The Significance of Myths and Legends in National Identity
The Greek god Zeus
It is importance to know your culture's myths and legends and those of other culture
By Erwin Cabucos
In discussing the functions of myths and legends of a culture, it seems coherent to make a claim, with considerable enthusiasm, that this form of traditional literature might as well be true because of the colossal impact they have in the cultural life of their audiences. One only needs to be reminded of the richness of the Judeo-Christian rites and ceremonies, past and present, all because of the creation and salvation mythologies from the ancient Hebrew and Christian traditions. It is important to have the knowledge of the myths and legends of one’s own culture and those of the other culture as these types of literature provide ways through which audience experiences, appreciates and understands the ideological assumptions, moral concerns, and religious beliefs of that culture. They also convey explanations, providing sensible responses to human wonder on the puzzlement of creation and the beginnings of places or objects. In other words, myths and legends act as a window into the richness of an identified cultural heritage, aligning the audience to their cultural identity.
One can only marvel the richness of myths and legends from the Greek tradition. One of which is the story of Perseus, the son of god Zeus who sets out on a quest to reach the Grey Women and to find out how to get to the nymphs of the north. With the aid of Hermes the messenger of the gods, Perseus reaches the home of the slithery monster Medusa, haired with snakes, and who can turn people into stones by her stare. Perseus triumphantly kills Medusa using the reflection of his shield and brought her head home in a Pegasus ride. Perseus tramples the sea monster through the deadly stares of Medusa’s eyes then saves and marries Andromeda of Argos. It is believed that they settle in Asia Minor with their son Perses, which gave the name to the country Persia.
The myth of Perseus conveys important values in the culture of the Greeks, including the preservation of control and order of a political and social institution, as represented by the people and governance of Argos. The sense of order and peace must prevail over chaos and destruction and a collective effort must be formed to achieve the desired outcome, hence the group of Titans were necessary to overcome such massive challenges afflicted by the forces of the Underworld under the leadership of Hades. The collective effort must sometimes be open to the intercession of the gods because help from these powerful beings signify the magnitude of the challenges of the task. Such is the value for an order for a state or social structure that it would take lives, soldiers, and a hero to attain, validating the underpinning respect on social institutions.
The story of Perseus gives the audience a vicarious experience of the sweetness of triumphs when obstacles are overcome after a series of clashes which Sloan (2003:55) refers to as “a paradise above the world of experience, a place of wish fulfilment in which all obstacles are overcome.” But this prize comes only through the effective uses of courage, bravery and persistence, particularly the value of accepting your own background and identity. Although having courage, Perseus is nearing defeat in his fights against the monsters and only then does he gain strength and power when he accepts the fact that he is the son of Zeus and that he is both god and mortal, and for accepting for being so, he is gifted with the sword, the Pegasus and other charms. Thus the experience of this myth provides an archetypal formula for success; that it is not given, but earned and worked hard for.
The experience of battle that the myth conveys can be a tool, by projection, to examine one’s personal psychological status. From Betterlheim’s discussion of the workings of the id, ego and superego in both our conscious and unconscious mind (1986:6), it can be interpreted that the battles of Perseus against forces of the Underworld can represent one’s inner psychological battle of our superego trying to tame and control the possible mayhem and disgust that can potentially be committed by the id. The maintained balance of our ego and superego in our mind is a product of constant clashes of the titans between our id and superego, reinforcing Bettelheim’s explanation: “A myth may express an inner conflict in symbolic form and suggest how it may be solved” (1986:26). It can be argued then that when the conflict is seemingly solved, the vicarious experience of the myth acts as catharsis.
The moral teaching of good overcoming evil is strong in the narrative of the myth of Perseus and the Clash of the Titans. Goodness prevails as Perseus and Andromeda lived in a state of order at a particular place. Goodness can be achieved by a mortal through the light and inspiration from the immortals. Zeus’s good intentions overpower Hades’ evil ways. Goodness – a basic belief that a young audience would tend to appeal to and confirm.
