Legends are stories that are, at least in their beginnings, passed down as "true", or at least possibly true. Tellers of a legend and their listeners may not necessarily believe in all its details, or even in its truth as a whole, but at least they believe that previous generations thought it was true. Legends often describe events that supposedly happened "long ago".
Their claim to factuality or realism distinguishes them from folktales, fairy tales and other types of stories that make no claim to be anything other than fiction. Accordingly, legends often have a historical setting, and before the emergence of critical history-writing, legend and history were mostly indistinguishable genres. Legends may feature historical figures, even though the details of the story spun around them are often clearly unreal.
Of course, "legend" has acquired secondary meanings — more often than not, to call something a "legend" can mean, depending on context, "it's awesome" (like in "Living Legend"), or "it's not true" (like in "historical legend"). This doesn't actually mean that we don't believe in legends any more — only that we don't call them "legends" (at least so long as we believe in them). Such modern day legends may be referred to as Urban Legends.
Legends are related to, and sometimes overlap with, myths; colloquially the two terms are often used as synonyms. If the categories are interpreted a little stricter, then legends, in contrast to myths, are mostly concerned with the human sphere, not gods or cosmology, and accordingly are not considered "sacred". They frequently are concerned with the origins of a particular people, settlement, custom, or technology; this type of legend is also called "founding legend".
Besides explaining the origins of human institutions, another frequent function of legends is teaching morals — as a rule of thumb, legends say a lot about the values of the society or social group where they are passed down.
And finally, they may be told to preserve and pass on (supposedly) historical knowledge, and/or simply for entertainment.
Independently from their functions, legends can be grouped in different genres — mostly the following three:
- Heroic Legend: Stories about ancient heroes and their awesome deeds. These are mostly martial in nature and include, but are not limited to, monster-slaying and acts of war. Heroic legends praise warrior virtues like badassery, courage, and loyalty. As in most aristocratic societies the aristocracy identifies itself as a warrior elite, heroes of heroic legend are, with few exceptions, of noble blood. Heroic legends may (but don't have to) be tied to a specific mythology; if they do, the distinguishing line to myths (as mentioned above) can be blurry, as some of these heroes are demigods that are part human, part divine. Heroic legend may be told in various forms and media, but the "classical" genre of heroic legend is Heroic Literature.
- Religious Legend: This was the original sense of the word "legend". Legendae (which means, "things you should read") were stories about Christian Saints (mostly revolving around miracles), or non-biblical traditions about biblical characters. A book that contained these was a legendarium. But religious legend is not limited to Christianity; the concept of "holy men" and women, and stories surrounding them, exists in virtually all major religions (compare, for example, the traditions attached to boddhisattvas and arhats in Buddhism, mahatmas in Hinduism, walis in Islam, and Tzadikim in Judaism). Religious legends extol religious devotion, piety, and whatever behavior is endorsed as exemplary by the religion at hand — the genre of Christian Saints' Legends, with its focus on miracles, was much ridiculed by Protestants after the Reformation, which is when the word "legend" acquired its present-day flavor of "bullshit story".
- Folk Legend. A diverse category for legends that exist in or, really or supposedly, are directly taken from oral tradition. "Supposedly" because written sources can in turn (re-)enter the oral tradition, and there are probably quite a few "book legends" that were concocted on a writing desk to begin with. Content-wise, many folk legends are Ghost Stories; others tell of memorable Folk Heroes (accordingly the category may overlap with heroic legend). These kind of legends are often made into folk ballads. Urban Legends, a.k.a. contemporary legends, may be considered the modern day's folk legends.
When a writer makes up artificial legends, whether to flesh out a fictional setting or the background of a story, or as a purpose in itself, that is a subgenre of Mythopoeia.
Tall Tales have many similarities with legends, with the key difference that the claim to factuality in tall tales is only a playful pretense.
Examples of legends, or works presenting legend:
- The Nart Sagas
Classical (ancient Greek and Roman)
- The Achilleid
- The Aeneid
- The Thebaid
- The Trojan Cycle:
- Many works of Ancient Greek tragedy:
- The Kalevala (also includes Myth)
Hittite & Hurrian
- Popol Vuh (also Sacred Literature)
- A Description of the Northern Peoples
- Gesta Danorum
- The Icelandic Legendary Sagas, such as:
Russian & Ukrainian
- The byliny, heroic lays that often feature the bogatyrs (old times heroes)
- The Golden Legend — Jacob de Voragine's definitive legendarium of the Christian Middle Ages.
- The legend of the Battle of Clavijo
- The legend of St. Edmund of East Anglia
- The legend of Saint George
- The legend of William Tell
- Paul Bunyan and related Tall Tales.
- While Davy Crockett was a real person, many of the stories around him are legends.
- Johnny Appleseed: Like Davy Crockett, a real person surrounded by legends.