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What are legends and myths?

When we think of myths and legends, we mainly think of tales that have been elaborated and expanded over a long period of time. Many of them have had their roots in real characters and events but with retelling and elaboration have been built up into great 'ripping yarns'.  Over time, some of these additional elaborations may become so numerous or overpowering that they start to crowd out the mundane facts on which they were initially built.

The words legend and myth are often used interchangeably and a dictionary definition does not help to clarify things. We have therefore decided in our White Hat Guides to define what we mean when we talk about a myth or a legend. It is not necessarily the 'correct' definition, but one that is close to current common Australian usage.

Obviously at times there is a very fine line between what we have called a myth and a legend.

Sometimes it depends on the story teller. One person can tell a story around a campfire and end with the words "and I swear that everything I told you is true" accompanied by a wink. They are probably relating a legend. An identical story can be told by someone at a public meeting with the speaker finishing with "and I swear that everything I told you is true!" accompanied by a pounding of the lectern. The same story when presented as a literal interpretation of what happened may have become a myth.

Sometimes it depends on the listener. In many established religions it is common to find some adherents who believe a particular religious story to be the absolute historical retelling of what happened while the person standing (or kneeling) next to them is acknowledging it as a valuable religious legend illustrating important key values of that religion.

Australian myths

Australia has a short history since European settlement, but has still managed to create a number of myths. If you are looking for Australian myths, some of the richest sources are taxi drivers, talk radio (both commercial and ABC), travel books, backpacker sites on the internet and (we are ashamed to admit) the classroom.

In order to help understand the nature of these myths we have in our White Hat Guides classified them into five types:

Imported myths

What we have called an Imported Myth results from taking a myth from another country and culture, possibly substituting some local characters and events then retelling (or often rebranding) it. This was a technique sometimes used by Christian missionaries, and if one believes the story to be a legend or allegory illustrating important values and underlying truths than the renaming of characters or events is of little consequence. However, if it being believed as literal truth it has then become a myth. Not surprisingly, the early European settlers far from their homelands were to create a number of such myths

Most of these early Australian Imported Myths died off or over time or were subsumed into more locally based myths. The Imported Myth has however seen a triumphant and profitable return with the rise of 'new age' and 'alternative' movements. Some are based on stars not visible in the Southern Hemisphere while other are undaunted by (in the words of Les Murray) "fitting cyclic pagan [European] systems to a place where the seasons are back to front and subtle, and where nature often forgets to be effectively cyclic for years at a time".Les Murray: The Quality of Sprawl (Duffy and Snellgrove - Sydney, 1999) p.40

Additive Myths

What we have chosen to call an Additive Myth is formed by taking a historical person or event and adding fictional attachments. For instance, if infamous Australians such as Ned Kelly and Squizzy Taylor had performed all the deeds popularly attributed to them, they would need to have lived to the age of 300 years to accomplish them all. When such deeds are related with tongue-in-cheek good humour they are legends, but when truly believed they are Additive Myths.

Subtractive Myths

What we have called a Subtractive Myth is formed by taking a historical person or event and stripping away or ignoring numbers of aspects. This usually results in a complex three-dimensional person being reduced to a simplistic one-dimensional "hero" or "villain". W.C Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in their wonderful little book 1066 and All That  parodied this approach to history in a highly amusing way by reducing many events and characters in British history to either "A Good Thing" or "A Bad Thing".

Each generation tends to invent its Good Old Days by mainly leaving out the unpleasant bits. Thus in the Misty Watercolour Memory Period of the baby boomers, the drugs were always harmless, the tram conductors were all friendly, helpful and responsible, university and love were always free and all was peace and harmony.

Subtractive myths are often favoured by academics and historians to subtly push a given world view because they are not strictly lying. Quite often a subtractive myth tells the truth - it just doesn't tell the whole truth and is therefore misleading (often deliberately). The subtractive myth has become particularly popular with:

Creating a Subtractive Myth is sometimes confused with deconstruction. However when properly applied deconstruction tries to strip things down to their underlying essence, while Subtractive Myths merely discards inconvenient facts.

A fertile starting point for subtractive myths is a slogan or catchy phrase. It is rarely possible to adequately represent a complex situation in one short phrase, but many choose to do so in newspaper headlines, slogans on banners, chants at rallies, and in graffiti. After a while, some start to believe that the slogan tells the full story and deny that any other dimensions exist.

Some Australians who have been subjects of subtractive myths include Vida Goldstein and John Batman

Sometimes Subtractive Myths are created for positive social purposes. The impressive and important Aboriginal section at the Melbourne Museum represents a Subtractive Myth. Major factors of local Aboriginal life such as tribal wars and treatment of women are removed. Many see this a necessary corrective (or positive discrimination if you will) to help wipe out previous misconceptions and wrong doings. We encourage you to go along and judge for yourself whether you think this Subtractive Myth is the best way to achieve these ends.

