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East European Perspectives: October 15, 2003

15 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 21


By Pal Kolsto

Historical myths have often been singled out as an important factor behind the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s. In Part I of this article, I discussed two different approaches to the study of historical myths in academic research in general and in the study of Balkan history and politics in particular. These I called "the enlightenment approach" and "the functionalist approach." Although these two approaches are not logically incompatible, and may in fact be fruitfully used in conjunction, I tried to demonstrate that different attitudes toward these two approaches have split the research community into two camps.

In this second part of the article, I have singled out for particular scrutiny one specific aspect of historical myths that in my view is the most important reason why they may have strongly negative social consequences and even contribute to the outbreak of violent conflict. This is the tendency of myths to function as boundary-defining mechanisms and to delineate various communities from each other. The propensity of myths to be used as a means to distinguish between insiders and outsiders, between friend and enemy, is potentially one of their most pernicious and dysfunctional aspects.

The factors that lead members of two groups to see each other as different rather than as members of the same collective are often mythical rather than factual. The differences are located in the head, as it were -- in perceptions, rather than in any observable social or cultural traits. This is not to say that there are no objective differences between cultures and societies. There certainly are, but such differences are rarely spread out in neat, clear-cut patterns in which the various cultural boundaries coincide and reinforce each other. Instead, one often finds that a map of food traditions and clothing styles in a particular region looks very different from a map of architectural styles, not to mention linguistic or religious maps. Neighboring communities that adhere to the same religion and eat the same food may nevertheless regard each other as separate groups by dint of, for instance, language differences. Such cases are quite common, but do not prove that language is the ultimate identity marker. In other instances -- the former Yugoslavia is a case in point -- people speak closely related languages but nevertheless see themselves as members of separate communities by reference to some OTHER distinguishing factors.

The "diacritica" that are being singled out as decisive and overriding are historically contingent. The claims to separateness on objective grounds, however, are bolstered by the cultivation of historical myths. Such myths -- about one's own society as well as about one's neighbors -- help to create order in an untidy cultural landscape. Mythical stories about differences of origin, how the groups have interacted and fought each other in the past, and so on, can function as substitutes, or boosters, for "real" differences. They allow the members of the groups to suppress and ignore obvious similarities and blow out of all proportions certain differences between themselves and "the other." Below I present four different types of historical myths that have been used as boundary-defining mechanisms in Balkan societies and elsewhere -- that I choose to call the myths of "sui generis," of "ante murale," of "martyrium," and of "antiquitas."

Over the last 40 years, the study of boundary-defining mechanisms has established itself as an important school of social sciences. The study of myths in general and historical myths in particular has an even longer history. For the most part, however, these two research traditions have developed in isolation from each other. Only very intermittently or tangentially have studies of historical myths taken into account the boundary-creating effects of such myths. Conversely, the study of identity boundaries has for the most part focused on other mechanisms than myth making. In this article, I aim to bring these two research traditions into interplay.

Identity Production At Social Boundaries
The Norwegian social anthropologist Fredrik Barth has generally been credited with bringing the concept of boundaries to the center stage of anthropological inquiry. While perhaps not the first to have recognized the significance of the boundary for the formation of human societies, he focused on this phenomenon much more directly and explicitly than anyone before him and showed that it opened up possibilities for qualitatively new methodological approaches (Barth, 1970). The book "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries," which he edited, led to a paradigm shift -- first in social anthropology, later in social sciences in general (Cohen, 1994, p. 59; Conversi, 1999).

Prior to the publication of Barth's book, most social anthropologists had studied ethnic groups as systems of culture. Indeed, the terms "ethnicity" and "culture" had often been used interchangeably. This was problematical in several respects. First, this approach implicitly ignored that cultural differences do not necessarily follow ethnic lines. A focus on the cultural "inside" of societies also tended to gloss over significant differences WITHIN groups and, finally, made it difficult to explain cultural change.

