History: An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
—Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913?)
Bierce was a writer and a journalist. His lyrical and almost mystical short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, has been filmed several times and is highly respected. For a long time he wrote a newspaper column that ran cynical social commentary. The column was titled The Devil’s Dictionary, and many compilations have been published with that name, often ending up incorrectly in the occult section of bookstores.
Personally, I prefer his cynical and humorous view to the better known (but just as cynical) quote from Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.” The important point to make is that history is never objective truth. It is always reported by people who have their own beliefs and prejudices which manifest in their writing. If Germany had won WWII we would have heard much more about the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which killed around 25,000 (although some estimates are 10 times greater) and little about the German bombings of London. If the “cold war” had not taken place after WWII Americans would know far more about how the Soviet war against Germany and the Soviet attacks against Japanese forces in Asia were of major importance in defeating these two powers.
So if history is not objective fact, why bother studying it at all? Here is another quote:
Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.
—G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
Chesterton was a British writer, journalist, philosopher, lecturer, playwright, and Christian apologist. With this quote he is clearly recognizing the importance of fable and myth. They tell us about a culture and the beliefs of a culture.
In the biblical story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, we have a story of escape from imprisonment and redemption. Is the story objectively true? There may be aspects of it that are untrue, but there is no evidence that the Egyptians ever had slaves as described in the bible. There is no evidence for the plagues that preceded the exodus. There is no evidence that tribes wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years.
Even the biblical story itself is questionable. The Jewish slaves are told to gather all their belongings and animals and take them on their escape from captivity. When Moses ascends the mountain, the former slaves take all of their gold to make into an idol.
Excuse me? What kind of slaves have such large quantities of possessions that they have to cart them away? What kind of slaves have large enough quantities of gold to make an idol large enough for thousands of people to worship? I can’t believe that the story is objective historical fact.
And yet, it is of major importance to the make-up of the Jewish (and also the Western) psyche. It’s the oppressed little guy getting away from the tyrant and making good. Symbolically, it tells the story of how each of us must overcome the tyranny of false beliefs that keep us away from peace and spirituality. The objective reality of this story isn’t important. What is important is what it tells about us.
We Need Our Myths
Each religion, by the help of more or less myth which it takes more or less seriously, proposes some method of fortifying the human soul and enabling it to make its peace with its destiny.
—George Santayana (1863–1952)
Santayana was a Spanish-American philosopher, poet, novelist, and essayist. He is perhaps most famous for his brief but memorable statements or aphorisms, the most famous of which being “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the quote above, he stresses the importance of myth. They shape and color our very being. That’s why we need our myths.
In a recent article on Witchvox entitled ‘History’ vs. History, Sarrestia writes, “Can we, as a massive and ever-growing community, truly allow ourselves to hold ideas and so-called facts about the history of our ‘religion’ that are wrong and hazy at best, when we attempt to hold the histories of other religions at a higher standard?” Later, the article continues, “So if you find yourself in a heated conversation with someone of a different faith and you intend on pointing out the mistakes their religion has made in the past, or the historical truth of their past: can you ask yourself if what you believe to your past, your history, can it stand up to the same scrutiny as you have theirs? Can you reconcile the reality of our past with the sugarcoated, glittered-up version?”
I agree with Chesterton and Santayana. Myths are just as important as historical facts, but for different reasons. It could be said that myths are simply different versions of history. There are myths (i.e., accepted even though not historical fact) about Wicca and Witchcraft, Crowley and the Golden Dawn. They are not historical objective facts, and yet they say more about us than the dry facts do.
There is ample evidence to show that early Christian leaders destroyed as much evidence and writings contrary to their orthodox myth of Christianity as possible. We will never have the complete truth, the complete, objective, historical, factual record. Should we strive to learn historical objective fact (as if it were possible)? I think so; but we must remember the limitations of “history” and what Bierce said about it.
Sarrestia writes, “Everyone has every right to feel strongly about their past, but there needs to be some ability to recognize what is real and what is myth, what is the harsh truth and what is the romanticized version.” But what Sarrestia calls “real” is actually just the opinions of historians repeated until they’re accepted without question. They are no more or less real that the “romanticized” versions.
In 1776, the founders of the U.S. wrote the Declaration of Independence which freed the colonists from taxation without representation and led to the creation of the U.S.A. Unless you’re British, in which case radical colonists, seeking to maintain financial position, illegally removed themselves from the colonial structure leading to a war that destroyed His Majesty’s possessions and soldiers. Which is the factual, objective, truth? Even though they seem contradictory, they are both true from the standpoint of different historians, different records of the same thing. So what sort of objective historical truth should we look for?
Certain things, such as numbers and dates, should be made a factually accurate as possible. But as I’ve shown, the descriptions of events are always interpretations of raw data by opinionated people. Facts simply put numbers in our heads. Myths make us who we are.
Should we be able to recognize “what is the harsh truth and what is the romanticized version?” I think so. But I think they are just two different versions, with the myth being of greater value than the supposed “hard truth.” I don’t think we should look at this as history vs. history so much as different approaches to history. Yes, the numbers and “hard truth” are important. But so is the myth.
What do you think?
Should we focus on what Sarrestia calls the “hard truth”
or should we also value the myths that make us who we are?