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 myth is a mixture of reality and fiction, and operates in a specific social and historical setting. Social myths structure national imaginaries.[1] A national myth may take the form of a national epic, or it may be incorporated into a civil religion. A group of related myths about a nation may be referred to as the national mythos, from μῦθος, Greek for "myth".

A national myth is a narrative which has been elevated to a serious symbolic and esteemed level so as to be true to the nation.[verification needed][2] 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 and refer to stories of the nation's founding by a God, several gods, leaders favored by gods, or other supernatural beings.

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). In liberal regimes they can inspire civic virtue and self-sacrifice[3] or consolidate the power of dominant groups and legitimate their rule.

National identity

The concept of national identity is inescapably connected with myths.[4] A complex of myths is at the core of nationalistic ethnic identity.[5] Some scholars believe that national identities, supported by invented histories, were constructed only after national movements and national ideologies emerged.[6]

All modern national identities were preceded by nationalist movements.[verification needed][6] 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.[7]

National myths foster national identities. They are important tools of nation-building,[8] which can be done by emphasizing differences between people of different nations.[9] They can cause conflict[10] as they exaggerate threats posed by other nations and minimize the costs of war.[9]

The nationalist myth of a stable homeland community is explained psychoanalytically as the result of the complexity of relations within the modern external world and the incoherence of one's inner psychological world. Nationalist identity facilitates imagined stability.[11]


National myths are created and propagated by national intellectuals, and they can be used as instruments of political mobilization on demographic bases such as ethnicity.[12]

They might over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence; or a national myth might simply be a fictional story that no one takes to be true literally.[13]

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.

Other methods

Modern purveyors of national mythologies have tended to appeal to the people more directly through the 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".[14]

National myths

The ideology of nationalism is related to two myths: the myth of the eternal nation, referring to the permanence of a community, and the myth of common ancestry.[15] These are represented in the particular national myths of various countries and groups.


The Kalevala is a 19th-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology,.[16] The Kalevala is regarded as the national epic of Karelia and Finland[note 1] It narrates an epic story about the Creation of the Earth, describing the controversies and retaliatory voyages between the peoples of the land of Kalevala called Väinölä and the land of Pohjola and their various protagonists and antagonists as well as the construction and robbery of the epic mythical wealth-making machine Sampo.[18] The Kalevala was instrumental in the development of the Finnish national identity and the intensification of Finland's language strife that ultimately led to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917.[19][20]


According to Greek mythology, the Hellenes descend from Hellen. He is the child of Deucalion (or Zeus) and Pyrrha, and the father of three sons, Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus, by whom he is the ancestor of the Greek peoples.


The sagas of Icelanders,[21] also known as family sagas, are one sub-genre or text groups of Icelandic sagas. They are prose narratives mostly based on historical events that mostly took place in Iceland in the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. They were written in Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse. They are the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature. They are focused on history, especially genealogical and family history. They reflect the struggle and conflict that arose within the societies of the early generations of Icelandic settlers. The Icelandic sagas are valuable and unique historical sources about medieval Scandinavian societies and kingdoms, in particular regarding pre-Christian religion and culture and heroic age.


In Japanese mythology, Emperor Jimmu is the legendary first emperor of Japan. He is described in the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki. His ascension is traditionally dated as 660 BC. He said said to be a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, through her grandson Ninigi, as well as a descendant of the storm god Susanoo. He launched a military expedition from Hyūga near the Seto Inland Sea, captured Yamato, and established this as his center of power. In modern Japan, Emperor Jimmu's legendary accession is marked as National Foundation Day on February 11. There is no evidence to suggest that Jimmu existed. However, there is a high probability that there was a powerful dynasty in the vicinity of Miyazaki Prefecture during the Kofun period.

United States of America

The American frontier (also known as the Old West or Wild West) is a theme in American mythology that defines the American national identity as brave pioneers who discovered, conquered, and settled the vast wilderness.[22] It affirms individualism, informality, and pragmatism as American values. Richard Slotkin describes this myth as depicting "America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top."[23] Cowboys, gunfighters, and farmers are commonly appearing archetypes in this myth. The American frontier produced various mythologized figures such as Wild Bill Hickok, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy, and Davy Crockett. The mythology surrounding the American frontier is immortalized in the Western genre of fiction, particularly Western films and literature.


