Lara Easlick-Shoolman

Lara Easlick-Shoolman

Lara Easlick-Shoolman

‘All societies require their historians to be national myth-makers, and some historians will always oblige.’ Discuss.

When determining whether historians are national myth makers, we are already faced with the difficulty of defining what Myth is. Many scholars interpret myth as ‘a fictitious tale usually involving supernatural persons, some popular idea or historical phenomena’[1]. However, when in the context of history, writers of the Enlightenment declared that Herodotus ‘invented history by distinguishing between fable and fact’[2], thereby defining myth to be a traditional story of ostensibly historical events, they provided the basic idea of mythology as a genre containing inaccuracies or components that were essentially non verifiable. Myth can also be interpreted as a narrative device that has the aim and effect of unifying communities by providing a story that establishes one’s ancestral history, with many myths being produced in order to celebrate the creation and worth of a nation. This is supported by Robert Graves who defines the function of myth as a narrative justifying an existing social system and accounting for traditional rites and customs.[3]

It can be fairly agreed that not 'all' societies require 'all' their historians to be myth-makers. If that were so then all history would be written as or based upon mythical narratives and that is patently not the case. What can be said is that all societies tend to feel well disposed towards at least a sub-set of their culturally and educationally produced historians who write history in such a way that it incorporates some mythical elements which have the effect of consolidating a sense of national identity and communal 'belonging. Those historians who do use myth in this way are usually not those who practice history as members of the professional class of academic, university-based, scholars, at least not in the post-modern world of the 20th and 21st centuries. They are often 'amateur' in the sense of writing history as an adjunct or supplement to their other activities as politicians, journalists or public intellectuals. When reading historians one must be sensitive to any form of political or cultural bias that might inform their work. Many historians write from an 'ideological' position that deeply affects their work. Examples would be the great historian of the 17th century Christopher Hill, a Marxist, or Niall Ferguson the economic historian who is profoundly conservative in his ideological point of view. This is not necessarily to say that Hill and Ferguson are myth-makers but that it is self-evident that the biases that inform the interpretive and substantive content of their work are often left unexpressed and remain as essentially unverifiable components of their work in the same way that myth and religiously based influence can operate beyond the bounds of documented and ascertainable 'fact'.

The point about myth is that it is not open to empirical verification or disconfirmation by documents or artefacts. As such, myth transcends the accepted interpretive strategies employed by historians who claim objectivity for their work. Myth has the ability to tell a relatively simple story that may powerfully construct a narrative of communal and individual identity. Because of this there is no doubt that the employment of mythological narratives by historians over many hundreds of years has arguably had a greater effect on readers and national consciousness than the work of more sober and academically distinguished scholars. In the early modern period, one that was formative when it comes to historiographical methodology, historians, such as Locke and Rousseau employed a variety of narrative devices culled from both the Bible, such as the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, as well as the classical world in order to provide both a framework and a platform from which they could explain their present political condition. For example, the 17th century political philosopher and historian, ThomasHobbes's great work of political philosophy ‘Leviathan’ is centred around his belief in the social contract theory in which he postulated the existence of a pre-social, pre-historical 'state of nature' in which there was competition and violence between individuals leading to a life that Hobbes characterized as 'nasty, brutish and short'. In order to protect themselves against each other Hobbes explains that individuals came together and mutually constructed a 'social contract' in which they transferred the individual's right to self-protection and bestowed that right upon an absolute ruler or monarch. In return for the legal protection the monarch could provide, neither the individual nor the group could in any way interfere with or countermand the decisions of the monarch. Thus according to Hobbes was born both civil and political society.Therefore showing that historians use commonly understood myths, most commonly from the bible and classical antiquity, to create a historical narrative in order to explain and give weight to their own ideological beliefs.

