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Myth and Symbol

Myth and Symbol

Myths as liminal phenomena

The “reality” of myths

Analyzing liminal rites and symbolism

Trickster tales

Creation myths


Myths treat of origins but derive from transitions. By “myths” I do not, of course, mean Märchen, fairy tales, folk tales, Sagen, or legends but sacred narratives telling, as Stith Thompson writes, “of sacred beings and of semi-divine heroes and of the origins of all things, usually through the agency of these sacred beings” (1946, p. 9). Myths relate how one state of affairs became another: how an unpeopled world became populated; how chaos became cosmos; how immortals became mortal; how the seasons came to replace a climate without seasons; how the original unity of mankind became a plurality of tribes or nations; how androgynous beings became men and women; and so on. Myths are liminal phenomena: they are frequently told at a time or in a site that is “betwixt and between.”

Myths as liminal phenomena

When Arnold van Gennep generalized the processual structure of rites de passage (1909), he opened up many lines of investigation that have not as yet been fully exploited. Van Gennep suggested a threefold progression of successive ritual stages: separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation. Many structural and cultural problems are posed by the liminal stage. The individual or group undergoing rites de passage is, during the liminal period, neither here nor there but in limbo. The individual initiand is no longer the incumbent of a culturally defined social position or status but has not yet become the incumbent of another. If a whole social group is in ritual transition, there is frequently an annulment or invalidation of the distinctive arrangement of specialized and mutually dependent positions that composed its preritual structure; nor as yet has its postritual structure been anticipated. The protracted liminal periods found to be marked by collective rites in preliterate societies are not without structure; rather there is a simplification and generalization of structure. The complexities of stratification and segmentation are replaced by dyadic oppositions of instructors and instructed: the interstructural situation often may also be an instructional situation. Initiators collectively confront initiands, and among the initiands there is usually complete equality of status. Preritual distinctions of kinship, wealth, rank, or age are temporarily invalidated.

Correlated with these structural changes, the symbols of liminality frequently represent such ideas as death and birth. The loss of preritual status or structural arrangements is interpreted as “death,” the growth toward a new status or articulation as “birth” or “infancy.” The loss of status may be emblematized by ritual nudity, or the group’s social homogeneity may be emphasized by the wearing of some uniform ritual decoration or dress. The passive attitude of the male initiands may be symbolized by the wearing of female apparel. The absence of status distinctions may be shown further by the use of postures expressive of humility or by decorating the body with earth or ashes. The social invisibility of the initiands may be signified by their total or partial seclusion from the habitats and occasions of secular life, by rules enjoining them to be silent for long periods, and by strange disguises.

Liminality is thus a period of structural impoverishment and symbolic enrichment. It is essentially a period of returning to first principles and taking stock of the cultural inventory. To be outside of a particularized social position, to cease to have a specific perspective, is in a sense to become (at least potentially) aware of all positions and arrangements and to have a total perspective. What converts potential understanding into real gnosis is instruction. Instruction takes many forms: it is partly communicated through displays of sacra objects which are shown to the initiands and explained, sometimes with the aid of sacred myths; it partly takes the form of direct ethical instruction, although this is rarely the case in primitive ritual; and very often the cultural knowledge is transmitted by the recital of mythical narratives. It must be remembered that like all ritual phenomena and processes, such sacra, such gnosis, and such myths are felt by those who believe them to have ontological efficacy. They re-create or transform those to whom they are shown or told and alter the capacity of the initiand’s being so that he becomes capable of performing the tasks of the new status ahead of him. It is not simply a cognitive restructuring that takes place, nor is it solely a ritual legitimization of the initiand’s new social status; rather the rites, myths, and symbols are felt to have something akin to a salvific power—without the ontological aspect the initiand would be “lost”; he would not be able to perform even the physical acts appropriate to his new status nor to fulfill the ritual component of this new status. For example, unless a girl has been ritually “grown” into a woman, as the Bemba put it (Richards 1956), many aspects of adult sexuality will present dangers for her. Thus knowledge, including knowledge imparted by myth, “saves.”

