This lyric from Paul Simon’s song, All Around the World Or the Myth of Fingerprints, popped into my head this morning as I was reflecting on myth in light of a happy convergence of three books I was reading simultaneously, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (audiobook).
Starting with Paul Simon’s lyric, what was the myth of fingerprints? Since the advent of discovering that fingerprints are unique and may be used to accurately identify people, the term has also been adopted to mean leaving one’s mark on something. That fiasco has so and so’s fingerprints all over it. Or the British Empire left its fingerprint all over the globe.
Myth is what we choose to believe apart from absolute certainty – are all fingerprints unique with absolute certainty? We can never know for certain, because we don’t have a fingerprint database going back to the beginning of human history. So we choose to believe the myth that fingerprints are unique because it gives us (so far) a reliable framework for authenticating an individual’s identity.
Norse mythology and the Viking legend have sparked the imagination of artists, authors, and the world for years. Wagner immortalized Sigfried, or Sigurd, in his series of operas known as Der Ring des Nibelungen, of which the Ride of the Valkyries is one of the more popular pieces.
Less well known perhaps is the influence of the Norse myths on current popular culture today – notably, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods.
Myths are powerful, and they surround us daily.
During the 2016 Presidential election I imagine citizens did not vote for Donald Trump the person or Hilary Clinton the person. They voted for the myth of Donald Trump (Make America Great Again) or the myth of Hilary Clinton (Stronger Together). Barack Obama was president for two terms because the majority of voting citizens believed in the myth of Barack Obama (Hope – 2008, Forward – 2012).
In Sapiens, Harari points out that the core of what we believe as United States citizens is entrenched in myth. The myth that all men are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the myth we choose to believe as US citizens. Other countries and cultures have their own myths that tie them together as a people.
Myth helps us explain not only what we believe, but why. What we must realize is that different myths are used to explain the same things in different ways, so before we criticize or denounce another’s myth it behooves us to understand how similar our myths may be, and rather than hold myth as absolute truth, see it as a story through which we can find commonality with others.