By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘mythical’ is derived from myth, which itself comes from the ancient Greek μῦθος, ‘mythos’. A myth is a traditional story which often contains supernatural elements (gods, goddesses, spirits, or divine or magical forces) and which has some significance beyond the story itself: it might be an origin story about how a nation came into being, or it might have religious significance. The mythical story of Icarus, for instance, is why it’s a bad idea to overreach oneself (in Icarus’ case, flying too close to the sun).
But mythical is a word that has come to have other meanings, and is probably more frequently applied to a widely held but untrue belief than a traditional story: for every person talking about the Greek myths or the Norse myths, there are probably fifty referring to the myth of the American dream, for example.
Below, we discuss some of the best synonyms for mythical: words which have a similar meaning and which can be used as alternatives to the word mythical.
MYTHOLOGICAL and MYTHIC are perhaps the best places to start when considering some useful synonyms for mythical, since they obviously share the same root. They are both more technical terms than mythical, and have a narrower meaning, since they tend to be used solely in the sense of ‘legendary’ (e.g., a reputation of mythic proportions), rather than as a broader synonym for ‘untrue’ (see below).
Since we mentioned LEGENDARY, it’s worth considering this useful word. As legend is a synonym for myth, it follows that legendary and mythical should be fairly synonymous. And so they are – although, as with mythological and mythic above, the word legendary tends to be confined to the original sense of mythical (i.e., referring to traditional stories).
Like mythic above, legendary is commonly used about something that is vast: something that exceeds normal expectations (e.g., he’s a legendary record-producer whose influence can be felt everywhere). The emphasis here is on talking up someone’s or something’s importance or significance, rather than dismissing it as imaginary.
Along with legend, another common synonym for myth is fable: a fictional narrative, also often containing supernatural elements, and sometimes having a moral. The stories of Aesop are a good example. Adjectives formed from this word include FABULOUS and FABLED. Although ‘fabulous’ is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘brilliant’ or ‘wonderful’, its original meaning was ‘of or relating to a fable’, because it referred to something fictional. So the more familiar meaning of fabulous came about because something fabulous often seems, as it were, too good to be true.
As for fabled, that has a similar meaning to legendary, as in so you’re the fabled Dave who I have heard so much about.
As well as fables, fiction and story have also given us some useful mythical synonyms. STORIED and STORYBOOK are both near-matches for mythical, while something that is FICTIONAL or FICTIVE (both mean ‘based in fiction rather than fact’) is also of the same level as myth. In all cases, the emphasis is on a made-up account, usually of a literary kind, that has some meaning (or, sometimes, a moral) to impart.
A myth is usually a TRADITIONAL tale, one handed down over generations, and originally existing in some oral form, before printed books became widely available. The ancient Greek and Roman myths obviously go back at least two thousand years. So traditional can sometimes be used synonymously with mythical, to describe something that has been around for so long as to attain a ‘mythical’ status. It is part of tradition, much as classic myths are.
The first literary stories many of us encounter as children are fairy tales, which share some similarities with mythic texts: they tend to be short, they often contain supernatural elements, and they frequently contain a moral of some sort. Because such stories are associated with the nursery and our early development, and because they often end happily (at least in the bowdlerised versions that became popular in Victorian nurseries), the adjectival phrase FAIRY-TALE is sometimes used to refer to their unreal qualities.
So a fairy-tale ending is a happy ending which is at odds with reality: we know such endings rarely happen in real life. This is obviously not too far removed from the meaning of mythical.
However, in addition to these more neutral or specific meanings of mythical, there is also a more informal sense of the word: mythical can also be used to mean MADE-UP or FICTITIOUS, such as Dave’s girlfriend he keeps going on is mythical because she doesn’t exist or this mythical cure-all isn’t going to work. Here, the writer (or speaker) isn’t dealing with the realm of literature or books but with other kinds of fictions, encountered in our everyday lives.
Other words which convey a similar notion of something made-up include MAKE-BELIEVE, INVENTED, IMAGINARY (such as an imaginary friend), UNREAL, NON-EXISTENT, FALSE, UNTRUE, and PRETEND (as in a pretend crisis). FANCIFUL, meanwhile, is related to the word fantasy (both are from the ancient Greek for ‘show’ or ‘make visible’): again, the implication is that something is so FAR-FETCHED as to be in the realms of supernatural stories involving dragons, fairies, and other mythical beings.
If something is mythical it didn’t actually happen, or doesn’t actually exist. So it makes sense that some antonyms for mythical would include words which refer to something that does exist: FACTUAL, GENUINE, REAL, TRUE, and ACTUAL are perhaps the leading options.