“Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Götzendämmerung)
This past week people in the USA entered the “season of myths” that runs from Thanksgiving through various religious holidays, including Christmas. Of course, to call Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas, a “myth” will alarm, anger, or alienate some people. But “myth” is a crucial category when trying to catch “sightings” of religion within the flux of society and culture. It is an interpretive tool for articulating and analyzing the structure of a people’s lived reality, past or present, rather than a fanciful untrue story.
Not surprisingly, over the last century leading scholars of religion like Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, Paul Ricoeur, Wendy Doniger, and Bruce Lincoln, among others, have taught us a lot about myths. Myths can and do serve ideological functions, but they are also stories, even cycles of stories, that disclose the meaning of a people’s worldview, explain some social or natural reality—including the reality of evil—and chart the actions of humans, gods, and other types of beings. There are myths of origins and endings, myths of salvation and enlightenment, myths of heroes and demons, and so on. Think also of “philosophical myths,” like Plato’s famous Myth of the Cave in his Republic, which aimed to explain truths that escape normal human perception. Think too of Nietzsche’s exploring and making of myth, as he does in Twilight of the Idols, cited above. While it will always be a contested idea, to say that a story is myth is to indicate what kind of truth it aims to assert.
In this light, we can ask about the meaning of this “season of myths.” We focus today on Thanksgiving since it seems to migrate between a religious and non-religious myth. Although celebrated in different forms in various contexts (e.g., Canada, the Caribbean, and elsewhere), it is the US version of the myth—or conflicted myth—that concerns us today. Why call “Thanksgiving” a conflicted myth? More pointedly, coded in this idea of a conflicted myth is Nietzsche’s claim about freedom. Can we will to be responsible for the actual religious and social reality of this nation’s history?
The schoolbook version of the Thanksgiving myth sets its origin in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation where, after a successful harvest, the settlers gave thanks to God for their bounty and to members of the Wampanoag tribe who had given them food and also helped grow corn (maize) and catch eels. Supposedly, some ninety Native Americans and fifty of the original one hundred Pilgrims (English Separatists) shared the meal. Similar celebrations were held in following years. While a harvest festival, the event morphed into a myth of Thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the earth and also concord among peoples.
For the historically minded, the story is about nation-building and so tinged with political and religious ideology. It can be traced through the founding of the Republic with various presidents making declarations about it (John Adams) or not because of doubts about divine intervention (Thomas Jefferson) through to Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, declared it a holiday by endorsing a statement written by his Secretary of State. The holiday, while established, has continued to change, including the eating of turkey (the bird Benjamin Franklin supposedly said should be our national bird, but is a false myth!) and even the pardoning of a turkey. Across the land, the day is celebrated with football games, yet another national rite. By 1924 the myth took ritual form in Thanksgiving Day Parades, most famously in New York (Macy’s) where the final float is Santa Claus marking the start of the Christmas Season of shopping and thus the cycle that is our season of myths.
The details of this supposed history—actually quite mythic—can be easily found in textbooks, and online, say on Wikipedia.org, History.com, or Smithsonianmag.com (my sources, since they too are cultural forms within which the myth is found, although only History.com denotes it as a myth!). Thanksgiving as an origin myth depicts the nation arising from the struggle for survival through praise of God and concord among peoples. But things, mythically understood, are more complex. For instance, and perhaps most importantly, Thanksgiving is also an ideological myth covering the genocide of Native Americans with festival, feasting, and appeals to divine action. Scholars and activists rightly note that it should be a national day of mourning, not celebration. The myth of human concord across vast cultural, religious, racial, and ethnic differences conceals the violence against Native Americans and legitimates the nation as one of gratitude to the divine. Even Lincoln’s establishment of the holiday followed the Civil War, and William H. Seward, author of the text, noted the need for repentance to God for the horrors and injustices of the war (but without mention of Native Americans). Little wonder that there have been protests about the holiday and the myth it conveys. Still, some Native Americans note their centuries-long tradition of harvest festivals and that such is the true meaning of Thanksgiving. More recently, anti-Thanksgiving sentiments have focused on the plight of migrants and the poor rather than the excessive consumption associated with the celebration.
So, we enter a “season of myths” celebrating the nation’s origin and purpose through parades, eating, religious worship, and a conflicted myth. Thanksgiving is a myth of origins that is also an ideological cover for the violence inflicted on Native peoples. Yet even among those peoples there is conflict over the meaning of the Thanksgiving celebration. Much like the myth of Plymouth Rock, in decoding Thanksgiving we get a glimpse, a sighting, of the conflicted religious, racial, and ethnic origins of this nation.
Taken at its best, the myth of Thanksgiving should suggest a tension, an aporia, in this nation’s core: thanksgiving for the bounty of this land; repentance for the slaughter of Native Americans and the poor denied the success of the nation. We might add—must add—grief and confession for the misuse of the natural environment and the current onslaught against it and future generations. But even the tension between thanks and repentance seems to be fading. There is one more morphing of the myth that reveals a final insight into the beginning of this season of myth. It is, we might say with Nietzsche, a “twilight of the idols,” the self-unwinding of the myth. How is that so?
Over the last few years, the name of the day, and so the myth it denotes, has changed. Increasingly, the wider public speaks not about Thanksgiving but “Turkey Day.” And, what is more, Turkey Day is followed by “Black Friday” the beginning of a season of shopping. In a word, the day is shifting from gratitude and repentance—however conflicted—to sheer consumption that too easily blinds us to the anomie, sorrow, and alienation that many feel in our consumerist culture. The self-unwinding of the myth of Thanksgiving is seen, ironically, in the name “Turkey Day.” The focus of the nation is now on what can be consumed and so a complete debasing and concealing of our complex and troubled history. Our minds are under constant siege by images and advertisements meant to stimulate desire and thwart the will to self-control. In this way, the conflicted myth of Thanksgiving is losing what power it had to open our eyes to the dynamics of our lived reality and is being replaced by a cycle of consumption, a season of shopping. But in that case, have we lost the will to be responsible for ourselves?
Image: The First Thanksgiving, 1621, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris in 1912 (Library of Congress: cph.3g04961)
|William Schweiker (PhD’85) is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.|