Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Tribal Myth

From the desk of Sir Jason...

It is common for a group of people, whether a nation, a military unit, an athletic team, a school or a dynasty to find it's identity in a myth. Some myths regularly recur. A "myth" as I define doesn't need to be false. But it is a tale not a history.

The Heroic Myth:

In the distant past our ancestors did thus and so. Conquered X, explored Y, settled Z. "Thine Roman is the Pilum/Roman the sword is thine" "To raise up the poor and beat down the proud who resist." This of course can be harmful if taken to seriously. But it does give inspiration, and gives the love of a tale. It is as fun to hear other tribes Heroic Myths as your own. A common version is the "Horatio Alger" version - the given tribe starts small and unlikely and builds itself into a great civilization. Another variation is the pioneer myth. "Our tribe set off into the wasteland and became great." The last is found among Northern Europeans, Americans, and Greeks. The conquerer myth of course is very common. It is like the pioneer myth but bloodier. It has stereotypes,"The king gave an inspiring speech to all his warriors" (who of course could never hear him but hey...)

The Blowhard Myth:

This was known among China, Japan, Nazi Germany, etc. It is often a result of simple isolation. It can also be compensation for defeat.

The Survival Myth:

This is really a variation of the heroic myth. But it does not praise actual accomplishment but endurance. Known among Jews and Sikhs among others often found in combination with...

The Persecution Myth:

"All the world hates us", etc. This myth is interestingly, often self-fulfilling(as among Germans, Russians, Arabs, etc). That is the paranoia caused by this can pressure a given tribe to actions that actually do make the whole world hate it. Other times it has to do with actual circumstance beyond the tribe's control. In any case it is often harmful and at the least never makes as good a tale as the Heroic Myth, or the Survival Myth. It is at least slightly more pleasant then the Blowhard myth - though curiously the two are often found together.

The Holy Myth:

Has a specifically religious component to it. Best known among Jews, also known among Sikhs. It must be repeated that calling it a myth is not calling it untrue-it is saying it is a tale which glues the members of a group together.

The Ideological Myth:

Similar to the Holy Myth but political rather than religious.

The Bigot Myth:

Defines one's own group by hatred for another. Probably the worst - seldom inspires to good actions, often inspires to bad.

The Quality of Life Myth:

Beloved of travel videos. Praises the charming quality of ones own land. Common among Europeans. Frenchmen are insufferable about it.

The myths one draws inspiration from can inspire to good or bad things. Likewise it can inspire a group the same way. It is nice to have an idea about this phenomenon. But it must be remembered that just because one can describe a human phenomenon in analytical fashion, does not mean one should despise it. That is a great danger for it can often take something meaningful away from you.

- Sir Jason


  1. Sir Jason, could you elaborate on the Blowhard Myth?

  2. The blowhard myth says that Our Civilization is the Only True Civilization. It was known among Chinese who lived for centuries in a situation where they could be pardoned for saying that. For instance whenever the Emperor negotiated with another power he would maintain the fiction that he was negotiating with a Vassal. In fact one of the few Powers the Chinese thought comparable to themselves for a long time was Rome which they only knew of secondhand.

    It is annoying but in some ways it is a most amusing myth.

    Sir Jason

  3. Another one almost exclusive to Westerners is the "self-hating myth". This is sometimes really the bigot myth of one faction of a tribe toward another but it is presented as hatred toward the whole tribe. It focuses on a tribes evil deeds rather then it's good ones. It is usually found among the more influential tribes-less influential ones often cannot afford it and never had the power to be all that bad anyway(though it is supriseing how vicious uninfluential tribes sometimes are).
    The self-hating myth is a perversion of the critical tradition. It values dissent for it's own sake. If someone is angry at the "establishment" for being the establishment and thinks it is always wrong rather then sometimes right and sometimes wrong he is subscribeing to the self-hating myth.
    Sometimes it is a way of flattering oneself: if one's chief heros were dissenters then pretending to be a dissenter is fun even when in fact it is often fashionable and carry's little cost. Unlike honest criticism which improves a tribe, self-hatred harms a tribe's morale and makes it vulnerable. It is also cruel to individuals.
    However the line between good criticism and self-hatred is thin. One might regard the later as the necessary price of the former. However widespread self-hatred is a fairly recent phenomenon even in the West.

    Sir Jason

  4. However widespread self-hatred is a fairly recent phenomenon even in the West.

    Do you think that might be a sign of a pending downfall of a civilization? Wasn't there a lot of self-loathing in the final century or so of the Roman Empire?

    Sir C

  5. Do you think that might be a sign of a pending downfall of a civilization? Wasn't there a lot of self-loathing in the final century or so of the Roman Empire?

    Sir C

    Good question. And the answer for once is "I don't know."

    Western Civilization had a good run of it whatever happens and if the City of Man falls the City of God endures. Which is not to be pessimistic but to say, "I don't know."

    If it is any comfort the phenomenon was known even in C.S. Lewis' time(see "The Dangers of National Repentance). It is however not remembered as well.