Even where myths are not bound to rites, they have a liminal character. Most of them have a genetic or critical reference. They refer to how things came to be what they are; they are not mere inventories or rules of behavior. They further refer, directly or indirectly, to the biological life-crises of birth, mating, disease, and death. They relate also to climatic or ecological changes, which always involve a restructuring of social relationships— with the possibility of conflict and disorder. The well-known amorality of myths is intimately connected with their existential bearing. The myth does not describe what ought to be done; it expresses what must be. The rhythms and outcomes of biology and climate are both amoral and non-logical, although they have form and order. To gain power the participant in ritual or the believer in myth (who enacts its episodes in imagination by identification with its characters) must perform or feign to perform, in act or in fantasy, deeds of murder, cannibalism, adultery, or incest, since the generative processes of inner and outer nature are most directly expressed in such behavior. Liminal symbolism, both in its ritual and mythic expressions, abounds in direct or figurative transgressions of the moral codes that hold good in secular life, such as human sacrifice, human flesh eating, and incestuous unions of brother-sister or mother-son deities or their human representatives. Thus the theory that myths are paradigmatic (Eliade 1957) or that myths afford precedents and sanctions for social status and moral rules (Malinowski 1925) requires some sort of qualification. Myths and liminal rites are not to be treated as models for secular behavior. Nor, on the other hand, are they to be regarded as cautionary tales, as negative models which should not be followed. Rather are they felt to be high or deep mysteries which put the initiand temporarily into close rap-port with the primary or primordial generative powers of the cosmos, the acts of which transcend rather than transgress the norms of human secular society. In myth is a limitless freedom, a symbolic freedom of action which is denied to the norm-bound incumbent of a status in a social structure. What the initiand seeks through rite and myth is not a moral exemplum so much as the power to transcend the limits of his previous status, although he knows he must accept the normative restraints of his new status. Liminality is pure potency, where anything can happen, where immoderacy is normal, even normative, and where the elements of culture and society are released from their customary configurations and recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery. Yet this boundlessness is restricted—although never without a sense of hazard —by the knowledge that this is a unique situation and by a definition of the situation which states that the rites and myths must be told in a prescribed order and in a symbolic rather than a literal form. The very symbol that expresses at the same time restrains; through mimesis there is an acting out—rather than the acting—of an impulse that is biologically motivated but socially and morally reprehended.

The “reality” of myths

Many authorities on mythology have stressed the reality, as distinct from the fantastic or unreal aspects, of myth. Malinowski, for example, described how myth “as it exists in a savage community” is “not merely a story told but a reality lived.” It is “not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force” ([1925] 1948, pp. 100–101). Jung wrote that “the primitive mentality does not invent myths, it experiences them” Myths are “anything but allegories of physical processes.... Myths ... have a vital meaning ... not merely do they represent, they are the mental life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage” ([1909–1946] 1953, p. 314). And we find Mircea Eliade writing that myth “is always the recital of a creation; it tells how something was accomplished, began to be. It is for this reason that myth is bound up with ontology; it speaks only of realities, of what really happened, of what was fully manifested” ([1957] 1959, p. 95). Now it is true that for each of these authors, reality or experience has a different meaning. Malinowski’s primary intent was to relate the myths of the Trobriand Islanders to their social and cultural experience. Thus, myths of the emergence of clan ancestors from holes in the ground were related to actual topographical features, to the contemporary distribution of Trobriand clans, and to Trobriand kinship patterns and social stratification. By “reality” Malinowski meant that myths are charters of extant social institutions. Although they might mention fictitious beings, their details had a point-to-point correlation with social and cultural arrangements—which were real aspects of Trobriand experience. Jung, on the contrary, regarded myths not as indices of, or charters for, cultural institutions, but as “psychological realities,” as expressions of the “archetypes” or “primordial images” of the “collective unconscious.” These are real in the sense that they represent inherited forms or patterns (in the Platonic sense of ideas) present in every human being. At first these forms are without specific thought content; content is provided by the specific culture. Myths give “a local habitation and a name” to these general forms and give them “reality” by manifesting them to consciousness.

By “reality” Eliade means “sacred reality,” for, he writes, “it is the sacred that is pre-eminently the real” ([1957] 1959, p. 95). His analysis hinges on a distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred for him is sui generis; like Rudolf Otto’s das Heilige, the sacred presents itself as something “like nothing human or cosmic ... a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ (or ‘profane’) realities ... saturated with being ... equivalent to a power” Myth is a “sacred history” (and hence “saturated with being ... and power”), and “to relate a sacred history is equivalent to revealing a mystery. For the persons of the myth are not human beings: they are gods or culture heroes, and for this reason their gesta constitute mysteries; man could not know their acts if they were not revealed to him” (ibid., p. 95). We cannot get behind this theological language to the processes underlying myth. The sacred or sacred realm, for Eliade, is inaccessible to us except insofar as it chooses to reveal itself to us in the analogies of mythic or ritual symbolism.

