Source Book for Social Psychology


466 Sociology; Social Psychology

119. How Myths and Legends Arise and Become Mental Patterns1

Not only are stereotypes and slogans carried in the mental patterns and come thus to affect actions, but there are whole sections of our mental content which are made up of stories, narratives, interpretations, and ideals which play important rôles in the control of social judgments and social activities. In truth, these more systematic legends and myths themselves contain much stereotyped content.

Thus, for example, M. Clemenceau’s images and ideas of Germany in 1918 were tied up thoroughly with legends about the Franco-Prussian War upon which were superimposed more recent deposits of legends from the World War. And coursing through this more or less systematic picture were stereotypes such as were described in the previous chapter.

The making of myths and legends is a natural phenomenon of the mind. This is described in detail by van Langenhove. Not only are there illusions of memory in the repeated recall of events, not only is there elaboration and dramatization of these events, not only is there transposition of time and place and actual accretion to the legend or story itself,—but there is, furthermore, in the course of this process, which arises in intercommunication, the acceptance of this much repeated story as objective fact. Moreover, a delusion of any particular individual which may arise in a crisis such as a war, a famine, a flood, or other critical situation may become projected upon other persons in the telling and become part of the whole mental pattern of the group. As Campbell puts it:

Under special strain the orthodox may lapse from conventional belief into individual delusion, and the delusion of one person may in any group or period become a socially acceptable belief. Delusion is no strange and mysterious element, it is no foreign parasite battening on the mind, it is not the meaningless expression of disturbed physiological processes; delusion is an attempt of the personality to deal with special difficulties, in which attempt the mind not infrequently tends to revert to primitive modes of adaptation, which are at variance with the actual level of thought of the period and group in which the individual finds himself; it is an attempt which has gone wrong insofar as it estranges the individual from his social group. Delusion, like fever, is to be looked on as part of nature’s attempt at cure, an endeavor to neutralize some disturbing factor, to compensate for some handicap, to reconstruct a working contact with the group which will still satisfy special needs.

Thus it was that during the World War a whole congeries of legends and myths we built up from delusion and illusion which were fastened upon the various national groups and will remain for generations a part of the mental patterns of these groups unless disturbed by other patterns more objective. While the psychiatrist may term these illusions and delusions reversions to primitive modes of thought, it is becoming more and more evident that the thought of the masses, corresponding as it does to the mental patterns of culture, is essentially primitive. And primitivity in thought is marked by emotional interpretations and by fictitious associations such as we have in magic. It is marked by illusions of memory, by elaboration, distortion and extension of items in experience which is much akin, as Freud has shown, to the dream consciousness. In short, primitive thinking is personal, subjective, and warm with emotion and feeling. It is, in fact, autistic in nature. It has little of the objectivity of scientific thought. It is marked rather by what Stransky calls the "logic of feeling" than by cool, deliberate, and impersonal conceptions. And the mental patterns of stereotypes, myths, and legends are simply the objectified, projected standardizations, the socially accepted precipitates of this type of thinking. All kinds of historical events, ideals, utopias, and millenniums partake of this character. Napoleon and Machiavelli, for example, for H. G. Wells, with his Fabian coloring, are two very different characters than they are for a chauvinistic Frenchman, on the one hand, or for a believer in Real-Politik on the other.

In the first selection from Sorel we have an incisive statement of the importance of the myth in social dogmas of various sorts. In the second paper we have selections from van Langenhove’s analysis of the legends built up in Germany about the franc-tireur (guerrilla) warfare in Belgium and the accompanying perfidy of the Belgians toward the invaders. He shows how the legend runs its course from mouth-to-mouth, face-to-face, narration to inclusion in newspaper reports, to becoming the subject of literary productions. It gets into formal military accounts, and finally into official histories of the war.

The selection from Addams furnishes a modern instance of the place of myth-making in social control. While the groups involved are immigrant folk, other superstitions among our own rural and even urban population are still current. Freedom from legend, myth, and stereotype is rare and depends on level of culture not on race, nationality, or geography.

The place of historical legends in our own national life is illustrated by Hart’s paper. Similar materials on other national heroes such as John Brown and Walter Hines Page may be consulted through the bibliography. As a part of the culture of the Christian era, there is no more constant myth than in the recurrent millennial hope which has sprung up again and again in the course of western history. This idealism has served a valid social purpose in periods of crisis. Such hopes stabilize people when under great strain and provide a core for the integration of individual and social life when all ordinary mundane arrangements have failed.

