A national myth is an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation's past. Such myths often serve as an important national symbol and affirm a set of national values. A national myth may sometimes take the form of a 'national epic'. A considerable amount of related material is at civil religion.
A 'national myth' may be a legend or fictionalized narrative, but have been elevated to a serious mythological, symbolical and esteemed levels to be true by the nation (Renan 1882). It might simply over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence; or it might simply be a fictional story that no one takes to be true literally (see Abizadeh 2004), but contains a symbolic meaning for the nation. The national folklore of many nations includes a "founding myth", which may involve a struggle against colonialism or a war of independence. In some cases, the meaning of the national myth may become disputed among different parts of the population.
National myths serve many social and political purposes. In totalitarian dictatorships, national myths often exist only for the purpose of state-sponsored propaganda. The leader might be given, for example, a mythical supernatural life history in order to make himself or herself seem god-like and supra-powerful (see also cult of personality). However national myths exist in every society, in liberal regimes they can serve the purpose of inspiring civic virtue and self-sacrifice (see Miller 1995), or shoring up the power of dominant groups and legitimating their rule.
Skanderbeg remains the cornerstone of Albanian national identity. His figure is clothed with such mystical powers that all national movements since the birth of Albanian nationalism have evoked Skanderbeg's deeds against the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. Legends abound of Skanderbeg prowess; his fiery steed who could jump from one mountaintop to the next, his powerful arm that could cut his enemy in half with a single blow, his exceptional cunning in luring the enemy and achieving the impossible, and especially his invincibility in battle. Pelasgic origin makes another Albanian nation identity.
The proportion of immigrants that were actually "loyalists" was likely to be significant immediately following the US revolution years, but it has been argued that much of the immigration from United States to Canada between the American Revolution and the War of 1812 was because of surplus cheap and plentiful land that was available and burgeoning business activity that resulted, rather than out of a sense of loyalty to the British crown. Immigration increased heavily over the subsequent decades of the 19th century from Europe (majority British Isles) and the vast majority of these immigrants had no such staunch loyalist affiliations.
The War of 1812 is the subject of another national myth in which Canada defines itself in opposition to the United States. Many Canadians firmly believe that Canada won the war, just as many Americans believe the opposite, with the results actually being closer to a draw despite the fact that Canada was invaded by the US, and the comment that "Canadians burnt down the White House" may be used by Canadian patriots to mock the United States.
The First World War was seen as having given rise to a Canadian identity distinct from Britain.The poem In Flanders' Fields has also achieved legendary status in Canada, still recited today at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Other prominent stories of Chinese nationalist ideology include the Yellow Emperor as the ancestor of all Chinese, the idea that all Chinese are the 'sons of the dragon', the concept of "5,000 years of Chinese history", and the ideology of the Zhonghua Minzu(Chinese nation).
A popular myth is the large-scale Anglo-Saxon migration to England, forcing the native Britons away. Whilst this seems plausible in Southeast England and the Eastern Coast (these areas are exposed to the invaders, the native Britons that lived in these areas are likely to have migrated away and settled in Brittany), it seems that the native Britons remained in western areas of England, supported by archaeological evidence and genetic studies. Geneticists Bryan Sykes and Stephen Oppenheimer suggest that the Anglo-Saxons had a very small impact on the English gene-pool, areas in East Anglia (the most settled area for migrating Angles and Saxons) having at least 60% indigenous genes, the lowest rate in England, western areas reaching 90%. This suggests that the Anglo-Saxons existed as a ruling elite only, settling on a small scale, greatly affecting the culture of England, but not its genetic make-up, much like the Normans would do in the 11th Century.
The legend of King Arthur is England's most popular and enduring myth, although it is a shared with other parts of the United Kingdom, notably Wales. Many elements of Arthurian myth in English tellings draw from his Jutish counterpart, Hengest, widely considered to be the first "English" king in Britain. The 'Merry England' ideal — a romanticised notion of early rural England — is known to have in part inspired The Shire of English author J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and to this day informs the English national mythos; complemented and in some ways embodied by the legend of Robin Hood, whose significance may rank on a par with that of King Arthur. Places in England believed to be connected with the legendary King include Tintagel in Cornwall and also Northwest England, an area containing the Kingdom of Rheged, which was ruled by legendary kings such as Coel Hen and Urien (called Urien of Gore in Arthurian legend).
