Myth, Legend and Culture: Parts II & III

Errata from the first session:  Re the use of BC and BCE.  I’m willing to compromise since the use of BC didn’t begin until 525 AD and wasn’t really formalized until the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. And there have been any number of names for the era, including Dionysian era, Christian era, Vulgar era and Common era.  But the fact remains that whether we use the terms Before Christ and Anno Domino or Before Current Era and Current Era we are measuring from the same event.  The supposed date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

As for Gods in the Hebrew bible the word used in the Hebrew bible is indeed the plural:  Yaweh pronounces himself Adonai, or Lord of Gods, and then uses the term Eloheem which is the plural of Eloheh.  Eloheh is god and Eloheem is gods, thus in the oldest bible available Yahweh prohibits the worship of other “Gods.”

One other thing: a few who have attended some of my previous seminars noted I was reading more this time than I previously have.  Well, they’re right.  A year and a half past I had a serious car accident and since then I’ve had trouble developing content and my ability to memorize my presentations has lessened considerably.  So, I’m forced to read from my notes more than I ever have in more than forty plus years of lecturing.  

Now, that we’ve brought it up in our question re BC and BCE let’s make a short visit to the story of the birth of Jesus.  The story is told such that being born in a stable and being laid in a manger is somehow disturbing and humbling.  Yet, if you consider the state of Inns in the first century CE or Anno Domino, take your pick, you’ll discover that being about to give birth it is doubtful that Mary and Joseph would have been as comfortable had there been room at the inn.  In those days Inn’s did not have private rooms, rather there were sleeping rooms where everyone slept together on the floor hopefully upon clean straw. What you got when there was room in the inn was a spot somewhere on the floor and other bodies to keep you warm on a cold winter’s night and believe me, I’ve been there, the desert at night is cold.  But think about the body odor, the bad breath, the unwashed bodies and clothes, the lice and other vermin that traveled with the unwashed.  Simply put, the room would stink. If the inn was full there would have been no room to birth a baby.  The stable is a much more logical choice, clean straw, and trust me animals don’t smell nearly as bad as unwashed humans.  My point is the stable is not a humbling experience but, in a way, an elevating one.  How would the Three Wise men have fit into a room full of prostrate bodies?  How could the animals have gathered round, or the angles sung, or the star shined down?  So, the story is told wrong.  The manger is a throne, the stable a throne room, the animals, shepherds and wise men are in attendance as in a court of any king.  Sometimes it isn’t what you say in a story but how you tell it.  This is the story told of a birth of a king and while a fifth century monk may have thought the stable a humble place in comparison to the inns of his day it was the new king’s castle.  This is an illustration of interpretation of stories, myths and legends predicated upon the era in which they are told and when they are first written down.  It is the people’s castle and king.  Anything else would have seemed mundane.

We spoke about the myth of the founding of Rome and I would like to point out the facts concerning that myth.  Although it is unlikely Aeneas or Romos were real characters it is pretty well established that prior to Rome there was a loose confederation of tribes in the area that would become Rome.  It was on the edge of the Tuscan kingdom and subject to the sway of that people of whom we know so little.  But having the myth of a specific founding and date is important in establishing an identity as a nation and by choosing the story of a Trojan prince and his successors the two demi-gods who survived being exposed is, in a way, a victory for the Trojans over the Greeks since the descendants of Aeneas would eventually conquer Greece.  It was a myth that served a political and cultural purpose and continues even today.  It provided reason for conquest of Greece as retribution.  Thus the Trojans eventually prevailed in the war with the proto-Greeks.

