Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are all myths superstitions, or is it the other way around, i.e. all superstition being myths?

Or can these words basically be used interchangeably?

The dictionary definitions of these words seem somewhat vague.

share|improve this question
7  
“Myths,” CS Lewis told JRR Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.” “No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 14:04
1  
Tolkien postulates a gradual distancing in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings: History became Legend; Legend became Myth. I'd put the vast majority of the Robin Hood stories in the 'legend' class, and the 'Arthurian Legends', with their frequent allusions to the supernatural, largely in the 'myth' class. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '12 at 14:35
add comment

8 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Myth in its proper sense is a very rich and deep word, meaning a reflection of truth. Myths can be true, and they are intended to convey truth even when they are not, strictly speaking, true. Myth is a means of communicating non-empirical truth in an oral culture.

Superstition can have its roots in mythology, but is usually about actions performed without a proper understanding of the reasons.

Both words can have both negative and positive implications.

share|improve this answer
10  
I would say that if you want positive implications for superstition, you use another word such as folklore. –  TimLymington Aug 2 '12 at 14:23
5  
"Both words can have both negative and positive implications." Way to go, Schroedingers Cat! –  asymptotically Aug 2 '12 at 15:12
    
@TimLymington Yes - good choice. –  Schroedingers Cat Aug 2 '12 at 15:58
2  
Just in case you felt I was making a jibe at you - I was referencing Schroedinger's cat when I quoted "... both positive and negative" –  asymptotically Aug 2 '12 at 16:04
1  
Kudos for mentioning oral culture. In our technology-based book ridden society the memory-based literature is seldom respected. –  sventechie Aug 2 '12 at 23:21
show 1 more comment

These two words are not interchangeable.

A myth is "any invented story, idea, or concept"

A superstition is "a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like."

So the two words are definitely not interchangeable.

"Elephants are scared of mice" is a myth.

"Walking under a ladder brings bad luck" is a superstition.

A superstition is usually a belief that some event will bring either bad or good luck. In the broadest possible sense, a superstition could be considered a type of myth, but not vice versa.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Superstitions inevitably have to do with the supernatural, and are mostly the result of religious practice/belief.

Myths are supposed "facts" pertaining to the natural and are caused by popularity of the statement, and how many people believe it. Additionally, myths can be proved/disproved.

For example, it is a superstition that clinking your glass scares away the Devil. This can't be proved and pertains to the supernatural. It is a myth that the reason meteors start glowing is because of friction (see this).

share|improve this answer
1  
You are using myth to mean nothing more than falsehood. –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 14:20
    
Your comment about the falseness of the claim that the liquid leaving the lowest hole in the container in the experiment you mention would travel the greatest horizontal distance is not true. Of course, the holes have to be identical and of a size appreciable enough to allow spurting, and there needs to be freedom for the streams to drop unhindered, but I have seen this experiment performed successfully. The mathematics and physics of the situation also SUPPORTS the assertion rather than, as you claim, disproves it. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '12 at 14:33
    
I you allow it to drop unhindered, a hole made at the lowest possible position will just spew out water which does not travel horizontally at all. For maximum horizontal range, the hole needs to be made halfway up the bottle. –  asymptotically Aug 2 '12 at 15:02
    
@tchrist I have mentioned that myths can be 'proved or disproved' –  asymptotically Aug 2 '12 at 15:03
1  
@asymptotically Prove or disprove Romulus and Remus. –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 15:18
show 12 more comments

“Myths,” CS Lewis told JRR Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.”

A myth is an echo of temporally distant events remolded into archetypes easily transmitted through oral histories. Myths are closely related to legends.

A superstition is “an unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary, especially in connexion with religion.” [OED]

The two words need not intersect.

share|improve this answer
    
Do you have a reference for that quote? –  DJClayworth Aug 2 '12 at 16:18
2  
@DJClayworth: I'm unsure about the "They are not lies" bit. But Tolkien did pen a poem in reply. –  coleopterist Aug 2 '12 at 17:59
2  
@coleopterist Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme / of things not found within recorded time. ... They have seen Death and ultimate defeat, / and yet they would not in despair retreat, / but oft to victory have tuned the lyre / and kindled hearts with legendary fire, / illuminating Now and dark Hath-been / with light of suns as yet by no man seen. reference –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 19:12
add comment
  • a myth is a kind of story. (they tend towards the made-up, fabulous, or magical, like stories of Roman gods, or anecdotes of political candidates)

    • sometimes a thing is called a myth when it is a supposed fact that turns out not to be true. This might be a simple statement-like fact (either historical or scientific-like) or a magical explanation .
  • a superstition is a belief about a causal relation. (they are usually considered untrue and fabulous or magical)

The two are related in their sense of assumed tenuous relationship with truth, but they would only intersect (as descriptions of things) in something like 'just-so' stories, for example where the leopard got his spots. The second sense of myth, magical explanation, is synonymous with superstition. So some kinds of myths are superstitions (and some are not), but it would be misleading to say that a superstition is a kind of myth.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Two definitions of myths per Merriam-Webster are:

1a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon

b : parable, allegory

2a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society

b : an unfounded or false notion

Myths refer to archetypal themes. Sometimes they are revered and sometimes they are debunked. Often they are so fanciful that their reality is highly unlikely (at least to the scientifically oriented). Sometimes they are unverifiable merely because they relate to things for which, thought feasible, there is no satisfactory scientific or historical record.