We should not imagine from our analysis that social concepts could be very different. Rather we are exposing more or less common patterns of culture, at least as they have been prominent in our Western world. As one examines the nature of social life and its culture patterns, one is impressed with the fact that emotions and feelings play a very large part in their formulation and continuance. The basic values carry emotional freight. These values and ideas are made over into patterns congenial to the survival of our group. The slogans, the mores, the standards, the legends, all revolve around the group as the most significant, the most superior, the most important in the universe. Man’s personal egotism has its reflection in the larger egotism of the in-group everywhere. And the mental patterns which we have examined in the present and the previous chapter merely furnish another clue to the understanding of this in-group feature of life and its reference to the personality.

The legend or story is highly important in the spread of beliefs and opinions. Facts became twisted and altered very rapidly in the course of narration and re-narration. Emotional sets (stereotypes) come into play; the stories are dramatized, condensed or elaborated, new material introduced, different emphasis on items placed in the re-told story than was fact in the event, there is distortion of time and place aspects, etc. The legend, therefore, becomes filled with stereotypes of the sort which appeal to the hearers and tellers of the tales and serve as defenses as well as explanations of action and belief. The stories of Belgium atrocities as re-told in Germany are the subject of the present material. The stories told in the Allied countries about German atrocities in Belgium have the same characteristics.

To understand the spread of opinions, of propaganda and the whole problem of opinions in reference to social conduct, it is essential to note the process of the development of these types of tales. The same thing occurs in all kinds of gossip, in the re-making of stories in the newspapers, etc. (K.Y.)

Hardly had the German armies entered Belgium when strange rumors 467 began to circulate. They spread from place to place, they were reproduced by the press, and they soon permeated the whole of Germany. It was said that the Belgian people, instigated by the clergy, had intervened perfidiously in the hostilities; had attacked by surprise isolated detachments; had indicated to the enemy the positions occupied by the troops; that women, old men, and even children had been guilty of horrible atrocities upon wounded and defenseless German soldiers, tearing out their eyes and cutting off fingers, nose, or ears; that the priests from their pulpits had exhorted the people to commit these crimes, promising them as a reward the kingdom of heaven, and had even taken the lead in this barbarity.

Public credulity accepted these stories. The highest powers in the State welcomed them without hesitation and endorsed them with their authority.

(Here follow many concrete examples of stories and tales told of atrocities of which only one is included in the present selection.)

A soldier of the Landsturm of Unterleinach writes from Liege to his wife:

I was yesterday at the citadel where are the prisoners. I saw there some great criminals. There were from 10 to 12 priests who have paid fifty francs to whoever would kill a German soldier; they will all be massacred ( !). There were also 8 civilians in a cell: one of them cut off the breasts of a Red Cross nurse; another cut off someone’s fingers; all the criminals will be put to death ( !).

Informations Pax, in consequence of a demand for information, has received the following letter from the government of Liege:

There is not a word of truth in what the Landsturm soldier of Unterleinach says. If his identity was known he would be punished for having, by his thoughtlessness, propagated false and stupid news and have probably troubled not only his comrades but also the inhabitants of his village.



Priests armed with machine-guns, posted on the belfries of churches, appear by hundreds in the original tales from Belgium and France. The result is, each time, the execution of the traitor.

Repeatedly already tales of this kind have passed from newspapers into books. (See, for example, Pauls, Aus ciserner Zeit, Elmshorn, 1914; Hans Leitzen, Der grosse Krieg in Feldpost-Briefen, Wolfenbuttel, 468 1914; Feldpost-Briefen, 1914, edited by Herm Sparr, Leipzig, 1915.)

The novels are all engrossed with the theme. Thus Richard Sexau has published in his book Blut und Eisen a short story, Der Zweifler, wherein he depicts a fight for the possession of a village situated on the French frontier and defended by some enemy troops and some hidden francs-tireurs. The adversary finds his chief stronghold in the church of the place, on the belfry of which a machine-gun is in action. The German lieutenant Holk advances to the assault of the tower. "Now he has attained the summit. A devil in a black robe is found there, his eyes fixed on the gun sights, his hand on the instrument of murder: it is the abbot."

The psychological origin of legends has during recent years been the object of numerous researches. One of these researches is the following:

An experiment was made at the Congress of Psychology at Gottingen; it is still more characteristic. Von Gennep tells the story of it in these words:

Not far from the hall in which the Congress was sitting there was a public fête with a masked ball. Suddenly the door of the hall was thrown open and a clown rushed in madly pursued by a negro, revolver in hand. They stopped in the middle of the room fighting; the clown fell, the negro leapt upon him, fired and then both rushed out of the hall. The whole incident hardly lasted twenty seconds. The president asked those present to write immediately a report since there was sure to be a judicial enquiry. Forty reports were sent in. Only one had less than 20% of mistakes in regard to the principal facts; fourteen had 20% to 40% mistakes; twelve from 40% to 50%; thirteen more than 50%. Moreover in twenty-four accounts 10% of the details were pure inventions and this proportion was exceeded in ten accounts and diminished in six. Briefly a quarter of the accounts were false.

It goes without saying that the whole scene had been arranged and even photographed in advance. The ten false reports may then be relegated to the category of tales and legends; twenty-four accounts are half legendary, and six have a value approximately to exact evidence.

Experiments on certainty lead to analogous results. Witnesses were asked to underline the passages in their accounts to which they would be prepared to swear before a tribunal. It was found there were as many mistakes in the underlined passages as elsewhere. The important point to notice in this connection is that the underlined statements were of the same type as legends; they were objects of belief.

To sum up: the ratio of true to false descriptions of an extraordinary event is about 5 or 6%; that is to say that phantasy and error are normal 469 even among us and that the tendency to error, both individual and collective, operates from the moment of observation.

In short, the important factors which play a part in the origin of legends may be thus summarized:

(1) The emotional condition of the observer; it increases with the observer’s excitement at the moment when the fact occurs.

(2) The particular circumstances which accompany the fact.

(3) Its unfamiliar character.

(4) The predispositions of the spectators in regard to the incident or to the people taking part in it. Whatever their desire to be impartial the spectators will incline unconsciously, in a sense favorable or unfavorable according as:

(a) Their attention is directed particularly to one aspect.

(b) They interpret falsely in consequence of characteristics which they have attributed in advance to the authors of the fact.

(5) The time which has elapsed since the observation of the fact; this element becomes appreciable after forty-eight seconds.

From these facts, it is possible to reconstitute, in a particularly concrete fashion, the process of legendary development.

A column of infantry advances into Belgium at the beginning of the war. The men talk among themselves. Their attention is attracted to something by the roadside. Those in front discover the bodies of civilians. Others, not in an equally good position to see what is going on, question those more favourably situated.

"What is the matter?"

"There are some civilians, who have been shot, by the roadside."

"How many?"

"Two, three, a boy, a man in black, a priest."

A new question immediately arises from the desire for an explanation.

"Why have they been shot?"

And the unformulated answer already controls their thoughts. If these people have been executed, it is because they have committed a crime. What crime? There is one eventuality present to all minds, which masks all others, and the menace of which, directed against themselves, affects them intimately.

They have fired on the German troops; they are francs-tireurs. This conviction, which is in harmony with all their views, is at once expressed and becomes a certainty, an established fact.

The mind, however, asks for additional details. As for the man in black, it is natural that he should have so expiated his fault; it is the 470 priests who incite the populace to commit murder, who make fanatics of them. But how about the boy? Has he also taken up arms? Assuredly not of his own free will; someone has driven him to do it; someone has suggested the act to him, has commanded him to do it. Who, if not the priest? It would be easy for him to invoke the authority of religion, to promise a celestial reward for the assassination—acme of perfidy—of a German officer whom he had welcomed under his roof. Thus the history is rounded off. By the successive addition of suppositions, of points of resemblance, of presumptions passed from mouth to mouth, it is crystallized into a single version which satisfies everybody and corresponds to everybody’s notion of the truth. One can thus follow its development in the passage through successive stages. Transmitted from rank to rank by way of question and answer it becomes more and more elaborated as it progresses. It is refracted, deformed, modelled, it nourishes itself on the commentaries and explanations which are added at each stage. Its main features, however, are endorsed and rendered more precise, and thus a simple fact observed by the head of a column has attained the standing of a legend by the time it reaches the rearmost ranks.

At the time of the invasion of Belgium, it was the German army which, as we have seen, constituted the chief breeding ground for legendary stories. These were disseminated with great rapidity, among the troops; the liaison officers, the dispatch-riders, the food convoys, the victualling posts assured the diffusion of them.

These stories were not delayed in reaching Germany. As in most wars it was the returning soldiery who were responsible for the transmission of them.

From the first day of hostilities in enemy territory the fighting troops were in constant touch with those behind them. Through the frontier towns there was a continual passage of convoys, returning empty, or loaded with prisoners and wounded. These last, together with the escorting soldiers, were immediately surrounded and pressed for news by an eager crowd. It is they who brought the first stories.

Thus, while the convalescents, the first of the wounded, sunned themselves on the public promenade, they were the objects of popular attention and curiosity. The war was still fresh; their arms in slings, their painful progress with the help of sticks, did not fail to stir the emotions of those about them; the blood they had shed gave dignity to them; they were almost the objects of a cult; they symbolized their country. Groups assembled round the seats they had taken. They had to relate their adventures to a public eager for heroic exploits.

