Monday, March 15, 2010

Day 1: Theories of Myth - Form and Function


Prof. Dr. Angela Schwarz gave the lecture ‘The Invention of the Tradition or the Importance of Myths'. She started on a personal note, relating her early fascination with D. Lowenthal’s book 'The Past is a Foreign Country'. It was not so much the topic – rebellion against tradition and the modern cult of preservation of nostalgia – as the title of the book that inspired her, as it communicates the need for clearer definitions of terms like past, tradition, myth and identity, as well as a further emphasis on issues such as what we make of the past and how we deal with it. Prof. Dr. Schwarz also discussed how the myth of the nation is based on symbols, traditions, and similar aspects that could serve to convey the national myth. The connective and/or cultural memory is an pivotal feature in this process, as it serves to reemphasize the meaning and origin of those symbols, traditions and similar attributes that are used. To some extent, connective and cultural memory can explain the pervasiveness of myths and invented traditions in various academic disciplines and in everyday life.


Political myths fulfill tasks in the political realm; not in the matter of urban legends, but rather as ‘important stories’. The perception of myth as ‘an important story’, however, should not serve as a clear-cut definition, but rather as an explanation of one of its levels of function.

Political myth emphasizes elements of memory; a selective interpretation of the past in order to idealize it. In order for this to be accomplished, some aspects must be entirely or partially ignored, and some must be reinforced. Among the main characteristics of political myths is their identity as elements of collective memory that are of essence within a society or culture, their selective interpretation of the past, and the inclusion of the eternal battle between right and wrong, good and evil within the myths themselves. Prof. Dr. Schwarz also emphasized the decisive role of mass media in terms of communicating rituals and symbols, and generally propagating myths.

In terms of the actual function of the myths, it may be said, very generally, that they explain situations, structures and events that would otherwise appear obscure, and that they invest them with meaning. This function is often perceived as particularly important during times of crisis and change.

The function of political myths may also be divided into four more specific categories.

Myths invest complex situations with meaning and structure. An example of this is the appropriation of the Jeanne d’Arc myth during the German occupation of France during WWII.

Myths also integrate individuals in order to form a collective and a nation. An example of this is the discourse on the nation that arose out of the formation of the German nation in 1871.

Furthermore, myths legitimize political and social power. An example of this is Hobbes’ Leviathan, and his conviction of the need for a strong central government in order to avert crises such as the English Civil War, during which the book was written.

Finally, myths hold emancipatory potential. Examples are how new power elites are created in the wake of revolutions, such as the American, French and Russian revolutions.

It should also be mentioned that states may be perceived as imbued with a specific mission through the use of myths. This idea of a mission has been a constant in American history, for example. The perception is echoed in Gast’s 1872 painting ‘American Progress’, as well as in the quest to explore and dominate territories well beyond North American territories, all the way to ‘the final frontier’, as represented by space.


Prof. Dr. Schwarz divided political myths into four general categories:

Founding myths
Myths of authentication
Myths describing a catharsis or catastrophe
Myths idealizing a state of things

A popular focus in several of the categories mentioned above, is heroism; many myths focus on important persons, or ‘heroes’. They communicate a reverence for heroic figures, which appears to be a form of anthropological constant in the reiteration of mythological materials.* There are also myths that focus on an extraordinary event or a series of events, even beyond the catharsis/catastrophe theme mentioned above. The event is commonly a matter of life and death, such as a battle or a war. There are also myths referring to spaces, generally in the shape of contested territories that are the subject of a tug of war between two or several groups. Fictitious boundaries are emphasized, in order to determine inclusion in and exclusion from the groups in question.

*A recommendation for those particularly interested in the heroic aspects of myth, is the Hattingen exhibit ‘Helden – von der Sehnsucht nach dem Besonderen’, which will be open until the end of October within the context of the European Cultural Capital 2010 programme.


Prof. Dr. Gerhard Hufnagel gave the lecture, Disenchantment of the World; the End of Myth’, a journey from Rilke’s Erste Duineser Elegie, Heller and the disinherited mind, issues of modernity, René Descartes perception of the individual and secularization, via Weber and godless sin, Jefferson and rebellion/renewal, Bentham and the greatest happiness of the greatest number, Descartes and his perception of man as the master and possessor of nature, to Weber and his ethical rationality, Hobbes and his perception of laws as a result of power, rather than truth, the four habits of modern man and finally, the antinomies of modernity. As is doubtlessly evident, the structure and content of the lecture hardly lends itself to a more structured comment – and certainly not a brief one! Furthermore, the discussion continued at length during the workshops. Suffice to say that it was a true privilege to experience Prof. Dr. Hufnagel’s fluid eloquence and intellectual dexterity first-hand.


Dr Sophie Krossa gave a more in-depth lecture on the function of myth, called ‘Unity and Diversity’. She first discussed the definition of the term from a sociological perspective, quoting Chris Shore, she emphasized how myth can be defined as a ‘sacred narrative’ affecting both the social world and nature. The apparent disparity between nature, perceived as unchanging, and the social world, where everything can be viewed as a matter of definition was discussed, and Dr. Krossa stressed how the key word is ‘sacred’. The term should not necessarily be interpreted as something related to a distant, divine sphere, but could instead designate belief – when someone believes in a myth, whether it is a myth in the realm of the natural or the social world, it is imbued with function. Accordingly, the Thomas theorem states that ‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’, and George Schoepflin writes that, ‘Centrally, myth is about perception and not historically validated truths.’

Dr. Krossa also touched upon the main functions of myths, particularly stressing the importance of establishing social collectivity. Values, norms and morals are all aspects that can form a collectivizing framework, and as Shoepflin states, ‘Myths is one of the ways in which collectivities […] establish and determine the foundations of their own being, their own systems of morality and values.’ Social cohesion and solidarity may be strengthened through myth, with the effect that aggression between individuals or groups belonging to the same community is minimized. An additional level of the functional aspect relates to the bridging of the gap between imagination and reality. There lies an interesting paradox in the claim inherent in myth of ‘this is how we are’, or, ‘it has always been like this’ on the one hand, and the caution ‘you must behave like this’; if the behavioural structure were indeed so well established that they could be considered (second) nature, there would hardly be a need for such a caution. It must hence be stressed that myths always have a specific role and a function; they are there in order to fulfill certain needs – in no context do they exist merely for their own sake.

Finally, Dr. Krossa focused on Europe, or more specifically, the European Union, as a particularly relevant field of study in terms of myths. Identity issues is an increasingly important problem, as the EU can be said to lack a common framework to which all Europeans can subscribe and relate – there is a need for a new framework of values and morals that can be based on and transmitted through myths. This need for a ‘European identity’ has been hotly debated, and the introduction of the concept ‘United in diversity’ illustrates the controversy well. Albeit communicating a very specific message, the slogan is vague, as well as open to interpretation, demonstrating the lack of direction and unity in terms of what the European identity should consist of.

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