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Definition Essay Mythology

Vlad Petre Glaveanu
University of Bucharest

Myths are “the archetypal model of all creations, no matter of the plan which they relate to: biological, psychological, spiritual. The main function of the myth is that of establishing exemplar models in all the important human actions”.
Mircea Eliade

Greek mythology doesn’t resume to the period of Antiquity. It can be found in other epochs (Renaissance and Classicism), other contexts (history and art) and other discourses (scientific and philosophical). The key to understand this “spiritual longevity” lies in myths. As a concept, the myth has known over 500 definitions in about 25 centuries (Topor, 2000); its etymology leads us to (of course) a Greek word, mithos, which means “a fabulous story”. The myth “reveals something that has already been completely manifested, and this manifestation is at the same time creative and exemplar, because it is the support for a structure of the real as well as a human behavior” (Eliade, 1998, p.10-11). Throughout history there has been developed an authentic hermeneutics of myths, because they are an eternal “source of inspiration” (Auregan, Palayret, 1998, p.9). The explanation, in Aristotle’s opinion, is very simple: “the one who loves myths, loves, to a certain degree, wisdom” (Vladutescu, 1984, p.7).

Mythpsychology, a new dynamic branch of Modern Psychology

The enormous contribution of ancient Greeks to the progress of philosophy, natural sciences and arts, can’t be contested. Unfortunately, the role they played in the history of psychology is mentioned only briefly. Very often philosophers are quoted (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato), as well as Aristotle’s theory about the soul: “De anima” being seen as “the first systematic book of psychological analysis” (Manzat, 2003, p.12). In spite all this, the most important Greek “producer of psychology” has been avoided: mythology. Greek myths are a vast domain of research for disciplines such as: history, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, occultism (astrology), art (literature, painting, sculpture, music); the strongest bond is settled between mythology and religion, with its magical or ritual practices (Sommer, 1969). Therefore, we can understand better the diversity of dimensions ancient Greek myths have:

  • literary (the expedition of the Argonauts)
  • historic (The Trojan War)
  • esoteric (the orphic mysteries)
  • initiatory (the voyage of Ulysses)
  • moral (Daedal and Icar)
  • psychological (the story of Oedipus)
  • philosophic (the legend of cosmogony)
  • social (the ages of humanity)

As we can observe, the psychological “ingredient” of myths can’t be ignored; it is ever present as an essential part. Between myth and psychology the bounds are numerous and thigh and this lead to the development of a psychology of myths (mythpsychology). The psychological interpretation finds in myths an extraordinary material, the perfect occasion to separate the setting from the object, the details from the essence, or, in psychoanalytic language, the hidden from the noticeable. What may be confusing is the multitude of significations seen in myths by different psychologists (Topor, 2000): expression of the archetypes (Jung), form of language (Levi-Strauss), cultural reality (W. Wundt) etc.

Extremely interesting is the initiative of Paul Diel (1966, p.40) to associate every important divinity with a feature: “the spirit is Zeus; the harmony of needs: Apollo; the intuitive inspiration: Pallas Athena; the act of forcing back: Hades etc. The impulse of evolving (as essential need) is represented by the hero; the inner conflict is represented by the fight against the monsters of degradation”. This point of view agrees with that of the psychologists Rudica and Costea (2003, p.8): “all great mythological creations describe, at the level of common psychological sense, the entire dramaturgy of our inner life”.

As a synthesis of all this opinions, we can observe that there are, from a psychological point of view, three levels at which we can understand every myth:

At the first level, the formal one, the narration in itself is important, as a succession of events that leads to a specific end. The second and third levels, much more valuable for psychology, have as a fundament the act of interpretation. “The myth as evidence” is related strictly to its “creator” (in this context, a community or nation). Instead, “The myth as truth” goes beyond the geographical, cultural and historical borders. We are talking, of course, about the psychological truth, the universal signification, the one that reveals something about the human been in itself. Such an analysis is frequent in psychology, being related to “great names” like Sigmund Freud, who believed in the universality (afterwards contested) of the famous Oedipus complex (Sillamy, 2000).

