Historical Myth and Memory

Irakli Mbrica

The Historian’s Craft

Historical Myth and Memory

Fig. 1- Joan of Arc- Miniature on parchment from the 15th century. Archives Nationales, Paris.

Fig. 2- Billy the Kid tintype, Fort Sumner, 1879-80.png

Fig. 3- The Man in the Iron Mask


Fig. 4- Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. Before 1918. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction number LC-DIG-ggbain-38336

Throughout history there have been famous and mysterious figures that have captivated their societies. Their appeal comes from the unknown, uncertain, or exaggerated information surrounding their lives, actions, and influences. What historical figures, such as Joan of Arc, Anastasia Romanov, Billy the kid, and King Arthur, all have in common is that the details of their lives or actions have been embellished and thus are unclear. When information about people gets passed down to the next generation or even through subsequent years, it changes each time and thus raises doubts about the certainty of the original information. As writer James Bonnet puts it, “The process went something like this: it began with a real or imagined incident or event that was worth repeating, something so intriguing that we were compelled to repeat it. It was passed along by word of mouth, from person to person and from generation to generation until it had been told and retold millions of times and existed in a hundred different versions around the world.” Stories from the past change because people have a natural tendency to remember things that they like and to forget things that do not impress them. People also have a tendency to exaggerate or minimize, glorify or vilify, idealize or ignore information. Even things that are written often are either inaccurate, unclear, or suspect to different explanations. These types of stories or information that change over time are called myths.

Topic Importance:

While there exist multiple works on specific myths regarding famous, historical figures, only a few books or articles tackle the topic generally. What I mean is that, although there are many specific historical myths, few works look into the combined reasoning behind the myths of these figures and why they are important. The fact that there are so many myths must mean that something is causing humans to continue creating and supporting myths throughout different time periods. Why is it that we still know of the myths of King Arthur? How has historical information, in many societies, evolved into mythological stories that still remain to this day? That is why there needs to be an effort in collecting various myths and trying to identify and explain the reasons why people, whether consciously or subconsciously, create these embellished stories called myths. This guide will serve as a good starting point, comprising of various print and web sources about specific and general myths, for those who want to tackle the process of how myths are constructed and supported in societies. The guide also uses a few famous individuals as a representation of the many myths surrounding historical figures. Thus, one can write a general overview of the construction and support of myths in society, while also delving into the myths of specific historical figures as supporting examples.

Definition of Myth:

  1. A usually traditional story of ostensible historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.
  2. A popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society.
  3. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.

source-  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2012.                                                                                                                 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myth (accessed Nov. 25, 2012)

General Book Sources on Myths:

Armstrong, Karen.  A Short History of Myth.  Canongate U.S, October 1, 2006.

  • Armstrong writes about the role of myth in society and why it remains important for human life. She traces the beginnings of myths and how it develops over periods in history with the advances in material and economic conditions. She states that myth is a fundamental part of human life that links us from culture to culture. This will help identify one of the reasons for myth-making in societies.

Blackwood, Gary L.  Perplexing People (Unsolved History).  Benchmark Books, October, 2005.

  • This book provides various examples of unsolved mysteries and myths of historical figures from different cultures and times. It is a good starting point when trying to find historical figures about whom myths are created. Blackwood gives some historical background about each subject/person, inserts the questions or mysteries involving them, and then reveals future pretenders who claimed to be someone whose death was a mystery or uncertain.

May, Rollo. “The Cry for Myth.” W. W. Norton and Company, May 1, 1991.

  • May argues psychologically that people need myths in order to make sense of life. Myths are passed down from ancestors, who used them to make sense of the universe, and can build ones sense of identity, community, and solace. Myths support people in giving them meaning for the unknowns in their lives. The book is from a psychological standpoint and very critical of myths and their messages. It will add more substance to the construction part of the topic.

Von Hendy, Andrew.  The Modern Construction of Myth.  Indiana University Press, 2nd Edition, 2002.

