Golden Ages

I’ve been very interested the past few weeks in Myths & Nationhood, Geoffrey Hosking and George Schopflin, eds. (Routledge, 1997). It seems to me that investigating the role of national myths in fostering identity applies equally as well to reconstructionist religions, particularly those with a folkish element. I was particularly struck today by Anthony Smith’s “The ‘Golden Age’ and National Renewal.” His thesis is that:

“The return to a golden age is an important and probably an essential, component of nationalism. Its role is to re-establish roots and continuity, as well as authenticity and dignity, among a population that is being formed into a nation, and thereby to act as a guide and model for national destiny. . . . By serving as a model and guide to that destiny, ethnic antiquity, and especially the golden age, becomes a source of continual inspiration, establishing the authenticity and continuity of the community’s culture and conferring dignity on nations-to-be and well-established nations alike.” Smith finds five functions of a golden age myth: to satisfy a quest for authenticity, to locate and re-root the community in its own historic and fertile space, to establish a sense of continuity between the generations, to remind members of the community of their past greatness and hence their inner worth, and finally to point toward a common destiny.

He also finds three tests for practical usability. First, the myth must be authentic on many levels. It cannot be merely an invented tradtion or a patchwork. It should be reasonably well-documented, and capable of being connected and made relevant to the people concerned. Secondly, it must have the potential for inspiration, meaning that it has a mythic quality that can strike a chord in the heart (as well as being applicable to all citizens of the nation). And, thirdly, it must be capable of reinterpretation in the light of changing social and political needs.

Here is a brief excerpt:

“These concepts serve a number of functions for both individuals and communities in a nationalist epoch. The first is to satisfy the quest for authenticity. For nationalists themselves, this has become a lietmotif of their struggle. They seek to ‘realize themselves’ in and through the nation-to-be, believing that the nation has always been there, concealed under the debris of the ages, waiting to be ‘reborn’ through the discovery of the ‘authentic self’. The interesting thing is that many people, who are not part of the nationalist elite or movement, have engaged in their own quests for ‘authentic identity’ and have come to embrace the need for authenticity in their own lives and as a part of the wider community that needs to be purified of external accretions.” Sounds like the Reconstructionist community to me.

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