In the present essay we will focus on the second level of interpretation, less noticed, but, as we want to demonstrate, very useful. At a general level, the myth offers us the chance to investigate the conception ancient communities had about the human soul. In other words, this essay is dedicated to the attempt of reconstructing the psychological knowledge of ancient Greeks from their mythology.

We must clarify that the psychology of myths doesn’t resume to Greco-Roman Mythology but also myths of other cultures: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Celtic, Hebrew, Chinese, Germans, Thracian, Dacian, Indian, etc.

The Pantheon of Ancient Psychology

The psychology we’re talking about in this section isn’t a “didactic” one and has a poor (if not an absent) systematization. It is, instead, dynamic, complex, and, surprisingly, real.

“As in the case of all polytheist religions, the Greek myths talk about the origin of the world and of humans, as well as the actions of Gods and heroes” (Naudin, Cuq, 2001, p.20). The legend of cosmogony is, often, a story about “the birth” of psychological and behavioral manifestations. “The Night gave birth to Moros (the collapse), then Hypnos (the sleep) and Oneiroi (the dreams), as well as a multitude of evil Gods: the Vengeance, the Fraud, the Haste, the Oldness, the Argue, from which appeared: the Trouble, the Forgetfulness, the Hunger, the Disease, the Fight, the Murder, the War, the Slaughter, the Dissension, the Lie and Words with double meaning, the Injustice and the Oath. In the service of Olympian Gods there were: the Hours (representing the idea of order and regularity), Moira (faith), Nemesis (the reward for injustice), the Caryatides (the idea of elegance), the Muses (the idea of art), Iris, Hebe (youth) and Ganymede (the beautiful servant of Gods)” (Stan, Rus, 1991, p.112-113). Some sources also mention Momos, “the God that stands for jokes and irony” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.192).

Even the main ages find a correspondent in the being of certain Gods: Hermes is the eternal child, smart and creative, “the heroes are associated with the rituals of spiritual initiation of the adolescents” (Eliade, 1992, p.282). Hebe is the youth, married with Heracles (“victories are almost always related to youth”, Mitru, 1996, vol. II, p.62), Zeus symbolizes the maturity as an age associated with power, equilibrium and ability to lead, Cronos represents the end of our evolution, oldness, the God of death and time.

From the start we can’t ignore the determinist vision of ancient Greeks concerning psychical manifestations (a conception which derivates from their general belief in universal order and predestination). The psychic, along with the body, is under the influence of natural laws. Craving for universal harmony (won by defeating the giant Tifon with the help of Hermes – intelligence), ancient Greeks valued equilibrium and psychological normality. To oppose these is a crime leading to some sort of punishment. Prometheus, the prototype of genius and of an unthinkable braveness, was severely punished by the Gods.

Insanity, as a mind disorder, knows a large area of representations. About its origin, in the majority of cases, the ancient Greeks invoked the fault (personal, that of a member of the family or the ancestors – nowadays the idea of “bad” hereditary baggage ) of offending the Gods by egoism, negligence or injustice. For the error committed intentionally the term used is hybris (for example, Ixion), and for the unintentional fault, the term is hamartia (the typical example here is that of Oedipus).

The divinities from Greek myths associated with mental illness or disorder are, as a result, extremely numerous, related to the emotions of the mad person and the reason of his/her misery:

  • Hekate, infernal goddess of the night. Represented as having three heads (symbol of the impossibility to escape your own fears); she waits for travelers at crossroads, “pushing them to despair and death” (Hamann, 2004, p.148). She corresponds to the unconscious fears of every person.
  • Erinies, the Greek name for Furies. “From the Antiquity, they started to be identified with conscience. Brought “inside” the mind, they symbolize the remorse, the feeling of guilt, the self-destruction of the person that feels it is impossible to be forgiven” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21). The correspondence with the Eumenides reveals a complex psychological dynamics. “This evolution is related with that of the conscience, which first forbids and after that punishes. The Erinies can transform into Eumenides, favorable divinities, when reason brings the morbid conscience to a better appreciation of human acts” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.21).
  • The Gorgons, three monstrous sisters that inspired fear; they were synonymous with the ugliness of the soul, symbol of degradation. “Euryale represents sexual perversity, Stheno – social perversity, Medusa symbolizes the spiritual need to evolve turned into arrogant stagnation” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p.105).
  • The Harpies are similar to the Erinies as signification and consequences, but they have a more general meaning. “The Harpies symbolize bad habits – the obsessions generated by craving and also the remorse; the wind that carries them is generated by the spirit” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. II, p. 120).
  • Hydra, the legendary snake with nine heads, continues the analogy with the lust that devours the soul, taking it one step further: “everything that gets in touch with depravity or comes from it ruins or is ruined” (Chevalier, 1999, vol. II, p.129).
  • The Bacchants or Menades, servants of Dionysus, have, because of their rituals, a complex symbolism, being in direct connection with hysteria, drunkenness, perversity.
  • The Nymphs remind us of “a superstition referring to the madness generated by any form that raises from water; the feeling of both attraction and terror” (Elit, 1964, p.178).

Ancient people have noticed the dual nature of humans, expressed in the myth of the Dioscures. “Pollux (the soul) can’t live his terrestrial experiences without Castor (the body)” (Ciuperca, 1998, p.18). As to the existence of conscience and unconscious in our being, the ancient Greeks not only have guessed it, but they also created some suggestive metaphors concerning it: passing to the world of Hades, the fight between Perseu and Medusa, Tezeu and the Minotaur, the centaurs as union of contrasts. “Apollo’s victory upon Python is the triumph of reason upon instinct, the conscience upon the unconscious” (Chevalier, 1994, vol. III, p.144).

But, even best represented in Greek mythology, are the antagonism and complementarities between rational and emotional, by “couples of contraries” like: Athena – Ares, Athena – Poseidon, Apollo – Dionysus. In this context, we can clearly notice the Greek preference for reason, order, Logos. Therefore, “Athena is the worst enemy of Ares, which she defeats in the famous battle of the Gods” (Eliade, 1992, p.277), and so wisdom defeats anger and brute force (the mother of the Goddess, Metis, is “Prudence” in itself). In the same way, Athena wins the capital-city from Poseidon, God of the irrational, sudden and violent gestures, monstrous phantasms. The symbolic gesture of domesticating the horse offered by Poseidon to the Athenians signifies the reshaping, with the help of the intellect, of what is natural and unrefined. The capacity of thinking to help us adapt and evolve is best represented by the image of the caduceus (belonging to Hermes, a God associated with intelligence, agility, wisdom): the two snakes are the alchemic symbol of the union of contrasts, conciliation and creative synthesis.

Zeus married “Metis, whose name means idea. From this union Athena was born, growing in Zeus’s head, from where she jumped into the world” (Hamann, 2004, p.296). This is the way ancient Greeks connected instinctively the process of thinking with the head and, implicitly, the brain. Humorists, in exchange, view it as the capacity of the cognitive labor, the genesis of an idea (Athena), to generate head-aches (for Zeus, her father, or, in other words, the “author”). In conclusion, Athena “symbolizes, most of all, psychological creation, the synthesis, the socialized intelligence” (Virel, 1965, p.104). Therefore, the words of Horatius, the poet, remained famous: “Tu nihil invita dices faciesve Minerva” – “Nothing will you be able to say or do without the help of Minerva (Athena)” (Mitru, 1996).

About the “pair” Apollo – Dionysus (thought by Nietzsche in relation to the philosophy of culture) we can think of as “the harmony of reason” versus “the experience of ecstasy”. Dionysus, God of drunkenness and mystic, “symbolizes the surpass of inhibitions, repressions” (Chevalier, 1994, p.449).

