The Dispute of Minerva and Neptune (c. 1689 or 1706) by René-Antoine Houasse, depicting the founding myth of Athens

A national myth is an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation's past. Such myths often serve as important national symbols and affirm a set of national values. A national myth may sometimes take the form of a national epic or be incorporated into a civil religion. A group of related myths about a nation may be referred to as the national mythos, from μῦθος, the original Greek word for "myth".

A national myth is a legend or fictionalized narrative which has been elevated to a serious mythological, symbolic, and esteemed level so as to be true to the nation.[1] It might simply over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence; or it might simply be a fictional story that no one takes to be true literally,[2] but contains a symbolic meaning for the nation. The national folklore of many nations includes a founding myth, which may involve a struggle against colonialism or a war of independence or unification. In many cases, the meaning of the national myth is disputed among different parts of the population.

In some places, the national myth may be spiritual in tone and refer to stories of the nation's founding at the hands of a God, several gods, leaders favored by gods, or other supernatural beings. National myths serve many social and political purposes. National myths often exist only for the purpose of state-sponsored propaganda. In totalitarian dictatorships, the leader might be given, for example, a mythical supernatural life history in order to make them seem god-like and supra-powerful (see also cult of personality). However, national myths exist in every society. In liberal regimes they can serve the purpose of inspiring civic virtue and self-sacrifice,[3] or of consolidating the power of dominant groups and legitimizing their rule.


National myths have been created and propagated by national intellectuals, who have used them as instruments of political mobilization on demographic bases such as ethnicity.[4]

Social background

The concept of national identity is inescapably connected with myths.[5] A complex of myths is at the core of every ethnic identity.[6] Some scholars believe that national identities, supported by invented histories, were constructed only after national movements and national ideologies emerged.[7]

All modern national identities were preceded by nationalist movements.[8] Although the term "nation" was used in the Middle Ages, it had usually an ethnic meaning and seldom referred to a state. In the age of nationalism, it was linked to efforts aimed at creating nation-states.[9]

Psychological background

Besides their social background, nationalist myths have also a psychological explanation which is connected with the nationalist myth of a stable homeland community. The complexity of relations within the modern external world and the incoherence of one's inner psychological world can result in anxiety which is reduced by static self-labeling and self-construction and gaining an imaginary emotion of stability.[10]

Mythopoeic methods

Traditional myth-making often depended on literary story-tellers - especially epic poets. Ancient Hellenic culture adopted Homer's Ionian Iliad as a justification of its theoretical unity, and Virgil (70 - 19 BCE) composed the Aeneid in support of the political renewal and reunification of the Roman world after lengthy civil wars. Generations of medieval writers (in poetry and prose) contributed to the Arthurian Matter of Britain, developing what became a focus for English nationalism by adopting British Celtic material. Camões(c. 1524 - 1580) composed in Macao the Lusiads as a national poetic epic for Portugal; Voltaire attempted a similar work for French mythologised history in the Henriade (1723). Wagnerian opera came to foster German national enthusiasm.

Modern purveyors of national mythologies have tended to pension off the poets and often appeal to the people more directly through telling phraseology in media. French pamphleteers spread the ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in the 1790s, and American journalists, politicians, and scholars popularized mythic tropes like "Manifest Destiny", "the Frontier", or the "Arsenal of Democracy". Socialists advocating ideas like the dictatorship of the proletariat have promoted catchy nation-promoting slogans such as "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" and "Kim Il-sung thought".[11]

Primary myths

Two of nationalism's primary myths are connected with beliefs in:[12]

  1. community's permanence (the myth of the eternal nation), based on its national character, territory and institutions and on its continuity across many generations, and
  2. community's common ancestry (myth of the common ancestry).


Nationalist myths sometimes tend to stimulate conflicts between nations,[13] to magnify distinctive characteristics of the national group and to overstate the threat to the nation posed by other groups propagating militant fulfillment of their goals.[14]

List of national myths

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (January 2023)

