenneth Jackson:

“This is a matter in which the Irish tales do differ from the early epics of other peoples; they are inclined to desert the natural and possible for the impossible and supernatural, chiefly in the form of fantastic exaggeration. One should not misunderstand this, however; it was not done in all seriousness, but for its own sake, for the fun of the thing.”

 source: A Celtic Miscellany

Look no further than one of ancient Ireland’s most legendary warriors, Fionn Mac Cumhail (anglicized as Finn McCool or MacCool), for an example of such fun-loving exaggeration. It is likely that Fionn was based on a historical figure, possibly the Munster-dwelling Norse warrior Caittil Find—Find being a nickname given to him by the Irish, meaning “the Fair” or “the White.” However, when we look at the works that form the Fenian Cycle (the third cycle of Irish mythology, also known as the Fianaigecht), we see that Fionn is no mere human. What’s more, the deities that pervade the first cycle of Irish mythology, the Mythological Cycle, make appearances in Fionn’s stories as well.

Fionn fighting Otherworld creature with magic spear
Fionn fighting Aillen, illustration by Beatrice Elvery in Violet Russell’s Heroes of the Dawn (1914) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fionn’s legendary deeds are steeped in the divine and the supernatural. As a boy, he gained wisdom by tasting the cooked flesh of a magical fish (the Salmon of Knowledge). He became famed for his skills as a warrior after defeating Aillén, a fire-breathing creature from the Otherworld, with an enchanted spear. Later, Fionn would have a son (the poet Oisín) with the goddess Sadb, daughter of the god Bodb Derg (who had succeeded the Dagda as the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann).

So, where do the myths end and the legends begin? It’s a flawed question. Obviously, there’s lots of overlap, which is something I’ll shed more light on in the next section.

Further Reading: Books of Irish Legends

What Is a Folktale? A Modern Definition

A folktale (or folk tale) is a secular, fictional story that is passed down among common people and is often rooted in a superstitious belief. Unlike myths and legends, folktales are not considered sacred or truthful by storytellers (or story-listeners), and are usually told solely for entertainment’s sake. Furthermore, folktales are often described as “timeless” and “placeless”, meaning you can change a folktale’s setting—from past to present or vice versa, and/or from this land to that land or vice versa—without losing the essence of its narrative.

The fluidity and adaptability of folktales further distinguish them from other story categories, as myths (and to a lesser extent, legends) tend to have not only fixed settings, but also fixed meanings. This is certainly the case with Irish myths and Irish folktales, as the latter often descended from the former, only with much of the meaning stripped away. This missing meaning was not the fault or intention of Irish storytellers, mind you, but the result of a concerted effort by the English to eradicate Irish culture. To quote Ellis:

“Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the years of the English Penal Laws in Ireland, serious attempts were made to eradicate the language and culture, and many manuscripts and books were destroyed… Irish mythology [became] a mere folkloric tradition, tales recited by the village story-teller (the seanchai) around the hearth at night, their origin and symbolism forgotten.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology

To clarify, while the origins and symbolism of ancient stories might be lost in their folkloric forms, that’s not to say that folktales are inherently without value or incapable of teaching moral lessons. The point Ellis is making is that with folklore, a story’s ties to the sacred—its religious/mythical components—are either completely severed (at worst) or corrupted (at best). We’ll learn more about the corruption of myth in the next section.

Further Reading: Books of Irish Folktales

What Is a Fairytale? A Modern Definition

A fairytale (or fairy tale) is a secular, fictional story, often geared toward children, that features fantastical lands, forces, and/or characters, such as fairies, elves, goblins, trolls, giants, dragons, and wizards. A sub-genre of the folktale, a fairytale does not necessarily need to feature fairies in order to earn its classification, but it does require a happy ending or “turn”—hence the expression, “fairytale ending.”

According to Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien, a defining characteristic of the fairy tale is that it transports readers and listeners to an alternative (but still rational and consistent) world that operates under a different set of rules than our own world. The purpose of this transportation, however, is not simply to escape from the cruelties of the real world, but to gain perspective and inspire hope. To quote Tolkien:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

source: On Fairy-Stories

There is little doubt that Tolkien’s famed fairy otherworld, Middle-Earth, was inspired, at least in part, by the Otherworlds of Irish and Celtic mythology (e.g. Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth; Magh Mell, the Plain of Happiness; Dún Scaith, the Fortress of Shadows). And the numerous Irish fairytales associated with these mystical realms were likely sources of further inspiration.

What’s particularly fascinating about Irish fairytales is that we can map the degradation or de-evolution of their settings and characters from sacred to secular, from divine to “merely” supernatural. The sun-god Lugh, for example, an important god in Celtic mythology and later a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann in Irish mythology, lost his divine status in folkloric interpretations and was eventually reduced to “little stooping Lugh,” or Lugh-chromain—anglicized as leprechaun. And of course that mischievous little bugger is now a staple of Irish fairytales.

Indeed, the very concept of fairies has Irish mythological roots. The hills and tumuli that dot the Irish countryside, called sídhe in Old Irish, became the dwelling places of the Tuatha Dé Danann after they were driven underground by the invading Milesians. These ancient gods were thus reimagined as the aes sídhe, the people of the hills, popularly known as fairies, and their hills reimagined as fairy mounds. The most famous (or infamous) of the aes sídhe is the bean sídhe, the woman of the fairies, better known as the banshee.

Further Reading: Books of Irish Fairytales

Final Thought: An Example of a Myth, Legend, Folktale, and Fairytale All Rolled into One

If there is any one story that encapsulates the extreme difficulty of pigeon-holing stories into specific categories, it is the myth/legend/folktale/fairytale of the Giant’s Causeway. Located in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a geological wonder consisting of tens of thousands of (mostly) hexagonal basalt columns. As the story goes, the causeway once extended across the North Channel (a.k.a. Irish Channel), connecting Ireland to Scotland, and was constructed so that an Irish giant might do battle with a Scottish giant.

photo of Giant's Causeway in County Antrim in Northern Ireland

There is clearly a mythical element here, as the story explains the origins of a natural phenomenon. But when you consider that the Irish giant in question is none other than Fionn mac Cumhail, the Irish hero, we seem to veer more into “legend” status. Only here’s the thing: In the majority of legends concerning Fionn, he may have supernatural abilities and weapons, but he’s certainly no giant. So his involvement with the Giant’s Causeway sounds more like folktale or fairytale than legend.

To make some semblance of sense of all this, and to close out this post before I (completely) lose my mind, I’ll leave you with this quotation from famed Irish poet W. B. Yeats:

“When the pagan gods of Ireland–the Tuath-De-Danān–robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.”

source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

Last thing, I promise:

Introducing the official Irish Myths YouTube channel. Same Celtic flavor, new bold format.

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