Monday, February 13, 2012

When Myth Becomes History

Does the truth of historical events matter? Does the myth? Does it matter how we tell these stories in popular culture? Are we allowed to appropriate them for our own ends?
Hey guys,
Katharine, Jennifer, and I are the moderators for Myth and History.
Personally, we would say bias is inevitable because historical accounts differ based on who's writing it. Levi-Strauss mentions that if you take two historians w/different political leaning writing on the same subject like the American Revolution, you're bound to get two different accounts. We also were in agreement that every culture and country manipulates history for their own use, though in an ideal world, that would not be the goal of the narrator, and it strikes us as counterproductive to appropriate history for your own ends, although it's very common. Historical "truth" should matter, but even historical accounts are biased depending on who's writing, so it's difficult to not create a myth based on an event, unless we have archaeological evidence. Most myths have a basic structure that is probably historically accurate, but as Levi-Strauss says, the details of the content differ based on who's telling the story. An interesting detail we noticed is the way that Levi-Strauss defines a myth, which didn’t match what we think of as a myth, (how would you define a myth?). As it relates to popular culture, we definitely think the bias of these “myths” is important, because the way that the stories are portrayed will be how the younger generations will see and remember it. If a film, for example, is based on a true event but highly inaccurate, the viewers will still believe it to be true, and it will be rather difficult to replace that false information with the true history.
- Shazreh, Katharine, and Jennifer


  1. I agree with the points that Shazreh, Katharine, and Jennifer spoke to, especially the idea of history having an element of bias. To be clear, I believe that "history" itself is not bias, it is the re-telling of history that becomes a story of he-said-she-said. Re-hashing history is almost always one-sided and leads me to believe that one "true" story about a certain historical event or figure does not really exist. But it has to...just no one actually knows it because nothing is actually objective...but that is a whole different topic.
    In response to the question about whether the truth of a historical event matters, I say that a mostly true account of certain historical events matter. They matter simply because history tends to repeat itself (so they say), however it is more about what we do with that history that matters....but the human race also tends to be a species that forgets history.

  2. My guess is that the comments will follow a trend of answering only the first three questions, so I'm going to explore the last one. I think this particular question begs some serious consideration regarding the ethics of using history as a tool. It is inevitable that it will become an instrument, but ARE we allowed to appropriate myths for our own ends?

    While I understand that it's likely that history would be, and is, abused to garner support for policy initiatives, I think unilaterally declaring myths that have become history to be off limits is foolish. Yes, if history is indeed myth, then using it for our "own ends" would be using a lie, but who decides what is history and what is myth? From here, if we decide that we cannot possibly discern what is truth from what is fiction, then the question becomes, can we "use" it?

    The answer is, yes.

    History and myths have been used and abused since the beginning of time. But so, too, have they been useful. Simply because something is a lie doesn't mean that it isn't essentially good. If we take a story, turn it into a myth, which subsequently becomes history, and use that story to advance positive, real, change in society, then how can we declare that the ends don't justify the means? The Civil War wasn't fought over the morality of slavery, but we tell our children that to instil a sense of what is right and wrong. Slavery is wrong, so we fight against it. While that wasn't the truth, it uses a myth for good ends.

  3. When it comes down to the question of whether or not we are allowed to appropriate myths and history to our own advantage, it begs the question of what the punishments and enforcements of this allowance are. Who constitutes whether or not you are allowed to mangle historical facts or myths to go along with your own agenda? Myths have been around for centuries and have been changed from generation to generation, giving us variations of the same story, yet for some reason all of us have a certain essence of what historical truth is...for instance, for the most part we all agree that the pilgrims came to America from Britain, that the American Civil War happened in 1861, and that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, because these are hard core historical facts that come with evidence that can't really be twisted. But then there are those that twist the history of such controversial issues such as the Holocaust to fit their own agenda. No one in this case is monitoring or enforcing whether or not we are allowed to do this- people do it no matter what, yet for the most part people believe photographs, memoirs, historical texts, and other means of physical evidence. I agree with the above statements that history itself is not bias, but when it passes from word of mouth and stories coming from altered memories, it crosses the boundary from non-bias to bias, essentially leading back to the matter of whether or not the truth or the myth of historical issues are more important.

