Mythic Thursday: Thanksgiving as a Foundation Myth
If myths are the stories a culture tells itself about itself, what does the Thanksgiving myth tell us about America?
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Myths are the stories a culture tells itself about itself.
In the United States, the fall harvest holiday of Thanksgiving has come to be associated with a story of cooperation and unity among Native Americans and European colonists. It’s a story America has used to define its origins and basic character, even as the story elements range from incomplete to inaccurate to blatant fabrications.
We have an obligation to teach the facts behind the myth, to celebrate the American cultures that long predate the arrival of colonizers, and to recognize and address the lasting damage caused by tragedies that followed that festive meal of 1621. Those can be found elsewhere, and should be kept in mind on Thanksgiving and all throughout the rest of the year. But our main concern in this space is with the myth as a myth.
Here is an approximation of how I understood the story when I was six:
In Fourteen-Hundred-Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He brought three ships: the Santa Maria, the Neena, and the Piñata. Despite its name, the Piñata was not actually filled with candy.
The first thing Columbus did was circle around the globe several times to prove to everyone that it was shaped like a ball, which no one had ever known before. Along the way, his crew, known as the Pilgrims, merged their three ships together into one mega-sized ship that they called Mayflower.
In 1620, the Mayflower ran aground on pumice rock, which is a special kind of rock filled with tiny pockets of helium that allow it to float. The Pilgrims wanted to establish a new city on the pumice rock, but couldn’t quite remember the word “pumice,” so they called it Plymouth. That name stuck even after the rock island floated against the coast of Massachusetts where it still exists today.
Since the Pilgrims had all been born aboard a ship, they didn’t know how to hunt or farm, so most of them died when Massachusetts got too cold. Columbus probably died too, since he was very old and is never mentioned again for the rest of the story. Miles Standish took over as the new captain, but wasn’t a very good leader because he spent most of his time wanting to ask out a certain girl he liked.
Some kindly Native Americans found the Pilgrims, adopted them into their tribe, and taught them how to prepare a traditional Wampanoag feast of roast turkey, canned cranberry sauce, sweet potato with mini-marshmallows, and green bean casserole. As one big happy family, they sat down to celebrate a meal they called Thanksgiving, which was so delicious that it became an annual tradition that’s been followed ever since.
When retold in classrooms, in books, around dinner tables, and in the head-cannon of countless six-year-olds, the details of this myth may vary, but the essence remains intact. American mythology frames Columbus as a scientific and cartographical genius who led a successful mission of discovery, rather than as the genocidal rapist that more accurate histories describe. American mythology frames the Pilgrims as champions of religious freedom, glossing over their intolerance for Native traditions, the banishment of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and the witch trial craze of the 1690s.
The story of Thanksgiving is a foundation myth, intended to unify a people and illustrate their common values. Thanksgiving itself became a holiday by presidential proclamation in 1863, when a country torn apart by civil war found itself in need of a positive unifying ritual. Since then, the myth of the First Thanksgiving has supported the practice, shared by many families, of coming together for a festive meal, viewing the annual parade of giant cartoon character balloons, and renewing numerous football rivalries. Thanksgiving also kickstarts the winter holiday gift-buying season, providing a vital economic purpose.
Foundation myths don’t care about historical accuracy, which explains the persistence of foundation myths in the face of contradictory facts. People don’t give up their myths easily, even when those myths are used for harm.
Has the Thanksgiving story helped to prop up white supremacy in the United States? I believe so. Which makes this a good time to consider the dark side of mythology, and how myths can sometimes be used by a society to normalize or justify its worst elements while making those elements harder to change. But as time passes, those same myths can evolve to meet a society’s changing needs.
That same traditional Thanksgiving story could be presented as a tale about a group of undocumented immigrants, the Pilgrims, who come to America in search of a better life and are met by compassionate Americans, the Wampanoags, who provided the healthcare and food assistance they needed after a harsh winter. Once the immigrants had received job training in the agricultural industry, they were invited to a celebratory meal and became productive members of society. This version of the Thanksgiving story remains aspirational. We haven’t always lived up to it, and we don’t live up to it today. It doesn’t describe America as who we are, but as the more perfect union we could choose to become.
The foundation myth of Rome, about two twin brothers raised by wolves, was probably not historically accurate either, but through the bloodline of those mythical founders, the city established itself as the heir to Troy.
The foundation myth of Delphi involves Apollo battling a giant python.
The foundation myth of Crete has Zeus disguising himself as a bull in order to romance a maiden.
The foundation myth of Thebes is about a Middle Eastern prince whose bride receives a cursed necklace as a wedding present.
These stories and others fall into a larger body of mythology but held special significance within their original societies. These are the stories people used to define themselves and their relationships with others.
Wishing a happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate on Thursday and a happy Native American Heritage Day on Friday.
—Greg R. Fishbone, Mythology Disruptor
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