An example from Scandinavia (not used by Barth himself) may make this clearer: most people in Norway, both today and in the 19th century, regard themselves as ethnic Norwegians (even if that term, of course, was not used 200 years ago). Norwegians were and are clearly conscious of not being Swedes, for instance. They have very distinct ideas as to what a Swede is, and they "know" that Swedes and Norwegians are different. This perception of difference is reciprocated by the Swedes. This may seem so obvious that it is not worth mentioning. The point is, however, that 200 years ago Norwegian and Sweden cultures WERE BASICALLY SIMILAR. In both countries one would find traditional peasant societies and the same Lutheran religion. There were differences, no doubt, but nothing compared to the chasm that separates Norwegian culture around the year 1800 and Norwegian culture today. Indeed, over these 200 years almost the entire content of Norwegian cultural practices has been emptied out and filled up anew, with the practices and values associated with a pluralistic, permissive society, mass consumption, youth culture, new informational technologies, globalization, and so on. Very similar processes have taken place in Sweden, in such a way that Norwegian and Swedish culture remain no less similar than before. And still, in the perception of the members of the two groups, the boundary between them remains as fixed as ever.

It is, then, in contrast to and interaction with outsiders, with the "Other," that group identity is constructed and maintained. Indeed, without such interaction, identity-formation will hardly take place at all. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen has expressed it, "Ethnicity is an aspect of relationship, not a cultural property of a group. If a setting is wholly mono-ethnic, there is effectively no ethnicity, since there is nobody there to communicate cultural difference to" (Eriksen, 1993, p. 34).

The ethnic boundary should not be regarded as some self-functioning mechanism that perpetuates itself without human interference. Boundaries are social constructs that require active maintenance. The boundary markers that delineate the groups Barth calls "diacritica." Such diacritica are selected from the available fluctuating and diverse cultural repertoire. "An imagined community is promoted by making a few such diacritica highly salient and symbolic, that is, by an active construction of a boundary." This will always be the joint work of both contrasting groups, Barth points out, but stronger groups will normally be better able to impose and transform the relevant idioms (Vermeulen and Govers, 1994, p. 34).

Boundary maintenance, then, is a matter of POWER RELATIONS and hence of politics. In the modern world leaders of putative political groups almost invariably justify their claims in terms of cultural and national difference. Barth did not elaborate much on this point, but among such boundary markers he mentioned "the establishment of historical traditions to justify and glorify the idioms and the identity" (Barth, 1970, p. 35). This brings us back to the theme of this article: the use of HISTORICAL MYTHS as boundary-defining mechanisms.

Historical Myths As Boundary-Defining Mechanisms: A Typology
Of the many social scientists who have been inspired by Fredrik Barth's ideas, John A. Armstrong seems to be the one who most directly links the maintenance of group boundaries to the production and narration of historical myths. "Ethnic boundaries," Armstrong maintains, "fundamentally reflect group attitudes rather than geographical divisions. Myth, symbol, communication, and a cluster of associated attitudinal factors are usually more persistent than purely material factors" (Armstrong, 1982, pp. 8-9).

At the same time, Armstrong suggests, a national group may develop more than one sustaining myth. Often the various national myths directly or indirectly contradict each other, as myth and countermyth. This, Armstrong believes, does not necessarily weaken the national identity; in fact, by appealing to different segments and sentiments in the nation, it may even strengthen it. As an example Armstrong points to Hungary. In the Attila myth Hungarian nationalists present their nation as the heirs to the proud, rapacious, and awesome Huns, while in the St. Stefan myth they portray this meek and devout saint as the very embodiment of their nation. These myths were certainly at odds with each other, but could nevertheless be harnessed to the national cause in tandem: the Attila myth gave the Hungarians the "right" to subjugate other people while the St. Stefan myth provided them with a mandate to civilize them.

"The availability of the two very different myths, alternating in intensity, may well be instrumental in preserving the unusual Magyar ethnic identity, which otherwise might have become vulnerable to recurring pressures for assimilation" (Armstrong, 1982, p. 51).

Below I identify four other clusters of myths that likewise may be combined as mutually reinforcing myths and countermyths. In contrast to the two Hungarian myths analyzed by Armstrong, these clusters have a more general character. They may be found in societies all over the world, including, I believe, in all or most Balkan countries, though with different emphases and usages. Sometimes they tend to infiltrate and shade into each other. For heuristic and analytical purposes, the distinctions between them are nevertheless useful, as they allow us to detect inner tensions and contradictions in the mythogenetical processes.

