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OnWords: The Contradiction Of Myths

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We use the word “myth” in at least two almost contradictory ways. Most commonly, we use myth to mean falsehood, a hoax without the intention to deceive.

This is the myth sites like snopes.com and shows like Mythbusters serve to dispel. It is also a product of the Age of Enlightenment, when a seemingly rational universe called not for myth but for measurement.

But we also use myth to mean mythology, and that can have a positive cultural effect. In this sense myths embody culturally important stories, ideas that transcend mere factual accounts. It’s not as important that Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill ever did or did not live as what they exist to communicate to us about us, what we want to believe about the American spirit—that it’s fiercely independent, mettlesome and clever, able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable conditions of the American interior and prevail.

The process of creating a myth can happen quickly—often within a few years after the mythical figure dies. 

Democrats now point to Kennedy and FDR as exemplars of their values; Republicans use Ronald Reagan in the same way. Those who wish to identify with post-World War Two rebellion have glommed on to James Dean; those who wish to lionize that era’s tragic glamor have found Marilyn Monroe a vivacious example.

But for as necessary as we find myth, its dark side, that of a falsity commonly held, remains an inherent part of the mythological experience. Myth, by necessity, simplifies, boils the facts down to the few principles we want to project. Thus, the real lives of those we mythologize were never as monolithically tragic, brave, or revolutionary as the myth makes them out to be.

Maybe our current need to quickly create new myths indicates that we fear our common, national values are dangerously in flux.

If so, then the manner we create our myths reveals as much about as do the myths themselves.