Other myths have been created for political purposes like the myth of Custer at Little Big Horn.  When I was a child General Custer was remembered as a great hero.  Many of you probably share that memory.  There was the movie “They Died with Their Boots On” starring the dashing Erol Flynn and plenty of stories in history books about the brave Custer cut down by the savage Indians.  Well, let’s take a shot at deconstructing this legend by looking at the known facts upon which the legend is ostensibly based:

First, Custer was not a general in the U.S. Army and never had been.  He was a general in the Michigan volunteers.  He was a captain in the U.S. Army who would receive a promotion to brevet Major and some years after the civil war he received a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army.  Someone who later would create his own legend in battle, Theodore Roosevelt was a colonel of volunteers in the Spanish American War which accorded him no rank whatsoever in the U.S. Army.  The Michigan Cavalry and the Rough Riders were the militias the Second Amendment of the Constitution refers to, but that’s another story.  So, while Custer was the commanding General of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade he was not and never would be a General Officer in the United States Army.  Next, in 1876 when Custer set out on his sortie to raid a big Lakota Sioux village, the Gatling gun was standard armament for the Army units stationed in the plains of the West and Custer could have taken two of them with him, but he declined.  He could have also taken a number of cannon capable of firing cannister shot into charging cavalry, but he declined.  He could have waited on an infantry regiment that had integral artillery support and was a day’s march away, but he didn’t.  He didn’t have to split his force sending Major Reno off to the South and Captain Bentene off to the North with almost half of the troops, but he did.  In other words, Custer, for whatever reason, blundered.  His ride to the guns philosophy that had made him a hero in the Civil War trapped him in a situation where he was outgunned, out thought and out maneuvered by some of the best light cavalry ever.  It is strange that he took these actions for he, himself, had praised Crazy Horse and the cavalry of the Lakota Sioux.  First, a fact that often goes untold, Custer’s entire command was not destroyed, only the three companies (troops) that remained with him.  There were some significant losses in Major Reno’s command and Captain Bentene’s command but the 7th Cavalry was not “Wiped Out” as the story is most often told.  In fact, there were thirteen medals of honor awarded for actions surrounding the Custer affair. As soon as Custer had fallen the legend of George Armstrong Custer began to grow until it became a rallying point for politicians and generals and was used to enact all sorts of immoral and unethical actions against the plains Indians, much as the Red Stick rebellion of the Creek Indians in 1813 was used as an excuse to move an entire nation of people from the Southeast to Oklahoma.  By the way, the Red Stick rebellion was financed and encouraged by the English as part of their attempts to take control of all the land west of the Blue Ridge Mountains during the War of 1812.  Remember it was only nine years earlier that President Jefferson had purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon and it was this land the British were after.  If they controlled the mouth of the Mississippi they controlled the entire river. 

After defeating the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend General Jackson marched to Pensacola from whence the British were, with the permission of the Spanish, supplying the Creeks with weapons and food.  Driving the British out of Pensacola he turned north for home when he learned of the threat of British invasion in New Orleans.  He turned his volunteers to the west and in February 1815 defeated the British expeditionary force although significantly outnumbered.  A number of legends would grow out of this battle, including one about Jean Lafitte.  Maybe we’ll do that one later because there is a great deal more fact in the legend of Jean Lafitte than in many others.  Now, ordinarily the loss of two battles as important as Pensacola and New Orleans would have earned significant ire from the British public perhaps even enough to call for a change of government but fast on the heels of those losses was the Duke of Marlborough’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo which caused great rejoicing and ended the war with France.

Back to Colonel Custer, whose story reminds one of the legends of the French Foreign Legion.  Can anyone here name a victory of the French Foreign Legion?  Come on, one victory of the French Foreign Legion.  Difficult isn’t it but there is no doubt of the fame of the Legion, but that fame is constructed on the myth of fighting to the last man.  In other words, the French Foreign Legion is famous in legend for losing battles.  But they lost those battles oh so gallantly and we are to be heartened and instructed from those stories of sacrifice.  Well I don’t know about you, but I’d rather win the battle than become famous for dying in one, but as you’ll see as we move through some myths and legends dying is often the key to becoming a legend. Oh, and need I point out that there were very few Frenchmen in the Foreign Legion, hence its name.