When a myth as described in the second definition is debunked and that debunking is widely disseminated, the myth dies.

Superstitions are beliefs that are not scientifically supportable (at least by current science). They are often tied to some religious belief, but sometimes just to random custom, e.g. step on a crack, break your mother's back.

If a reliable and valid proof of a superstition is later demonstrated, it ceases to be superstition and becomes emerging science. Probably the theory of germs was originally considered to be a superstition. (Mere speculation on my part.)

Most often superstitions are prescriptive or prohibitory. Do something/avoid something or suffer the consequences.

share|improve this answer
add comment

"Superstition" is generally defined as -- to take thefreedictionary.com as a source here -- "An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome." A superstition is a claim of some supposed fact or relationship, like "if you break a mirror you'll get seven years bad luck" or "if a robin flies in your window, death will follow".

The word "myth" has multiple definitions.

Definition 1 in most dictionaries is that it is a "story" about gods or heroes. (We could discuss what makes some stories "myths" and other stories just ... "stories". But I don't think we need to get into that here.)

So a superstition is very different from definition #1 of a myth, because a superstition is not a story, it's just a statement. "If you break a mirror" etc is not a story: it has no plot, no characters beyond a generic "you", etc.

"Myth" often has a definition 2 that says something like, "a popular belief" or "a ficticious fact". Like someone may say, "It is a myth that blonde women are dumb," meaning that that statement is not true. This definition of myth could overlap with superstition, but they don't really mean the same thing. A superstition is generally understood to involve luck or magic; this definition of myth simply means "false claim", and is usually applied to things that have nothing to do with the supernatural. Callling something a myth is often a way to say it's not true without blatantly calling the person who said it a liar. Like if you say, "President Smith's claim that it was his jobs bill was what caused the stock market to go up is a myth", you are saying that the president's claim is not true, without explicitly saying that he is lying or stupid.

I see a couple of posters here have connected superstition with religion. I guess it depends on exactly how you define both words. I don't want to get into an argument about it, but I think such a connection is most often made by people who are denigrating someone else's religion or by atheists who are denigrating all religions. I have never heard anyone who was a serious believer of any religion refer to his own beliefs as "superstition". So I'd be cautious about using the word that way, unless it is your intent to insult someone's religion.

When we talk about superstition we are normally talking about things that are supposed to bring bad luck or good luck or cause some event that has no apparent causal relationship in any non-magical sense. I don't know of any religion that takes it as a point of doctrine that breaking a mirror will bring bad luck, for example. Calling something a superstition is normally understood to mean that it is irrational. If you say, "It is a doctrine of Christianity that Jesus Christ came back from the dead," that is a simple statement of fact. Of course many people doubt that that doctrine is true, but it is an undisputed fact that that is indeed a doctrine of orthodox Christianity. But if you say, "It is a superstition of Christianity that Jesus Christ came back from the dead", any Christian I know would interpret that as an insult, as saying that this belief is irrational and foolish. Of course if your intent is to call a belief irrational in an insulting way, then that may be an appropriate choice of words. But if you are trying to have a friendly conversation, use another word.

share|improve this answer
    
It’s a simple matter of conjugation: I am religious, you are credulous, he is superstitious. One man’s faith is the next one’s belly-laugh. –  tchrist Aug 2 '12 at 16:36
    
@tchrit Exactly in line with the point I was trying to make. –  Jay Aug 2 '12 at 17:54
add comment

The English word Myth may be used in a sense which is somewhat similar to the usage for Superstition. However Myth has many shades of meaning, and many contextual uses, which have completely different meanings.

Something is called a "myth" in the sense used by the show Mythbusters; This is very similar in meaning to a superstition, but both could simply be dropped and replaced with "lies" or "misinformation".

Something which is a "myth" in the literary, or cultural sense is not a lie, and there is no intent to deceive. Myth refers to the powerful sense of meaning that certain stories have, even though they are not verifiable as history, or even though they are very unlikely to be true because they have elements that are either inconsistent, or supernatural, or otherwise, not very credible as literal history. Myth is more than legend, even. It's some kind of collective social identity.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.