Modern nation states, the political building blocks of the modern international world, are complex socially constructed entities which have been created, engineered, and legitimized in the public consciousness over time. Though these states appear as monolithic and permanent, they were all created at one time or another on the basis of a national identity; a strong ‘imagined community’ founded on shared characteristics, such as a common history, language, religion, or ethnicity (Anderson, 1998). Of particular interest here is the role that national origin stories and myths play in the creation and affirmation of national identity. Interestingly, it has been posited that national identity is inextricably linked with national myths, and that these myths serve as key references in discourses on national values and identity (Cameron, 1999). In this sense, it can be said that national myths play an important role in establishing national values and identity.
The relationship between national myths and the establishment of national values and identity is especially relevant today, at a time when the national identity has been supplanted in part by sub-national identities in several nations (Fukuyama, 2019). In this environment, new myths have been brought to the forefront to affirm such sub-national identities, while even newer national myths will likely be constructed in order to affirm and reshape national identity in the face of identity politics.
The purpose of this essay is to first describe what constitutes a national myth, then to explain the purposes these narratives serve, as well as their implications.
What is a National Myth?
In simplest terms, a national myth can be defined as "a sacred narrative explaining how... a nation came to be in [its] present form [and] what the origins of a nation are” (Annus, 2000, p. 119). Such narratives often take the form of legends or otherwise fictionalized or romanticized narratives. Oftentimes a national myth is a completely fictional story which is accepted for its symbolic meaning, while at other times the national myth may actually be based on real events, though in its mythologization it will have undergone a process of idealization which distorts historical facts (Abizadeh, 2004). Regardless of the veracity of the national myth, it will serve serious symbolic meaning in regard to the identity of a nation (Cameron, 1999).
Every nation has a myth, or series of myths, which give the community a sense of shared history, while also embodying ideals and values which define the national identity. History provides an abundance of such myths. For the Romans, the legend of Romulus and Remes was an important 'national' myth, one which illustrated central Roman characteristics: their belief in divine destiny, ambition, brutal self-confidence, and sense of mission (Parini, 2012). The United States also has a variety of stories that "help create a sense of national identity [and] taken together, they form a narrative that posits America as the land of the free and home of the brave" (Parini, 2012, p. 53). One of the most prominent historical events which have been elevated to mythology is the story of the Mayflower, the transatlantic journey of the Puritans who fled England and formed in the words of John Winthrop, a "city on the hill". Even today the story of the Mayflower and the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony speaks volumes about the American spirit; rugged individualism, the land of the free, and a chosen nation destined to become a lodestar for humanity (Parini, 2012).
Purposes of the National Myth
What is the importance of a national myth in regards to national identity? According to Ernest Renan in his famous speech What is a Nation, a nation is made up of two elements: a shared history and the desire to live together in the present (Renan, 1992). In the words of Renan, such shared history is “a heroic past with great men and glory, the social capital upon which the national idea rests” (Ibid., p. 10). Within this context one sees clearly the role of national myths as a means to construct a romanticized shared history in order to fit a national ideal or identity. Additionally, according to Renan, it is this collective history, this ‘glorious heritage’ shared by the nation, that acts as the motivating factor which binds a nation together and drives it forward (Renan, 1992). In this sense, national myths have important functional value in that they lend themselves to the construction of a romanticized shared history, while also reinforcing a community’s values and norms by preserving them in easily accessible points of reference.
In the United States, for example, the struggle for independence from the British during the American Revolution has undergone mythologization, immortalizing the values of freedom and democracy in the contemporary American public consciousness. Here, the actual events of the revolution are only of secondary importance; what is most important is the meaning derived from the events, or in other words, how they illustrate and define what it means to be American (Parini, 2012).
There is, however, a darker side to the national myth. It has been argued, for example, that identity grounding myths is “simply lies and fabrications that represent some particular groups’ will to power” (Abizadeh, 2004, 294). In this sense, given that nations are made up of competing interests between different classes, ethnicities, and identities, the selection of myths and the identity and values they espouse can be viewed as necessarily serving certain groups' interests over others, while also being a reflection of established power structures. Such an appraisal leads to the conclusion that national myths tend to reflect the identity and prerogative of the dominant national elements, who pass off their own values and ideas as those of the whole. To use the United States as an example yet again, it is evident from the lack of mainstream national myths about people of colour that the national myths and the identity they reinforce are primarily Anglo-Saxon, which provides an accurate reflection of the historical power dynamic (Hughes, 2019). When understood in this light, the national myths of the past tend to lose both their widespread appeal and their applicability to contemporary national identity-building.
