In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Founding Myths of the Americas

  • Introduction: Why Myth Matters in the Americas
  • General Overviews
  • Pioneering Works
  • Myths and Foundations—Conceptual Studies

Atlantic History Founding Myths of the Americas
by
Barbara Buchenau
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0404

Introduction: Why Myth Matters in the Americas

Myths constitute community, offering a sense of belonging, shared values and comparable stories of origins. Myths suggest universal validity, but they delegitimize those who are dehumanized in the process of certain commemorative actions. This dialectic thrives in the Americas: histories of migration and democratization are always also histories of slavery and settler colonialism. These conjunctions strengthen myth’s ability to serve as both social glue and exclusionary mechanism. Critical interventions seeking to demystify the foundational functions of myths often lead to revitalization rather than abolishment. Recent studies on United States history and society emphasize the coloniality of founding myths. In regional studies, across the Americas and in inter-American studies, however, there is a stronger focus on the positive effects of myths on social, political, and even economic cohesion. Founding myths represent collective values, allowing some groups of people to reinvent their sense of world and self, while forcing others into submission or opposition. Since it is in settings of uncertainty that myths stabilize a sense of self and world, the Americas, with their reiterative histories of migration, enslavement, dispossession, revolution, upheaval, liberation and national(ist) consolidation, offered ideal seedbeds for foundational mythmaking. Minding the ethical flexibility and normative impact of myths is a scholarly challenge. North American myths about heroic new men (much less women) in an empty land reinventing a new and a better humanity promised liberation to some at the cost of subjugating others. This bibliographical essay will show how settler-colonial histories of conquest, deracination, bondage, and nation-building pitted myths of individual liberation against myths of communal freedom. The most influential myth alive across the Americas holds that there is an endless possibility to reinvent oneself and the world. The second, quite embattled, myth concerns the epic life on frontiers: Is it a democratizing human experience, or does it dehumanize its most important agents? The mythopoetic fight over memories of enslavement and dispossession is the third, highly contested component of founding myths in the Americas. For Black and Indigenous people, journeys to freedom reveal the bitter ironies of seeking and granting liberation. Settler colonists and immigrants, however, unironically described their own experiences in the language of an abolition of dependency, mostly ignoring connections to slavery. These three distinctive myths of reinvention, border-crossing, and emancipation merge in an inter-American landscape of creolization and transculturation. Here, becoming a new person after experiencing a violent world in constant motion looks like a daily routine. Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG - German Research Council), Project number 411017845, and the Thyssen Foundation, project number Az.20.22.0.026TL.

General Overviews

Is it possible to use myth for a better understanding of the Americas? Claviez 1998 provides one of the few theory-driven defenses of myth as a scientific category for the study of history and the imagination in the United States, while Deloria 2015 explains why traditional US American founding myths exclude and destabilize Native America. Arabindan-Kesson 2021 shows how the mythification of cotton exploited Black bodies and Indigenous lands. Bouchard and Andrès 2007 shows why myth’s alignment with lies and manipulation provokes demystifying and anti-mythical scholarship about the Americas. Yet Bouchard and Andrès defend the explanatory and representational strengths and the paradigmatic structural functions of myth in historical and contemporary society. Is it possible to avoid reproducing the overidentification of the United States with foundational mythmaking? Does it make sense to mark shared qualities in the founding myths that are in circulation in the Americas? Other than the range of essays in Bouchard and Andrès 2007 that show how genealogies of founding myths are evolving in the distinctive parts of the Americas, there is rather limited work done on the transcontinental dimension of founding myths. There are, however, good overviews of some of the most prominent topics of mythmaking. Townsend 2003 discusses the birth of the myth that the Aztecs ostensibly believed the Europeans to be gods, while Haefeli 2007 studies a similar misreading in colonial North America. Gräser 2011 discusses the ways in which America is imitated as an exemplary democratic society by democratic societies worldwide. Marx 2017 indicates how settler colonialism in the Americas fostered dreams of egalitarian reforms on the frontier that also reverberated in later settler-colonial states. Romero 1999 offers a classical argument about the very distinctive Spanish and Portuguese attempts and failures to invent Latin American cities in the image of Europe. Apart from a discussion of myth as a crucial exercise in religion, ideology, literary and cultural production, and political operation, there is a broader agreement about myth’s functions for especially colonial, but also national history and its foundation in settler colonialism. Founding myths are also understood to curtail the future of pluralist democracies in the Americas. In relation to colonialism and imperialism, the idea of a fresh start, a rebirth or a true birth, is quite prominent, and Bouchard 2000 is probably the best example for an analysis of this sense of newness that accompanies the mythic reframing of colonization and immigration.

  • Arabindan-Kesson, Anna. Black Bodies, White Gold: Art, Cotton, and Commerce in the Atlantic World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781478021377

    This book about art’s representation of cotton as a “white gold” describes the Atlantic emergence of a “speculative vision” that mythologizes the profit and promise of cotton as material and commodity. The secessionist slogan “king cotton” here is revisited in a manner that shows how the Atlantic hunt for the white gold was built on the extraction and exploitation of Black bodies, the dispossession of indigenous communities and lands, and the rise of labor-intensive textile industries across the globe.