  • Von Hendy, a Boston College English professor, writes in a very detailed, organized, and clear method explaining the various myths throughout history. He also shows how myth is currently used in modern times. It is a great book because the author is not one-sided or trying to prove a point, other than to fully show the psychology and ideas behind myth construction and use. The book is one of the few out there that look at the construction and process of myths, focusing more on the 18th century and later.

General Web Sources on Myths:

Bailey, Thomas A. The Journal of American History, Vol. 55, No. 1. Organization of American Historians, June, 1968. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894248

  • Thought this is maybe too old of a journal, it is still a good source of myths in societies. One of the many points of the journal is to show how myths and uncertain stories are passed among generations without being challenged. Society allows myths to continue because it is often more interesting, more recognizable, and less of a hassle than digging into the truth.

Bonnet, James. How the Great Myths and Legends Were Created. The Writers Store Inc., 1982-2012. Accessed Nov. 26, 2012. http://www.writersstore.com/how-the-great-myths-and-legends-were-created/

  • Bonnet is a well-known writer on mythology. This specific article is a great overview of what myth is, how it is created, and why people create myths. It is a simple article but it contains so much well put information on the subject of myth-making. He also gives a few historical figures as examples and states how or why myths were created about them.

Kluckhohn, Clyde. Daedalus, Vol. 88, No. 2, Myth and Mythmaking. MIT Press, Spring, 1959. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026495

  • The author of this journal focuses on the anthorpolgical and behavioral themes of myth-making that occur throughout historical myths. Basically, he talks about how certain features come togeather in a society to create mythology and why people continue to believe them.

Myth Encyclopedia: Myths and Legends of the World. Advameg, Inc., 2012. Accessed Nov. 20, 2012. http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/index.html

  • This encyclopedia of myths and legends is a good start when trying to get a background knowledge about a certain figure or mythology. It gives general information regarding multiple people in history.

Book Sources on Specific Cases of Myths:

Bell, Bob Boze. The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid. Tri Star Boze Publications, 2004.

  • This book shows, through art and facts, the whole life of Billy the Kid. It provides the reader with a vivid look into the real Billy the Kid, put into context of the time period. It’s a great source when trying to figure out facts from myths about Billy the Kid and will be a good addition to the specific myth creation for this case.

Blake, Steve and Scott Lloyd. Pendragon: The Definitive Account of the Origins of Arthur. Lyons Press, August 1, 2006.

  • Blake and Lloyd do a great job or separating historical fact from romanticized fiction regarding the origin and life of King Arthur. They do extensive research on Arthur’s genealogy, focusing on the language and culture differences. Furthermore, they put the society and the time period into perspective, mentioning that Arthur’s mythology is influenced by exaggerated exploits that fit a political agenda during that age.

Brooks, Polly Schoyer. Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

  • Though this book is more for young adults, it still holds a lot of value in unveiling the details and history behind the myth of Joan of Arc. Brooks illustrates Joan’s origins, her battles, and her personality. She studies the life of Joan, and how certain information about her was twisted or changed into myths and fiction.

Dumas, Alexandre.  The Man in the Iron Mask.  Signet Classics (revised and updated edition),  May 2, 2006.

  • This amazing story by Dumas is based on historical facts during the reign of King Louis XIV. It shows how the myth of the man in the iron mask can influence or be influenced by the politics, alliances, betrayals, and opinions of that time period. The man in the iron mask joins the list of people who had some kind of myth created around them that lasted over many periods of time.

Higham, N.J. King Arthur: Myth-Making and History. Routledge, Sept. 3, 2002.

  • This is a great book when trying to identify where the idea of King Arthur came from. Higham does not try to figure out whether Arthur was real or not, but only tries to identify and explain the process of the idea of Arthur in that time period. He looks at reasons why people might or would make up a myth about Arthur’s life and actions. The book adds to the construction and support of the Arthurian myth.

King, Greg, and Penny Wilson.  The Fate of the Romanovs.  Wiley Publishing, October 28, 2005.