Manufactured Myth

Sometimes myths are created using both the above methods, First all the 'inconvenient' facts are stripped out, then fictitious information is put in their place. This leaves a myth with little grounding in reality, and it is much prized by  political and religious extremists and  salesmen of fuzzy new age snake oil. Because these myths are usually demonstrably at odds with the known facts, they are usually justified with divine inspiration or conspiracy theories. They are particularly popular with producers of pseudo-science and mock-history television programs because they usually provide a ratings hit. The last decade has proved a particularly fruitful one for these myths in Australia since the dumbing-down of science and history curricula has made it much easier for such manufactured myths to gain popular acceptance and find their way into the school syllabus and into TAFE courses. At University level, manufactured myths are often championed by certain styles of post-modernists who hold that all 'narratives' are equally valid regardless with how they tally against verifiable historic data. Manufactured myths are also popular with many of limited education because they can help you to appear 'deep' - hence the popularity of manufactured myths such as The Da Vinci Code.

Invented myths

At the extreme end of myths are the ones that are quite simply invented or made up. We are all familiar with invented urban myths and the loopy conspiracy theories that usually follow a major event. (Of course if a conspiracy theory proves true it is no longer a theory and certainly not a myth.) See for instance Some Urban Legends of Melbourne. Many of these are invented myths gain fast and widespread acceptance because they reinforce what certain sections of society want to believe. In fact that is why they are invented in the first place. Invented Myths often use a 'clincher clause' so they cannot be disproved. This usually involves an unknowable higher power or government department or the like.

Sometimes, invented myths have been used for commercial gain or to advance a career. The writer Helen Demidenko (who represented herself as being Ukranian) won the Miles Franklin Award for her autobiographical novel The Hand That Signed The Paper in 1995 and made much of her 'real life experiences'.  She was eventually revealed as Helen Darville from Sydney (to the embarrassment of large sections of the local literary community who had lavishly praised the 'authenticity' of her voice)..

There are, however some more subtle forms of invented myth in Australia. One of the more celebrated was the invention of a fictitious poet and World War 1 soldier called Ern Malley. He was invented by a group of writers and artists to expose the shallow pretentiousness of literary criticism of the time. In the spirit of his invention, we have not mentioned in our profile of Ern Malley that he never existed. A brief exposure to ABC radio or television or to our major broadsheet newspapers will quickly convince you that Australia desperately needs another invented myth in the spirit of Ern Malley to puncture the celebration of the middle-brow wrapped in essentially meaningless post-modernist academic jargon.

Australian legends

Nearly all societies and religions have their their own legends, and many of them attempt to distil values and ideals that are important to that society. When faced with a legend, a good historian tries to peel away the additions to get back to the known facts. The historian will also, however, try to understand why the subject has been chosen for the honour of becoming a legend.

The truly great legends of Australia that have stood the test of time are the Aboriginal dreamtime stories. These stories are often intertwined with song, dance, cave paintings and other rituals, so a mere retelling in English conveys none of the power and spirituality of these legends. Also, many of them are designed only to be told at certain times to certain people. However, whitefellas can glean some feeling for the power of these legends and the compelling effect of Aboriginal story telling through the project called Ngarinyan Pathways Dulwain.

Since European settlement, there are some stories that have become legends. Some prominent legends include the Eureka Stockade, Gallipoli and Ned Kelly  (However there are still many who literally believe in some of the fictional manipulation of these stories, so for them they are what we would call myths.) Some people like Sir Donald Bradman became legends in their own lifetime.

The place of myths and legends in Australia

Australia in the space of two generations has gone from a predominantly Christian society to a predominantly secular society. The absence of 'revealed religion' and 'received morality' has left a void for many people, and myths and legends help to fill that void and codify a complex world.

Romantics and idealists are often drawn to the Additive Myths and in some cases have revitalised them. The thousands of young Australians that now make the pilgrimage to dawn service at Gallipoli are often dealing with complex thoughts and emotions rather than simple jingoism or nationalism. In most cases they will be aware of the value of both the historical facts and the legend. Ideologues and those unable or unwilling to cope with complex  concepts are often drawn to Subtractive Myths. They will point out that Additive Myths have often become part of mainstream history and so choose subtractive or invented myths to 'correct the balance' and provide the 'real explanation of things'. The truly angry and those having real difficulty coping with the world tend to be drawn to Invented Myths.

"Oh - and we swear that everything we have told you is true"



Copyright 1995 - 2015 White Hat.

References and resources

In-line References and Citations: White Hat uses in-line references, sources and notes. Wherever you see a small white hat This is where notes and references will appear., rest the pointer over it for a second and a note or reference will appear.

Some useful resources

A useful book for understanding extraordinary rise of manufactured and invented myths in recent years is Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (see below). Wheen says "My purpose in this book is to show how the humane values of the  Enlightenment have been abandoned or betrayed, and why it matters; those who rewrite or romanticise history, like those who rejoice in its demise or irrelevance, are condemned to repeat it".

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
Francis Wheen

This highly entertaining book documents and debunks a whole range of manufactured myths, media-induced mass unreason, post-modernist academic fakery, vacuous business and self-help 'philosophies' and new age snake oil that have become popular in recent years.

Despite often being extremely funny, it is an impassioned and tightly-argued plea to recognise mumbo jumbo for what it is and to champion the values of the Enlightenment philosophers.

Our rating:
Five Hats

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