Myths as an Alternative History

Myths are an Alternative Form of History

Both history and myth provide a method for studying the past. Though myths contain some legendary and historical qualities, but they are not accurate historical accounts. If a myth describes a historical event, person, or place it has been exaggerated by storytellers over such long periods of time it is difficult to tell what really happened. Myths are not a historical story though they are used to validate claims of territory, power, ritual, performance and succession for royalty. Myths cover-up historical inconsistencies rather than preserve them exactly, fulfilling a sociological function in society to justify or glorify the past.

Myths may describe an event of lasting influence and most provide explanation of natural phenomena. In this way myths do contain truth, either literal, historical, metaphorical or symbolic. Whereas, historical records provide a chronological framework of recent events and relies on well-documented written records. When writing is absent in a society, oral transmission becomes the authority in recounting events. Thus, both methods of transmitting information are equally valid and legitimate.

Myths and Corruption of Language

There is another interpretation of myths where they are considered a poor version of history corrupted through the evolution of language. The corruption of language distorted the truth of the event or person and accounts for the absurdities and embellishments in the myth itself. Bernard Fontenelle (1657-1757) suggested in his essay, Of the Origin of Fables (1972) that myths are subject to degeneration when they are transmitted from one person to another. He also suggested that some Greek myths changed because people misunderstood words or rearranged the plot.

Karl Marx and Mythology

Even in societies where writing and literacy are commonplace, people may base their worldview on oral myths. Two examples are Marxist ideology and the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities of Northern Ireland. For Karl Marx (1818-1883), myth is used to identify ideological beliefs, which beside supernatural or mythical explanations, provide legitimacy. Marx laid the groundwork for myths to be used as a vehicle for cultural ideology. Marxist ideology has created utopian visions and an apocalyptic society, where classes of society revolt against wealthy capitalists to produce a communist’s paradise, without a god. Political ideology could be replaced with the term mythology, especially in political discussions about capitalism and communism.

In Ireland, Protestants and Roman Catholics create myth-like narratives with the function to justify and educate people. Here, objective history is ineffective when dealing with quasi-religious faiths. Another illustration of the power of secular myth was in the 1940s with the belief in the existence of a superior, Aryan racial group. Eventually, the belief that language groups were also related to the people racially, led to the justification and persecution of the Semitic Jews by Aryan Germans during the Nazi regime in Europe (1939-1945). In this example, myth functions in a general role where truth or deceitfulness is irrelevant because the myth justifies the existence of a particular kind of government.

Max Muller and Comparative Mythology

Max Műller (1823-1900) argued in Comparative Mythology that the “disease of language” accounted for the strange and fantastic elements in myths. He believed that Aryan was the original language of all humankind, though only spoken by a small group in Asia. An Aryan was a member of any people speaking an Indo-European language, though the term is no longer used. For Műller, the initial phase of language occurred in the first stages of human evolution. Languages then became distorted as groups evolved and splintered from the original Aryan language.

The Aryan language did not have a vocabulary for abstractions and consequently, people had to describe natural phenomena as best as they could using limited words. As a result, the meanings of the allegorical stories about nature, particularly the sky, sun, moon and dawn, have been lost. In the nineteenth century, India was believed to be the original source of most of the world’s myths. Later, the emphasis shifted to Africa though today it is believed that there is no single source of mythology. Many factors, including culture, history and psychology, contribute to the creation of a mythology.

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