See also


  1. ^ Renan, Ernest (1882). Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?.
  2. ^ Abizadeh, Arash (2004). "Historical Truth, National Myths, and Liberal Democracy". Journal of Political Philosophy. 12 (3): 291–313. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2004.00201.x.
  3. ^ Miller, David (1995). On Nationality. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-828047-5.
  4. ^ Safty, Adel (2002), Leadership and Conflict Resolution, USA: Universal publishers, p. 273, ISBN 1-58112-617-4, Shnirelman (1995) considers nationalist myths ... created by national intellectuals and propagated by the intelligentsia with the aim of using this myths as an instrument of ethno-political mobilization under interethnic conflicts.
  5. ^ Cameron, Keith (1999), National identity, Exeter, England: Intellect, p. 4, ISBN 978-1-871516-05-0, OCLC 40798482, Myth is inextricably linked with the concept of national identity
  6. ^ J. Kaufman, Stuart (2001), Modern hatreds: the symbolic politics of ethnic war, New York: Cornell University Press, p. 25, ISBN 978-0-8014-8736-1, OCLC 46590030, The core of the ethnic identity is the "myth-symbol complex" — the combination of myths,...
  7. ^ Østergaard, Uffe; Heine Andersen; Lars Bo Kaspersen (2000). Classical and modern social theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. p. 448. ISBN 978-0-631-21288-1. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  8. ^ Østergaard, Uffe; Heine Andersen; Lars Bo Kaspersen (2000). Classical and modern social theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. p. 448. ISBN 978-0-631-21288-1. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  9. ^ Østergaard, Uffe; Heine Andersen; Lars Bo Kaspersen (2000). Classical and modern social theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. p. 448. ISBN 978-0-631-21288-1. Retrieved 8 September 2011. We can, for example, certainly encounter term "nation" in the Middle Ages, but the word meant something completely different than in the age of nationalism, where it is inextricably linked with the efforts to create an associated state.
  10. ^ Brown, David (2000), "Contemporary nationalism", Contemporary nationalism: civic, ethnocultural, and multicultural politics, London; New York: Routledge, p. 24, ISBN 0-203-38025-8, OCLC 43286590, The nationalist myth of permanent, fixed, homeland community, derives its emotional power, according to psychoanalysis, from the anxieties generated by the fragility of the sense of self, the ego, in the face of both the complex ambiguities inherent in relationships with the external modern world, and also of the disintegrative incoherence of the inner, psychological world. In an attempt to escape the resultant anxiety, the individual engages in an act of self-labelling and self-construction which is essentially static, inserting him or herself into the institutions of society, so as to 'seek out a name' and thence attain an imaginary sense of stability [...].
  11. ^ Portal, Jane (2005). "The Kim Cult". Art Under Control in North Korea. London: Reaktion Books. p. 90. ISBN 9781861892362. Retrieved 6 February 2020. [...] a North Korean's conversation is full of phrases such as 'Kim Il-sung thought', 'Kim Il-sungism', 'dedication to Kim Il-sung' and 'the Great Leader Kim Il-sung'.
  12. ^ Brown, David (2000), "Contemporary nationalism", Contemporary nationalism: civic, ethnocultural, and multicultural politics, London; New York: Routledge, pp. 23, 24, ISBN 0-203-38025-8, OCLC 43286590
  13. ^ Edward Brown, Michael (1997). Nationalism and ethnic conflict. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-585-35807-9. ... we do argue that tendency to breed conflicts is inherent to typical nationalist myths
  14. ^ Schnabel, Albrecht; David Carment (2004). Conflict prevention from rhetoric to reality: Organizations and institutions. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books. pp. 45, 46. ISBN 978-0-7391-0738-6. overemphasize the cultural and historical distinctiveness of the national group [and its territory], exaggerate the threat posed to the nation by other groups, ignore the degree to which the nation's own actions provoked such treats, and play down the cost of seeking national goals through militant means.
  15. ^ Service (KOCIS), Korean Culture and Information. "Dangun, Father of Korea: Korea's foundation tale lends itself to many interpretations : : The official website of the Republic of Korea". Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  16. ^ "The First Emperor of Japan - Kashihara, Nara". JapanTravel. 2020-01-09. Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  17. ^ "The Edda & the Sagas of the Icelanders". Miðstöð íslenskra bókmennta. Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  18. ^ Varpu (2023-05-06). "Kalevala of Finland: Exploring the Fascinating Meaning and Characters of the National Epic". Her Finland. Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  19. ^ "The Fanes' saga". Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  20. ^
  21. ^ Howe, K.R. (2005). "Ideas about Māori origins - 1920s–2000: new understandings". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  22. ^ Renwick, William (1991). "The Undermining of a National Myth: The Treaty of Waitangi 1970-1990". The Journal of New Zealand Studies. Victoria University of Wellington. 3 (4).

Further reading