Additionally, it is widely accepted that national myths, and the national memory to which myths lend themselves, is selective and therefore misleading (Abizadeh, 2004). Interestingly, it has also been argued that such selective and misleading appraisal of the past is actually necessary for the successful construction of national identity. In other words, in order to construct a glorious national heritage, the continuance of which the current nation can dedicate itself to a collective process of memory selection and forgetting is necessary in order to foster harmonization (Hobsbawm, 2014). Consequently, a contradiction arises between the mythologized national history espoused through propaganda and selected mythology, and the actual objective history in which certain groups within the nation have dominated others. This contradiction led Renan to comment that forgetting and historical omission were so essential to the creation of a durable national identity, that the progress of historical studies actually constituted a threat to national stability (Renan, 1992). Such an assertion is problematic in the information age of today, in which the scope, detail, and exposure to historical material have made forgetting, and the social harmonization that comes with it, nearly impossible.
These conflicting views on national myths are especially interesting and relevant today, at a time in which national identity is undergoing a process of fragmentation in western liberal democracies. In this environment, many of the dominant national myths of antiquity have begun to crumble under historical observation, while the comforting ability to ‘forget’ is hardly a possibility under the immense scrutiny of the information age. The result is that the traditional myths underpinning national identity have also begun to fragment along the lines of identity politics. Whereas before the dominant national myths were monolithic and sacrosanct, today they are held in low esteem and criticized for their historical inaccuracy, while new myths based on sub-national identities have begun to take precedence.
Interestingly, though this fragmentation and retroactive interpretation of history is generally viewed as a negative phenomenon, it is perhaps the reflection of changing power structures within society, in which the dominant national narratives espoused by the historically ruling classes have begun to lose credibility. Though factions of the Western liberal democracies have attempted to renovate and modernize their national myths, basing national identity on immigration, diversity, and the melting pot myth for example, it remains to be seen if a durable national identity can be constructed in the era of identity politics, and what role the national myth will play.
Abizadeh, A. (2004). Historical Truth, National Myths and Liberal Democracy: On the Coherence of Liberal Nationalism*. Journal of Political Philosophy, 12(3), 291–313. http://www.cridaq.uqam.ca/IMG/pdf/Abizadeh_-_Historical_truth.pdf Anderson, B. (1998). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised ed.). Verso. Annus, E. (2000). National Mythology: Past and Present. Interlitteraria, 5, 115–130. http://www.eki.ee/km/annus/2000%20interlitteraria.pdf
Barkhoff, E. B. J., I., University of Dublin<, A.J.L., University of Amsterdam<, &Lt, A., & University of Maastricht<. (2021). National Stereotyping, Identity Politics, European Crises (Studia Imagologica). BRILL.
Birch, A. H. (1989). Nationalism and National Integration (1st ed.). Routledge.
Cameron, K. (1999). National Identity (UK ed.). Intellect Ltd.
Fukuyama, F. (2019). Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Reprint ed.). Picador.
Hobsbawm, E. J. (2014). Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge University Press.
Hosking, G. A., & Schöpflin, G. (1997). Myths and Nationhood. Routledge.
Hughes, R. T. (2018). Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories That Give Us Meaning (2nd ed.). University of Illinois Press.
Parini, J. (2012). The American Mythos. Daedalus, 141(1), 52–60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23240301
Renan, E. (1992). What is a Nation? Ucparis.fr., http://ucparis.fr/files/9313/6549/9943/What_is_a_Nation.pdf
Delacroix, E. (1830). Liberty Leading the People [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_Liberty_Leading_the_People_(28th_July_1830)_-_WGA6177.jpg
Halsall, W. (1882). The Mayflower on Her Arrival in Plymouth Harbor [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayflower_in_Plymouth_Harbor,_by_William_Halsall.jpg
Moran, E. P. (1917). The Birth of Old Glory [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons.
Rubens, P. P. (1615). Romulus and Remes [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Romulus_and_Remus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg