In Webster's New World School and Office Dictionary, the word myth is defined as "a traditional story serving to explain some phenomenon, custom, etc" (Macmillan 284). The word mythology comes from the root mythos which means "story" and the root logos which means "word" or "talk"; so it literally translates to "storytelling" (Grolier Mythology 565). Before information was ever written down, it was handed down by word of mouth (Parada Basic 3). Long ago books were not available to provide explanations for the way creation worked, so people created stories that would give them answers to the questions that they had (Mysteries 1). Besides the previous reason, myths and folklore are believed to have been created and used for different reasons. Some of these are for entertainment (Grolier Folklore 310), to describe where certain rivers, cities, mountains, or other geographical features got their names (Grolier Folklore 310); to explain the beginning of people, animals, and nature (Grolier Mythology 565); or to teach a moral.
These reasons will be further explicated later in this paper. One example of storytelling is found in the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams. The rabbits in the story often told the stories of a rabbit named El-ahrairah. In these stories, El-ahrairah used his wisdom and trickery to rescue his people from Prince Rainbow and be able to live freely with his rabbits. As one rabbit said in the story, "El-ahrairah is a trickster ... and rabbits will always need tricks" (Adams 114). As in other forms of folklore and mythological tales, the rabbits in Watership Down told the legends of El-ahrairah for a myriad of reasons: to motivate and give hope in times of struggle and fear, to entertain, to emulate El-ahrairah's mastery of deception, and to expound on inscrutable origins of life.
To begin, myths and legends have been used to bring hope and motivation to those experiencing great hardships or fear. On the way to Efrafa, many of the rabbits in Watership Down were full of fear and anxiety to know if their plan of getting does and escaping without injury or death would be a success (Adams 277). As a distraction and a comfort, "The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle" was told. While being surrounded by King Darzin's men, El-ahrairah and his rabbits became ill, because there was no way to get food. El-ahrairah decided to escape and ask the Black Rabbit for help. He offered his life as a sacrifice if the Black Rabbit would save his rabbits from King Darzin. After many attempts and injuries, the Black Rabbit helped El-ahrairah and defeated King Darzin's men. El-ahrairah's warren was saved (Adams 278-292). Even though the story was originally told to distract the rabbits, it also encouraged them; El-ahrairah went through many trials and injuries to try and save his rabbits and the rabbits hearing the story went through many hardships, also, to try and rescue the does from Efrafa. When they heard that El-ahrairah's story ended in success, the rabbits were encouraged that theirs would, also. Another example of this was "The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog". In the winter, El-ahrairah and his rabbits were starving, because it was hard to get food from the frozen ground. He tried to find food from a nearby garden, but it was guarded by a fierce guard dog named Rowsby Woof. El-ahrairah tried to distract him, but it was not successful until he pretended to be the Fairy Wogdog. He talked to the dog from behind a fence, so that he would not know that El-ahrairah was a rabbit. He got the dog to leave the garden, because the dog was tricked into thinking the queen was coming to see him. While he was outside of the garden, El-ahrairah entered the house and ate the cabbage. The master soon returned, though, with Rowsby Woof. El-ahrairah was trapped inside the house, so he tricked the dog again. This time he explained why the queen was unable to meet him and said that the only way she would be saved was if he ran around the house four times while barking. In doing that the master was awakened and while he tried to get the dog back inside, El-ahrairah escaped (Adams 403-414). This story was told after one of the rabbits asked how they were going to survive through the winter, so it comforted them to hear the story of El-ahrairah enduring the winter and escaping starvation. In Egyptian mythology myths also had a comforting influence on the people. Their lives revolved around their religious beliefs, and those beliefs were in the myths they told (Tour 4). When there was fear of evil, magical spells from the myths were said to protect them. Many of these spells were also believed to bring healing, so they were many times used for that reason, also (Tour 4). Even though the magic of the myths sometimes proved unsuccessful, the people did not lose hope. If someone was not healed or died, the people found comfort in believing that it was the will of the god for that to happen. Sometimes they couldn't understand, but they used myths to accept the hardships they experienced and to carry on (Tour 4).
Furthermore, many tales have simply been passed on and retold as sources of entertainment. In Watership Down it is said, "There is a rabbit saying, 'In the warren, more stories than passages'; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight" (Adams 105). In the book, storytelling was a common event when the rabbits gathered together. Hazel's rabbits told stories very often throughout their journey, but the rabbits at the Warren of the Snares also told stories to pass the time and to entertain. The tales told by other civilizations also reflect this purpose of folklore as entertainment. During the Middle Ages, all levels of society told stories to entertain and almost never used them to function for anything sacred or very serious (Lindahl 285). The folklore of the Eskimos operated in similar ways for similar reasons. For them "storytelling is a principal form of entertainment" (Ullom 21). They were often told, along with as a source of entertainment, to teach a moral (Ullom 100). Many of their stories were created to make the audience laugh, because they believed that laughter had healing power (Ullom 21). Even though these examples came from different places all around the world, they shared the common purpose to provide amusement for their audiences.
