- It is a religious story — no matter from which culture — and will therefore involve the existence and activities of a supernatural being, such as a god, a demigod, a goddess, or several such entities;
- It will seek to explain at least some aspect of the origin or manner of things (where people came from, how rainbows first came to be, why whales have blow spouts, why people and animals feel hunger) if not of the very universe itself;
- It is not an isolated tale but connects up in some significant way with other similar stories within a culture, involving other deities who collectively form a pantheon;
- Its authorship is communally shared, that is, attributable to no single person, and it came into existence through oral tradition, and therefore usually has more than one version;
- It is believed to be essentially true by those in the society for whom it is one part of a cultural mythology.
A story will have all of the above characteristics else it cannot properly be classified as a myth, but may be a legend or a folktale. These three terms have all along formed what might be called a sticky wicket for scholars and lay people alike, and there has been for centuries much useful argument and debate about their proper usage. One observation that has remained constant, however, is that the three types of stories shade into one another, as they share many attributes and may in some instances address identical concerns.
The word "myth" has also — ever since the time of Herodotus, a Greek writer and historian in the 4th century B.C.E. — come to be used to designate a story or the understanding of some matter as fictional and even downright false. Does this constitute a contradiction in the use of a word? Oh, yes. This is because it was at about that time that the concept of "historical fact" first arose in the western mind, and so the Greek word logos, meaning logic or "word of truth," became juxtaposed with the word mythos, which at root means "word" or "story." Put the two together, as in the word "mythology," and one suggests a vast field of dynamic study for the casual and dedicated student alike.
More: What is mythology?