2017: An Unlikely World

Special Area

Modern Mythologies

Introductory Questions

    • What is a myth? How does it differ from a fable or a story?
    • Who decides what myths are true?
    • Why do we need mythologies? What purpose do they serve?
    • If most people believe something to be true, can it still be a myth?
    • What is a mythology? How does it differ from a religion?
    • Are myths necessarily about unlikely things, or can myths be about normal or predictable people and scenarios?
    • What does the phrase “the Myth of Normality” mean to you?
    • How does a mythology reflect a society? How does a mythology affect a society?
    • Can myths only be myths in hindsight?
    • Does the modern world need myths more than the ancient world did, or less? Does it need them in different ways?
    • In the modern world, to find believers, do new myths need to appear to have factual or scientific backing?
    • For each of the individuals mentioned in the “Modern Mythmaking” section: Discuss with your team whether the following modern-day figures have been mythologized and, if so, why, how, and when this process took place. Do you think they would consent to being mythologized?
    • Is it ever ethical to perpetuate a myth under the guise of solid truth? Can you think of situations in which it would be justifiable to do so?

Understanding Mythology

    • Mythologies, Cosmologies, and Articles of Faith
    • The Appeal of Myth: Insights from Psychology and Sociology
    • Science Versus Mythology: Are Myths Unfalsifiable?
    • Mechanisms of Creation and Spreading
      • Oral Tradition | Ritual | Rumor | Documentation

    • Interactions Between Myth, Society, and Culture
    • Relevant Terms to Explore (Examples)
      • comparative mythology | national myth | pseudoscience
      • monomyth | mythomoteur | miracle | underdog
      • noble lie | alternative fact | skepticism

Mythologies of Old

    • Beyond the Big Bang: Myths of World-Making (Examples)
      • Cosmic Egg | Gaia | Barton Cylinder | Odin and Ymir
      • Unkulunkulu | Naba Zid-Wendé | Dreamtime | Rangi and Papa

    • Myths of Nature (Examples)
      • Flint Boys | Chang’e | Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh
      • Deucalion | Igorot Flooding | Namazu and Kashima

    • Myths of Unlikely Circumstance (Examples)
      • Sisyphus | Pandora’s Box | Kappa | Odin’s Eye
      • Ragnarok | Kalki | Maitreya | Worldwide Floods

Mythmaking in the Modern World

Two Men Enter and Two Men Exit: Myths in Sports
    • The Role of Myth in Competition
    • Sporting Myths, Curses, and Misconceptions
      • Madden Curse | Jesse Owens’ Handshake | The Billy Goat Curse
      • Gladiators | Phantom Punch | The Curse of the Mambino

    • Mythical Athletes (Examples)
      • Michael Jordan | Fanny Blankers-Koen | Martina Navratilova
      • Muhammed Ali | Jackie Robinson | Wayne Gretzky
      • Babe Ruth | Rudy Ruettiger | Usain Bolt | Pelé

Success Without Really Trying: Myths in Business
    • The Role of Myth in Entrepreneurship
    • Business-Related Myths
      • “First Mover Advantage” | “Elevator Pitch” | “Founder's Syndrome”
      • “Start-Up Garage” | “You Need a Great Idea”

    • Mythical Figures in Business (Examples)
      • Steve Jobs | Dhirubhai Ambani | Oprah Winfrey | Richard Branson
      • Mark Zuckerberg | Carlos Slim | Bill Gates | Donald Trump

Hindsight is Rose-Colored: Myths in History and Politics
    • The Mythical Origins of National Identity and Political Power
    • Myths of Nation-Building (Examples)
      • Romulus and Remus | The American West
      • The Long March | The Death of Saint Olaf
      • The Alamo | Rainbow Nation | Albina Myth

    • Mythical Figures and Leaders (Examples)
      • Nelson Mandela | Ataturk | Barack Obama | Kim Il-sung
      • Lee Kuan Yew | Margaret Thatcher | Mao Zedong | Nero

Myths and Misconceptions

    • The Psychology of Belief and Misbelief
      • Intersections of Modern Myths and Conspiracy Theories

    • Stranger Things: Rumors, Misbeliefs, and Urban Legends (Examples)
      • Bloody Mary | Jedi Census | Sewer Alligators | Bigfoot
      • Napoleon’s Height | Einstein’s Grades | Bermuda Triangle
      • George Washington’s Tree | Gremlins | Cokelore
      • Discovery of Gravity | “Let them eat cake”

    • Easy Answers: Generalizations and Stereotypes (Examples)
      • Frontier Myth | Model Minority Myth | Myth of Asian Values
      • Mobility Myth | Myths Related to Crime and Immigration

    • Invisible Dragons: Pseudosciences as Modern Myth
      • Cryptozoology | Parapsychology | Homeopathy
      • Astrology | Feng Shui | Ufology | Hollow Earth
      • Eugenics | Pagtatawas | Alchemy