Historical scholarship is also vulnerable to the accusation levelled at it by the ‘subjectivist school’ of thought where by observations made by the individual are relative to the historian making them. This has the effect of making futile the aim of producing true history, consequently liberating the idea that historians do, and will always be able to abide by the role of the myth-maker.David Hume followed this ideology, arguing there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience, thus making reality an unachievable entity .Thisprovidesan argument that says historians are conditioned by the era they grew up in and the consensus of beliefs at that time period, forcing historians to present history in a certain way, a way in which the historian’s society had enforced upon him/her. An example of this can be shown in the way historians living under Britain as an Empire recorded the history of that time. Arthur Bryant, who in one of his historical accounts described Britain as ‘an island fortress … fighting a war of redemption, not only for Europe but for her own soul’[4] portraying England in a heroic manner, as despite her isolation as an island she is fighting on behalf of the whole of Europe. It is this philosophy that offers the idea that society has an innate need for history to be the preserver of myth. The losses and pains suffered by a country’s historychallenge the original national myth of the country’s origin. The idea that a country is strong, powerful, and made of leaders, is slowly eroded by the progression of historic failures of the country. Thus in order to maintain the idyllic image each nation has of one’s self, history must be adapted in order to portray failures and losses to be that of an honourable defeat that is needed in order to one day achieve the greatness, described in the mythical narrative of their nationalistic birth.

For western civilisation, our interpretation of our mythological heritage conditions the way in which people think about themselves. Myth has played a vital role in consolidating nationalism and establishing a story in which encompasses key desired traits of a certain nation. Although nations had existed for centuries during revolutions the idea of nations came into being and people became self-conscious of their own nation as well as how each nation was viewed by other nations. The American and French Revolutions fostered the idea of nationhood and that nationhood is linked to patriotism as well as connected to idea of freedom[5], both in sense of individual freedom within a nation and freedom of nations from foreign nations. It is for this reason that the importance of nationhood became so grand. People valued their nation as a way of defining who they were as a people, where they came from and what they represent. Anderson argues the nation is imagined as sovereign because ‘the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained hierarchical dynastic realm’[6]. The divine right of kings was replaced by the divine right of the nation, every nation had a mission to live and grow as a power structure and to represent and spread a principle of almost divine significance. The State took on a quasi-nationalistic character. Victorian historian, Julius Charles Hare portrays England as a kind of Noah’s ark[7] where at a time when there was chaos, war and evil in the world, England alone preserved the virtues of god, as in an ark, presenting that England had always been free, pious and happy.

Therefore it was important that there be a myth to tell citizens the origin of their nation as in McNeill’s terms nation is simply ‘a self-validating’[8] myth. These myths were non-historical but explained the origin of nation politically, religiously and anthropologically. It placed the origins of myths in the mists of time away from any recorded historical evidence. It did so in order to protect these great myths, which in return fostered nationalism, from critique. It is through this we see the important role of historians as myth-makers. In essence the myths they created allowed for the production of nationhood and the way in which each nation views itself and its predecessors. The nationalistic myth continues to make its way into history even in modern the day. Winston Churchill often wrote in his history of England[9], most notably during the Second World War, as a great island nation who were democratic and strong against the evil philistine nation of Germany. Churchill’s historic works encompassed the myth of Britain always having a unique greatness and that British history was programmatic towards reaching this destiny. However it was Churchill’s view of Britain that was vital in maintaining British patriotism required to endure the harshness of WWII, advertising the dependency of societies for historians to be national myth-makers as myths prevent unpleasant factual truths damaging the eminence and strength of the communal identity of the people and their country.

One substantial example of the power of nationalistic myths can be seen by looking at Israel. Israel is unique in the sense that its myths have become a part of its accepted history, where by it is believed the Jews received the land of Israel that had always been destined to be theirs, therefore unifying them as a religious nation. Israel’s identity is based on religion rather than historical evidence, it uses the Bible as the evidentiary ‘document’ that justifies the relation of the nation-state to the land which represents the legal boundaries of its authority. Even as great a figure as Ben Gurion believed that the Bible told the true story of the genesis of Israel as a nation and as a people. It is through this that we see the vital role of faith when interpreting Israel’s history. Robert Graves defines religious traditional stories as ‘myths’[10] only if one does not belong to the religion in question as religious beliefs are immune from true historical evidence. This therefore suggests that religious societies require history to contain elements of fable in order to comply successfully with their religious beliefs.

