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American mythology

This article will be about the development of a North American mythology (in the United States and Canada) since the European invasion. Information about Native American mythology can be found in the appropriate heading in mythology. Vodun and related topics are also dealt with on a separate page.

A mythology is simply a story of some sort which has emotional, cultural, moral or ethical value to a nation. Taken broadly, then, American mythology can include any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of American values and belief systems. These narratives may be true and may be false; the veracity of the stories is not a determining factor.

See also: American folklore

Table of contents

Founding of the United States

Christopher Columbus

Though Christopher Columbus did not participate in the founding of the American government, he has been interpreted as a "founder" of the American nation, in that it is descended from the European immigrants that would not have moved to the New World if Columbus had not found where it was. Indeed, one particularly pervasive myth is that Columbus discovered America, as it is far easier to heroify a man than a complex series of waves of immigrants from multiple conditions and walks of life. According to some stories, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in order to prove that the world was round, because he expected to reach the Far East by sailing west. Like most mythological "founders" Columbus' mission is then rendered entirely noble, intellectual and rational. He helped dispell the inaccurate myths of his time, and, so, it is concluded, the nation he founded must be a nation of intellect and logic. Washington Irving is the first citation for this myth.

George Washington

George Washington is often said to be the "founder" of the United States. Since his death, Washington has been mythologized, with many anecdotes and stories about his life told, in general, to present the founder of the modern American nation as a just and wise cultural hero. For example, it is said that Washington, as a young child, chopped down his father's cherry tree. His angry father confronted the young Washington, who proclaimed "I can not tell a lie" and admitted to the transgression, thus illuminating his honesty. Parson Mason Locke Weems[?] is the first citation of the myth, in his 1850 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is also known to have spread the story while lecturing, personalizing it by adding "I have a higher and greater standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won't." Stories of national mythological value often have similar themes - that the founder of the nation, Deucalion, George Washington, Abraham - was a wise, virtuous and brave man.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is said to have begun with the Pilgrims in 1619. They had come to America to escape religious persecution, but then nearly starved to death due to the unfamiliar land. Some friendly Native Americans (including Squanto[?]) helped the Pilgrims survive through the first winter. The perseverance of the Pilgrims is celebrated during the annual Thanksgiving festival. As a myth, this story relates to the founding of the culture. The Pilgrims' dedication to their cause in spite of the hardships renders the foundation of the country, and therefore the country itself, seem stronger and more resilient. It is also a fertility festival, similar in some ways to other harvest-time celebrations in other cultures, celebrating the nourishment that comes from the earth. It was also said that the Pilgrims were the first colony in the New World, but before that, there were some French and Spanish colonies, as well as other English colonies. Some English colonies in America that predated Plymouth Roch include Roanoke settlement[?], which was later overtaken by or integrated with Native American tribes, and the Jamestown Settlement, which was sucessful and predated the Pilgrims' settlement by 20 years.

Music A large portion of American popular music includes narratives, frequently holding great meaning and significance for the audience, which can be a large percentage of all Americans or a large percentage of a minority of Americans.

Blues Music

Blues music frequently takes the form of a loose narrative, often with the singer reciting his or her many misfortunes. Contrary to much of the music being recorded at the time, many of the oldest blues records contain gritty, realistic lyrics. For example, Down In The Alley[?] by Memphis Minnie is about prostitution; the singer describes having sex with several men in succession in an alley. Since blues music was, for most of its early history, an entirely African-American form, these narratives often describe such topics as poverty and sexuality from a distinctly black point-of-view. Blues music later achieved more popularity, and the subject matter was able to lighten up somewhat, but early blues music is rarely optimistic and usually downright dark and depressing.

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