The Myth Of Being 'Sui Generis'
The Scandinavian example of the contrast between Norwegians and Swedes is in no way unique. Similar identity pairs may be found all over the world, and not least in the Balkans. It should suffice to mention the relations between Bulgarians and Macedonians, and Serbs vs. Croats and Bosnians. As most parts of the world, the Balkan peninsula represents cultural continuums that cut across not only political borders, but also ethnic boundaries. Traditional lifestyles, mores, ethical codes, and folklore that one group regards as an essential part of its cultural heritage may often, with minor differences, also be found among neighboring groups. Such commonalities present a problem for nation builders and ethnical entrepreneurs since they blur group boundaries and complicate the establishment of fixed group identities. Often, therefore, we see that great efforts are made to de-emphasize or outright deny cultural commonalities shared with other groups. One common way of doing this is through ethnogenesis: A group, it is asserted, stems from different ethnic roots than its neighbors (Shnirelman, 2001). For instance, the so-called Norwegian School of Norwegian historians -- P.A. Munch, Rudolf Keyser and others -- insisted that Norwegians had immigrated to the Scandinavian peninsula from the north, while the Swedes had arrived from the south. The purpose of this speculative and now totally abandoned theory was to prove that we, Norwegians, are not ethnically related to the Swedes, we are" sui generis" (Dahl, 1970, pp. 39-45). Such denial dynamics may be symmetrical or asymmetrical: Either both parties agree that they have little or nothing in common, or one party may ignore the similarities while the other tends to highlight them.

Certain regularities, I suggest, may be found with regard to the these dynamics:

1. The shorter the cultural distance between two self-differentiating groups, the more consciously and explicitly myth making nation builders tend to underline their putative differences. Examples of this are the mythologized histories produced by Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists. Both these nations have historically been strongly influenced by Russian culture, and in order to prove the existence of a separate Belarusian and a separate Ukrainian nation, nation builders in both states vehemently insist that their national culture is, and has always been, qualitatively different from the Russian one. As Andrew Wilson has shown, this has led to the creation of a number of "sui generis" myths -- homeland myths, foundation myths, myths of decent, and myths of national character.

For Ukrainophiles and Belarusophiles their nations possess a distinct and glorious heritage. MYTHS OF NATIONAL CHARACTER and MYTHS OF THE OTHER are therefore a vital means of delineating a separate past and providing boundary markers to distinguish the eponymous nation from its neighbors (Smith et. al. 1998, p. 25. See also Kolsto, 2000. Author's emphasis).

The reverse side, then, of "sui generis" myth making is the imputation of specific myths on the constituting other, in this case, the Russians, such as myths of aggression and exploitation and myths of empire.

2. In an uneven power relationship, in which a politically and/or numerically stronger group confronts a weaker group, the weaker group will tend to highlight the differences between the two, while the stronger group will tend to emphasize similarities, up to the point of subsuming the weaker group under itself as a subgroup. As Adrian Hastings has pointed out, the opposite of the "sui generis" myth is the myth of COMMON DESCENT, which is often used by dominant groups to gloss over amalgamation and legitimize assimilation. "Rituals and myths, religion and political roles are interwoven in such a way as to integrate previously distinct ethnicities and tone down the more brazen implications of conquest" (Hastings, 2001, p. 170).

Precisely this dynamic Ivan Colovic has found in Serbian political folklore. In Serbia, he claims, there is a tendency to regard such ethnic identities as Croat, Albanian, Macedonian, Muslim, Bulgarian, and Romanian, as "Ersatz" (artificial) identities. Those who identify themselves as such have originally been Serbs and have allegedly been forced to give up their genuine Serb identity:

In 1989, a well-known Serbian historian explained how this came about: "Foreign names -- Albanian, Bulgarian, and others -- were spread across the Serbian lands, and extended even to include people who had been Serbian since time immemorial. Thus, Serbian herdsmen and soldiers were called Vlachs, and Serbian border guards were called Croats" (Colovic, 1999, p. 309. See also Colovic 2002, p. 67).

Most groups define themselves in relationship to more than one other group. If the power relations in the various constellations differ, the group will tend to underline similarity in those relationships in which it may aspire for domination, and insist on being" sui generis" whenever it cannot dominate other groups.