When looking at historian’s requirement to be a national myth-maker it is beneficial to review the role Marxism[11]has had upon right-wing historians. Marxism presents the idea that those who own the means to produce commodities require mythology in order to further maintain the control they have over those whose relationship to materialist production is subservient. By manipulating history into a form of myth allows the historian, who for arguments sake is in a position of power through ownership of commodities, to make permanent the belief that those who lack the powers of production are therefore controlled by those who own commodities such as newspapers, television and radio. Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communitiesdescribes official nationalism to be a ‘consciously, self-protective policy, intimately linked to the preservation of imperial-dynastic interests’ continuing on to say that this style of nationalism is ‘official… something emanating from the state, and serving the interests of the state first and foremost.’ This is compatible with the Marxists interpretation which believes history is created in order to preserve nationalism. However, the nationalism it promotes (in reference to Marxist ideology) is not one of patriotic essence, but one that makes definite the superior relationship of the state and industrial elites over the working class, which in turn helps secure the power and manipulation they have over how the powerless think. Hence the incessant need for historians to create mythical history over actual reality in order to preserve power and hierarchical order. One obvious relationshipprotected by class interests was that between the people and their monarchy. In Marxist views monarchies are the embodiment of class interest and perpetuate the existence of class divisions. Historians who wrote in furtherance of established class interests consistently persuaded their subordinate class readers that monarchy was a dispensation from God and that all monarchical rule was thereby divinely ordained and sanctioned. To question such a hierarchy becomes, in this way, as much a matter of religious heresy as it does of civil disobedience. However, the divine power of monarchwas used merely as a disguise for their connection to the capitalist class and thus the power of the monarchy can be seen as a form of exploitation over the masses. For Marxist historians, who, like Hobbes, are invariably pure materialists, the unfolding of history is all about the evolution of those material and technological forces of commodity production, who owns those forces and an account of the inevitable class structure and exploitation relations that results from such ownership. This presents that not all societies require historians to create myths in order to endorse nationalism but rather to promote an ideology.

That nationalism is based on invented mythsfosters the conclusion that societies require historians to be national myth makers to be partially accepted, as this is not applicable to all societies. Additionally the argument can be made that by creating and encouraging myth, or in other words introducing anelement of false distortion into ones historical beliefs, then causes the authorsvalidity as a historian to come into question. Nonetheless, the requirement of societies to be provided with myth is vital, as it is myth that fosters a country’s nationalism which in turn creates the image of how each individual sees themselves. Without myth the concept of nation and patriotism would not exist as in the words of Anderson nations are ‘imagined communities’, and the myth of their creation is what justifies their existence.

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  • Imagined Communities- BenedictAnderson
  • The pursuit of history- John Tosh
  • Leviathan- Thomas Hobbes
  • Introduction to political ideologies- John Hoffman/ Paul Graham
  • Conservative Scholarship and the Problem of Myth- Forrest McDonald
  • Drawing the Line: ‘Scientific’ History between Myth-making and Myth-breaking- Chris Lorenz
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France- Edmund Burke
  • Narrating the Nation: Representations in History, Media and the Arts- Stefan Berger
  • Nation and Word, 1770-1850: Religious and Metaphysical Language in European National Consciousness- Mary Ann Perkins

[1]The oxford Illustrated dictionary

[2]Conservative Scholarship and the Problem of Myth- Forrest McDonald

[3]Robert Graves, "Introduction,"New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology

[4]English Saga (1840-1940)- Arthur Bryant

[5]Nation and Word- Mary Ann Perkins

[6]Imagined Communities- Benedict Anderson

[7] Nation and Word- Mary Ann Perkins

[8]Narrating The Nation: Representations in History, Media and the Arts- Stefan Berger

[9]History of the English speaking peoples (1956)- Winston Churchill

[10]The Greek Myths (1955)- Robert Graves

[11]19th century works of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels