National myth

From Academic Kids

A national myth is an inspiring, or patriotic story or anecdote that serves as a national symbol of a country, and re-affirms a country's "national values."

A national myth is not necessarily a myth in the sense that it is false, but may instead be a simply over-dramatized historical story in which certain details are omitted or changed in order to make it more inspiring. The national mythology of many nations includes a struggle against colonialism or a war of independence. In some cases, the meaning of the national myth may become disputed among different parts of the population.

In older nations national myths may be spiritual in tone, and refer to stories of the nation's founding at the hands of God, gods, or other supernatural beings.

There are of course also national myths which are obviously untrue, lack any sort of historical legitimacy, and exist only for the most shallow purposes of state-sponsored propaganda. This is common in totalitarian dictatorships in which the leader is given a mythical supernatural life history in order to make himself seem god-like and "above" mere mortals (see also cult of personality). National myths of this sort are usually quickly dispensed once the regime ends.


Examples of national myths


In both mainland China and Taiwan, the Wuchang Uprising and the creation of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen forms an important part of national mythology. Another important part of modern Chinese nationalist mythology is the invention of gunpowder, paper, and the compass.

Within the People's Republic of China, the Long March is another mythological event. In Taiwan, the 228 incident has also become part of the national mythology.


According to legend, the first emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik I, was the son of the Biblical King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba.


Schoolchildren in France were long taught to trace their ancestry to the Gauls. Vercingétorix is a national hero, whose defeat with grandeur is to be contrasted with the treacherous Julius Caesar. The popular cartoon and comic book character Asterix is a Gaul who resists Roman rule.

After the conquest of Soissons in 486, soldier is said to have broken a vase to deny it to Clovis I. Years later, Clovis broke his skull while reviewing the troops, admonishing him to "Remember the Soissons vase." That kings never forget, or are always right, may be taken as lessons.

The execution of King Louis is likewise a national myth which plays up the triumph of the common people over the out-of-touch aristocracy, personified by Queen Antoinette's statement (actually a misquote) of "Let them eat cake." when she was told the people had no bread. The French Revolution gives rise to the belief that France has a special role to carry its universal valuse to the world, and used to justify the Napoleonic Wars and France's overseas colonial empire.


The legendary founder and first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, a lineal descendent of the goddess Amaterasu. This genealogy was used to justify the rule of the Imperial house.


According to myth, a tiger and a bear living in a cave prayed to the god of the sky, Hwanin, to become human. He ordered them to remain out of sunlight for 100 days and to eat only 20 cloves of garlic and mugwort. The tiger left, but the bear was transformed into a woman; now alone, she prayed for a companion, and Hwanin took her for his own wife. Their child, Dangun, became the first king of Korea, by tradition on October 3, 2333 BC.

The foundation myth was revived several times in history to encourage Korean nationalism, and is taught in South Korean schools as a lesson of reverence, patience, and perseverence. The name Dangun itself is used coloquially to express satisfaction with excellence or rightness.

North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is perhaps the most thoroughly propagandized populace in the modern world, with the national identity intrinsically tied to the extensive personality cults of President Kim Jong-il and his father, the "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung. Many elements of their lives and of national history have been rewritten to exalt them and to conform to and support the ideology of juche.

Kim Il-sung is commemorated as a leading commander of the independence movement against Japan. Over the years, his early life was attributed greater and greater hardship, and his abilities increased commensureately to the nearly supernatural. He is for instance said to have participated in 100,000 battles against the Japanese in 15 years. His ancestors were refashioned into heroic revolutionary fighters.

Since at least 1982 Kim Jong-il is said to have been born in an army camp on the sacred Mount Paektu, amidst thunderstorms and rainbows (even though it was winter). It links him to the guerilla movement against the Japanese occupation and provides a spiritual foundation for his rule. He is then said to have graduated from the elite Namsan School in Pyongyang, and to have served as a construction and factory worker—so inspirationally in the latter to have sparked a mass movement, the "Model Machine Movement of Loyalty for Emulating Lathe No. 26." [1] (


The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Aztec convert [[ Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin underpins Roman Catholicism in Mexico and to some extent all of Latin America. That the Virgin Mary appeared to a native, and the image on his apron represents her as olive-skinned, represents the accessibility of the Church to the indigenous peoples. Various indigenous advocates in Mexico have adopted the Lady as a symbol.


The 1389 Battle of Kosovo was a defining event in Serbian history and identity, although the historical record is sparse. A Serbian-led Christian army was defeated by the Ottoman Empire through treachery, but not before Miloš Obilić assassinated the sultan Murad I, sacrificing himself to oppose tyranny and defend his people.

United Kingdom

England's Sir Francis Drake remains a national hero for his attacks on the Spanish Armada. Despite his death during a failed raid, Drake remains a legendary figure who circumnavigated the globe, destroyed dozens of Spanish warships, and (apocryphally) was the secret lover of Queen Elizabeth. His jaunty, daring attitude in the face of overwhelming opposition remains a symbol of pride for the English nation.

United States

The travails of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower are often retold to underscore quintissential American values such as religious freedom (the voyagers seen as fleeing religious persecution) and industriousness (required to survive the harsh New England winter). In actuality, the Puritans were outnumbered by unaffiliated settlers and servants, and Plymouth Colony no model of religious tolerance.

Pocahontas is said to have saved the life of John Smith from her "savage" father Powhatan, and later adopted European customs. The tale was later used to justify various indignities imposed by white settlers upon culturally "inferior" Native Americans. Nearly all accounts, however—including Smith's—are at best highly romanticized.

The American Revolution is the source of many national myths, such as the legendary ride of Paul Revere, or Nathan Hale's purported last words ("...My only regret is that I have one life to lose for my country"). These legends are suppossed to illustrate the virtues of bravery and vigilance, considered essential to the United States.

The person of George Washington is particularly lionized as the "father of the nation." A fictional tale in which a young Washington admits to cutting down a cherry tree with a hatchet is oft-repeated to children to underscore the virtue of truthfulness.

The numerous and complex causes of the American Civil War are romantically simplified as either a war to "free the slaves" or (chiefly in the South) to defend agrarian tradition and independence against homogenizing industrial society. Pickett's Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg is sometimes given as the moment the Confederacy had lost the war, though the CSA survived for almost two additional years.

The settlement of the American West has also been a source of many national myths, which glorify the frontier virtues of rugged individualism and self-reliance. After the closing of the frontier, stories by Horatio Alger and others depicted diligence, honesty and pluck as the chief qualities required for upward social mobility in the industrial age—not to mention ingraining the view of the nation as a true meritocracy.

Rosa Parks' resistance to compulsory racial segregation in the Montgomery, Alabama bus system is celebrated as the spark of the American Civil Rights Movement. Certain elements of the story have been arguably mythologized, however—Parks was an NAACP activist, and not the first to challenge segregation laws on a Montgomery bus or narodowy


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