Sir Francis Drake remains a national hero for his attacks on the Spanish Armada. Despite his death during a failed raid, Drake remains a legendary figure who circumnavigated the globe, destroyed dozens of Spanish warships, and (apocryphally) was the secret lover of Queen Elizabeth. His jaunty, daring attitude in the face of overwhelming opposition remains a symbol of pride for the English nation. Drake's Drum is kept at Buckland Abbey. It is claimed that it can be heard at times of national significance.
In the Middle Ages, the legends and myths of Charlemagne helped to consolidate and romanticize Frankish power, and Charlemagne legends spread throughout France and most of Europe. The chansons de geste relating to the Matter of France romanticize the national founding legends about Charlemagne and his paladins, Roland (of The Song of Roland) and Oliver. Originally, the Matter of France focused on the conflict between the Franks and Saracens or Moors during the period of Charles Martel and Charlemagne.
Schoolchildren in France were long taught to trace their ancestry to the Gauls. Vercingétorix is a national hero, whose defeat with grandeur is to be contrasted with the treacherous Julius Caesar. The popular cartoon and comic book character Asterix is a Gaul who resists Roman rule.
After the conquest of Soissons in 486, a soldier is said to have broken a vase to deny it to Clovis I. Years later, while reviewing the troops, Clovis broke the soldier's skull, admonishing the others to "Remember the Soissons vase." That kings never forget, or are always right, may be taken as lessons.
At one time the execution of King Louis was likewise a national myth which played up the triumph of the common people over the out-of-touch aristocracy, exemplified by Queen Marie Antoinette's statement (actually a misquote) of "Let them eat cake" when she was told the people had no bread. The French Revolution gave rise to the belief that France had a special role to carry its universal values to the world (the mission civilisatrice), which was used to justify the Napoleonic Wars and France's overseas colonial empire.
After the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic found itself in need of a founding myth going beyond the conquest of Nazi Germany by the Soviet Red Army. The Spanish Civil War, and especially the role of the International Brigades, where considered ideal after various other historical events, such as the peasant uprisings of medieval times or the leftist parties of the Weimar Republic had been discarded as unsuitable. The war became a substantial part of East Germany's memorial rituals, aided by the fact that substantial numbers of Eastern European communist figures had served in the bridgades, and that Germany had provided many men for the brigades.
The founding myth of Hungary tells the story about Honfoglalás, the occupation of the Carpathian Basin by the seven Magyar tribes in 896, led by High Prince Árpád. According to the legend of the white horse Árpád "purchased" the whole country from the Moravian prince Svatopluk II for a beautiful white stud. Svatopluk gave water, soil and grass for the horse, not realizing that he is renouncing his rights to the country with the act. The most important symbolic places connected to Honfoglalás are Veretski Pass (Vereckei-szoros) where the Magyars beheld their new country and Ópusztaszer, the scene of the first parliament. Árpád Feszty painted an enormous 360° picture depicting Honfoglalás for the 1000th anniversary of the conquest.
Other national myths are connected to Saint Stephen, the first king of the Kingdom of Hungary and other medieval rulers, most importantly Saint Ladislaus, the model knight-king, and Matthias the Just. The 150 years fight against the Ottomans during the 16-17th centuries gave inspirations to a new set of nathional myths, most importantly about the heroic siege of Eger, the topic of a popular novel by Géza Gárdonyi, read by every Hungarian schoolchildren.
From the Ramayana, known as the "" (the first poem), the figure of Rama is venerated all over India as the embodiment of Dharma, virtue and respect. He is thus called the "" (the ultimate man of respect). His wife Sita is similarly held as the embodiment of chastity and womanhood. Hanuman, the vanara servant of Rama, is held to be the model bhakta (devotee). Similarly, the Mahabharata and the Puranas provide several stories that are cherished and emulated all over India.
From later times, the Maratha king Shivaji is widely held as a symbol of valour and defiance against tyranny all over India, especially in Maharashtra. Subash Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and other participants in the Indian freedom struggle are also taught to school children as characters worthy of emulation.
Mythological objects such as The Cup of Jamshid (Jaam-e Jam) and other mythical figures from the Persian mythology such as Scheherazade (the story-teller), Peri, Anahita, Mithra and Homa are universally known in Iran and are used for naming people, institutions, companies etc.
St Patrick is credited with driving snakes out of Ireland.
After fascism which focused mainly on the Roman imperial traditions, political correctness demanded less patriotism in politics: the main political parties had their roots in Catholicism (that had opposed Italian unity) or Marxism, and were not keen to perpetuate patriotic national myths.
The "founding myth" was revived several times in history to encourage Korean nationalism, and is taught in South Korean schools as a lesson of reverence, patience, and perseverance. The name Dangun itself is used colloquially to express satisfaction with excellence or rightness.
Kim Il-sung is commemorated as a leading commander of the independence movement against Japan. Over the years, his early life was attributed greater and greater hardship, and his abilities increased commensurately to the nearly supernatural. He is for instance said to have participated in 100,000 battles against the Japanese in 15 years. His ancestors were refashioned into heroic revolutionary fighters.
Since at least 1982 Kim Jong-il is said to have been born in an army camp on the sacred Baitou Mountain, amidst thunderstorms and rainbows (even though it was winter). It links him to the guerrilla movement against the Japanese occupation and provides a spiritual foundation for his rule. He is then said to have graduated from the elite Namsan School in Pyongyang, and to have served as a construction and factory worker—so inspirationally in the latter to have sparked a mass movement, the "Model Machine Movement of Loyalty for Emulating Lathe No. 26."
In popular culture, Norwegians usually pride themselves with living in "the best country in the world" (a claim backed in recent years by the United Nations's Human Development Index), and with their diversity of dialects in Norwegian language (TV and radio frequently use local dialects in national shows, encouraging people to use dialects and creating an environment where dialects are so often heard and therefor quickly learned by non-"native" speakers).
Os Lusíadas an epic poem by Luís de Camões is often regarded as Portugal's "national epic". In it, Camões presents the Portuguese people as descendants from Lusus, companion of Dionysus and mythical founder of Lusitania, and loosely describes the country's history until the mid 16th century, focussing mainly on Portuguese discoveries from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Camões goes further, by suggesting that the Portuguese nation might be the offspring of Odysseus (mythical founder of Lisbon, or Olissipo).
The poet Barbour placed the battle at the centre of his national epic, The Brus, with an account of events before and after. He made his poem a sustained plea to maintain and uphold personal and patriotic values, such as lealty, without which victory would have been impossible. The later poet Blind Hary in turn helped to establish the iconic status of William Wallace as a freedom fighter and martyr for Scotland in those parts of the history not mentioned by Barbour.
Another element in the national story, which was especially emphasised in the eighteenth century, is the status of Caledonia as one of the few territories in Europe that remained essentially unconquered by the Romans.
There is also a case that Arthurian legend may similarly apply to the British tribes of the north, especially if Y Gododdin originated in what is now Scotland. In Borders folklore Arthur and his knights are said to be asleep inside the Eildon Hills.
Cináed I, or Kenneth I, is thought of as the first true king of Scotland.
The travails of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower and during their first years in America, are often told to underscore quintessential American values such as religious freedom (the voyagers seen as fleeing religious persecution) and industriousness (required to survive the harsh New England winter), and individual pursuit of happiness. In actuality, the Puritans were outnumbered by unaffiliated settlers and servants, and the Plymouth Colony settlers were seeking separation from all other cultures (separatism), not exactly individual happiness.
The American Revolution is the source of many national myths, such as the legendary ride of Paul Revere, or Nathan Hale's purported last words ("...My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country"). These legends illustrate the virtues of bravery and vigilance, considered essential to the United States. Stories of Benjamin Franklin and the tolerant Colony of Pennsylvania are other national myths illustrating that America was a land of religious freedom, opportunity and pursuit of happiness. Franklin also appears in several other myths including those surrounding his lightning bolt experiment. The person of George Washington is particularly idealized as the "father of the country." Parson Weems invented some of the tales about Washington's life, including the story in which a young Washington admits to cutting down a cherry tree with a hatchet, often repeated to children to underscore the virtue of truthfulness.
The numerous and complex causes of the American Civil War are romantically simplified as either a war to "free the slaves" or (chiefly in the South) to defend agrarian tradition and independence against homogenizing industrial society. Pickett's Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg is sometimes given as the moment the Confederacy had lost the war, though the CSA survived for almost two additional years. Similarly, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln are often elevated to a demi-god status similar to that of the founding fathers (see also the Lost Cause of the Confederacy).
The settlement of the American West has also been a source of many national myths, which glorify the frontier virtues of rugged individualism and self-reliance. After the closing of the frontier, stories by Horatio Alger and others depicted diligence, honesty and pluck as the chief qualities required for upward social mobility in the industrial age—not to mention ingraining the view of the nation as a true meritocracy. A quote in the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is made about the use of Wild West stories in the US: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
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