(some sources distinguish between mythology and legends; for the purpose of this question, I'm asking about narrations about human beings. For example stories of everyday human beings, genealogies of kings etc.

What is the role of and legend as historical sources?

There are lists of kings and genealogies of the past in mythological works. Although not supported by rigorous documentation, they offer a glimpse of some of the powerful rulers present at that time or the names which are collected by the author. For example, author Shri Veda Vyasa mentions various kings, names of their kingdoms and geographical locations etc. in the epic Mahabharata, which is considered as Itihasa or history.

Even if there is insufficient supporting evidence to conclude that the lists are accurate, is it possible to form and test inferences based on these legends? Can they be treated similar to oral histories and other non-textual sources?

I am interested to find out that to what extend such listings of kings or rulers are considered valid and correct in order to ascertain history of particular region (not only of India but in general ) by historians? Do historians consider them as authentic.?

  • @T.E.D. -Hello.Ok. Thanks for response. what about in difficult cases where there are limitations of finding very distant history due to various reasons like destruction of proofs because of geographical changes , large time frame etc. and where there is absence of any archaeological proof because of such reasons. But there is presence of surnames , clans ,groups etc. at present time.I.e there are simply no evidence of that part of history apart from narrations. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 19:08
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    Well, not exactly a historian and a very contoversial figure but as soon as I read the question I thought: Schliemann
    – tum_
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 20:28
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    At least to my mind the question is very similar to techniques that are used to study Anglo-Saxon history. The dearth of written sources force scholars to look for consistent patterns in substandard historical sources. I'm not enough of a scholar to provide a good example, but I believe that the structure of names in particular family lineages are used to form hypothesis about changes in rulers (Based on the names, we believe that the A dynasty fell and the B dynasty took over at this point). I think the question merits further consideration.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 14:47
  • @T.E.D. -Yes , much better now , a little suggestion - " how useful are mythological king ists and geneologies for historians in determining history of a country or region?". The sentence determining history of a country or region will make it more specific in my view , if you think it is good , then i am with it.Go ahead. Requesting to add that sentence. Very thanks again. :- ) Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 15:28

4 Answers 4


First I will point out that mythology has an obvious and direct relevance when it comes to the history of ideas, intellectual history, the history of religion and so on. In that sense, no matter how unreliable a myth is about other kinds of historical facts, they are inherently relevant for others. Myths tell you a lot about a culture and that, first and foremost, is their usefulness to historians.

But getting a little closer to the question as it is framed, the abstract to a relevant article by Peter Hees starts as follows:

Myth and history are generally considered antithetical modes of explanation. Writers of each tend to distrust the data of the other. Many historians of the modern period see their task as one of removing all trace of myth from the historical record. Many students of myth consider history to have less explanatory power than traditional narratives. Since the Greeks, logos (word as demonstrable truth) has been opposed to mythos (word as authoritative pronouncement). In more general terms myth may be defined as any set of unexamined assumptions. Some modern historians have become aware that much so-called factual history is interfused with such assumptions. What we call history is at best mythistory. Some even suggest that there can be no real distinction between the discourses of myth and history, between fact and fiction.

In other words, the relationship between myth and history is very much a matter of perspective. For historical positivists, myths are essentially just noise. For postmodernists and other strong critics of positivism, it's all mythistory.

I get the sense that the question is looking for historians who have a more positivist orientation but have used myths as evidence for more objective kinds of factual claims. I suspect this kind of method is much more common for archeologists that historians. Historians generally focus on written records that directly document the facts they are interested in. For archeologists, such conventionally "historical" records may not exist, at least not to the same extent and not as clearly independent of mythology. Here is one example with reference to the archeology of the Maya.


As Will & Ariel Durant's History of Civilization first pointed out to me several decades ago, reinforced by Kenneth Clark's Civilization BBC TV series, history is far more than just the chronological litany of battles and rulers through time (as important as those are). It also incorporates the art, architecture, culture, and more of those civilizations that flourished under those rulers and through those battles. In this broader sense of history, myths can indeed be of value to the historian.

Myths, for the most part and perhaps overwhelmingly, are the morality tales of a culture. As such, they can inform us of the values that a culture sees itself as having and desiring to have - even if they might occasionally absent themselves.

  • Cronos eats his children until foiled by Rhea presenting him with a stone in place of Zeus - who subsequently defeats his father and the other Titans to establish a more cultured pantheon of gods. This clearly suggests that the Greeks disapproved of infanticide - and the Greeks practiced a form of ritual-but-not-actual infanticide, the unwanted babies being left anonymously at well known locations where religious orders and others could find them for adoption.

  • Heracles is a hero not just because of his great athleticism and divine parentage but because of the cunning and skill with which he overcomes his challenges. We might infer that the Greeks themselves prized their ability to create the great legacy of scientific, mathematical and philosophical knowledge which they have left us.

  • Athens from an early time selects Athena as its patron, a goddess of both war and wisdom, telling us that they prized the ability to win at both battle and peace.

So while the facts that are found in or implied by various myths must be taken with many grains of salt, the ethics and morals of the portrayed characters, both vanquished and conquering, tell us much about the ethics and morals prized by the cultures preserving the tales.

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    some myths are entangled with reality, Gilgamesh for example, certainly did not befriend a monster named Enkidu born to defeat him nor did he killed a giant Bull demon made to destroy his city, he did exist tho and was somehow a wise ruler who built the walls of Uruk. I think that's more what the op try to figure out
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 13:30

Myths are generally unreliable sources for historic events because there is usually no way to tell where fact ends and fiction begins.

However, they can be a useful source about the culture and philosophy of the civilization which produced the myth:

  • What customs are assumed as common and what customs as unusual? These usually reflect the customs of the culture which produced the myth.
  • Which actions and character traits are treated as virtuous and which as despicable? The ethics applied in fiction usually reflect the ethics of the culture in the real world (just keep in mind that there is often a difference between what people preach in public and what people practice in private).
  • What mundane objects are used in metaphors or as everyday objects without requiring any explanation of their nature? Then these are objects which were likely in everyday use in that culture.
  • What scientific concepts, geographic features or confirmed historic events does the culture appear to be aware of? For example, if the myth correctly mentions a couple confirmed historic facts about a different culture, then there obviously was some exchange between these two cultures.
  • "Myths are generally unreliable sources for historic events because there is usually no way to tell where fact ends and fiction begins".Agreed , but why would someone invent large number of fictitious names of people and kings and mentions them in his work unless the possibility of those being actually present . On the other hand what about the description of places , rivers , mountains , provinces , states etc. which are correctly present as narrated along with genealogies and can be verified.? Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 9:52
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    @SwiftPushkar Because that's what creators of fiction do. The fact that medieval England existed died not mean that every lord, lady and chambermaid in historical fiction novels actually existed; nor that their fictional castles existed, even if the novel mentions a country, county or river which does exist.
    – Graham
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 18:14

I think this has been done. see Barber and Barber When they severed earth from the sky. There is an even earlier book though I don't recall the name but I think is referenced in the Barbers book.

They are archaeologists rather than historians but I think this is what OP refers to.

Also this book is rather theoretical in that they try to argue how myths can be used for history and develop certain rules for this, but they point to some cases. Sometimes they are persuasive, sometimes less so but very interesting nonetheless.

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