Myth and Reality

The idea that myth is as much a part of history as fact is new to me, but it is the essential element of Mary Beard’s history, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”. Beard examines the numerous myths of early Rome in the seventh century BCE beginning with Romulus/Remus which was followed by the era of kings also laced with myth, which eventually led to the Roman Republic. Beard, although short on actual data of who did what or when uses the existing archaeological and literary data to weave her story. It is an excellent one, although I found myself floundering when I had to adapt mythic characters as partly real and yet entirely valid and then to understand their interplay with actual events. It makes discriminating between fact and fiction very difficult, which might just be her intention.

As an English furniture dealer, I am no stranger to myth being treated as reality. Aside from the common shibboleths that include misnomers like “red walnut” or the reactionary stance to shellac, a material widely used despite years of denial by the antiques trade, there are other myths as well. Some of these myths are confusing such as, for example, that walnut carves less well than mahogany, but better than pine. Neither is true although finely carved mahogany is usually the most desirable. But not always and this is why many of the myths confound. The most common use of myth is for unsubstantiated provenance. Scurrilous dealers will allude to royal ownership to titillate buyers, but beware, the fiction needs paperwork to substantiate it.

As it happens there was an editorial by Nancy Langston called, “In Oregon, Myth Mixes with Anger” in the NY Times on Wednesday concerning the use of myth by the outlaws who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The editorial lays out the history of the land and it is clear that the men who have occupied the refuge are not aware of the history of the refuge and prefer their mythical version. Who can blame them? Myth is a powerful tool that is capable of eclipsing rational thought. Indeed, the presidential candidates from both parties are relying heavily on myth even if they have to make it up as they go along. That is, of course, the problem as the non-truth of myth can backfire and reveal itself as deceit or, more commonly, lies.



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