Mythology and History

Expanding here on a short post to the D.B. Jackson Facebook page…

I spent much of this week reading mythology for another project, and I found myself thinking about the degree to which American history can be considered a mythology.  Yes, much of it is “true” in the sense that certain things actually did happen on certain days.  There are facts that can’t be argued, but there is much that remains open to interpretation, and there is much that is used by different people, or groups of people, and laden with different meanings.

George Washington is said to have cut down a cherry tree, and then to have had an honest exchange with his father about the incident.  From all accounts, this is mythology, not history.  The Boston Tea Party has, in the past couple of years, taken on a new and somewhat controversial resonance with a certain portion of the body politic that assigns to it a significance that may or may not actually be there.  Paul Revere’s ride; Abraham Lincoln’s childhood and early adulthood — even his beard; the attack on Pearl Harbor (the lead-up to it and its aftermath); the assassination of John Kennedy — all of these things can be documented with facts to some degree.  But all of them also have taken mythical qualities that are used in different ways by different constituencies.

It’s easy for us to read the supernatural stories of Celtic mythology and dismiss all of it as fiction.  It can’t be real, right?  No one swallows a butterfly and nine months later gives birth to a beautiful girl.  No warrior could do all the things that Cu Chulainn is said to have done.  And yet, those tales are every bit as important to the culture of Ireland as our stories are to us.

So, I find myself asking if it matters whether formative historical incidents are apocryphal or real?  What role does mythology play in a society?  What role does history play?  Are they interchangeable?  Complementary?  Totally separate?

I have more questions than answers right now, but I do find the questions interesting.

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