Many historical events are ambiguous in the sense that they may lend themselves to both "sui generis" myths as well as to the construction of a common identity. A case in point is the famous Kosovo Polje battle in 1389. In this battle, not only Serbs, but also Albanians, Bosnians, and Romanians participated in the anti-Ottoman forces assembled under the leadership of Prince Lazar. Thus, a myth of brotherhood and solidarity among all Balkan peoples could well have been spun around this event, but this has not been done. (That version would certainly also have contained a mythic element insofar as some other Balkans chieftains and their retinues, including many Serbs, participated in the battle on the Ottoman side.) Instead, the Kosovo myth has developed into AN EXCLUSIVELY SERBIAN MYTH, and has become a major ideological weapon in the Serbian struggle against the Albanian for control over the Kosovo (Kosova) region.

The Myth Of Being 'Ante Murale' (Defensive Wall)
This myth comes in many different guises and under different labels: "antemurale christianitatis," "Europe's last outpost," "defenders of the gates," "the bearers of true civilization," and so on. Typologically, this myth is very different from the one discussed above. Rather than insisting on the uniqueness of the group, the group is now included into some larger and allegedly superior cultural entity that enhances its status vis-a-vis other groups who do not belong to it.

As in the previous cases, "ante murale" myth making functions as a boundary-defining mechanism, but the logic is different. Rather than drawing a border around the group that is equally strong on all sides, the differences that distinguish the group from one neighbor are magnified out of all proportion, while boundaries in other directions are de-emphasized.

The "murus," or Wall, is of course the ultimate boundary metaphor, the last line of defense of cosmos or order against the forces of chaos. The "ante murale" myth, then, stresses not only that the group is an integral part of the true civilization, but also that it is its VERY OUTPOST. As this Wall throughout history has been assailed time and again by the dark forces of the other side, the group has been chosen by divine provenance to sacrifice itself in order to save the larger civilization of which it is a part. In this martyrological version, the "ante murale" myth acquires messianic overtones: The nation is seen as a collective Christ that gives its life for others.

In the 1990s, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington gave currency to a civilization theory that lends an aura of academic credibility to some of the popular "ante murale" myths in the Balkans (Huntington, 1993). It must be pointed out, however, that the wall -- or "fault line" in Huntington�s terminology -- may be imagined to run many different places, not only between Western Christianity and Islam/Orthodox Christianity, which is where Huntington placed it. "Ante murale" myths are indeed particularly strong in Catholic countries in the Eastern part of Europe, not only in the Balkans, but also in Poland and Hungary (see, e.g., Davies, 1990, p. 343; Tanner, 1997, pp. 28-40; Zanic, forthcoming). To many people in the Balkans a much more conspicuous fault line runs between the Islamic world and the Christian world. Thus, some Orthodox peoples like the Serbs may find themselves in the peculiar situation of considering themselves the last bastion, "ante murale," in relation to the Islamic world, while in relation to another imaginary wall, one erected by Catholic peoples further north, they will be on the outside, and part of the forces of chaos THAT wall exists to protect against.

"Ante murale" myths may be symmetrical as well as asymmetrical. This means that we can find instances where both opposing group agree that a civilizational wall separates them, but at the same time hold diametrically opposite views as to who represents the forces of cosmos and the forces of chaos, respectively.

As pointed out above, the "ante murale" myth has two aspects: it builds a high wall to one side while at the same time it ignores or de-emphasizes cultural differences to the other. In a sense, the "ante murale" mechanism seems to negate the "sui generis" myth: We are NOT unique after all, instead, we are a small part of a larger whole. This is not to say that a combination of these two orientations is inherently contradictory. Skillful myth makers may succeed in explaining that "sui generis" and "ante murale" belong to different levels of identity, as it were. Expressed in Armstrong's terminology, they may function as myth and countermyth.

The Myth Of 'Martyrium'
One would perhaps expect that the myths of a nation normally would celebrate its grandeur, power, and might. While this of course is often the case, the opposite cluster of myths is remarkably common as well. These are myths that focus on the defeats and the victimization of the group. The nation is presented as the perennial target of discrimination and persecution. Whenever the tormenter is one of the neighbors of the group, as so often is the case, this functions as a boundary-defining myth.

A major advantage of the "martyrium" or martyrdom myth is that it invests the identity boundary with a moral significance: those who are downtrodden are morally superior to their oppressors. If once upon the time it was true that "might is right," this is no longer the case. In today's world, it is much more often asserted that WEAKNESS is right. Friedrich Nietzsche would immediately have recognized this myth as a product of what he called the "slave morality." The feeble and the envious of this world have managed to impose their moral standards upon the free and the strong (Nietzsche, 1979).