The first Korean kingdom is said to have been founded by Dangun, the legendary founder and god-king of Gojoseon, in 2333 BCE. Dangun is said to be the "grandson of heaven" and "son of a bear". The earliest recorded version of the Dangun legend appears in the 13th-century Samguk Yusa, which cites China's Book of Wei and Korea's lost historical record Gogi; it has been confirmed that there is no relevant record in China's Book of Wei. There are around seventeen religious groups involving the worship of Dangun.[24]


The Kingdom of Fanes is the national epic of the Ladin people in the Dolomites and the most important part of the Ladin literature. Originally an orally transmitted epic cycle, today it is known through the work of Karl Felix Wolff in 1932, gathered in Dolomitensagen. This legend is part of the larger corpus of the South Tyrolean sagas, whose protagonists are the Fanes themselves.[25]


The national myth of Brazil as a racial democracy was first advanced by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his 1933 work Casa-Grande & Senzala, which argues that Brazilians do not view each other through the lens of race, and that Brazilian society eliminated racism and racial discrimination. Freyre's theory became a source of national pride for Brazil, which contrasted itself favorably vis-a-vis the contemporaneous racial divisions and violence in the United States.[26][27]


The Kosovo Myth is a Serbian national myth based on legends about events related to the Battle of Kosovo (1389). It has been a subject in Serbian folklore and literary tradition and has been cultivated oral epic poetry and guslar poems. The final form of the legend was not created immediately after the battle but evolved from different originators into various versions. In its modern form it emerged in 19th-century Serbia and served as an important constitutive element of the national identity of modern Serbia and its politics.

Great Britain

King Arthur was a legendary noble king that united Britain, laid the foundation to medieval notions of chivalry in western Europe, and was later important for building a common British identity.[28][29]

Nazi Germany

The Master race is a Nazi ideology propaganda of pseudoscientific racial theories purporting that ethnic Germans belonged to a superior Aryan or Nordic race, which combined with other antisemitic myths (including stab-in-the-back), which resulted in Nazi Germany and its justification for conquering Europe (for "living space") and for The Holocaust, its genocide of those it mythologized were threats and lesser races, primarily Jews.

New Zealand

The Treaty of Waitangi is a document of central importance to the history of New Zealand, its constitution, and its national mythos.[30] It has played a major role in the treatment of the Māori people in New Zealand by successive governments and the wider population, something that has been especially prominent since the late 20th century. The treaty document is an agreement, not a treaty as recognised in international law,[31] and has no independent legal status, being legally effective only to the extent it is recognised in various statutes.[32] It was first signed on 6 February 1840 by Captain William Hobson as consul for the British Crown and by Māori chiefs (rangatira) from the North Island of New Zealand.

Kupe was a legendary[33] Polynesian explorer who was the first person to discover New Zealand, according to Māori oral history.[34] It is likely that Kupe existed historically, but this is difficult to confirm. His voyage to New Zealand ensured that the land was known to the Polynesians, and he would therefore be responsible for the genesis of the Māori people.[35]


The Shahnameh is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran. Consisting of some 50,000 distichs or couplets (two-line verses),[36] the Shahnameh is one of the world's longest epic poems, and the longest epic poem created by a single author.[37][38][39] It tells mainly the mythical and to some extent the historical past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.


The Promised Land is Middle Eastern land that Abrahamic religions (which include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others) claim their God promised and subsequently gave to Abraham (the legendary patriarch in Abrahamic religions) and several more times to his descendants.The concept of the Promised Land originates from a religious narrative written in the Hebrew religious text, the Torah.[note 2] The concept of the Promised Land is the central national myth of Zionism, the Jewish national movement that in 1948 established Israel as a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.[40]

See also


  1. ^ Professor Tolkien disagreed with this characterization: "One repeatedly hears the 'Land of Heroes' described as the 'national Finnish Epic': as if a nation, besides if possible a national bank theatre and government, ought also automatically to possess a national epic. Finland does not. The K[alevala] is certainly not one. It is a mass of conceivably epic material; but, and I think this is the main point, it would lose nearly all that which is its greatest delight if it were ever to be epically handled."[17]
  2. ^ While the Torah is considered a Jewish holy book, it also known as an Islamic holy book called the Tawrat and is the first five books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, which is a subset of the Old Testament in the Biblical canon of Christianity.


