“Let me tell it my way”: musings on myth and cultural power


Because I have no life, I’m taking that course about superheroes through edX. I kind of accidentally wrote an essay on the week 1 discussion board (clearly I’m making good use of my bachelor’s degree), and I thought I’d share it with you all.

Prompt from the course website:  Are myths our way of making the mundane stories of our lives more memorable and engaging? Are they a necessary but temporary escape from reality? Or are they, as in the case of Godzilla, our way of processing collective trauma?


I think to argue that myths have a singular purpose, as the discussion prompt seems to be inviting us to do, is to misrepresent the nature of myths themselves. I don’t think myths are a monolith – much like the religions with which they’re so often associated, myths are rather like a Swiss Army knife; they can be used for a multiplicity of purposes. There are creation myths, moral-oriented myths (like Aesop’s fables or Jesus’s parables), trauma-oriented myths, myths that appear to just be funny stories, and probably several more types I can’t think of because I’ve typed “myths” so much already that it’s starting to not sound like a word anymore.

But at the same time, all these types of myths have one thing in common: they’re used to create, wield, and/or reclaim power.

One of the most universal questions, asked by the people of probably every civilization ever, is where did we come from? It’s a great question, but it’s also so immense that it’s almost unapproachable. Though scientists have been making headway on the subject for a while now, we as humans generally have not had the means or the insight to form a definitive, based-on-empirical-evidence answer. But we have to think of something, right? We have to have an answer on the tips of our tongues when our children get old enough to ask that question. So we create myths. Maybe we know on some level they aren’t true, but that doesn’t really matter, because we have chosen this as our origin story, our specific cultural narrative. By coming up with creation myths, we simultaneously create knowledge (in a few generations, the distinction of myth vs. reality begins to fade, so a myth is as good as a fact) and stand up in our own small way to the gigantic mystery of our universe, our lives, our selves.

As an aside, even the seemingly inconsequential myths about deities, the ones that basically consist of shenanigans, are another way of standing up to the gigantic mystery of the universe. When we relate those stories, we claim to know the deeds and hearts of the entities we worship. It’s so audacious that it’s brilliant.

Then there are the myths with morals at the ends, the ones we learn from Sunday school, our picture books, and/or our parents. The ways in which these stories exert power over people should be obvious. Ideas of right and wrong may be culturally determined to a degree, but it’s a culture’s stories, the lessons woven in them and tacked onto their endings, that draw those lines.

The trauma-oriented myths are another fascinating category. Forgive me for geeking out a little about this; I took one class on trauma theory and another on Cherokee literature in college, so this is right up my alley. At this juncture, I’ll bite and say that the discussion board prompt actually does raise a good point. I absolutely agree that myths can be a cultural method of dealing with trauma. But to tie it into my overall point about power, I’d take that idea a step further and say that myths allow for the reclamation of trauma through a conscious, willful (re)shaping of the traumatic event.

Good grief, that sounded pretentious even to me. I’ll explain a little further by talking as briefly as possible about three books in particular: Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Way of Thorn and Thunder by Daniel Heath Justice, and Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. In Maus, Art Spiegelman retells the story of his father’s experiences in the concentration camps by portraying all the characters as animals – Jews are mice, Nazis and other Germans are cats, Americans are dogs, etcetera. The Way of Thorn and Thunder is basically the story of the Cherokee relocation from their homelands in the southeastern United States (complete with a John Ross character and a character who’s an amalgamation of the entire Ridge Party), except the species representing the Cherokee are green-skinned beings called kyn. Green Grass, Running Water – side note, this is definitely one of my favorite books ever and all of you should read it – is especially fascinating because Thomas King mixes in all sorts of cultural myths. He deploys Adam and Eve, Moses, Captain Ahab, Natty Bumppo, and countless other borderline-mythic figures in order to tell a uniquely modern, Native American creation story that both incorporates and satirizes colonial/imperialist influences. What all of these stories have in common is that their authors are reacting to a specific cultural trauma of theirs by saying yeah, but let me tell it my way. Purely by presenting the story in their own unique manner, they’re taking it out of the hands of those who inflicted the trauma in the first place. They’re taking back some power, refusing in their way to let history be written by the victors.

So, to provide the questions we’ve been posed with a concise answer, myths have never served just one purpose. They’ve adapted to humanity’s various needs through the millenia, and I think that’s what makes them so powerful. That’s what makes them stick.

And an addendum, because someone replied to the post with some really good points and I just had to reply:

In a way, it doesn’t really matter whether or not these stories are objectively true – the fact that some people still believe they are speaks volumes about them and their social group/culture/mindset. That’s also a valuable form of knowledge, I think. …I guess I’m taking more of a Foucauldian approach: myths, like identities, are both social constructs and cultural artifacts, but their relative fluidity doesn’t make them any less valid.


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