Now, what is the difference between legend and history?  Good question.  Supposedly, history has been, in some manner, confirmed.  Legends, on the other hand, do not require such confirmation because they are legends not history.  But sometimes history is more legend than it is history. When there is war, it is almost always the case that the winner gets to write the history, so history just becomes the legend of the doings of the winner.  The loser was bad, and the war was just and necessary.  Sometimes, over time, real historians will dig for the facts and explain what really happened and why it was important, just like we’re doing today to a variety of legends, fables and such. But then, like the story of the founding of Rome there are competing versions and too often the more politically correct one will prevail.  Depending, of course, upon who is recounting the history because history just like any other story can be conflated, confused and coerced.  For example, we earlier encountered Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.  Now everyone knows the story of the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill.  But the truth is it wasn’t a cavalry charge because there had not been enough ships to bring the Rough Riders horses and they were fighting as infantry.  Only the officers had horses.  Oh, and it wasn’t San Juan hill, it was Kettle Hill the next hill over from San Juan.  While there were several regiments tasked with taking San Juan Hill the first out of the trenches was Blackjack Pershing and the 10th cavalry also fighting dismounted followed by the 24th Infantry.  The 10th cavalry were the Buffalo Soldiers who were an all negro regiment as was the 24th Infantry.  So, the Rough Riders were in support of all-negro regiments as they charged, on foot, up San Juan Hill to capture the Spanish blockhouse there.  But the legend persists that it was the Rough Riders who captured the installation because, you could not, of course have a negro regiment be the heroes of Cuba.  Slavery had ended thirty-three years before, but we had only attained a segregated state in the land of the free.  

And that’s a segue for our next myth/legend, “The Cause,” that is, the continuing effort to recapture the South from the carpetbaggers and scalawags and replace them with the cavaliers and ladies of the antebellum South returning the Camelot that was the South before the war.  Lots of people believed the stories of the South before the war and legions of Southerners, not yet born when Lee offered his sword to Grant at Appomattox, dreamed of living in big houses and dancing waltzes to music played by dark-skinned musicians under the spreading live oak trees on a sultry evening and so forth.  But the legend upon which the movement of “The Cause” was built seems a false one, for fewer than six percent of the people living in the South prior to the Civil War resided on plantations or large farms, but there is that human quality to be able to place ourselves in the leading role of a movie when, in truth, we would be non-speaking walk-ons in the scene.  This is one of the things legends and myths do well and that is to evoke emotion in the listener, especially if the teller has any talent for tale spinning.  Thus, we’d all be the Planter or the Planter’s lady, nobody would be the local blacksmith, cobbler, small landowner, store keeper, stable hand and so forth.  Everyone is lifted up to the star’s role and while there may have been a small caste of people for whom the ante-bellum South was somewhat genteel, ( genteel would be a relative word to the 1830’s compared to the 2000’s), but the other 94 percent of the population of the South had just as hard a time of it as anyone else in the United States.  Life could be brutish, mean and short. Water conveyed disease, you used outhouses, bathed seldom, the only work dentists did was extractions, everyone was possessed of bad breath and body odor cloaked in some cases by heavy perfume or after-shave but mostly not cloaked at all. Banks could only lend money against actual cash on hand, no collateral could be counted thus getting a loan was very difficult and costly which drove you to the unregulated usurers if you needed cash.  Land and the ability to work it was the ultimate investment in the agrarian South, but the money was in the hands of a very few.  Even that six percent were at the mercy of the bankers for they lived crop year to crop year just like everybody else. Yet an entire movement was built around trying to recapture a moment that existed only in a myth.  If we deconstruct that myth, throwing aside the crinoline dresses, morning coats, extravagant balls and early morning duels as simply symbols, and look to the organization of the longed-for society we discover that the South was indeed different from the rest of the country. It was much more stratified and regulated in society than Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other Northern states where the majority of the population were small landholders and there was no significant stratification of society.   In the South stratification offered order and place.  It was a much more predictable environment than the North or the West.  In the North there were many cities and there was industry.  In the South there were six cities, two in the West and four in the East.  Can you name them?   In the West, New Orleans and Memphis and on the East Coast Charleston, Savannah, and Washington, D.C.  And, because of the growth of the cotton trade, from 1830 Atlanta exploded in growth because of its geographical position as the nexus for the east/west-north/south railroad lines.  Not unlike its position today as the crossing of major north/south-east/west Interstate highways.  Another difference between the North and South were the size of the cities.  Northern cities dwarfed Southern cities in population in no small part because they had become the port of entry for an increasing immigrant flow particularly from Northern Europe.  In 1855 the city with the third largest population of German nationals, behind Berlin and Munich, was New York City.  