Thus, for Malinowski, “reality,” as an attribute of myth, is cultural, for Jung psychological, and for Eliade spiritual (as it is indeed for our preliterate interpreters). If, however, myth is merely a charter or precedent for the continuance of rites and customs, it has some weird and numinous features; if it is a bundle of archetypes, it also has close reference to specific cultural and social institutions and relations; while if it is “an irruption of the sacred, of creative energy into the world ... a surplus of ontological substance” (ibid., p. 97), it has a variety of profane cultural and psychological interconnections.

Analyzing liminal rites and symbolism

The social and cultural context

Possibly the best approach to the problem of cracking the code of myth is the via negativa represented by the liminal phase in initiation rites. But to analyze this adequately, we must take heed of all that Malinowski says concerning the necessity of studying such rites in the live context in which they occur. This context is in every given instance a social field: a structure of social positions and a set of cultural institutions and mechanisms. The specific initiation rite or myth must also be examined as a component of a total system of religious beliefs and practices. Its symbols and episodes, subdivided into such units as signiftcata, stages, words, sentences, motifs, personae, objects and relationships, and the principles and themes underlying these, must be related to those found in other parts of the total religious system. Next, the properties and structure of the religious system must be compared and contrasted with the properties and structure of other cultural subsystems, such as the kinship system, the economic system, and the legal and political systems. In other words, we have to seek a part of the meaning of a myth in the idiosyncrasy of its cultural context, a context of many dimensions. Nor must we neglect the dynamics of that culture: we must see the rite and the myth as phases in social processes, as being performed or narrated at significant points in the seasonal cycle, at individual or group life-crises, at times of natural catastrophe, such as famine, drought, flood, and epidemic, or with reference to crises brought on by human law-breaking or “sinful” action. Before we can say with any certainty what this or that liminal phenomenon is, we must be able to state what it is not. It is not the state of cultural affairs that precedes it or that which follows. But since it is, in some sense, the antithesis of what precedes it, we must know the structure of that cultural state. And since it is, in some sense, a preparation for the state that is to follow, we must know the properties, conditions, and structural features of that state too. Liminality strains toward universality but never realizes it; a specific culture surrounds it in space and time and invades its innermost sanctum. Its very sacra bear the hallmarks of a particular historically derived culture.

Psychogenic factors

Nevertheless, simply because liminality, and the sacred myth which is one of its phenomena, does so strain toward universality, toward the dissolution of specific structural arrangements, there is a rich manifestation of psychical contents otherwise withheld from expression by a preoccupation with norm-governed or pragmatic activities. In many cultures the life-crises of birth, puberty, marriage, and death have been made the occasions of initiation ritual, and since these crises closely concern the experiences and relationships of the nuclear family, it is possible that Freudians and Neo-Freudians can shed much light on the unconscious semantic components of liminal symbolism, especially insofar as these may represent “the return of the repressed.” The Jungians, whose therapy rests on the interpretation of symbols ejected from the “collective un-conscious” under the pressure of an adult crisis, might discover in the relationship between ritual and crises found in primitive societies some justification for the use of their analytical procedures.

Jung himself uncompromisingly states that myths are first and foremost psychic manifestations that represent the nature of the psyche. All the myths concerned with occurrences of nature, such as summer and winter, the phases of the moon, and the rainy seasons, are definitely not allegories of these objective experiences, nor are they to be understood as explanations of the sunrise, the sunset, and other natural phenomena. Rather, they are symbolic expressions of the inner and unconscious psychic drama that becomes accessible to human consciousness by projection— that is, by being mirrored in the events of nature (Jung 1909–1946). This bluntly psychogenic explanation of myth denies to culture any formative role in its symbolism. It also excludes the intellectualist variety of psychogenic explanation favored today by Lévi-Strauss, who holds that myths, and other religious manifestations, contain ideas that “give access to the mechanism of thought.” Myths “pertain to the understanding, and the demands to which it responds and the way in which it tries to meet them are primarily of an intellectual kind” ([1962] 1963, p. 104). Levi-Strauss finds in primitive religious phenomena “the emergence of a logic operating by means of binary oppositions and coinciding with the first manifestations of symbolism”; and in metaphor—which plays an important role in myth—he finds “a primary form of discursive thought” (p. 102). His emphasis is primarily on the “logic of oppositions and correlations, exclusions and inclusions, compatibilities and incompatibilities,” which for him “explains the laws of association” found in mythic and ritual symbolism and discourse. When Levi-Strauss analyzes myth, his main aim is to reveal the austere structure of this logic behind its symbolic and bizarre integument.

