Why do people continue to listen to and create new myths? What purpose do these stories serve? The ancient civilization made myths to explain the universe none of them could understand. That’s not to say they were stupid. These early civilizations laid the roots of our modern day culture and established the primary principals in law, math, science and medicine. We stand on the shoulders of their work. But advances in learning and technology have answered many of the ancient questions originally dealt with by myths. Thunder isn’t controlled some guy named Zeus or Indra or Thor. It’s the result of lightening heated air, impacting colder air. With that discovery we relegated tales of the Thunder Gods to English, Archaeology and Anthropology Majors. Nevertheless, we’ve continued to spin other stories with newer heroes, god and terrible villains. Want to debate me on this? Get set.
First it seems like every emerging culture seems to have its own set of stories, right? The Greeks, the Romans, the Norse and lots of other cultures developed complex, interesting mythologies with gods that took an interest in the world of humans. Myths are the creations of a culture and the one I grew up in isn’t much more than 300 years old. This culture was created by immigrants and their descendants that colonized and then covered the United States. These people kept some elements of other ancestral homelands but added stories of their own; stories with characters that were distinctly “American.”
Some of those characters are fictitious creations like Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan. Others, like Johnny Appleseed, Joe Hill and Casey Jones were real people whose exploits served as the basis for a series of stories. Either way, they became the revered centers of stories that explained some characteristic the storytellers and their audiences valued. The three fictional men and Casey Jones are remembered for their superb abilities to execute lonely and dangerous jobs necessary to the economy. Additionally, John Henry fought for the dignity of man in the face of technological advancement and Casey Jones sacrificed his own life in order to save passengers who are hurtling toward a collision. John Chapman (a/k/a Johnny Appleseed) was remembered in story and song for furthering the dreams of settlers by bringing gospel and fruit trees to the wilderness. These settler stories were reduced to folklore status by the middle of the twentieth century while another Pantheon was being developed.
As the communication improved and the Western Drive finally ended, focus returned to America’s urban areas. Now, city dwellers and townsfolk have different worries and enemies than homesteaders. So, in the midst of the Depression a new story caught the public’s eye, the story of an illegal immigrant, raised in the United States, who fights for Truth, Justice and The American Way. Specifically, this stranger (with WASPish good looks) lives to fight “bad guys” (whenever he’s not working as a reporter at the Daily Planet). Superman has been joined by a plethora of other Comic Book Super Heroes who have urban ties and a mission to fight “bad guys”. Yes, these started out as entertainment but one generation’s entertainment often begins becoming the next’s revered mythology. Baby boomers were entertained by SF creations like Star Trek and Star Wars but they inherited the earlier generation’s obsession with Comic Book Super Heroes. The Millenials became the target audience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel after being taught to revere the SF stories their parents admired. I suppose the next generation will be forced to listen to their parents’ memories about Game of Thrones. From stories remembering real people and deeds, we’ve returned to the words of heraldry and magic.
In the end, a mythology says a lot about what its creators see, want and fear. The homesteaders knew about difficulties of existing in an unforgiving natural world and they made up stories that said it could be done. Urban dwellers faced the evil of human corruption and created heroes to combat their foes. Alien beings, the living dead and other soul-draining forces have re-entered our contemporary culture along with the heroes who humanize or stop them. Maybe that’s why we still create and respond to myths. The things we fear alter with knowledge and time; the fact that we fear never changes.
By the way, I’m not the only one fascinated with American Mythology. Check back soon and you’ll see what I mean!!