But the opposition between reason and emotion isn’t always seen as a conflict. The symbol of perfection, the Hermaphrodite, the one that integrates the masculine and the feminine, is, as its name demonstrates, the son of the intellect (Hermes) and affectivity (Aphrodite). More than this, the respect for and importance of Aphrodite, Goddess of love, in Greek mythology is obvious. “The sexual act is the specific domain of Aphrodite, which she inspires and protects” (Eliade, 1992, p.280). “Her opposite” is Artemis, a virgin Goddess. “Greeks have seen in her eternal virginity the indifference towards love. In the tragedy of Euripides (Hippolyt), Artemis herself states her hate for Aphrodite” (Eliade, 1992, p.280).

The Goddess is, like all feelings, primordial, feared by Gods, capable even to give life (Galateea). She wins the apple of Discord because love comes first before power (Hera) and wisdom (Athena). The eternal lover of the Goddess is Ares (whose cohort is formed by: Enyo – the destruction, Eris – the dispute, Deimos – terror and Phobos – fear). Inspiring metaphor of the ancient: the union between Aphrodite (feminine and spiritual side) and Ares (the masculine and carnal side) generated Harmonia (joining of contrasts) and Eros (passion). About Eros (Cupid for Romans), the myths say that “his arrows are of two kinds: ones made of gold, soaked in honey, others made of lead, soaked in poison” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.86). Love is joy and also soreness, just as the affective processes are characterized by polarity and mobility. “The ancient artists presented Eros riding a lion. This way they showed that feelings can tame any being regardless of how cruel it is” (Mitru, 1996, vol. I, p.179).

In the end, we must mention the appreciation of ancient Greeks for creation, talent and art. The legend says that “Zeus united with Mnemosyne, Goddess of memory, generated the nine muses” (Cordoneanu, 1998, p.195), metaphor of creation by inspired use of gained experience. In any case, music is an atribut of the Gods, proof to that being the lire of Apollo (solar God, protector of the muses), Pan’s pipe and the sublime music of Orpheus, that calmed down even infernal forces – a symbol of revealing the products of our unconscious with the help of art. As a fundament of creation stands the fantasy (associated with Pegasus) and the act of defeating all doubts, falsity and lies (the symbolic fight between Pegasus and Belerofon against Chimera). But originality isn’t an exclusive divine feature. “Thetis, the primary, fertile force, became the wife of a mortal (Peleu), and this symbolizes the fact that the creative potential can’t be put to use without the help of human intelligence” (Hamann, 2004, p.149).

From Antiquity to Modern Psychology

The majority of psychological ideas ancient Greeks had (now “taken” from their mythology) are not lost, but found (as we demonstrated), maybe in a different form, in modern scientific psychology. Even more, this psychological approach to mythology has often proved to be more than “literature”, but a valid, useful investigation, capable to generate new concepts and theories.

Because of the well-known anthropomorphism of the Greek Gods, it was possible to create famous typologies, such as “the character in eight planetary types” (Jues, 2003, p.52), basset on a number of four oppositions (Mars – Venus, Earth – Mercury, Jupiter – Saturn, Sun – Moon).

Mythology isn’t dead. ” Gnothi se auton, or, in a Latin more familiar form, Noscere te ipsum: know yourself. The old dictum written at the entrance of the Delphi temple seems more present than ever” (Cotrobescu, 1999, p.678). Myths offer us the way to reach the essence, a way to eternity, to the self.

Even the origin of the word psychology leads us to a myth: Psyche and her lover, Eros. “This allegory has a meaning. Psyche, in the Greek language means soul. But the soul rises only through love, Eros, and ends up in Olympus, the place of eternal happiness” (Mitru, 1996, p.179). The psychic is characterized by feeling, life and torment. So, psychology represents, from the mythological point of view, more than just science or knowledge. Psychology is the study of the human soul in search of love.


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For a long time I avoided using the word myth because it means so many different things to different people. Academic experts on myth debate heatedly about what a myth is and how it functions in human life. In fact, with so many conflicting meanings and so much debate, some scholars have declared the word meaningless and abandoned it altogether.

But I have decided to write about myth because no other single word captures this absolutely essential aspect of our society, or any society. As I understand the term and use it here, a myth has several basic qualities. First, it is a a story, told either explicitly or implicitly.

Second, when a myth works or is alive — that is, when some group of people accept it as valid and meaningful — it provokes a powerful response from those people because it relies on vivid, evocative symbols to tell the tale. When words or images function as symbols they affect us both intellectually and emotionally, both consciously and unconsciously. They communicate several different, often divergent, sometimes even contradictory, meanings simultaneously. That’s why they evoke such a strong response. When many symbols are woven together in a myth they evoke even stronger response.

Third, a living myth expresses something fundamental about the worldview, values, and lifestyle of the people who accept it. A myth communicates what they assume to be true about:

  • how the world and human life really is (their worldview)
  • how people should live in the world (their values)
  • how people do in fact live in the world (their lifestyle)
  • how their worldview, values, and lifestyle ideally fit together. A myth says, in effect, “we live (or ought to live) the way we do because the world is the way it is. And because the world is the way it is, living as we do (or ought to) is uniquely satisfying and fulfilling.”  (This formulation comes from the prominent anthropologist Clifford Geertz.)

Fourth, a living myth gives the people who accept it a way to cope with the difficulties of life. when a myth is working, it creates an idealized picture of whatever aspects of life it talks about. It gives an impression of human life and the world as relatively coherent, harmonious, sensible, and therefore meaningful, so that life seems worth living.

Sometimes a myth denies that there is any conflict or contradiction in the world. Sometimes it accepts but explains conflicts, contradictions, and the suffering they cause. Sometimes it offers no explanation at all but gives a powerful sense that life is good and worthwhile despite the conflicts, the contradictions, and the suffering.

When people compare (consciously or unconsciously) a myth’s idealized image with the empirical reality of their lives, they can easily ignore much of the reality, hold on to the ideal instead, and in that way find great intellectual as well as emotional satisfaction. The satisfaction comes in part from the conviction that, while life and the world are always changing, the myth is a story that seems never to change. It is always available to be retold, reenacted, relived. So the disturbing flux of the real is held in check by the bulwark of permanence — a sort of timeless present — enshrined in the myth.


In our everyday English language, myth means a fiction or a lie. Some myths are total fictions. Though they can have powerful influence on a society, they can also be debunked by fact, which places some limit (at least in theory) on their influence.

The myths that affect us most, in theory and usually in fact, are those that blend empirical truth with fiction. The more truth they contain, the more convincing they are, the harder they are to refute, and therefore the more influence they have.

However empirical truth or falsehood is not the most crucial question when it comes to myth. As the definition above indicates, a myth communicates some very real truths to the people who accept it as a living myth. This is the sense in which most historians of religion have come to use the term. They say that myth has its own truth, a different kind of truth than science offers.

The people who tell a myth do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true, either. Rather, the myth is a sort of lens through which they see the world. It tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. It tells them what to pay attention to and what to ignore. It tells them how to interpret their experiences. In all these way, myth shapes their view of truth.

To modern interpreters, myth is symbolic, not literal, truth. We don’t judge a myth the way we judge a geometry proof or a financial report, by its literal accuracy. Rather, we judge it the way we judge a poem or a painting, by its power to move us emotionally; to challenge or reassure us intellectually; to shape, reshape, or reaffirm the way we experience the world.

But what about the relation between myth and empirical or scientific fact? Most often a myth is compounded of both fiction and empirically verifiable fact. (Zeus, for example, does not really throw lightning bolts down from Mt. Olympus, but powerful thunderstorms do regularly form on that particular mountaintop, generating plenty of very real lightning that strikes the earth.) Myths may generally have more fiction than fact, but sometimes the fact outweighs the fiction. There are even (perhaps rare) occasions when myths are completely factually true.

American myths have been and still are nearly all influenced by the rationalist culture of the Enlightenment. So they usually have a larger component of truth than the myths of ancient cultures. Our national myths draw on empirical facts from all aspects of public life — political, economic, cultural, moral, and more — and create a complex interplay among them, creating a sense of the nation and its life as a unified, harmonious whole.

