Jon de Vos: Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence …
November 26, 2010
It’s impossible to become a legend in your own time because the process of becoming legend involves a long passage of time. A legend is nothing more than a story told and retold, peated and repeated … wait, that’s silly, peated isn’t a word at all. But if you repeat something, haven’t you already peated it at least once?
Legends take a while; they’re anecdotes passed father to son, mother to daughter, morphing over generations into epics larger than life. Maybe they start something like this:
George Washington comes home after a hard day battling the British and says, “Martha! How many times must I ask thee to fix the hole in my waistcoat? I lost a dollar out on the river today due to thine laziness.”
Martha, overworked and in a snit, tells Prudence, her neighbor, “George carelessly lost a dollar in the river today.”
Prudence tells her spinster friend, Abstinence, “I told you she was too good for him, now he’s throwing her money in the river.”
Fox News picks up on the story, “STEELY-EYED PRESIDENT THROWS DOLLAR ACROSS POTOMAC, KILLS BRITISH GENERAL. BRING ‘EM ON, HE DECLARES!”
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So among all the facts concerning our first president, we’re left with two, commonly known things about him: a) He threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, 11 miles wide at the widest and 1,300 feet at the narrowest, and b) He refused to lie when confronted with irrefutable proof, i.e., the smoking hatchet, of his own particular role in a brutal assault upon a neighbor’s cherry tree.
Here’s the legend part: Did he really throw a dollar across the Potomac? Did he really chop down that cherry tree? If the answer depends upon whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re taking things way too seriously.
Consider how incredible it is that that teensy bit of minutia about the first president’s childhood has survived intact for 25 decades and may not even be true at all. That’s what legends are all about.
George Washington’s juvenile antics a few hundred years ago can hardly hold a candle to legends like Hercules and Prometheus. The Greeks believed that Prometheus fashioned a man-like creature out of the earth and stole fire from Zeus to jump-start the human race.
To qualify as legend or myth, the story must be of an earlier time, unverified and unverifiable, and popularly believed to be historical. The Greek myths were handed down orally for 500 years through generations of families living in Greece and Asia Minor. It was not until the Greek Classic Period, around 750 BC, when a written language was developed that they started writing these stories down. The Illiad, for example, was written about 720 BC.
After a while, I’m sure the people relating the stories were aware that they were creating myths, and with each telling would embellish some fact or polish some heroic action until pretty soon some 20-foot-tall logger named Paul is running around with a Giant Blue Ox.
Probably at the root of every myth lies an unusual but still human action, emboldened by the passage of time and the retelling of the story. Who will they be telling stories of, and what historical events will still be talked about 3,000 years from now?
It wouldn’t surprise me at all, if three millennium from now, people weren’t still worshiping The King of Rock and Roll. Long live Elvis!
Hey! You never know.
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