            Then the not so Civil War happened, now let’s stop for just a moment and once again talk about words, for example “civil.”  In the context of war, it means a conflict between elements of the same, well we can’t say society because we know the North and the South had different societies, perhaps we can say community.  But ‘Civil’ also means respectful and courteous and there is nothing respectful or courteous about any “Civil War” whether 1860 American, 1936 Spanish, 1640 English, 1910 Mexico or the affair in current day Afghanistan.  So, maybe we should rename them.  Southerners have never referred to the war as civil so perhaps we should indeed call it the “War Between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression” in the South and the “War of Southern Secession” in the North.

And just a bit of trivia here: How many of you have made it through Toltoy’s ‘War and Peace.’?    In Russian its Voyna I Mir.  While Voyna is clearly War in Russian, Mir has a number of translations that have changed over the years.  In 1861 Mir was a noun for the Russian peasant collectives that were a result of the land reform bill.  Now this is the period when Toltoy was writing his work which, by the way, he didn’t consider a novel so much as a series of philosophical novellas.  So, did Toltoy mean mir as peace or as a concept of land reform remembering how, in the first epilogue Nicolai is able to save his family estate through reforms much like those that would be carried out fifty-six years after the time of the novel?  Or, perhaps he used mir as “World” which is the other interchangeable Russian meaning.  The Russians did this in naming their space station Mir.  We have to guess, does it mean peace, world or stand as the symbol for world collectivism?  Interesting conundrum.  And if you study Tolstoy in depth you’ll discover he makes the same admonition about the study of history that I do which is you can’t study history backwards you have to place yourself in the position of the individuals experiencing history at the time the events occurred.

But back to the 1860-1865 hostilities termed the American Civil War.  It left the South destroyed.  It devastated generations and families were dispossessed. It created a diaspora of vagabonds looking for land and a place away from the South, so many would move West. While many of the upper six percent lost their land so too did many of the lesser 94 percent. Without the landowners banks failed, stores closed, services like tailors, barbers and such had no clientele and railroads had nothing to transport.  Thus, the end of the war created an economic depression throughout the South.  And then came Reconstruction where the governments were harsh, and enforcement was by the very army that had ravaged the land.  This led to a collective illusion among the former citizens of the Confederacy that they were in fact prisoners of war beholden no-longer to their friends, families and acquaintances of yore but to federal overseers intent upon destroying their culture.  Now we could discuss this ad nauseum because certain myths grew up in the North as well as the South, like the myth that the war was a crusade to end slavery, but this example is the myth of the cause.  A myth that would drive perception in the South for a hundred years.  The facts of reconstruction are there, the excesses, the stripping of civil rights in the name of the greater good, the enriching of certain Northern business interests; don’t forget that if the South had succeeded in its secession many of the mills and industrial undertakings in the North might have gone bankrupt if their raw materials had gone to England or France.  So, a wrong here and a wrong there plus any number of imagined wrongs became a litany and the litany became a chorus for correction and the chorus was sung over and over until it became a fixture piece of Southern gatherings large and small, sung until it became like the Ring series of Wagner, a rallying cry for a people.  The South will rise again.  We also should remember that Reconstruction is the era when the Robber Barons were beginning to assert themselves in American History, establishing monopolies engendered, in no small part, by the control of Southern agricultural production. 

Thus, it wasn’t really the crinoline dresses and morning coats or extravagant balls that people longed for but the ability to set their own laws, adhere to their own customs and not be double charged in law by both the state and federal governments.  The crinoline dresses and extravagant balls were but symbols of a yearning to be free of the yoke of federal domination and thus grew up the myth of the Old South.  

The American South isn’t the only entity to have this experience, Ireland suffered under foreign rule for scores of years, even now the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain are seeking a return to the governmental situation they enjoyed before being placed under federal rule.  And in all of these places myths and legends have risen out of real and imagined wrongs and found their way into not just local but international lore along with the symbols of those ideas of freedom.