  1. ^ Bouchard, Gérard (2013), National Myths: Constructed Pasts, Contested Presents, Routledge, ISBN 9780415631129, retrieved 2024-05-25
  2. ^ Renan, Ernest (1882). Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?.
  3. ^ Miller, David (1995). On Nationality. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-828047-5.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ 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,...
  6. ^ a b 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.
  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. 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.
  8. ^ Oleinik, Anton (2019). "On the Role of Historical Myths in Nation-State Building: The Case of Ukraine". Nationalities Papers. 47 (6): 1100–1116. doi:10.1017/nps.2018.32. ISSN 0090-5992.
  9. ^ a b 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.
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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 [...].
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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'.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Asplund, Anneli; Sirkka-Liisa Mettom (October 2000). "Kalevala: the Finnish national epic". Archived from the original on 23 November 2010. Retrieved 15 August 2010.
  17. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R. (2015). "On 'The Kalevala' or Land of Heroes". In Flieger, Verlyn (ed.). The Story of Kullervo (1st US ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-544-70626-2.
  18. ^ Kalevala, the national epic of Finland – Finnwards
  19. ^ Vento, Urpo. "The Role of The Kalevala" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 17 August 2010.
  20. ^ William A. Wilson (1975) "The Kalevala and Finnish Politics" Journal of the Folklore Institute 12(2/3): pp. 131–55
  21. ^ "The Edda & the Sagas of the Icelanders". Miðstöð íslenskra bókmennta. Retrieved 2023-11-25.
  22. ^ The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism (1 ed.). Wiley. 7 December 2015. ISBN 978-1-4051-8978-1.
  23. ^ Slotkin, Richard (1973). Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press. p. 5.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ (in Italian) Giuliano e Marco Palmieri, I regni perduti dei monti pallidi, Cierre Edizioni, 1996, Verona.
  26. ^ Hanchard, Michael George (1998). Orpheus and power: the Movimento Negro of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945 - 1988 (4.printing, and 1. paperback printing ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 9780691002705.
  27. ^ Ansell, Aaron (December 2018). "Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro , Jennifer Roth-Gordon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017, 248 pp. $85.00, cloth. ISBN 9780520293793". Journal of Anthropological Research. 74 (4): 577–578. doi:10.1086/700933. ISSN 0091-7710.
  28. ^ Barczewski, Stephanie L. "Introduction: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and British National Identity". Retrieved 2024-02-28.
  29. ^ Proctor, Elizabeth Gaj (2017). "The Legendary King: How the Figure of King Arthur Shaped a National Identity and the Field of Archaeology in Britain". Honors College. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  30. ^ Renwick, William (1991). "The Undermining of a National Myth: The Treaty of Waitangi 1970-1990". The Journal of New Zealand Studies. 3 (4). Victoria University of Wellington.
  31. ^ Cox, Noel (2002). "The Treaty of Waitangi and the Relationship Between the Crown and Maori in New Zealand". Brooklyn Journal of International Law. 28 (1): 132. Archived from the original on 4 October 2022. Retrieved 4 October 2022.
  32. ^ "The Status of the Treaty as a Legal Document". Treaty Resource Centre – He Puna Mātauranga o Te Tiriti. Archived from the original on 7 October 2022. Retrieved 4 October 2022.
  33. ^ "Who was Kupe?". Australian National Maritime Museum. Retrieved 2023-03-06.
  34. ^ "Chapter III. — Kupe—the Navigator | NZETC". Retrieved 2023-03-06.
  35. ^ Howe, K.R. (2005). "Ideas about Māori origins - 1920s–2000: new understandings". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  36. ^ Lalani, Farah (13 May 2010). "A thousand years of Firdawsi's Shahnama is celebrated". The Ismaili. Archived from the original on 5 August 2013. Retrieved 24 May 2010.
  37. ^ "The Shahnameh: a Literary Masterpiece". The Shahnameh: a Persian Cultural Emblem and a Timeless Masterpiece. Archived from the original on 2023-12-25. Retrieved 2023-12-25.
  38. ^ "Shahnameh Ferdowsi". Archived from the original on 2022-12-07. Retrieved 2023-12-25.
  39. ^ "Iran marks National Day of Ferdowsi". Mehr News Agency. 2023-05-15. Archived from the original on 2023-12-25. Retrieved 2023-12-25.
  40. ^ Compare: Haberman, Bonna Devora (October 2014). Rereading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter (reprint ed.). Jerusalem: Urim Publications (published 2014). p. 151. ISBN 9789655242027. Retrieved 8 November 2020. Both Maccabean and modern Zionism seek to ensure the security of the Jewish People to exist, practice freely, and continue to develop our gifts to humankind. While defending Jewish life, both Maccabees and Zionists resort to territorial battle.

Further reading