Continuing, many audiences of folklore looked up to the heroes found in the stories and tried to equal their abilities. "The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah" was told after Hazel gave the rabbits the idea of befriending other animals that weren't enemies, because one never knew when that friendship would be needed. In the story, Prince Rainbow sends a spy to stay with El-ahrairah, because he thinks that it will help him stop El-ahrairah from playing tricks on him. Prince Rainbow tested him many times and finally thought he caught him. In the midst of this, El-ahrairah had befriended other animals who he was later able to use to trick the spy and get away without being caught (Adams 178-190). After hearing the story of El-ahrairah, the rabbits trusted Hazel's idea, because if El-ahrairah did it they wanted to do it, also. The characters in Greek mythology were also idolized by those who told and heard the stories. One example is the prophet Amphiaraus. Because of his honorable and heroic attributes, people believed that he became immortal. They worshipped him for his nobility, courage, modesty, and wisdom (Parada Amphiaraus 2). Odysseus was also a hero in Greek mythology. For ten years Odysseus tried to return to his home, continually being faced with hindrances and temptations to be disloyal to his wife (Hunter 1). Odysseus is probably one of the most honorable characters of Greek mythology. He continually used his wisdom and cunning to conquer seemingly impossible situations. Because he never gave up, Odysseus fulfilled his dream of returning home (Hunter 1). Many people found hope in these and many other heroic adventures of Greek mythology along with other types of folklore.
Finally, myths and folklore alike were often used to bring enlightenment to confusing or unknown occurrences of nature. The rabbits in Watership Down looked to "The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah" to answer many of their questions on creation. The story said that in the beginning Frith created all the earth and the animals living on it. The rabbits, though, became too numerous and began to wander in search of food. Frith told El-ahrairah that he must control the rabbits, but El-ahrairah would not listen to him; he felt that his rabbits were superior to the other animals. Frith decided to hold a meeting where he would separately give each animal a different gift. In order to decrease the rabbit population, he gave the other animals the desire to kill rabbits (Adams 40-42). When El-ahrairah realized what Frith was doing, he tried to run away, but he couldn't escape. He started digging a hole in the ground, but he only got part of his body in when Frith found him. Because of his perseverance, though, Frith blessed El-ahrairah and all other rabbits with strength, speed, and cunning. He told him that as long as rabbits used tricks, they would never be destroyed (Adams 42-43). This story explained to the rabbits why so many animals were their enemies. Many other examples of mythology and folklore are used solely to explicate the origins of people and nature, along with the names and actions of them. In Greek mythology myths "refer to the origins and the nature of the universe, the gods and mankind" (Parada Basic 5). Judith C. Ullom describes myths and folklore similarly. She states that the folklore of North American Indians, Raven tales in particular, "account for the existence of all things" (Ullom 21). Many events that can not be explained with a mundane paradigm are explained through myths (Grolier Mythology 565). For example, people did not understand the actions or the alpha of objects like the sun, the stars, streams, or rustling leaves. No books were present that could provide them with the scientific reasoning behind these objects, so their own explanations were created which turned into stories now known as myths (MysteriesMegasite.Com 1). The sun became a god to many, because "so wonderful an object as the sun must be more than human" (MysteriesMegasite.Com 1). The stars were said to be people placed in the sky after they died if they were good and virtuous and streams were described as a "nymph rushing to join her lover, the sea" (MysteriesMegasite.Com 1). Also, the rustling of leaves was said to be the voices of goddesses in the trees (MysteriesMegasite.Com 1). Many legends were also told to give a reason to the names of certain geographical landmarks (Grolier Folklore 310).
In conclusion, the majority of mythological literature and the stories of El-ahrairah were told to motivate those who were distressed, to give an explanation to that which seems unexplainable, to bring hope of mirroring the hero's commendable accomplishments, or to simply amuse and entertain. The rabbits in Watership Down used the El-ahrairah stories to encourage and distract them on their dangerous adventures, and the Egyptians used myths for protection, healing, or to explain why they endured pain. "The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah" gave the rabbits an explanation for their physical attributes and why they had so many enemies. In Greek and other ancient civilizations, myths were told to also explain the objects in nature and how they were created. In Watership Down the rabbits looked up to El-ahairah for his trickery and would try and be like him by performing their own tricks. Amphiaraus and Odysseus were also considered heroes in Greek mythology and the people worshipped them for their noble character. Finally, the stories of El-ahrairah in Watership Down were many times used as entertainment and a way to spend leisure time in the warrens. During the Middle Ages and in various Eskimo civilizations, myths were also used as entertainment and were meant to make the audience laugh and enjoy themselves. Myths, legends, and folklore have influenced the lives of people for millenniums and shall continue to be passed on for millenniums to come.