A legend (Latin, legenda, "things to be read") is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants, includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility", defined by a highly flexible set of parameters, which may include miracles that are perceived as actually having happened, within the specific tradition of indoctrination where the legend arises, and within which it may be transformed over time, in order to keep it fresh and vital, and realistic. Modern retellings of the legend of Saint George omit many of the miraculous happenings that were central to earlier versions, but which have lost credibility. Thus modern "urban legends" are quite correctly termed legends: "it happened to the brother-in-law of someone my friend's mother knew".
The distinction is carefully drawn by Karl Kerenyi in the opening pages of The Heroes of the Greeks (1959):
- "An essential difference between the legends of heroes and mythology proper, between the myths of the gods and those of the heroes, which are often entwined with them or at least border upon them, consists in this: that the latter prove to be, whether more or less, interwoven with history, with the events, not of a primaeval time which lies outside of time, but with historical time."
A clear example, which distinguishes what is myth from what is legend, is the tale of the Gordian Knot. The legend concerns Alexander the Great, who, when confronted with the ancient knot of cornel bark that secured the pole of the sacral ox-cart at Gordium in the winter of 333 BCE, severed it with a slash of his sword. The myth of the Gordian Knot is the founding myth of Gordium itself, justifying the authenticity of its line of kings.
From the moment a legend is retailed as a legend, its authentic legendary qualities begin to fade and recede: in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving transformed a local Hudson River Valley legend into a sly literary anecdote with "Gothic" overtones, which actually tended to diminish its character as genuine legend. Like metaphors, legends may be living or dead: the vital signs of a legend depend upon its being fiercely defended as true, which eliminates the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow. But compare the Voyage of Saint Brendan, and the "Black Legend" of the supposedly fanatical and cruel national character of Spain.
Legends that exceed these boundaries of "realism"— a term that has no practical application unless it is bound within particular cultural perspectives— are "fables". The talking animal formula of Aesop identifies his brief parables as fables, not legends. The parable of the Prodigal Son would be a legend if it were told as having actually happened to a specific son of a historical father. If it included an ass that gave sage advice to the Prodigal Son it would be a fable.
Legend may be transmitted orally, passed on person-to-person, or, in the original sense, through written text. Jacob de Voragine's Legenda Aurea or "The Golden Legend" comprises a series of vitae or instructive biographical narratives, tied to the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. They are presented as lives of the saints, but the profusion of miraculous happenings and above all their uncritical context are characteristics of hagiography. The Legenda was intended to inspire extemporized homilies and sermons appropriate to the saint of the day.
The word "legend" appeared in English ca 1340, transmitted from medieval Latin through French. Its first blurred extended (and essentially Protestant) sense of a nonhistorical narrative or myth was first recorded in 1613. By emphasizing the unrealistic character of "legends" of the saints, English-speaking Protestants were able to introduce a note of contrast to the "real" saints and martyrs of the Reformation, whose authentic narratives could be found in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Thus "legend" gained its modern connotations of "undocumented" and "spurious".
Legend may be interpreted for its ontological consequences and be treated as myth. To take an example, myths surrounding Cadmus, a Phoenician immigrant credited with bringing the alphabet and other Near Eastern culture to Bronze Age Greece, may have begun as a series of legends gathering around the memory of the historical founder of certain coastal cities in Greece. Explaining the origins of myth as former historical legends in this fashion is termed "euhemerism". See the entry Euhemerus for more detail.
A legend or legend fragment is a meme that propagates through a culture. It may be crystallized in a literary work that fixes it and which affects the future direction it will take: compare Hamlet (legend) and Shakespeare's Hamlet. When a legend that is rooted in a kernel of truth is so strongly affected by an ideal (perhaps of chivalry) that it conforms to expected literary conventions of behavior, it becomes Romance.
Some legends we "know" today may have their basis in historical fact. What distinguishes legend from chronicle, however, is that legend applies a structure that reveals a moral "meaning" to events, which lifts them above the meaningless repetitions and constraints of average human lives and gives them a universality that makes them worth repeating.
Conspiracy theories are similar to legends in that the linchpin of the conspiracy is usually a plausible, but unprovable secret agenda which exclusively drives the story and links otherwise unconnected happenings into a satisfying pattern.
Before the invention of the printing press, stories were passed on via oral tradition. Storytellers abounded. They learned their stock in trade, their stories, typically from an older storyteller, who might (or more usually might not) have actually been there when the "story" was "history" bardic schools .
Artificial legends are the stock-in-trade of computer gaming. See The Legend of Zelda, among numerous examples.