Let’s consider Ireland for a moment.  You all know of the IRA but there were other powerful secret societies that challenged the British.  For example there was a secret society of Irishmen in the late 19th century called the “Molly McQuires.”  They had groups in Ireland,  Mainland Europe and the Northeastern United States.  They were predominately miners and resisted those very robber barons we mentioned earlier over pay and safety for miners just as they did in England.  The largest group of the Molly’s outside Ireland was in Pennsylvania.  They were coal miners in the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania.  They started up in the United States just about the time the First Ku Klux Klan was being disbanded and their purpose was not dissimilar to that of the Klan.  They wanted to strike fear into the hearts of mine owners, foremen and others who were using them as indentured labor, or more appropriately, can you say slavery.

Now in the Molly’s we find a misunderstanding that affects how we see the group.  Many believe the group took its name from a lady named Molly McQuire who was evicted from her house by English soldiers.  In fact, when the English asserted their control of Ireland in the 17th century the clan that fought them the hardest and the longest was the McQuires.  And it was over a number of counties that the McQuires loss their farms, castles and power for they had acted as the squires and lords of the land.  Now while Molly is a diminutive for Mary in English, Molli in Irish means bitter.  So, I would submit that the Molly McQuires were in fact the Bitter McQuires in their quarrels with the English and the American robber barons who owned the mines and railroads of northeastern Pennsylvania.  Now Mc means son of in Irish and Quire is a derivative of Eire which is the Irish name of Ireland.  Hence you have the bitter sons of Ireland.

Why do I address the Molly McQuires?  Because they are the product once again of a litany of complaints that became a chorus and the chorus was sung over and over becoming the rallying cry of a people.  The cry for freedom from oppression of outsiders. And this constitutes the basis for many myths and legends.  We can find such legends and myths of longing for return to former greatness in the tribes of South Africa and Namibia, throughout South Asia and into the Indochina peninsula and within the indigenous tribes of North America.

How about the veneration of the 1950’s in current America?  “A simpler time,” many call it but what about the threat of vaporization from a Soviet Hydrogen bomb?  What about the civil rights struggle?  What about polio? What about the Korean War or the beginnings of the Vietnam War?  Oh yes, a much simpler time.  A time when many rural homes still had outhouses, no running water and medical services were few and far between.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t long for the fifties.  I don’t want to experience mumps, chicken pox and the German measles again.  And yet we have not nascent but full-grown stories of how much better things were.  See how the process works? Remember how at the beginning I said we were all in the middle of growing myths and legends.

So, let’s drop back to the General Andrew Jackson era but look at one of his soldiers, a soldier who would become a legend in his own time.  David Crockett as we all know, was born on a mountain top in Tennessee.  Wait, Davy was born in 1786. There was a no Tennessee.  He was born in what was then the provisional State of Frankland (Franklin) and it wasn’t on a mountain top but rather in a valley of the Nolichucky River.  Now Davy enlisted in one of the Tennessee militia’s under Jackson in the Creek war after the massacre of Fort Mims.  He spent the majority of his time hunting and trapping food for the militia although he did engage in a few skirmishes with the Creeks.  Still, there were many others with much greater claims as Indian fighters than Davy Crockett.  He was not with Jackson at the battles of Pensacola or New Orleans, having hired someone to finish out his term of enlistment, a common practice of the day that would extend into and through the Civil War and, in fact, would cause riots in New York City in 1863 which turned into race riots with the army being called in to put down the riots and restore peace. Odd, isn’t it.  They used the New York Militia, so they didn’t have to declare martial law and that was perfectly ok since we did not yet have the Posse Comitatus Act.

  Now, Davy trained more as a drover and apprenticed for four years at making hats before moving his family first to middle and then western Tennessee where he would be elected first to the Tennessee house and then to the U.S. House of Representatives four different times.   