One does not, however, have to be a Nietzschian to appreciate the power of this myth. The experience of victimization and its presence in the collective memory raises group awareness. Members of the group may begin to think of themselves as members of a particular nation precisely because they have become victims of atrocities that are afflicted upon them by others. Not surprisingly, we often encounter this myth among weak, aspiring nations striving to get out of the shadow of larger and more powerful neighbors, such as the Macedonians, the Albanians, the Bosnians, etc. More unexpectedly, we can frequently detect it also in the stories that old, well-established, and hegemonic nations tell about themselves. Thus, for instance, some of the most influential myths in Serbian history focus on the battles the Serbs lost -- first and foremost at Kosovo Polje in 1389 -- and the sufferings inflicted upon them at the hands of others, in particular in the Croatian Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II.

The point here is NOT that oppression and persecution of groups is not an evil and should not be condemned. It should. It is of course also the case that ethnic and national groups in the Balkans HAVE been exposed to maltreatment and systematic oppression. By identifying a myth of martyrdom, however, I want to draw attention to the fact that this oppression is often TURNED INTO AN INSTRUMENT OF IDENTITY-FORMATION. Stories about the wrongs afflicted upon the group in the past are simplified and ritualized, in order to eliminate all moral ambiguity. At the same time, atrocities committed by members of the group against their neighbors at other occasions when they were the victors are passed over in silence.

The Myth Of 'Antiquitas' (Antiquity)
An extremely important aspect of historical myth making, not only in the Balkans but all over the world, is to give credence to claims for control over specific territories. One of the most common approaches is to prove that "we got here first." The need to establish oneself as the original group in the area in question is particularly acute if that area is inhabited or laid claim to also by others, as so often is the case. This is a kind of political prospecting: The group that is able to prove that it planted its banner in the soil first, is considered to be the rightful owner of the land.

Claims of superior antiquity can be set forth in at least two different ways: cultural-archaeological and political. In the first case, what is asserted is that pottery and other relics found in the ground belong to the forbears of this particular group and no other (see e.g. Shnirelman 1996). In the second case, what is asserted is that an old state that once upon a time controlled the territory in question was a national state of OUR group. The fact that all premodern states were based on a dynastic principle, or some other non-national principle such as the Greek city states or the medieval ecclesiastical states, and not any ethnic or national principle, has never deterred nationalists from appropriating earlier state formations as their own (Kolsto, 2000, pp. 30-52).

The borders of defunct states rarely, if ever, coincide with the borders of the contemporary states that are touted as their successors. Thus, the historical-state principle may easily provide fuel for irredentist claims, that is, demands for border revisions. No historical states had fixed borders throughout their existence: borders waxed and waned over the centuries. Myth makers, however, will tend to focus on the period of the state�s greatest expansion, its "golden age." The putative pre-incarnations of the various states existing today are almost certain to cover vast swathes of the same territories.

Concluding Remarks
In Part I of this article, I discussed in some detail George Schopflin's theory of myths as presented in his introductory chapter to the edited volume "Myth and Nationhood," since this book has been very influential and is extensively quoted by other researchers. I found the tendency of the contributors to this book to bracket the question of veracity and identify an allegedly life-enhancing and community-sustaining potential of myths somewhat disturbing. A high density of myths in a society, according to Schopflin, "allows the community in question to withstand much greater stress and turbulence (political, economic, social, and so on) than those with only a relatively poor set of myths" (Schopflin, 1997, p. 22).

Schopflin accepts that myths do have a boundary-defining effect vis-a-vis other groups, as when he remarks that "those who do not share in the myth are by definition excluded. All communities recognize a boundary of this kind. Myth is, then, a key element in the creation of closures and in the constitution of collectives" (Schopflin, 1997, p. 20). He seems, however, to regard the problems that intragroup mythologies create in interaction with other groups as an unfortunate but not crucial side effect. Community myths are not designed for inter-group communication and for that reason function poorly on this arena. In contrast to this view, I maintain that the tendency to draw lines between groups, placing some individuals and phenomena on the inside and others on the outside, is not an extraneous or accidental aspect of myth making but is in fact a MAJOR DRIVING FORCE behind the formation of historical group myths.

The author is professor of Russian, Central European, and Balkan Area Studies, Department of East European and Oriental Studies, University of Oslo.


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