What Beliefs Are You Trying To Cultivate With The Stories You Tell?
High above the floor of the Rotunda is a fresco painted on the inside of the Capitol dome.
It depicts George Washington sitting regally in heaven, surrounded by angels, appearing divine. The artwork represents a striking illustration of Washington’s elevated status into civic sainthood. Jefferson and Hamilton may have played similarly vital roles in the country’s birth, but only Washington is imagined to have never told a lie.
Why do we choose to mythologize Washington? Why elevate him from a historical figure to become an embodiment of virtue and the nation’s democratic ideals?
It’s a story that may be as old as civilization itself. In fact, it was the purpose of the world’s first written story.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a collection of poems about a man who tries and fails to overcome death. In his quest for immortality, Gilgamesh realizes that it’s the legacy he leaves with his city that will allow him to “live” forever. The Epic’s lesson is reflected in the real world. Gilgamesh the man is almost entirely forgotten today. We know only his name and roughly when and where he ruled. But the story of Gilgamesh and the ideals of kingship and civic pride that he embodied lived on forever. Gilgamesh the man became a myth through which ancient Akkadian and Babylonian scribes could create stories to impart moral lessons, explain how things came to be, and create a common thread of connection that links their civilizations with their divine forebears nearly a thousand years later.
Most societies invent cultural heroes to create a shared sense of identity.
For Rome it was Romulus, for the Ancient Israelites it was Moses, and for us it was George Washington. Yes, we Americans share a common set of stories about our most important historical figure, some real and some legendary, that embody our values and mythologize our society’s origin. We are taught about Washington’s bravery in crossing the Delaware and of his selflessness in his refusal to run for a third term. Even a fable about his refusal to lie about chopping down a cherry tree helps us recognize his virtue. Washington’s selfless dedication to democracy forms the political ideals that bind us—regardless of individual beliefs or political affiliation. Washington and Gilgamesh, while not divine, both came to be something more than human.
They are powerful stories that have forged communities around a set of shared beliefs.
For the Sumerians, it was good kingship and a strong communal bond that was needed for a city to thrive. In America, it was devotion to republican ideals that helped pull together a group of very different states and ideas towards a new form of democracy. In both cases, stories were the seeds of these beliefs.
What beliefs are you trying to cultivate with the stories you tell?
Learn more about how Mythos can help you identify and collect the right stories to make your institution legendary. And if you’re interested in reading more about these cultural heroes, check out David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing and Sophus Helle’s Gilgamesh: A New Translation of the Ancient Epic.