So, Davy Crockett was a frontiersman like most other residents west of the Appalachian Mountains, but he was a particularly good story teller engaging in the common practice of aggrandizing his “Adventures” and as he told them often the stories got bigger and bigger with retelling and like any other legend the more often the stories were told the more famous Davy Crockett became.  He took care with his image and often dressed himself like a frontiersman in buckskin trousers and shirt and yes, he did have a coonskin cap.  He allowed a play to be written using his stories as the plot.  The play opened in New York City in 1831 titled “The Lion of the West” about a super-human Kentucky frontiersman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire (now here’s another place to do a word check)  Nimrod has two accepted meanings: that of a skillful hunter(as in Noah’s great-grandson) and informally in seventeenth century America as someone who was inept, as in “YOU NIMROD!!”  It was widely known that the play was about Crockett including the acknowledgment of the leading actor to Crockett when the latter attended the play.  Crockett with the help of a Kentucky congressman then wrote his autobiography which was no small shakes in pushing his legend forward.  This had all been started in Washington by none other than Andrew Jackson who pronounced Crockett the epitome of the Western frontier gentleman.  And then Crockett did what all really good heroes do, he died in battle, not just any battle but the battle that bought Sam Houston enough time to muster an army big enough to defeat Santa Anna at Buffalo Bayou.  The heroes of Texas, they were called, and Colonel Crockett stood there next to Travis and Bowie.  A hero not just to Tennesseans but Texicans and the rest of America as well.

But why did Crockett get the push from members of Congress that he did?  Why did many people outside his voting district like him so much?  Why did Crockett’s legend continue to come up in Washington through the late 19th century?  Well I don’t have a definitive answer, but I’ll hazard a guess.  Crockett was very staunchly anti-Jackson.  He fought Jackson on a number of issues including the Indian removal act, and because Jackson himself had held Crocket up as a paragon of virtue what better way to get others to stand against the president than to say, “Jackson’s fellow statesman and the king of the wild frontier says the issue is wrong. Come join us.”

Therefore, there is every possibility that the legend of Davy Crockett was a political whip with which the anti-Jacksonian lobby lashed the Democrats.

Then, of course, in 1955 Walt Disney took the legend on and, as they say, the rest is history.

The anti-Jackson’s needed a hero, the Spartans needed a hero and so the story of King Leonidas and the 300 is told.  Not often told in that story is there were ten thousand other Greeks in support of Leonidas, but it is enough that the valor of the Spartans is remembered as a lesson to those who came behind them and lots of legends are like that.

Does anyone here remember Colin P. Kelly?  Captain Kelly was a B-17 pilot in the Philippines on December 10, 1941.  He and his crew flew a mission against attacking Japanese naval ships and lightly damaged one of the besieging cruisers.  Attacked by Japanese fighters who outnumbered him six to one Kelly attempted to get his aircraft back to Clark Air Field but as it approached the field it caught fire and became difficult to control. Kelly ordered his crew to bail out.  Shortly after they did so the aircraft exploded killing Kelly.

In sore need of heroes, the American public was told that Kelly’s crew had sunk the cruiser, it hadn’t.  Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (which is the second highest award for bravery in the U.S. Military, the first being the Medal of Honor and was placed in the pantheon of heroes in the popular song, “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.”  The other heroes of that song, Lincoln, Custer, Washington, Perry (that would be Oliver Hazard Perry of Great Lakes fame) and Nathan Hale.  And that is a perfect segue for one of my favorite legends.  Nathan Hale.

I’m sure most of you know the story.  In 1776 young Yale graduate now teacher and captain in the Connecticut state militia Nathan Hale volunteers to spy for Washington in New York City.  He is betrayed, denies he is a spy and might well have gotten away with his denial save for the notes on British order of battle they found in his stocking.  He was hanged for being a spy. The legend of Nathan Hale is not that he was a spy but how well he died.  There are lots of statements attributed to him as he stood on the gallows, perhaps the most famous being “I regret that I have only one life to lose for my country.”  There are at least eight statues of Nathan Hale at various institutions in the United States including one to the right of the front entrance of the Central Intelligence Agency.  In bronze he stands there as on the gallows, his hands tied behind his back reminding all the spies who enter that the consequence for poor spycraft is often death.  You see Nathan Hale’s legend is that of a hero but while it is heroic to die for one’s country it is more important that you don’t die and complete your mission.  Although Hale’s death was a moving event it got General Washington no closer to knowing what the British intentions regarding attacking other areas in New York.  There are only two statues at the CIA, Nathan Hale and General William J. Donovan the father of the CIA.  Why would we have a statue to a spy who failed on his first mission?  We don’t need people who will die well, we need people who won’t get caught and yet there we are with a bigger than life bronze statue to a man better suited to teach than to spy.  Yet the legend of Nathan Hale is inculcated in the American psyche as firmly as Washington crossing the Delaware.  And he like Custer and Colin P. Kelly are immortalized in song.