  • Bouchard, Gérard. Genèse des nations et cultures du nouveau monde: Essai d’histoire comparée. Montreal: Boréal, 2000.

    This is a proposal for a comparative study of “new collectivities,” societies around the globe that have emerged from British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish imperialism, employing “auto-mythification” and emphasizing their sense of newness and reinvention. Studies New France and Quebec, Latin America and Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. The comparative historical inquiry wants to correct “flawed identities,” for instance, of settlers who define themselves as Frenchmen or Portuguese, and “faulty representations” of the “survival” of Quebec alongside Anglo-Canada.

  • Bouchard, Gérard, and Bernard Andrès, eds. Mythes et sociétés des Amériques. Montreal: Québec Amérique, 2007.

    Myths are introduced as both foundational and representative to American societies, even in scenarios in which only a small group establishes faith in them. The book discusses (a) transcontinental mythic figures such as the reborn American and the pioneer; (b) foundational experiences such as violence, memory reconstruction, and baseball; (c) myth-enhancing processes such as colonization, racialized lights and shades, rupture, route, and success; and (d) suppressed myths such as the imagination of an independent French-language America.

  • Claviez, Thomas. Grenzfälle: Mythos—Ideologie—American Studies. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1998.

    This book defends myth as an ethically blind anthropological, psychological, and social phenomenon that explains the larger relevance of basic human experiences (among them birth, death, sexuality, origins) more effectively than rational discourse. Myth as an intellectual tool to cope with crises and gain control in highly dynamic situations here is distinguished from mystification as a tool to cover up the truth. The enormous relevance of myth for the emergence of the new field of American studies is explained.

  • Deloria, Philip J. “American Master Narratives and the Problem of Indian Citizenship in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14.1 (2015): 3–12.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537781414000504

    This printed version of a 2014 keynote address uses a study of the Society of American Indians since 1911 to clarify, in a nutshell, why founding myths of the Americas are most often stories written by and for European Americans that cast Indigenous people as outsiders who need to be divested of their possessions and brought to disappearance. Alternative myths are understood to enforce assimilation, since there are no liberating concepts of citizenship for Indigenous people.

  • Gräser, Marcus. “Model America.” In European History Online (EGO). Mainz, Germany: Institute of European History, 2011.

    Published in German and English, this freely accessible online essay shows how “America,” referring to Latin America and the Caribbean until the eighteenth century, came to be identified with the United States as soon as the American Revolution reaffirmed the mythic claim initially voiced by Puritan ministers that the New English colony could serve as a globally valid model for processes of democratization.

  • Haefeli, Evan. “On First Contact and Apotheosis: Manitou and Men in North America.” Ethnohistory 54.3 (2007): 407–443.

    DOI: 10.1215/00141801-2007-002

    Seeks to rethink stories of first colonial encounters via the transmitted words of the Indigenous participants. Takes a global perspective on the settler myth about Indigenous people perceiving Europeans as divine beings. Offering a close reading of Henry Hudson’s encounter with Native interlocutors, the essay identifies the distinctive linguistic, political, and religious layers at play in interpretations of the interaction. The Indigenous interpretations are shown to be fully cognizant of the immense danger posed by the new contact.

  • Marx, Christoph. “Settler Colonies.” Translated by Niall Williams. In European History Online (EGO). Mainz, Germany: Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), 2017.

    This essay puts mythic ideas of founders and settlers into global perspective, indicating how the nature of settler colonialism changed once it was also employed in Africa and Australasia. Makes three observations about why founding myths thrive in settler colonies: (a) the new society sees itself as a homogenous “offshoot” of a European model; (b) settlers were usually poor and unfree, thus seeking emancipation; (c) the frontier was a highly unstable mobile zone of interaction mystified as democratizing only in hindsight.

  • Romero, José Luis. Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas. Translated by Inés Azar. Interamer Collection, Cultural Series, 59. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 1999.

    This study, initially published in Spanish in 1976, presents the emergence of urban myths wherever Spanish and Portuguese colonials sought to recreate copies of European ideals in a New World imagined as empty and vacant. In Brazil, cities were shaped by pragmatic dreams of the rural, the plantation, and a racial democracy. In New Spain, networks of distinctive city types emerged, such as the hidalgo cities of the Caribbean or the criollo cities of a white New World society.

  • Townsend, Camilla. “Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico.” American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 659–687.

    DOI: 10.1086/529592

    This essay dismantles in detail a pervasive myth promoted in mid-16th-century Spanish and Nahuatl documents and cherished in canonical scholarship concerning an ostensible Indigenous misconception of the conquerors as divine beings. While writers on both sides of the Atlantic promulgated the view that the Aztec mistook Hernando Cortés and his men as incarnations of the god Quetzalcoatl, there is ample evidence that this view was only developed in hindsight to explicate the conquest and dismiss Native acumen.

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