A national myth is an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation's past. Such myths often serve as an important national symbol and affirm a set of national values. A national myth may sometimes take the form of a national epic or be incorporated into a civil religion. A group of related myths about a nation may be referred to as the national mythos, from μῦθος, the original Greek word for "myth".
A national myth is a legend or fictionalized narrative which has been elevated to a serious mythological, symbolic, and esteemed level so as to be true to the nation. It might simply over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence; or it might simply be a fictional story that no one takes to be true literally, but contains a symbolic meaning for the nation. The national folklore of many nations includes a founding myth, which may involve a struggle against colonialism or a war of independence. In many cases, the meaning of the national myth is disputed among different parts of the population.
National myths serve many social and political purposes. National myths often exist only for the purpose of state-sponsored propaganda. In totalitarian dictatorships, the leader might be given, for example, a mythical supernatural life history in order to make him or her seem god-like and supra-powerful (see also cult of personality). However, national myths exist in every society. In liberal regimes they can serve the purpose of inspiring civic virtue and self-sacrifice (Miller 1995), or of consolidating the power of dominant groups and legitimizing their rule.
The concept of national identity is inescapably connected with myths. A complex of myths is at the core of every ethnic identity. Some scholars believe that national identities, supported by invented histories, were constructed only after national movements and national ideologies emerged.
All modern national identities were preceded by nationalist movements. Although the term "nation" was used in the Middle Ages, it had totally different meaning than in the age of nationalism, where it was linked to the efforts aimed to creation of the nation-states.
Besides their social background, nationalist myths have also a psychological explanation which is connected with nationalist myth of stable homeland community. The complexity of relations with the modern external world and incoherence of the inner psychological world can result with anxiety which is reduced by static self-labelling and self-construction and gaining an imaginary emotion of stability.
Two of nationalism's primary myths are connected with beliefs in:
The nationalist myths portray the nation as sleeping and waiting to be awakened, but scholarly discourse avoids such images because national identity either exists or not and can not be asleep and awakened.
Nationalist myths sometimes have a tendency to stimulate conflicts between nations, to magnify distinctive characteristics of the national group and to overstate the threat to the nation posed by other groups propagating militant fulfilment of their goals.
Shnirelman (1995) considers nationalist myths ... created by national intellectuals and propagated by the intelligentsia with the aim of using this myths as an instrument of ethno-political mobilization under interethnic conflicts.
Myth is inextricably linked with the concept of national identity
The core of the ethnic identity is the "myth-symbol complex" — the combination of myths,...
We can, for example, certainly encounter term "nation" in the Middle Ages, but the word meant something completely different than in the age of nationalism, where it is inextricably linked with the efforts to create an associated state.
.. nationalist myths of nation waiting, Sleeping Beauty like, to be awakened....In scholarly discourse this image should be avoided .. national identity is a matter of self-ascription, it either exists or it does not, it can not be asleep and then be awakened...
... we do argue that tendency to breed conflicts is inherent to typical nationalist myths
overemphasize the cultural and historical distinctiveness of the national group [and its territory], exaggerate the threat posed to the nation by other groups, ignore the degree to which the nation's own actions provoked such treats, and play down the cost of seeking national goals through militant means.