Legends are stories believed by the narrator to be true. Most stories, therefore, are based on actual experience or observations that have been cast into narrative form in accord with traditional models and established points of view. Legends need no datelines or the names of persons or places to authenticate them. They are over as events, but they live and survive in our memories due to their human interest. They are symbols of something of universal and perennial interest, ideal representations of human nature and the truth of life everywhere. Legends are the stories formed around the truth like crystal formed around a grain of sand. False addition or deductions from real facts may build them up by twisting the facts in the process of translating from primitive languages. As such, legends are unverified nonhistorical popular stories handed down by tradition from antiquity. Originally, they were limited to the lives of saints and gods or to collections of stories from particular religious and mythological backgrounds. There is a legend regarding the creation of the world in Middle America coming from ancient Aztec and Mayan people. Throughout the New World, there is a belief in multiple creations of which the present world is but one. In Middle American belief, there are normally four of these creations or, as they are called, world ages. Movement through these ages is usually progressive, and the present age may acquire a special status as the fifth age, which is the sum of all other ages. The basis of this legend of five in four is expressed in the carving known as the Aztec Sun Stone, where the sign that names the present age movement is constituted by the signs that name the four previous ages: Water, Jaguar, Rain, and Wind. These signs are enclosed in the unending sign of the Twenty signs, running anticlockwise and enclosed by two year-snakes. The 16th-century Nahua manuscript known as the legend of the Suns tells us more about these world ages and their cataclysmic endings. During the first age (Water), humans were invented and molded from ash, and then everything was overtaken by water and people were transformed into fish. During the Jaguar age, the sun was eclipsed, and in darkness jaguars ate the people. Then came the Rain age, which ended in a rain of volcanic fire and ash. Then the Wind age, with its hurricane, came and men turned into apes. And the present age also is doomed to earthquake and famine. The same sequence of cataclysmic events—flood, eclipse, eruption, and hurricane—occurs in other legends as well. According to Indian legends, the universe is said to have come into being out of chaos when Indra, the kind of the gods and the god of rains, or Vishnu, a solar deity, separated heaven from the earth. Then the sun rose, and from that spot, the naval of the earth, a great pillar was erected to prop apart heaven and the earth. This pillar is the axis of the world. There were now three worlds: Heaven, Earth, and the intervening Air or Ether. Although there are some obscure hints of an underworld as well, little is said about it in Rigveda, the basis of this legend.
The word legend is derived from medieval Latin legenda (“things for reading”) from the Latin legendus (“to collect, gather, or read”), meaning that the story or legend comes from some ancient book. As such, a legend is different from a myth or folklore because a myth in this particular context is a traditional story originating in a preliterate society and dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes who serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world, and folklore is the traditional orally transmitted beliefs, practices, and tales of people. A legend is an ancient traditional story, or a cluster of stories, about a particular person or place. Besides godmen and saints, legends include elements of mythology, supernatural beings, or explanations of natural phenomena. They are often regarded as historical, although the elements of truth in legends cannot be examined, verified, and proved.
The legends denoting human relations with animals are also found in a number of ancient traditions, cultures, and literature. The heroes who are responsible for the good and bad in the lives of people appear as animals and men on different occasions. The ancient gods of Egypt, Greece, and India bear testimony to this. It hardly makes any difference whether Coyote of the American Indian tribes was a man or an animal to those who tell stories about him. Similarly, Hanuman, one of the most popular Hindu deities, is depicted as an ape, Ganesh is depicted with an elephant head, and the reincarnations of Lord Vishnu all are animal figures such as Varah (pig), Kachchap (tortoise), Matsya (fish), and Narsinh (half man, half lion). Moreover, the animals (e.g., Kamdhenu, the holy cow) help humans to achieve their ultimate goals. They are also the vehicles of gods such as Laxmi (owl), Saraswati (swan), Ganesh (mouse), Vishnu (hundred-headed snake), Shiva (ox), and Yama (buffalo). Similarly, the legendary relations are established between gods and nature. Indra is identified with rain, Varun with air, and Agni with fire. Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, and Narbada are not only holy rivers but also goddesses.
Besides having the divine and semidivine element, the legends are associated with historical figures as well. On the one hand, there is a tendency to confuse legend with history and to accord them unduly. On the other hand, the postmodern school of history is laying a great emphasis on accepting legends as an important source material for history. As for their credibility and acceptance the antistructuralists argue that the line between belief and unbelief is very vague and thin and that it varies from culture to culture and even from person to person. Here even in the educated, learned, and sophisticated societies, legends of strange things from the past or present continue to be told and are usually believed. Moreover, one may argue that legends are not history but must accept that history often becomes legends. The real historical figures turn into legends sometimes during their own lifetimes or after death. It is very common with the tribal leaders; many of the tribal leaders who fought against injustice and raised rebellions have been deified and given the status of demigods, thereby acquiring legendary characters— Birsa Munda of Chhota Nagpur, “Rani” Gaidinliu of Nagaland, and Gundadhur of Bastar, to name a few. The most outstanding national heroes, such as the great Ashok, Shivaji, Maharani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh, and Mahatma Gandhi in India, Alexander and Napoleon in Europe, and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in America, are legends of history. The social-cultural legends from living beings are scattered all over the world, be it Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Pandit Ravishankar, or Amitabh Bachchan.
The latest trend in legends is that of “urban legends” being used to denote something close to rumor and coming out of a mental state of anxiety that America is facing today after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The psychologist Chip Heath has explained that urban legends often evolve to include informational credentials that act as camouflage and make it harder for people to debunk them.
- Augusta, K. (1984). Legends and myths in spiritual India. Delhi, India: Discovery Publishing House.
- Cavadish, R. (Ed.). (1993). Mythology: An illustrated encyclopedia. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Dange, S. A. D. (1967). Legends in the Mahabharat with a brief survey of folk tales. Delhi, India: Motilal Banagardi Dass.