  • This is a very detailed and sourced book about all there is to know on the Romanov royal family. Regarding the myths of the family’s death and their children’s, King is up to date and uses the DNA findings of the 1990’s, which found evidence of the remains of the Romanov family except for the son, Alexei and one of the sisters (Anastasia or Maria). This book focuses on the specific myth surrounding the royal family, as well as continues the mystery of how Anastasia and her brother died, if they actually did die. He uses multiple photos, personal letters, and other primary sources as evidence of what transpired and when it happened.

Kurth, Peter. Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson. Back Bay Books,  June 3, 19985.

  • This book is a great example of how a person can take advantage of myths surrounding someone, and impersonate them. Anna Anderson was a poor woman from Virginia who possibly tricked many people, including many of the Romanov family and friends, into believing that she was the lost Anastasia. I say possible because a few years after this book was written DNA evidence of Anna concluded that she was not Anastasia. However, even to this day, there is a sort of cult following that truly believes Anna Anderson to be Anastasia, who survived her family’s execution. It’s a perfect example of how the mind and society work in finding connections where there are none (or are unclear), and in creating facts out of fiction.

Tatum, Stephen. Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the outlaw in America, 1881-1981. University of Mexico Press, 1982.

  • Tatum gives some historical information on Billy the Kid, but focuses more on his mythological image in America. He shows how each generation transforms and re-invent the image of Billy to fit into their societal needs and ethics.

Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History. The History Press, June 1, 2006.

  • This is another good book about the facts, life, and uncertainties of Joan of Arc. It is mostly a general book, in that it does not dig too deeply into the backgrounds of characters, but it is informative in the accounts and facts that it provides.

Online Sources on Specific Cases of Myths:

Atchison, Bob. My Name is Anastasia. Pallasart, Austin Web Design, 2012. http://www.alexanderpalace.org/anastasia/index.html

  • Atchison is a devoted writer of the Royal Russian Empire. He created the website, Alexander Palace Time Machine, in order to put all of the information regarding the royal family, the Tsars, etc. It has become the top rated site on Imperial Russian History. This specific part of the website is a simulated, first-person telling of the life, myths, and facts of Anastasia. Here, Atchison provides many details, images, and events that occured in the life of the ideal/true Anastasia.

Brothers, Marcelle. About Billy the Kid. Ms. Marcelle Brothers, 2000. Last updated, July, 27, 2011. http://www.aboutbillythekid.com/index.html

  • This is a good starting source for information about Billy the Kid, his life, his actions, and myths about him. It’s a website devoted to Billy and created by a devoted historian/webmaster who gives an account of his life by using images, letters, and other evidence. The only concern I have with this site is that there might be some bias in the sense that, as a devoted historian, Ms. Brothers is too focused on her personal views of Billy and might miss some important evidence or claims.

Kennedy, Ben D.  Maid of Heaven: The Story of Saint Joan of Arc. RLK Press, 2007-2012.  http://www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_myths_article.asp

  • The author tries to shed light into the facts of the life of Joan of Arc. The details of her story are looked into and either debunked or explained. One thing about this author is his seemingly extreme view of or connection to Christianity which could skew the paper and its’ information into one direction. Much of the article is in defense of Saint Joan of Arc so it could easily be said that this is more one-sided and less objective. This article will be used as an example of how and why someone can still mythologize the story of a historical figure. A young girl, Joan of Arc is over time transformed into a saint by many people who learn her life story.

Klevmoen, Sammee.  The Lost Princess.  An essay compiled by Father Nektarios Serfes.  Boise, Idaho, 20 May, 2000. http://www.serfes.org/royal/thelostprincess.htm

  • This paper is a project of someone who actually researched the topic well and wrote about it from her perspective. Father Serfes is a source in this paper who is devoted to the Imperial family of Russia. I wanted to use this article as a way to support certain theories and facts about the myth of Anastasia. It is quite objective, aside from a few of the sources, and it is from another student’s perspective on the matter.

The Man in the Iron Mask. The Biography Channel website, http://www.biography.com/people/the-man-in-the-iron-mask-38348 (accessed Nov 27, 2012).

  • This is a depiction of the Man in the Iron Mask, as there are no actual images to use. This cite gives a small biography, with some details, as to who this man is.