Friday, 11 April 2014

The Making of Myths

The Making of Myths

I really love reading myths, especially when they are used to tell great tales in the way Homer used them, or, more recently, Tolkien or C S Lewis. However, I also love looking behind myths and speculating why they have been used and why they have become important.

For instance, did you know that a connection between various tartans and various Scottish clans is a fairly recent phenomenon? Or that white wedding, and most of what is connected to them, only caught on after Queen Victoria’s grand wedding?

Myths: a historical perspective… 

Myths are often used 

* to assert a new identity, or perhaps reinforce a regional or ethnic identity. 

Many people believe that each of the tartan (plaid) patterns worn by Scottish Highlanders corresponds to a particular clan and that kilts made of this fabric have served as the uniforms and emblems of that clan since time immemorial. As the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out that simply isn't true. It seems the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture was cooked up in the 19th century. 

Professor Halil Berktay from Turkey compares some new national myths to those of a child who believes that their parents couldn't possibly have had sex, and that they were brought to their parents by a stork. He says often these kind of ‘immaculate conception’ myths are applied the the birth of a nation.

* to appeal to a romantic, sacred, or class-connected, sensibility 

The custom of the "traditional" wedding (the elaborate church ceremony, the white dress, etc.) was concocted in the 19th century. It was Queen Victoria who had the first ‘white wedding’. For most of the history of Christendom a wedding  conducted at home without the benefit of clergy.

* to deflect attention from a national misdemeanor

Turkey became a modern state in 1923, assembled from the ethnic patchwork of what remained of the Ottoman Empire. The official version is kept under lock and key, and writers can still be punished for trying to open it. 

The Turkish grand narrative turns to a very large extent on how great powers of Imperialism kept hounding and persecuting the Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire and that eventually those that were left had to wage a glorious nationalist struggle against them and against plots to partition them. But the Armenian genocide, the tragic uprooting and deportation of thousands, is not something that sits well with this narrative of Turkish victimisation and suffering.

* to extend a country’s borders and claim what once belonged to them

The Greater Greece

The early 20th-century attempts by modern Greece to extend its boundaries into Turkey and reclaim the reach of Ancient Greece, which has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and bitter enmity between the two nations.
You can often hear expressed in Limnos a ‘Greater Greece’ worldview. This is not a modern world view, but as an Indian philosopher, Ashis Nandy, writes ‘All myths are morality tales’ and so such a view probably involves a refusal to separate a remembered telling of the past from its present day ethical meaning. But, sympathetically he points out that it may be important for a people ‘not to remember the past, objectively, clearly, or in its entirety.’ 

Myths: a modern questioning

Ancient History

A peaceful, matriarchal society or one that had human sacrifices?

The ancient palace of Knossos itself is instantly recognizable with its squat red columns, ceremonial staircases, and "throne rooms," it is the second most visited of all archaeological sites in Greece. But none of those columns are ancient; they are all restorations (or, in his words, ‘reconstitutions’) by Evans. In fact the palace ‘enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever erected on the island’!

Though the story of Knossos is an ongoing one. Later archaeologists at first questioned Evans constructions, and the latest archaeology actually has come to support some of Evans theories.

In Politics Today

We find that many current politicians are trying to reinvent myths. While many ordinary people are very wary of this there are some who are willing to be indoctrinated into a particular view of their country. The reason maybe that they are immigrants, uprooted peoples who want to flourish in a new homeland, others are just happy to embrace a gloriously successful history of the dominant culture.

Such a mythic histories is not necessarily ‘all bad’. Modern myths are sometimes a way to protect people from old wounds, which possibly should not be reopened just yet. They can also offer a way to accept sudden changes; a way of internalizing slowly a modern map of the world.

These histories, however, are better for occasionally being unpicked and the arts: films, novels, plays do just this. (I’m pretty sure that is what those good story tellers like Homer, Tolkien and Lewis were doing.)

The American Example 

They have devised a mythology based upon their particular view of democracy and business. This is often mythologized as a ‘Christian view of the world’ but can, if told with great confidence, and without any sense of ambiguity, ignore anyone else’s stories and values. 

And so it is often America’s films, novels and plays that offer important and alternative views of their own myths.

Some Books and Articles

Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History
Ashis Nandy, The Romance of the State
Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism
Trevor-Roper’s essay, ‘The Invention of History: The Highland Tradition
Sabrina Tavernise, article in the New York Times. ‘In the Bosporus, a Scholar Tells of Sultans, Washerwomen and Snakes’

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