  4. I truly believe that history has to be true, in a sense that it should be made out of facts and figures and dates. We know that during WW2, the Allies landed in Normandy the 6 of July, 1944, not in Bretagne or Poitou-Charantes two days later. These are facts, they are history, and they do not vary depending on who is telling the story. Still I have to admit that some parts of history are not clear and/or depend on the authors point of view, but I think that the goal of historians should be to find the truth in history. If they don't, then everything we think we know will only be myth and instead of truth it will only be beliefs or exaggerations to make a bigger impression while telling the story. Sometimes myth and history are intertwined and it is hard to distinguish one from the other. For example, when grandparents tell the story of their lives during a war, they will give us historical details but at the same time they will tell us about how they felt and what they thought, which distorts the actual story. They often also make things sound even worse than they actually were to scare us and, as chardin was saying, this is a moment of teaching, they want us to be afraid of the implications of war so we will do our best to prevent it. That is where the myth starts: where you try to make an impression or make the other one adhere to a judgment.
    I think people should not change the original facts in order to make a point when they talk about history, but at the same time, myths often have a positive impact on kids behavior, so why not use this tool if it works?

  5. Truth is a funny thing, because everyone has a different concept of what it is. There are some zealous southerners who still believe the Confederacy should have won the civil war and refuse to believe the records of history that the Union, in fact, won. This simply goes to show that it is human nature to believe what one wants to believe. Bias is inevitable. Still, I do believe it is fair to say there is less bias in history than there is in myths because myths extrapolate on historical tellings. Margo makes a great point in questioning "Who constitutes whether or not you are allowed to mangle historical facts or myths to go along with your own agenda?" I personally do not see appropriating history and myths for our own agenda as a terribly negative idea. People often use these ideas to learn from the past. There is no harm in exaggerating something terrible in history, for it will only help to keep people from letting history repeat itself. If one person changes a myth or history for their own benefit, there is still the rest of society who is maintaining the original true ideas. In history there is always a generally accepted idea as well as in myths. Plus, myths and history are constantly changing because they are being passed by word of mouth often, and we find out new things everyday. With all these changes its obvious that truth would not be extremely definitive. So, truth is flexible in both myth and history, so the real question is, as Levi Strauss asks, "where does mythology end and where does history start?" If history and mythology can both be used for our own benefits and their truths may differ from person to person, then is there really any difference between history and myth? I think there is still a distinction because historical events are often recorded moments with more evidence, whether we want to believe it or not and myths are more meant to teach or raise an idea. Both are important, but history will always be more universal.

  6. I agree with some of the people who have already written in that myths are based on some historical "truth." We have talked about how truth varies depending on who is interpreting a certain event. If we base a historical "truth" on something that we can say 100% happened, then this would not be considered a myth. Depending on what time period, myths have been used to explain the unexplainable. Before people knew about weather patterns or what caused rain/ wind/ drought/ etc, people created myths about why these things would happen. "The gods are sad for some reason, so they cry, and therefore it rains." This kind of explanation of why things happened help people have some sort of understanding of a world that they really could not understand. We cannot take all myths literally, but they have been made throughout history to explain some event that occurred. History and myths are different, but myths are a part of what history is. History, I think, should be based on facts and events that we know happened and that we can explain. Mythology is an aspect of history that helps us see the way that people during certain times explained events. While myths cannot always be taken to be the "truth," they do hold some validity in helping us understand the past.

  7. I think that it is nearly impossible to find any piece of writing without bias. Even textbooks and government documents are likely to include some bias even if it is in a mild form. Although historical events are written down as fact, there are likely to be many different accounts and perspectives of a certain event depending on the author. For example, it is highly likely that textbooks about World War 2 have very different viewpoints in America than in a country such as Germany. Although it seems unreasonable that authors can skew historical events in the manner that they see fit, it is inevitable. I agree with the previous comments that although something may be a myth, it most likely has some type of historical background or underlying theme. Strauss's title of the article, "When Myth Becomes Fact" helps to explain how myths can sometimes turn into what seems to be historical or factual due to the passing on of the myth from generation to generation. This can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish myth from fact, therefore intertwining it with what appears to have actually happened in history.

  8. I find the argument very interesting, and I would agree that bias is everywhere. Sometimes its incredibly subtle, like the omission of certain details. I've found that, especially when reading personal narratives of historical events, there are many things that people do not notice, as well as tiny details they leave out. Sometimes its a hard distinction for me to make, although I'm sure there are people here who find it decently easy. As for myths, I've found that I can learn a lot about history by analyzing myths, even those with shaky historical background. At the very least its an insight into the minds of the writers.

