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American Mythology and the Wild Wild West

July 18, 2008

I’ve been thinking about American culture lately, and my thoughts turned to mythology.  I’ve been thinking about the stories that we are told as Americans that are more than just history stories.  This is something that we don’t think about much.  As a nation without a common national religion, we don’t tend to have religious myths, or at least unique ones, because of the different faiths we welcome in this country.  However, as I was thinking, America has several stories that have taken on mythic proportions.

Much of the American mythology takes place in the Wild West.  Even the name suggests adventure and intrigue.  In our tales of the West, we really don’t tell the history of how we settled the west, but we tell the stories of lawbreakers against law enforcement.  Our stories of the west are about order becoming triumphant over disorder – about American law being established, and our country extending out to the sea.  The interesting part of this is you typically have a lone lawman, who isn’t a paragon of virtue himself – he just happens to be more virtuous than the dastardly evil gang leader and his thugs.

Another important aspect of the West is the Cowboy.  This fellow comes along with his cowboy hat (which everyone wears in the west), atop his horse.  He’s the picture of a loner.  He tends his herds with only two or three other men – they stand up against the wilderness (not to mention against a lot of cows that they have to control).  Both of these myths play into our American individualism (as most of our myths do – it’s pretty important for us that we are the ‘can-do’ people).  We like our heros a bit rough and imperfect, and we also like to think that in the end, most people are pretty good regardless and we can trust our law enforcement to the rough and questionable characters.

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