But the facts of war are not all of an epic character; many of the 471 wounded have seen nothing in any way remarkable. Are they going to disappoint their auditors? Centers of attention, raised to a glorious eminence, can they resist the temptation to retain their hold on public interest by enlarging on the perils they have faced and adding to them extraordinary circumstances? Will not their minds be naturally directed to the legendary accounts which they have heard at the front? Egged on by pressing questions will they not be inclined to fall back on these, adapting them to their own cases and attributing to themselves a prominent rôle?

In their oral form, stories of this kind are not definite, their substance is malleable; they can be modified according to the taste of the narrator; they transform themselves; they evolve. To sum up, not only do the soldiers, returned from the field of battle, ensure the transmission of the stories, they also elaborate them.

The military post links the campaigning army directly with Germany. The soldiers write home, and in their letters they tell of their adventures, which people are eager to hear, and naturally they include the rumors current among the troops.

Submitted to the test of the German military inquiry these stories are shown to be without foundation. Received from the front and narrated by a soldier who professes to have been an eyewitness, they are nevertheless clothed in the public view with special authority. They impose on public credulity, and are soon spread from place to place. The newspapers have opened their columns with eagerness to letters from the front communicated by their readers.

Welcomed without control by the press the stories recounted in letters from the front appear, however, in the eyes of the readers of a paper clothed with a new authority—that which attaches to printed matter. They lose in the columns of a paper their individual and particular character. Those who send them have, usually effaced all personal allusions. The statements thus obtain a substance and an objectivity of which they would otherwise be devoid. Mixed with authentic news they are accepted by the public without mistrust. Is not their appearance in the paper a guarantee of accuracy?

Besides imposing itself on public credulity the printed story fixes itself in the mind. It takes a lasting form. It has entered permanently into consciousness and, more, it has become a source of reference.

All these pseudo-historical publications are, however, only one aspect of the abundant literary production of the "Great War."

All the varieties of popular, literature, the romances of cloak and sword, the stories of adventure, the collections of news and anecdotes, 472 the theater itself are in turn devoted to military events. The great public loves lively activity, extraordinary situations, and sensational circumstances calculated to strike the imagination and cause a shiver of horror.

The legendary developments to which the German invasion of Belgium gave birth furnished in this respect matter particularly fruitful. They are full of surprises, ambushes, treacherous attacks, treasons, mutilations, unheard-of atrocities, Machiavellian enterprises. They correspond, for war-time, to the stories of apaches which in peace-time are in such great demand among the lower classes.

So one finds in this literature of the lower classes the principal legendary episodes of which we have studied the origin and followed the development; accommodated to a fiction, woven into a web of intrigue they have undergone new transformations; they have lost every indication of their source; they are transposed in the new circumstances imagined for them; they have usually been dissociated from the circumstances which individualize them and fix their time and place. The thematic motives from which they spring nevertheless remain clearly recognizable.

The highest ranks in the Empire have given an official sanction to the stories of the popular fury in Belgium. Without submitting them to any control; without subjecting them to any criticism, although their sources were so suspicious; without taking any of the precautions which the effervescence of spirits, the excitation of passions, the natural proliferation of legends in war-time demand, the authorities have accepted in general terms and under their popular forms the principal thematic motives. An august word even affirms, henceforth, that particular one of them of which the legendary character was least doubtful. The Emperor has attested before the face of the whole world the "cruelties perpetrated in this guerilla warfare by women, children, and priests, even upon the wounded."

The legendary stories have thus attained the last stage of their elaboration and completed their diffusion. They have penetrated not only into the purlieus of the cities but into distant countries; into centers of education as among the popular classes.

Wounded convalescents and soldiers on leave at home for a time have told them to the city man and to the peasant. Both have found them in letters from the front; both have read them in journals and books, both have listened to the warnings of the Government and to the Imperial word. The school-teacher has mixed these episodes with his teaching; he has nourished with them infantile imaginations. Scholars have read the text of them in their class books; they have told them at home in the family circle, giving them the authority attached to the master’s word.


Everywhere these accounts have been the subject of ardent commentaries; in the village, in the councils held upon doorsteps, and in the barrooms of inns; in the big cafés, the trams, and the public promenades of towns. Everywhere they have become an ordinary topic of conversation, everywhere they have met with ready credence.

The legendary stories are gradually fixed in the popular mind which has progressively assimilated them. By imperceptible gradations they have become incorporated in the categories of its logic; they appear to it as a reality marked with the seal of evidence, as a phenomenon capable of sensory appreciation and corresponding to the natural order of things.

1 The Growth of a Legend by F. van Langenhove, pp. 5–6; 39; 67–68; 118; 119–20; 121; 122–23; 203–04; 205; 215–16; 226–27; 228; 237; 252–53; 268; 273–74; 275–76. Courtesy of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Publishers, New York and London, 1916.


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