In common parlance, the stories of Greek and Roman deities and heroes are indiscriminately referred to as myths and legends. But the two aren't the same and can be differentiated based on factors such as reasons behind them, the stories behind them and the truth they hold.
The dictionary meaning of myth is
- a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, esp. one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
- stories or matter of this kind: realm of myth.
- any invented story, idea, or concept: e.g. His account of the event is pure myth.
- an imaginary or fictitious thing or person.
- an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.
The dictionary meaning of a legend is
- a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.
- the body of stories of this kind, esp. as they relate to a particular people, group, or clan: e.g. the winning of the West in American legend.
Myths are generally referred to as traditional stories occuring in a timeless past.
They may involve supernatural elements and are beyond the frontiers of logic. Myths may also give a religious explanation. Myths have their chronology of events and cannot be related to present timelines. They may also be imaginary things.
Legends, however, are stories about real people who are famous for doing something brave or extraordinary. Legends may be told upon topics of historical importance. It is not an explanation of something nor a symbolic narrative, they're based on an event.
edit Examples of myths and legends
It is a Greek myth that Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, the chief god, and gave it to humans so that they could keep themselves warm. To punish him, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where his liver was eaten by an eagle every day but grew again every night. There is nothing to prove it and we do not even have a time frame to show so it is a myth.
A common contemporary myth is that a cat crossing the road in front of you brings bad luck. This is a myth as it not based on any solid evidence and is an unproven thing.
Myths are often stories of supernatural beings and of a timeless past so there is no objective proof. Myths may go on to explaing things like: The evolution of man, he presence of the sun etc but since there isn't any subjective truth to support them. They also do not have any time frame attached to them to prove their time line.
Legends are stories based on historical events or a person and hence usually have a time frame to them. They're said to be stories about real people and not supernatural beings.
Legends can be related to a certain chronology of events with reference to present events while myths cannot be organised into present day chronology of events.
Myths are frequently used synonymously with fiction.Since there is no supporting structure for a myth, they're more often than not considered fiction. The word Mythology has been coined for myths related to religious or super-natural myths. Other common day myths or unproved beliefs are considered untrue or fiction.
Legends describe real people and real events and hence are facts though distorted. Legends are told and re-told and hence newer versions of the same fact have been spoken. Though legends may be distorted they are said to be based on facts.