Modern Mythology

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Modern Mythology

Not all mythology dates from the days of ancient cultures. People around the world continue to create new myths and to embroider or rework existing ones. Modern technologies such as publishing, movies, telecommunications, and the Internet allow folktales, rumors, and newly minted myths to travel faster and reach more people than ever before. One distinctive feature of some modern legends is that they originated as artistic creations, although their creators may have drawn on earlier themes.

Like all myths and legends, modern mythology springs from a sense of life's wonder, excitement, mystery, and terror. Modern legends offer images of the best and worst aspects of the human condition. They suggest that good behavior will be rewarded and evil, greedy, or foolish behavior punished. Some modern legends reflect people's fear of rapid social change or of science and technology; others appeal to their desire to find meaningful patterns beneath the confusing chaos of ordinary life.

More or Less than Human. A number of modern myths explore what it means to be human. In 1912 the American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character Tarzan, the son of an English nobleman raised by apes in the African jungle. Like earlier myths about people raised by animals, the Tarzan story features animals with admirable "human" qualities and people with brutish "animal" qualities. Tarzan himself combines the virtues of animal strength and civilized honor.

Like the heroes of ancient myths, modern superheroes have extraordinary powers. The most famous superhero is Superman, created by American cartoonists Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster in 1938. In comics and on radio, television, and movie screens, he fights for "truth, justice, and the American way," using his powers of flight and incredible strength, powers he possesses because he is from another planet. Like most modern superheroes, Superman keeps his identity a secret and pretends to be an ordinary man. Such myths suggest that anyone can have unsuspected potential for heroism.

Urban Legends

The urban legend is a story that is supposed to have happened recently, usually to someone remotely known to the teller, such as "a friend of a friend." Urban legends spread quickly, then die out, perhaps to reappear later in slightly different form. One of the first urban legends to be studied by folklore experts was a story about alligators living in New York City sewers. Rumor had it that children vacationing in Florida had brought home tiny alligators, which they flushed down toilets when the pets started to grow. This legend, although unfounded, has had a longer life than any alligator.

chaos great disorder or confusion

If Tarzan and Superman offer visions of the ideal human being, the legend of Frankenstein explores human flaws. The English writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus in 1818. It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who builds an artificial creature from pieces of corpses and brings the creature to life. An element of the Frankenstein story that has been repeated in many modern books and movies is the theme of the "mad scientist" who crosses a moral boundary and unleashes forces beyond his control. The monster, who is intelligent and kind but so ugly that everyone fears and hates him, represents everyone who is misunderstood and cannot find a place in the world. He symbolizes both a fear of the unknown and the pain caused by prejudice.

Many ancient myths feature monstrous, frightening beings who are partly human and who prey on humans. Such figures continue to fascinate today. Among the most enduring monsters in modern mythology are werewolves and vampires. The werewolves represent the idea that a fearsome beast lurks inside a human being; vampires give form to humans' fears of darkness and death. One of the most famous vampires is Count Dracula from the 1897 novel Dracula by Irish writer Bram Stoker. A modern twist on the vampire legend emerged in the 1990s, when a few books, films, and television shows portrayed vampires as sympathetic characters battling against their bloodthirsty impulses.

Related Entries

Other entries related to modern mythology are listed at the end of this article.

Myths for Children. Some mythic characters appear mainly in stories for children. Santa Claus originated centuries ago as a Dutch folk character. Since the 1800s, he has developed into a universally recognized symbol of Christmas who is said to bring gifts to good children. Stories about his workshop at the North Pole, his elves, and the reindeer who pull his sleigh complete the modern Claus mythology. Another figure with links to ancient mythology is the Easter Bunny, said to bring candy eggs to children in the spring. This modern myth has its roots in an ancient relationship between eggs, rabbits, and a Germanic fertility goddess named Eastre or Ostara.

Parents may call on other mythological figures to encourage good behavior in their children. They may warn disobedient children about scary beings such as the bogeyman, a goblin that originated in old English and Scottish folklore. On the other hand, the Tooth Fairy is said to bring gifts to children when they lose their teeth.

A World of Wonders. A great many modern myths attempt to paint the world in dramatic colors or find hidden meanings in random events. Once they have appeared in print a few times, such myths begin to seem like facts to some people. "The curse of King Tutankhamen's tomb," for example, was a fiction coined by newspaper writers, but it gave rise to a body of tales about ancient mummies coming to life to attack people who disturb their tombs.

One of the most widespread legends of modern times concerns UFOs, unidentified flying objects or flying saucers. Ever since pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing strange objects flying over the state of Washington in 1947, rumors and reports of spacecraft piloted by extraterrestrial beings have surfaced in the media. By the late 1990s, the UFO myth had grown into an elaborate set of stories about various kinds of aliens, some of which kidnap humans. UFO stories bear striking similarities to earlier myths, such as kidnappings by fairies and mysterious appearances of ghosts or demons. Ironically, the lack of reliable evidence to support UFO claims merely adds to the mythology, as people maintain that the absence of evidence points to a government conspiracy or coverup. Conspiraciessecret forces that shape events and conceal the truth from the publicappear in a number of modern myths, perhaps reflecting a failure of trust in leaders and authority figures.

The search for the marvelous and strange lies behind many modern legends. Stories about mysterious unknown creatures, such as Sasquatch or Bigfoot in North America and the yeti or Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas, are survivors of ancient folklore taken seriously by some modern believers. Other mythssuch as the notion that an unusually large number of deaths and disappearances have occurred in a region of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Bermuda Triangleare modern inventions. Many such legends have mysterious and inexplicable elements in place of the gods and magic of earlier mythologies.

See also Dracula; Loch Ness Monster; Santa Claus; Vampires; Werewolves.

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Modern Mythology

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Modern Mythology