Depth psychologists generally would demur at the stress on logic in this realm; they hold that in unconscious thinking, logically incompatible ideas can coexist and even reinforce one another in a single situation, while symbols may have multiple disparate referents. The followers of Pareto, too, would assert that nonlogical or nonrational symbols must be distinguished from logical symbols, constituting a class whose members derive both form and semantic content from biotic and cultural processes of a noncognitive type; logical symbols are conceived in the conscious mind, as Pallas was in Zeus’s head. Nonlogical symbols represent the impress on consciousness of factors external or subliminal to it. Such symbols may subsequently become objects of reflection, and from them many logical symbols may be derived by abstraction. But they are not generated by the consciousness, nor are they mutually interrelated in terms of the rules of logic. Many mythic and ritual symbols belong to the class of nonlogical symbols and cannot therefore be analyzed as though they operated by the rules of logic.

The cultural dynamics of ritual

Many of these dilemmas may be resolved if we take the cultural dynamics of ritual as our point of departure. Here we find more than the distinction between the profane and the sacred. In the liminal stage of rites de passage, we find not merely the sacred but the most sacred. And paradoxically this is where we also find the most human, indeed, the ail-too- human. Particularly do we discover in this stage a crucial anchoring of ideas and symbols in the human body and in its somatic processes. The body (with its unconscious rhythms and orectic processes) is viewed as the epitome or microcosm of the universe. It becomes the metaphor or model which illustrates most vividly all other profane types of regularity—of nature, of culture, of society, and of thought. In the profane or secular realm—even though in multifunctional communities this too is saturated with religious ideas and imagery—utility and rationality guide behavior and lead to the classification of phenomena and processes, both of nature and society. This rational categorization of reality enables the human community to cope efficiently with the problems of obtaining its food supply and maintaining social order. These classifications “spill over” into the sacred realm and are particularly in evidence in the separation and aggregation phases of ritual, in which the sacred has to come to terms, so to speak, with the profane, where the two realms interdigitate. But in the liminal phase of separation and secret instruction in gnostic sacerrima, the nonlogical and biopsychical modes of thinking and acting prevail. The behavior in such phases is “inspired by things as they are and not by things as they ought to be” (Horton 1963, p. 98).

Trickster tales

In the liminal period we see naked, unaccommodated man, whose nonlogical character issues in various modes of behavior: destructive, creative, farcical, ironic, energetic, suffering, lecherous, submissive, defiant, but always unpredictable. One class of myths which throws into sharp relief many aspects of liminality is that represented by the widely distributed trickster tales. A considerable scholarly literature has accumulated on tricksters (see, for example, Radin 1955; Dumezil 1948; Wescott 1962; Herskovits 1938). They include the Greek god Hermes, the Norse god Loki, the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegba, the Fon Legba, the Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga, and many others. Trick-sters are clearly liminal personalities (threshold men or edge men). Joan Wescott, for example, describes the Yoruba Eshu-Elegba in the following terms: “[Eshu] is ... described as a homeless wandering spirit, and as one who inhabits the market-place, the crossroads, and thresholds of houses. He is present whenever there is trouble and also wherever there is change and transition” (1962, p. 337).

In very similar terms Hermes, as the messenger of the gods, inhabits crossroads, open public places, and doorways, and is associated with commerce. He is the invincible child, well equipped with the powers of nature and instinct. Most tricksters have an uncertain sexual status: on various mythical occasions Loki and Wakdjunkaga transformed themselves into women, while Hermes was often represented in statuary as a hermaphrodite. On other occasions tricksters appear with exaggerated phallic characteristics: Hermes is symbolized by the herm or pillar, the club, and the ithyphallic statue; Wakdjunkaga has a very long penis which has to be wrapped around him and put over his shoulder in a box; Eshu is represented in sculpture as having a long curved hairdress carved as a phallus. In most trickster tales there are many scatological and even coprophagous episodes, exemplifying what Wescott has called the “katabolic nature of the trickster.”.

