nations are myths, and myths are lasting.
great myths, according to the lord of the rings narrator, are rooted in history. but history is a product of historiography, of the present being written, while the stories that aren’t written down (or that are written by conquered societies and destroyed as part of the conquering) are forgotten, and the ones that survive undergo untraceable transmutations, before they’ve died with the people who told them.
because we can never know the essence of things, but cannot help but sense them, we must take however imprecise a stab at them, create something pseudo-reflective of the unnamable, and put it out there, to see if anyone recognizes it. on the level of personal expression, that is art, on the level of the collective, nationhood.
for example, the story of gilgamesh tells of a great king, founder of the city of uruk, who was two parts god and one part man, making him a character of divine strength and intelligence but subject to earthly mortality. the story was found carved into clay tablets in cuneiform script in southern iraq, and is considered one of the founding myths of the sumerian civilization some two thousand years b.c. historians speculate that the story was told (and more probably, sung) among the people of sumeria for hundreds of years before being written down during the third dynasty of ur. uruk, meaning “city” or “the place of dwelling” in akkadian (as some suggest), or more likely being a predecessor of the aramaic/arabic word ‘uruq, meaning “vein” or “main vein”, was populated by its native inhabitants for over three thousand years, until it was abandoned due to shifts in the euphrates river and a series of invasions by the seleucids and parthians.
while in the time of sumer, there was no notion of nationhood, we can consider, for the purpose of this post, that sumer was a nation, or collective, of which a people considered themselves to be a part. in fact, the word “nation” only first appeared in the latin form about fifty years a.d., and was used by cicero to denote “other” peoples. he used the word ‘natio’ to refer to “those syrians and jews” east of byzantium. in more recent times, benedict anderson has defined the nation as an “imagined community”. a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. to anderson, print capitalism and the wide distribution of texts written in common vernacular are what made the phenomenon of nationhood possible. however, if we are to return to our example of sumer, we might consider the oral distribution of gilgamesh’s tale to be the binding factor among the people of uruk, an equivalent to the north american tale of christopher columbus. and like columbus, gilgamesh was most likely a mythologized figure whose legendariness was exaggerated in order to occlude whatever had preceded his reign. however, unlike columbus, the tyranny of gilgamesh was not understated, but rather highlighted, in order to emphasize the moral that even the divine king-founder of the greatest city on the planet could escape neither death nor retribution.
in the u.s. and canada, we are taught that in the late fifteenth century, the great italian sailor, christopher columbus, set sail from the port of spain with the blessing (and finances) of queen isabella in search of the eastern passage to india. we are told that he arrived at the islands of middle america, and found a few ignorant, non-english-speaking, no-christ-knowing savages who he made friends with on this most fertile of lands. within a couple hundred years’ time, more europeans followed, settling in different parts of the new, rich, isolated continent, and voila: the americas. a beautiful story indeed. for a lesson of two in the sixth or seventh grade they give us a quick rundown of slavery: africa, harriet tubman, frederick douglass, abraham lincoln, freedom–and then we’re at world war one.
they don’t tell us that the phoenicians landed in the new world thousands of years earlier and founded peaceful colonies that functioned alongside and in perfect communion with the indigenous peoples. they don’t tell us that the vikings went from iceland to greenland to nova scotia looking for the golden land. they don’t tell us that the spaniards invaded costa rica and lost in battle against the natives three times before realizing that their only hope of winning was by attacking their immune systems. they don’t tell us that hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples were sterilized by the english so they’d stop reproducing. they don’t tell us that the natives knew the worth of the land they lived on, that they spoke to the plants and learned to make medicines from them, they the trees told them of all the gold beneath their feet and warned them of the woes of possession. they don’t tell us that when the english governer asked the tribal chief of north b.c. how much he wanted for the land, the chief replied, “i cannot sell what i do not own. how does one put a price on his brothers and sisters?” they don’t tell us that for hundreds of years, africans were bought and chained and dragged across the ocean to a life of slavery, that thousands of people were born and died as slaves, that thousands more died at sea, and millions whipped and hung and beat to death–all for the founding of the americas.
today, when we speak of nations, we speak of myths, of a collective of lies that a population of people have agreed to believe in the service of having a common history, a culture, a country. uruk’s story was an epic poem, recognized by its people as a legend that, while not a recollection of word for word truth, captured the essence of that society’s morals, beliefs, and general attitude. gilgamesh’s tail begins by stating both his magnificence and his point of fault–he was a tyrant who had lost control of his power, raping men’s wives, killing young children, and his people were so displeased as to consult the high goddess and ask for her retribution. and thus the story begins. today we see nothing of uruk but the echo of its name is modern day iraq. and what about columbus? america’s story is a myth recognized by its people as history, as fact that without deep analysis, continuous struggle and presentation of proof and fact cannot be disputed, despite the blood that cries out across generations from the descendents of those ancient, silenced people: the red skin movements, black lives matter, the cuban revolution, george floyd, the first nations–and the list goes on. until today, these realities are not part of the myth. we have decided not to write them down. they have no room in our nationalism. we have imagined them away.