Selected Guided Cases and Questions

Legends of Yesterday
    • “The Long March” of Mao Zedong is considered by many to be modern China’s “founding myth”—a politically-charged story that has inspired both admiration and criticism. Discuss with your team: does it matter whether the Long March is remembered as a triumph of perseverance and principle or, as some claim, “nearly a complete failure”? Compare the Long March to similar myths in other nations, such as that of Valley Forge in the American Revolution. Do leaders have a responsibility to present their nation’s histories accurately, even if it means undermining long-held beliefs?
    • Consider the controversial “Kosovo Myth”—centered on a 14th century battle for dominion of Kosovo—which has been used in Serbia over the centuries as a source of nationalism and as a motivation for wars of conquest. Discuss with your team: is a national identity less legitimate if it is based on something that may never have happened, or on something that happened differently than it is remembered? Do you agree with political scientist Stephen Van Evera’s description of such nationalism as “myth-poisoned nationalism”?
    • Whether by accident or design, myths frequently spring up around great leaders, in which they can do no wrong—indeed, George Washington could never tell a lie—but mythical narratives can also inspire a backlash. Explore criticisms of the myths around widely-idealized figures such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatmas Gandhi, and discuss with your team: can anyone so well-regarded withstand such critical analysis?
    • Most (if not all) countries are said to have “national myths” about their identity, purpose, and character. Consider this study of Australians and their national “myth” and then discuss with your team: is it very different than what you might expect a similar study to reveal about your own nation? Can a country ever have a negative national myth—and what might be the consequences for one that did?
Three Untruths and a Lie
    • Consider the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, the skrimsli, and the chupacabra: what explains the enduring appeal of such implausible creatures, and how are they different (if at all) from ancient myths of fantastical beasts such as centaurs, mermaids, and unicorns? Discuss as a team: are there any downsides to a world in which the advance of knowledge has (presumably) left less room for “here there be dragons” on the map—and has it driven people to invent new, harder-to-disprove mythologies?
    • Did rhinoceroses inspire tales of unicorns? Did manatees make sailors think of mermaids? Are chupacabras just coyotes with mange? Revisit the Nubian Giraffe and explore how people have made sense of unfamiliar and unlikely animals over the centuries—as when German artist Albrecht Durer’s armored rhinoceros was taken as literal truth. Discuss with your team: how do our knowledge and expectations affect our ability to understand the new and strange?
    • Did Margaret Thatcher invent soft-serve ice-cream? Discuss with your team: why would such a myth take hold, and what does it suggest about what we want to believe about our leaders? Are the mythologies society constructs around women different in kind than those it does around men? Be sure to consider other famous women of our era—from Mother Theresa to Oprah Winfrey–as you think about these questions.
    • One common myth is that you can catch a cold from being outside in the cold—especially without a coat on. Consider this and other popular misunderstandings about health and disease (such as the idea that walking barefoot can give you a stomachache) which persist in the modern era. How are they different from past beliefs—such as the effectiveness of bloodletting—that have been discredited? Discuss with your team: is it ironic when someone who believes modern myths disparages ancient ones?
    • Consider how the same myth can evolve in different cultures: for instance, the tooth fairy in many English-speaking countries versus El Ratón (the rat) in much of the Spanish-speaking world. Discuss with your team: why would so many parts of the world create mythological explanations or traditions around something as seemingly trivial as the loss of a tooth? What other similar myths exist?
The Limits of Occam’s Razor
    • Conventional wisdom has it that, in 1975, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built their first computer in a garage—and that many other great companies have begun in the same way, from Hewlett Packard to Amazon. But is the idea that great companies so frequently begin in garages a modern myth? Consider Steve Wozniak’s own recollections, and then discuss with your team: what is so appealing about the myth of the start-up in the garage?
    • Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin; Oprah Winfrey’s name was misspelled on her birth certificate. These two myths—one misleading, one untrue—speak to the appeal of assigning great figures humble beginnings. Discuss with your team: are a person’s achievements worth less if they had greater access to opportunity?
    • Consider the unlikely triumph of the United States in men's hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics—the so-called "Miracle on Ice" (for one side, at least) that for Americans became part of what some saw as a nearly mythical battle between good and evil. What other similar "miracles" can you think of? Discuss with your team: does an athletic triumph need to be unexpected—an “underdog story”—to inspire a city, or a nation, or the world? And is the idea that people favor underdogs itself a myth?
    • Along the same lines, explore this feel-good story of the Jamaican bobsled team from the 1988 Olympics. Then, discuss with your team: why is it a feel-good story? Why are we (and Disney movie-makers) drawn to tales of underdogs who make it big, of Davids who defeat Goliaths, of Cinderellas who get the prince (or princess) in the end? Would you rather enter a competition as a returning champion or as someone given no chance of victory?
    • Perhaps the opposite of a miracle: consider sporting myths related to failure—perhaps most famously the Curse of the Bambino, which supposedly prevented the Boston Red Sox (an American baseball team) from finding success over the course of nearly 90 years. Are some teams truly less lucky than others? Discuss with your team: do so-called curses exist because fans want them to exist?
    • The philosopher Karl Popper suggested that a real science is one in which results are falsifiable, or can be disproven. The sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science must follow norms such as openness to disagreement and lack of an ideological mission. Discuss with your team: can mythologies and other beliefs in seemingly unlikely things be evaluated in similar ways, and should they?

Questions for Further Discussion

    • Does mythologizing a real-life person strengthen or weaken them?
    • Are what we consider to be religions simply the mythologies that won?
    • Put another way: is one person’s religion someone else’s mythology?
    • Two years ago, we explored heroes and superheroes. Are modern mythical figures necessarily heroic?
    • One year ago, we explored crime and justice. Can you think of any examples of mythical criminals?
    • Is the mythologizing of historical figures (such as Alexander Hamilton) a net positive or negative in our understanding of history?
    • Are pseudosciences the most widespread and impactful mythologies of the modern world, or does this distinction belong to widely-known stories such as Star Wars and Harry Potter?
    • Are there any pseudosciences you find especially attractive, or any modern-day myths you believe in, or want to believe in?
    • What myths do your parents, teachers, and/or other elders believe in, if any, that you reject?