(Note: speaking mythically, an American is anyone who identifies (or has identified) as a member of the United States community in political, social, and/or cultural terms. This usage may offend inhabitants of other Western hemisphere lands who, quite understandably, resent seeing the United States take sole possession of the term “American.” However as a mythic reality the term as defined here has such a long history and so much global impact that it deserves this special usage. Similarly, speaking mythically, “American” describes anything that is imagined to be uniquely or particularly characteristic of mythic America.)

To achieve the most satisfying sense of wholeness, though, a myth must reshape the elements of empirical truth contained in it. It exaggerates empirical truths that fit an idealized image while downplaying or ignoring those that might contradict the received ideal. It exaggerates truths that are most likely to evoke emotional response while downplaying or ignoring less evocative truths. It turns literal truths into vehicles for symbolic meaning. Thus it creates a caricature of truth, a picture that is oversimplified, schematized, and therefore easier to grasp and respond to.

Consider, for example, two classic American myths: the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks. Both stories, as told in elementary schools and known by most Americans, include elements of both fact and fiction. The Pilgrims’ economic status and motives are typically marginalized in or banished from the story, as are their internal disputes, while their religious commitments and desire for religious freedom take center stage. Similarly, Rosa Parks’ age and her socioeconomic status get center stage, while her careful training for civil disobedience and her (and her husband’s) very active work in the NAACP for years preceding her day of fame are largely forgotten.

Ultimately, though, when a myth is working its factual truth is irrelevant, because the people for whom a myth is alive do not judge it by whether it can be proven factually true. Rather, the myth is the lens through which they see the world and judge what is true and false. So it shapes their view of truth. It tells them what they can accept as factually true and what they must consider false. A living myth is what “everyone knows.” therefore it is not subject to interrogation, much less debate; it is, rather, the foundation for debate, the set of premises shared by all sides.

Consider again the Pilgrims and Parks. Both are emotionally powerful stories, made up of symbolic details that are readily and vividly visualized, and both communicate similar messages: People from all over the world come to America because here victims of injustice can and should stand up for their rights. if they are courageous enough, they can find a new kind of freedom unavailable anywhere else in the world.

What happens if people suffering from injustice in other lands come to America, stand up for their rights, find themselves receiving no justice, and return to their native lands, perhaps even finding relatively more justice there? Or, if America is their native land, what happens if they give up the fight and accept a life of injustice? For a majority of Americans, who hold the Pilgrims and Rosa Parks stories as living myths, there are two possibilities:

1. Explain the anomalous events in terms of the myth: “They weren’t as courageous as the Pilgrims or Rosa Parks. They didn’t try hard enough. Or they didn’t go about it in the right way, the way charted by the Pilgrims and Parks. Or they didn’t recognize and understand the kind of justice America offered them. ”

2. Simply ignore the anomalous events altogether. It is hard for most of us even to name people who actively tried to get more justice in the United States but failed in the long run. Their stories are rarely told, because the prevailing myths simply won’t allow them to be treated as real events.

Something similar happened in 2003, when the prevailing myth insisted that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was building up a threatening arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. All the factual evidence to the contrary was largely ignored by the mass media because the myth did not allow that evidence to count as true fact. Even the most respected mass media sources refused to admit facts contrary to the myth.

Eventually they recanted and apologized. But this was not simply because enough facts piled up to make the myth untenable. Myths can stay alive in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Rather, they recanted the WMD claim after the defeat of Saddam’s army, when Iraq no longer seemed to present any kind of threat. In effect, those highly respected news sources were admitting that the old myth of “dangerous Saddam” no longer worked, so new facts could now be “discovered.”


Nearly every definition of myth begins with the statement that a myth is a story. Classic myths do almost always have a narrative form. They often begin with “Once upon a time.” Many American myths have this classic narrative form too: “Once upon a time there was a group of people in England called Pilgrims”; “Once upon a time there was an African-American woman named Rosa Parks.” From there the stories unfold in simple narrative fashion. These are what scholars call explicit myths.

But one need not recite the whole myth to communicate its full meaning and power, because every myth is made up of many discrete elements or component pieces.  These building blocks are usually words or visual images or a combination of the two. But any sensory stimulus can play this role. In American myth, it might be the first six notes of “the Star-Spangled Banner” or the first four notes of “America the Beautiful,” a hand placed over the heart or a body pulled to rigid attention as these notes are sounded, the taste of a hamburger or hot dog with all the fixings, the smell of a fresh apple or blueberry pie, the sound of firecrackers booming on the Fourth of July.