The myth of Perseus has scant content with regards to the topic of creation and the beginnings of things. The final mention of Perses, his son, as the origin of the country Persia, where the family has eventually settled, still proves to be a qualifying factor in this instance. However, revisiting other mythologies around the world which do present richer narratives about creation may prove worthwhile.
Japan’s mythology of Izanagi and Izanami, the male and female gods, tell the story of the beginning of the islands of Japan. The two stand beside the floating Bridge of Heaven while stirring a spear into the sea. When they lift the spear out of the water, the droplets form into islands which form parts of the country. Other islands, including waterfalls, trees, plants and wind of the country come from the bosom of Izanami who give birth to those islands and other living things. This myth moves on to tell the destiny of the two having married, having domestic problems and creating some more gods out of themselves. The story gives the audience a sense of appreciation and explanation of the natural beauty of the place. The feeling that the country is endowed to them by their own gods is a logical affirmation of the duty of care and concern that should be upheld by the constituents. In Aboriginal Australians’ series of mythologies on the beginnings of places and other natural creations, the emphasis is placed on the respect and care of the land as a gift, both natural and transcendental, to the people, hence the duty to care for it, is understood and never to be negotiated.
The legend of the giant turtle from the island of Fiji tells the myth of a fisherman Lekabai from Samoa, who is in trouble in the ocean and later helped by a sky god who gives him a giant turtle to be used to return home. The story progresses to tell the controversy caused by the Samoan King about finding the remains of the giant turtle which could never be found. The king terrorises the people and the sky god helps to move some Samoan people to Fiji. This myth certainly conveys the values of reconciliation and cultural harmony between native Fijians and Samoan Fijians. Children who are consuming such stories are offered with enlightenment that it is by god’s act and circumstances that the two races in the country are destined to live together – a cultural belief that is necessary for the survival of the whole country.
Perhaps the most popular mythology on creation that has been introduced and embraced by millions of people around the world understandably because of the spread of the religious institutions under which it is dogmatised, is the story of Creation and Adam and Eve in the Garden on Eden. In fact the succeeding stories that followed the two first mortals have the accounts of a monotheistic god participating in the salvation and journey of the chosen people in the desert. The whole salvation saga is persistent until a particular personality was born to have endowed with both man and god qualities – Jesus of Nazareth. This particular story of creation and salvation does not only send a message of appreciation and care of the natural world, but also implies respect and reverence to the almighty creator in heavens. Furthermore, the story of salvation exemplified by god who became one of the mortals in order to bring the sinned mortals back into his heavenly kingdom is evident. Hence the duty to honour that god and to care for other human beings underpins the religious tradition of the Judeo-Christian-Islam charter. The beliefs of creation, one God, the prophets, angles and the afterlife – all came from the same source, the book of the Pentateuch which has become the common source of the religious experience of man according to the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hence the power of the myth to transport and connect people into the experience of the transcendental is remarkable. It justifies Richard Mathews (2002) claim that a fantastic, including mythical text such as the myths of creation and salvation provides “awareness of the holiness … the text [becomes] a means for clarifying, expressing and celebrating the human relationship to the infinite” (p.8).
Knowledge of one’s own myths and legends acts a transforming mechanism for the individual to know, appreciate and respect the cultural and moral assumptions of a society, as well as, revere the religious beliefs of peoples. The narratives of creation can provide renewed perspectives into appreciating the beauty of the natural wonders around us as they convey explanations to the beginnings of things and places. Myths and legends are instrumental to the preservation of the cultural heritage of a culture. This becomes more fitting when these narratives about gods and immortals, hero and quest are made available to young audience or readers because through them, our new generations will always have appreciation and understanding of their own heritage told in entertaining ways; and in this age of apparent cultural mix, such appreciation and understanding become a necessity to achieving more meaningful and effective life in the twenty-first century.
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