While we’re talking about spies let’s go to perhaps the most overstated spy myth in history, Mata Hari.

Everyone knows the story, Marguerite Zelle McLeod, a Dutch woman who reinvented herself as an exotic dancer in the salons of Paris in 1914.  In truth she was an aspiring courtesan which as we all know is a euphemism for high-class prostitute.  She had as clients many important military officers in Paris as well as one or two Germans.  In 1916 some ill-conceived and poorly executed French attacks on German positions were repulsed with great loss to the French forces.  The French General Staff, not wanting to be publicly seen as derelict in its duties nor hidebound and locked into an earlier century in its tactics made it clear that the only way such carnage could have happened was if a spy had known of the plans and informed the Germans.  Now, the chief of counter-intelligence for the French Army, Georges Ladoux looked at Mata Hari and thought he might use her as a spy and so he approached her.  Since she was a foreigner living in France, he had every control over her ability to remain in the country.  She agreed having received, we are told by some historians, twenty-thousand francs from the German Consul in Amsterdam to do the same things for the Germans.  However, in the early 1930’s the German government repudiated the claims that Mata Hari had been a German spy.  Why then would she be charged, convicted and executed by the very government she was working for?  Number one: the French Government and Army needed a scapegoat to keep people from rising in the streets and throwing them out.  There had already been mutinies in the French Army with several units refusing to leave their trenches during attacks.  Number two: George Ladoux, the head of counter-intelligence could claim a victory for his unit but perhaps more importantly he could use the conviction of Mata Hari as a lever of power against members of the government and the Army who had been clients of Ms Zelle.  By agreeing that Mata Hari had been the spy that had given the secrets of the planned attacks to the Germans the generals were putting themselves and their staffs in harm’s way for somebody or somebodies had to have given up the information.  So, Mata Hari was really a political tool used in a power struggle.  Now here’s where this really gets interesting.  In 1918 Georges Ladoux was accused of being a German spy.  He was arrested but after a series of meetnigs all charges were dropped.  Was this perhaps because he could have claimed any of several high government officials or generals as having been confederates of, or dupes of Mata Hari?  Very likely.  And it is also likely that Ladoux, himself,  had been responsible for setting Mata Hari up from the very first. He knew she could be blamed, and that people would believe him.  He probably set her up as an insurance policy for himself not realizing just how much more power he could obtain by actually having her convicted of being responsible for the deaths of as many as fifty thousand French soldiers and civilians because of the complicity he could charge against senior French officials.  It was a perfect ploy, perhaps one of the best spy capers ever but Mata Hari was only someone who got used not the great spy she would be depicted as in her trial by military tribunal.  For the greater spy she was then the greater the coup of capturing her.

Let’s look at Mata Hari from the perspective of making a legend.  She wasn’t who she claimed to be.  She remade herself with the intent of being legendary and mysterious.  She got away with outlandish behavior in flouting the customs and laws of Belle Epoch France.  She dressed in costumes which she stripped off appearing in various stages of nudity for her dances claiming it was part of the tradition of the dance.  She did not deny the stories people told about her, in some cases, adding to them.  She encouraged people to believe things about her that weren’t true including her ancestry. These people told amazing stories about her supposed accomplishments, liaisons, conquests, some true and others outlandish and her death was every bit as intriguing as her life.  Sound familiar?  Where have we discussed someone like this before?

How about Davy Crockett?