All of these can serve as symbols, which are combined into themes, memes, and motifs. These are the building blocks of myth. For those who know a myth, any component piece of it can easily communicate the cognitive and emotional meaning of the whole.  The two words “Plymouth Rock,” all by themselves, or a photo of the rock, will conjure up for most Americans the whole mythic tale of the Pilgrims. The two words “Rosa Parks,” or a photo of an elderly black woman sitting in the front of a bus surrounded by white people. will conjure up for most Americans the whole mythic tale of the Montgomery bus boycott. In such cases, when an entire myth is implied by one small piece of it, scholars call it an implicit myth.

The same process can work with more abstract mythic stories too. If a speaker refers to “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” anyone even slightly familiar with American myths will immediately conjure up the whole story of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s role as mythic leader, the mythic links between the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence — and therefore between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, between Lincoln and George Washington — and on and on.

In fact, every one of the specific components of each American myth is ultimately connected to all the other building blocks of all other American myths in a network of implied connections that is virtually endless. A group of interlocking myths can conveniently be called a mythology. Words like progress, exceptionalism, abundance, and millennialism, for example, each conjure up an entire complex mythology.

This is not to say that there is a single overarching or undergirding “monomyth.” Rather, there is a vast web of myths, mythologies, and mythic motifs, sometimes explicitly presented and sometimes only implied. This web in its totality forms a reservoir of national myths that myth-makers and myth-tellers can draw on in mix-and-match fashion.

To call them “national” does not mean that everyone in the nation embraces or affirms all of them.  Rather, they are “national” in the sense that their messages speak (explicitly or implicitly) about the meaning of America, the relations of individuals and groups to the nation, and the nation’s role in the world.

Typically the full stories remain only implied, in such a deep or unconscious way that few of us could reconstruct them in their complete narrative form. Nevertheless, even a few mythic building blocks put together in almost any way can reinforce the power of the national myths to shape our perceptions and understandings of the meaning of America, our place in it, and its place in the world.


The national myths have such power largely because they draw together so many facets of Americans’ experience and forge from them an idealized sense of a unified, organic whole; they make it seem that the pieces of the national puzzle all fit together. Each myth helps to create a sense of national identity, defining what it means to be an American. Each expresses something essential about the identity of the nation and its members, as many of them see it.

When Americans share in the repetition of their myths, they create or reaffirm their connection with each other and their difference from other people who have other myths. Myth is like a social cement used to bond a group together and to build a wall between them and other groups — which is one reason national myths evoke such powerful emotion and satisfaction,

Again, to be sure, not all Americans embrace every American myth, nor do all find the same meanings and values in any particular myth. On the contrary, there is always vigorous discussion and disagreement about those meanings and values. Much of the debate about specific policy issues is, at the deepest level, debate about myths and/or the meanings of myths.

Different interpretations are inevitable, because myths and their component parts communicate symbolic meanings. So they tend to be multivalent; that is, any given myth, or any specific element within a myth, is likely to express different and often conflicting meanings simultaneously.  The richer, more potent, and more fundamental the myth, the more multivalent it is likely to be. Consider, for example, a statement as basic as “America is the land of the free.” This mythological axiom is used to justify both lower and higher tax rates on the rich; both more and less governmental regulation of land, labor, etc.; both more and less restriction on immigration and undocumented immigrants; and on and on. Could anyone ever catalogue all the interpretations that have been assigned to those few words, much less predict all the interpretations that will arise in the future?

The full network of American myths, taken as a whole, is like a playing field on which conflicts over public issues and public meanings are constantly fought out. The component elements of the myths are also the materials with which the conflict is fought or, one might say, the pieces with which the game is played. Since the meanings of myths are always being contested, they are always open to change. There was a time, for example (in fact a very long time) when the idea of America as “a Christian nation” was taken for granted as an essential part of the nation’s mythic heritage. Now, of course, it is a hotly contested assertion.