Tricksters are multiform and ambiguous. For example, myths about Eshu describe him as firstborn and as last-born, as old man and as child. In these four roles the individual normally has privileged freedom from some of the demands of the social code.

Other traits ascribed to tricksters include: combined black and white symbolism, aggression, vindictiveness, vanity, defiance of authority, willfulness, individualism, indeterminacy of stature (sometimes tall, sometimes dwarfish), destructiveness, creativeness (the Winnebago trickster transforms the pieces of his broken phallus into plants and flowers for men—hence he is both single and multiple), and libido without procreative outcome.

These liminal entities share an antinomian character. They behave as though there were no social or moral norms to guide them. Self-will, caprice, and lust impel them. In a rather different sense from Eliade’s, they are “the opposite of the profane,” if we include in the latter the notions of moral and jural order. Yet though wholly other, they are perfectly familiar to mankind, even jocularly so, for they represent what everyone would secretly like to do. Since their energies are untrammeled and unchanneled, they are supererogatory, and their surplus becomes the source of new substances and beings. They are raw, undomesticated bodily and collective power, undefinable, uncontainable, and compounded equally of polymorphous libido and aggression. It is true that in certain trickster myth cycles (especially in North America), the later tales describe the structuring of the trickster’s life and activities: he marries, settles down, has children, obeys kinship and affinal norms, etc., but here he resembles the initiand who leaves the liminal scene and is “aggregated” once again to society. The unpredictable liminal persona becomes predictable again in terms of the norms and classifications of profane society. The interstructural transition stage is over. Creative chaos has become created cosmos.

Creation myths

But the concept of limen includes not only the Dionysian and polymorphous aspects of human normlessness; it also includes the notions of the mystical and the ascetical. In this regard, there is usually a feeling that the human cultural order is a kind of painted veil over a deeper, superhuman order, the mysteries of which begin to be accessible only to those who have been stripped during initiation of profane status and profane rank. The humility and discipline of the novice, his self-abnegation and self-denial, and his acceptance of the absolute authority of his instructors win for him true gnosis. This set of liminal attitudes is associated with a very different type of mythology than that represented by the trickster cycles. To this type belong such creation tales and chants as the Hebrew Genesis, the Greek Theogony, the Zoroastrian, Gnostic, and Mandaean cosmogonies, the Fon cosmogony, the Quiche Mayan Popul Vuh, the Norse Elder Edda, and the Hawaiian Kumulipo, or creation chant. These all reveal how the One became the Many, how in a series of orderly stages chaos became a cosmos of many dimensions and levels; most of these tell also how sin and death came into the world, and thus they provide a theodicy. These great myths are in many societies recited during liminal periods, the times that are rich in ritual. Every myth of this sort, Eliade holds, “shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment—an island, a species of plant, a human institution ... to tell how a thing was born is to reveal an irruption of the sacred into the world, and the sacred is the ultimate cause of all real existence” ([1957] 1959, p. 97).

At first glance, it might seem that these architectonic masterpieces have little in common with the trickster myths, in which “realities” come into being as the result of caprice or accident. Yet in many of these cosmogonies and theogonies, the deities and heroes mate incestuously, devour one another, and clearly transgress human and cultural norms of justice and equity. By these acts, despite priestly editing, the liminal character of the myth betrays itself. And, indeed, in most of these cycles of great myths, trickster figures may be found peeping grotesquely forth like the gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals.

Myths are not merely a guide to culture, although they are this as well; they point to the generative power underlying human life, a power which from time to time oversteps cultural limits. Surely these huge symbolizations of incest and crime at the level of the deity are more significant than Ruth Benedict supposed when she described their Zufii manifestations as “distortions” due to “various fanciful exaggerations and compensatory mechanisms” (1935, pp. xx-xxi). They represent a return to the deep sources of psychosomatic experience in a legitimized situation of freedom from cultural constraints and social classifications. These relatively short “liminal instants” must counterbalance the long days of utilitarian and culture-bound experience. At the root of the rational is the nonrational, which gives it its meaning, and liminality is that root. Nature (and indeed spirit, the intelligent and immaterial part of man) is still the mentor of culture and the source of its often unpredictable changes. In myth we see nature and spirit at their shaping work—and this in the liminal moment in and out of time.

Victor W. Turner

[See also Folklore; Pollution; Religion; Ritual; and the biographies of Gennep; Jung; Malinowski; Mauss; Radin.]


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