And now let’s take up the myth that founded a nation.  It’s the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  This was written by a slave holder who saw slavery as a necessary evil to make the world go.  But this isn’t the first time that democracy would assert freedom while upholding the institution of slavery.  We talk about the golden age of Greece when democracy flourished but who did the work in Greece?  Who worked the fields and provided food?  Who cooked?  Who took care of the children while the citizens of Athens were off debating the fate of the nation? Slaves.  If we deconstruct the history of democracy and equality, we find that the two are not necessarily compatible.  In a democracy every voter is accorded rights but there is always an underclass where voting is not necessarily a right. 

We talk of democracy having its birth in Greece, but it wasn’t all of Greece.  Democracy is primarily an Athenian idea.  Certainly, the Spartans were not democratic nor were some of the other city states that comprised the various Grecian alliances. And we must remember that this same Athens gave us the concept of a Tyrant which was an elected position of absolute authority during times of crisis.  Plus, in the Athenian democracy not all men were equal even among the Athenians for to be able to vote you had to be a citizen in good standing, that is – not under confinement or accusation of a crime, have paid all taxes due of you, etc.  Women could not vote.

Thus, the history of democracy is a varied one.  Equality was wanting in all of the systems that involved the use of democracy in government.  After the Athenians came the Romans who had evolved into a Republic that used the Consul system as an executive.  This is where two consuls are elected, either having the ability to veto proposed action by the other.  The Roman senate elected the consuls and like with the Athenians, in times of crises, a Dictator could be elected by the senate for a term of six months and this dictator could make decisions without conferring with the senate or consuls.  But again, there was a disparity between classes in the Roman democracy.  There were the Patricians, a class you were born into, the Plebeians who were citizens but not among the wealthy estate owners.  The Plebeians accounted for most small farmers, soldiers, and craftsmen of Rome.  And then there were the slaves who had no individual rights but were protected under the law by the rights of their owners.  Only in 476 B.C. did the Plebeians revolt and obtain the right to have one of the Consuls elected from their social class.

The next democracy of concern to rise in history was in Britain where again there were classes within the democracy including an aristocracy as great or even greater than the Patricians of Rome and rather than a consul there was a hereditary King or Queen as the titular head of Government.  And there were slaves.

And then in 1776 a group of professionals and landowners who were the Plebeians of the British Empire decided that there should be no Plebeians and Patricians, no aristocracy and lower classes and they got together to write and approve the Declaration of Independence which states that “When in the course of human events… et cetera, “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  In other words, we do not recognize the authority of a King or an aristocracy.  But we do recognize the necessity of slavery.  And a new nation was born.  A nation that paid lip service to the idea that all men were created equal when we know, in fact, that all men are not created equal, they are not equal in size, strength, intellect, fairness of face or a host of other intrinsic abilities and attributes.  Perhaps what they wanted to mean was equal in the face of the law but then they still excluded the slaves.  The very document that would create the new nation was the document that contained within it the seeds that might have destroyed the very same nation it proclaimed.  But let’s return to the meaning that was put forth by those who crafted and approved the document.  The meaning is that the United States would recognize no aristocracy.  In the Constitution it says that we will grant no titles of nobility but we’ve, in practice, violated that provision by creating a class of former government officials entitled to perks and recognition, each “entitled” (note the very meaning of the word) to keep the title they had while in office.  We went from a nation where we claimed that all men were equal to a stratified society with its own nobility of Former cabinet officers, former judges, retired Generals, Attorneys General, Ambassadors, and so on.  We have imbued the people who occupy this class with the myth that they know more than we do, and we often accede to their ideas and positions when, in fact, they know no more than we do on most subjects.  Just the other day I was watching a former state department ambassador being asked a question about Russia. I know this ambassador and he spent his entire career in Africa.  So why should we trust his opinion on Russia.

But back to all men are created equal.  They aren’t. Now if they had said in the Declaration that all men are entitled to be free and to be able to pursue happiness without the undue intrusion of government, they would have been a lot closer to the truth.  By wording it as they did, they created a myth that has morphed into a movement that can never really be achieved not unlike the myth of the holy grail. 

And on that thought we end Myths, Legend and Culture and as I said at the beginning you have to lift the hood and look inside, inspect the tires, work the transmission and the brakes if you want to know if the car’s a good deal.  So too with myths and legends, you’ve got to lift the hood and look underneath.

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