But such major changes in myths happen very slowly. At any given moment, there is a relatively fixed set of American myths — basic assumptions that lay out the boundaries of acceptable discussion, the rules of the game. In that sense the web of myths functions like a language. It sets limits to what can be said meaningfully in national debates on any issue. Just as an English speaker cannot say, “This man who has hair is bald,” so anyone who knows the rules of American myth cannot say, “America is the land that denies individuals opportunity,” or “In America some people are chosen by God to rule over the rest of us.” Such statements are simply illegitimate or out of bounds. They carry no meaning within the rules of traditional American mythology (although they could become legitimate and meaningful if a new set of myths ever come to dominate American life).

To be an American is to understand the nation’s mythological playing field, to know its materials and rules, to be able to use the myths effectively, to be able to combine and recombine the constituent elements of the national myths in ways that count as meaningful. In America (as in any other nation), to know the difference between meaningful and meaningless statements, as defined by the nation’s myths, is one of the key markers of national identity.


Do ordinary Americans really have the power to work creatively with their myths? Can they innovate new variants on the national myths, new interpretations, or even whole new myths of their own? Do they not merely repeat what they have been fed by elite leaders and the mass media? And are the mass media themselves not merely creating myths at the bidding of the elite leaders who control them?

To be sure, there is some truth in this view. Wealthy white Protestant men have historically had more control than anyone else over America’s myths. Though they are gradually having to share that control more and more with women, people of color, and adherents of other religions (and no religious commitment at all), there is still an imbalance of power when it comes to controlling the myths.

Nearly all Americans, nearly all of the time, draw on the elements of the national myths when they feel moved to create words, actions, or images dealing with America, its role in the world, and what it means to be an American. (Presumably their thinking is constructed out of these mythic building blocks too, though we can never know that for sure since we cannot read other people’s minds.) So the choices of voters and audience are constrained by the prevailing myths to a considerable degree. Americans are being deeply influenced — though most may not know it — by the legacy and continuing disproportionate influence of wealthy white men.

But scholars who study myths in small communities usually discover that no one person or group of people is ever in full control of the myths.  There are often people officially charged with reciting myths; they are akin to our own elite leaders and mass media journalists. Yet close observation reveals all sorts of pressures coming from all sorts of places that lead the official myth-tellers to change their stories, even if ever so slightly, over time. The change reflects a constant, often subtle and even unconscious, process of negotiation between the myth-tellers and the other members of the society as well as all the other forces impinging on the society’s life.

In a nation of over 300 million people the process must be far more complex. Elite political leaders and the mass media must respond to the demands that each makes on the other, for example. And both must respond to the demands of wealthy capitalists. Within each elite group there are (sometimes fierce) debates about policy. And these conflicting policy views are ultimately shaped by conflicting view about which myths should take priority and how they should be interpreted. There is rarely any monolithic opinion among the “power elite.”

Moreover, elite capitalist leaders must respond to the demands of consumers as well as investors, suppliers, political leaders, and the mass media. Political leaders must respond to some degree to the will (or whims) of the voters. the mass media must respond to the will (or whims) of the audience, too. Elites and the media plant seeds, but the prevailing myths are the ground that makes them grow — the common people’s assumptions, which allow those seeds to be accepted as true and meaningful.

As I have listened to the voices of Americans across the political and educational spectrum, I have heard them draw very heavily on the common stock of mythic building blocks, sometimes in what sounds like rote repetition. But I’ve also heard them — even the most conservative, even the least educated — put those building blocks together in their own way and sometimes add pieces that are not part of the general stock of myths at all.

So American myths are never fully in anyone’s control. Myths are constantly being renegotiated because every American affects the myths and their changing shapes to some degree. We all live in the web of multivalent mythic meanings, which creates a field of conflicting interpretations and conflicting views on public issues at every level. All of the debates that shape public life — debates about economic policy, foreign policy, the environment, social behavior, and so much else — are, at the deepest level, debates about national myths and the interpretation of those myths.

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