  9. The truth of historical events definitely matters. A serious problem with the truth is how to determine if some event is or isn't true. A war that took place 2,000 years ago might have played out completely different than we believe it did. I feel like the victors of wars throughout history have the best ability to decide what is "truth". Truth matters in myth as well but it is even harder to determine. Take a Greek mythological god, for example. Most people today will say that none of the Greek gods ever existed- that they are myths. The truth is that we have no way of knowing for sure that these gods didn't exist back then. Maybe they did and all the Greeks rituals really had profound effects on their lives. There are many stories today that would be wrong to debate. Several people in the world firmly believe that the Holocaust never happened. While they are entitled to their beliefs, most of the world would consider it and invalid and inappropriate argument.

  10. I feel as if it is easy to say yes, obviously the truth of historical events matters. Many groups of people have been demonized, victimized, and made to seem inferior due to the biased views of those reporting the events. However, it is next to impossible to remove your cultural lens, which shapes the way you see the world, and report without bias.
    Myth is extremely important in the telling of historical events, as many cultural values are a product of their long-standing superstitions or belief in legend and myth. Pop culture is a projection of our values, whether or not they are good or bad, and myth is often included as the basis of movies, books, and music

  11. My username is messed up, this is Kevin Marshack.

    I think when we talk about truth in this class, we are generally exploring whether the ideas that we as a society and some religious people hold are valid or not. When we talk about religion (I'll stick to the Abrahamic religions) and the stories told in the scriptures, we sometimes forget that these stories may not be intended to be taken exactly as they are written, rather they are meant as a vehicle to express a certain moral. Take for instance the book of Job. Does anyone actually believe that a god destroyed some pious man's life to prove something to the devil? I would like to think not. And if you think that it's meant to be taken literally, you are missing out on the overall message in the book. In addition to this, we must realize when these texts were written. According to biblical scholars, the earliest book in the new testament (Gospel according to Mark) was written some 10-15 years after the death of Jesus. So in those 10-15 years, some major historical details could have been altered but the morals that were conveyed might be rather consistent to the events that (may have) happened.

    However, when talking about historical accuracy in the written record of history, not being as truthful as possible is lying. You are not altering the facts to get a moral across at that point, you are changing what happened in reality to suit a certain mindset you have taken before seeing all of the facts.

    As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own fact". We are not allowed to alter the fundamental truths of a story and call it a fact. That would be lying. We are however allowed to tell the story how it happened and then give an opinion of the events in the story.

  12. I agree with Tara's comment; it is nearly impossible to find any writing without bias, especially historical writings. The truth of historical events does matter, but because everyone has a different interpretation of the what truth is, bias develops.
    I like how Shazreh, Katharine, and Jennifer link myth and bias in how we tell our stories today, that will be passed on to younger generations. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for someone to tell a story without adding their own personal opinion. This greatly skews the events that have happened during our lifetime; 9/11, for example, was different for me than it was for anyone else, and so on. . .

  13. Well the truth of a historical event depends on who you ask. Every historical event has multiple viewpoints...and you'll hear different stories when you ask different people who had different roles in the event. But the truth of historical events do matter. I think to get the most out of a historical event, when studying it, it's beneficial to study the event from multiple standpoints. Take the creation of the world, for example. If you study it from a religious and scientific viewpoint, I think you'll get the most rounded explanation of the event. I guess the question dates back to truth, and how you define truth. Truth is always relative to the surroundings. History and myth and bias are all related, as said above. As stories are passed down, they are skewed inevitably a little bit by the storyteller (or the author). It's hard to separate history from myth, and I think in many ways they do go hand in hand when retelling history. Maybe we shouldn't try to separate them as much as figure out how they link together. Because myth isn't always necessarily false...or is it?

  14. “We also were in agreement that every culture and country manipulates history for their own use, though in an ideal world, that would not be the goal of the narrator, and it strikes us as counterproductive to appropriate history for your own ends.” I agree with this opinion very much. Every culture or every country needs to make standard for themselves and satisfy the people within it. And as the saying goes, There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people's eyes. Therefore, different authors shape different history and myth like “The details of the content differ based on who's telling the story”. Although we try to be objective sometimes, however the background of us makes it almost impossible to be one hundred percent true as the fact.

    In addition, although bias of myths would confuse people sometimes, its existence is meaningful. It may be tiring and painful if we live in a world full of ruthless facts so that myth could bring some mysterious color to the black and white world with history. For instance, in one of our traditional myths, it is a great goddess in Chinese mythology called “Nv Wa” (女娲)who created the people using mud drops. And when I was a baby, my lovely mother explained my coming to this world as I flied out of her mouth (Haha I don’t believe it of course). When I learned science I knew how I came to this world but I am still not clear the source of human-beings. But it is very interesting to see different stories about how our ancestors came to this world. It makes me feel that grown-up and study are wonderful things.