Historical Narratives vs Historical Myths


Tijana Balac


The use of historical arguments have had a strong impact on the development of the violence which has swept over the territories of the former Yugoslavia during the 90's. The background of this conflict is rather complex, but it can not be wholly understood without an analysis of how different ethnic groups in the region regard themselves and each other. One of the ways to study this is through the eyes of the past, through the use of historical narrative and historical myth. The subject of this course regards the relationship between the historical narratives and the myth, and it raises the question on how the historical narrative “acquire aspects characteristic of mythology”.


In this essay, I will discuss criticly the two wide terms, historical narrative and the myth., in order to examinate the role of historical myth and how it was used in the Balkans. What I would like to understand is how the positive and indispensable aspects of the identity-shaping myth were replaced by historical myths that contributed to the bloodshed and the extreme wave of violence in the Balkans, and especially in Bosnia. Far from presenting a complete set of answers, this text is going to raise many questions on the subject, which, I hope, you will be able to answer with me. Most of this text is based on the reading of Pål Kolstø's article “Historical myth as boundary-defining mechanism among the South Slavs”[1] and the reading he provides.


What is then a historical narrative compared to a historical myth? Both of these have something to do with the past and our understanding of it. Without getting into the postmodernist discussions of subjectivity and the truth, it is commonly understood that a historical narrative has a higher degree of truth than a myth, since the former is based on the facts gathered through a scientific proces, where objectivity, sources and science rule. This is the so-called enlightner's view, which has close affinities with the ordinary use of the myth term.


Myths are understood as something untrue, fictional, «muthos ... opposed to the reasoned discourse of logos».[2] This positivistic division between the truth and a myth is also to be found among the early historians of 19th century, who regarded the myth and chronicle as the precursors to the real history, “Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”[3], meaning history as a science.


Does this mean that the historical narrative is truer, more objective, more valueble in our search for the knowledge of the past than a myth, founded in feelings, simplifications, caricatures and intersubjective understanding of how the world really functions? No question, this has its points, but it is also a simplification. A historical narrative, no matter how empiricly based, still has to be interpreted within its context, taking to account the author, the time, the conditions in the society and should never be taken for granted as the truth. On the other side, what does it matter if a historical myth is not absolutely true, if some of the points and facts have disappeared in the course of time, when a group of people look at it as real?


This is the point of the so-called functionalists, who, as the name suggests, place more emphasis on the function of the myth, arguing that it does not really matter if a myth is based on the truth and actual development of the society in which it thrives, its importance is to be found in the fact that a group of people believe in it and indentify themselves through it. The functionalist approach focus on the social function of the myth, where the myth is seen as a necessary part of the human identity, of our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in[4].


These two views do not necessary exclude each other; they are mostly results of different methods within different social sciences. So, let us go back to the question raised in the begining about the interactive relationship between narratives of the past and myths? Maybe the difference between the two of them is not as great as we would like to think, since a myth is also a story of the past? The theses proposed in the invitation to this seminar is that when historical narratives are used “for political and mobilizational purposes” instead of the desire to discover the past, the narrative takes on the characteristics of a myth.


I must agree. For me, it seems that the difference between a historical narrative and historical myth, is that the former tries to fulfill the truth requirements, a historical narrative pretends to be objective and trustworthy, while a myth, by the definition fictional, is ironicly enough hoisted above the truth claim. This means that a historical narrative starts to resemble a historical myth when it is used and misused for propaganda purposes, when the historical explanations become simplified, when the story become black or white, the historical actors good or bad, all which are characteristics of myth.



Unfortunately we could say, the use and misuse of historical narrative can be studied on many fields in the contemporary history of the Balkans. The role of historical narrative with the myth characteristics of identity-forming is quite complicated in Bosnia, since the three biggest religious groups, Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats, all refer to different myths and different highlights in the old days to show how «their» religious and ethnic group was first and consequently how «they» have the right to the land, the so-called antiquitas myth - «we were there first».


These myths of a past golden age are often combined with the myth of ethnogenesis and blood relationship. An example to be found in Bosnia, is the belief that the Bosnian Muslims descent from Illyrs, a tribe that inhabited the Balkan Peninsula before the Slave invasions. A claim like this is difficult to prove, but it is still an important part of the boundary building towards other ethnic groups, especially in an area as ethnically intermixed as Bosnia. It seems that many of the historical narratives adopted by the Bosnian Muslims during the 1990's and up to today, are precisely a result of this boundary defining, a need to protect and define their own heritage, culture and identity as a group different from both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, who have both claimed the «soul» of Bosnian Muslims, arguing that they are really Croat or Serb.


The question of identity and “who is who” is also found in the debate on Bosnian territory and boundaries. Could Bosnia be regarded as an independent unit or was it only an artificial result of Tito's Yugoslavia? To answer this question, the politicians looked back in history to find arguments for Bosnia’s legitimacy. But again, «history» is a very wide and vague concept which always demands to be interpreted and it is not surprising that politicians of different parties ended up with different conclusions. Bosnian Serb and Croat representatives pointed back at the times in history when Bosnia, or parts of it, were under control of (Big) Serbia or (Big) Croatia, and therefore argued for a changing of boundaries and even partition of territory. A solution like this would have left small room for the Muslim majority of Bosnian inhabitants, who, on the other hand, pointed out that Bosnia had been independent during centuries under the Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties, arguing against the accusations of artificiality.


Up to now, I have tried to point out the role of myth as an identity-making and «boundary-defining mechanism», a function/role which is indispensable in all social relationships. What I would like to look at further on is the case when the historical narrative takes the role of a protagonist in a war-urging, violence-escalating scenario. What went wrong? How can we explain that an apparently normal and positive evolution of group identity becomes perverted into a negative and intolerant attitude?


It is at this point that the darkest nightmare of the enlightener’s vision of the myth comes true. When the fictional element of the myth feeds on fear, insecurity, lack of economical, political and social balance, this myth becomes even more irrational, even less based on truth – and even more dangerous. The boundary-defining elements then become so strong that they exclude any cooperation with the «other», and this development follows the course of a snowball rolling down a snowy slope and gathering more and more snow as it rolls: the conflict escalates on all sides, like snow clinging to the snowball. In addition, the myth’s impact among the population only grows in times of change and instability, when the need of stability is often satisfied with the remembering of the good old days. In that way the irrationality of the mythical side in the historical narratives appeals strongly to the masses. We see then that the role of mythical historical narratives is being transformed to the star of the chauvinist agitation.


Now we have seen some situations in which historical narratives can obtein features characteristic to the myth, particulary considering the appeal to the emotional rather then rational sphere and the simplificational aspect of the myth. I have also entered the question on the double role of historical narrative, as both identity-defining and opinion-mobilizing. A final question should meditate on the role of historian and other social scientist considering the question of historical narratives and myths. I think that it will be unfruitful and in practice impossible to completely dismiss myths from the historical discourse, because they are so intrusive in daily life. Disregarding the importance of historical myth would lead the historian

to a crucial misunderstanding of how the society in question has developed.


This is especially true when it comes to contemporary history, since the historical narrative is an important and necessary step in forming group identity and the politics the group will follow. After all, it will affect many political decisions if a nation believes itself to be for instance God’s chosen people or superior to its neighbours in another way without the slightest foundation for it in the more scientific realms of what we know as history. What I personally find disappointing, is that none of the three sides have turned back to history to look at and learn from the examples of the multiethnic and multicultural tradition in Bosnia. Wouldn't it be easier to explain Bosnia as a result of a mixture of races, cultures and religions? If there is to be a future to a multireligious, multicultural Bosnia, this «myth» of common descent, a myth that focus on the similarities, like the language, rather than differences, will have to prevail.



I believe it to be a historian’s responsibility to reveal misleading and distorted elements in the historical narratives which have been infected by the negative aspects of myth. The mythology is an old phenomenon which is here to stay, it is indispensable for our understanding of the world. At the same time, we have to remain aware of the fictional element of the myth, trying to avoid fusing it with the “real” history, meaning the history that pretends to be trustworthy, as far as it is possible.






Pål Kolstø «Historical Myth as Boundary-Defining Mechanism among the South Slavs», introduction to the book Mitovi 2003.


Joanne Overing «The role of Myth. An Anthropological Perspective», in Myths and Nationhood ed. Geoffrey Hosking and George Schôphlin, 1997.


George Schôphlin “The function of Myth and a Taxonomy of Myths” in Myths and Nationhood ed. Geoffrey Hosking and George Schôphlin, 1997.


Srecko Dzaja 2003 “Bosnia, Historical Reality and its Reflection in Myths”, Mitovi 2003.

Georg Iggers Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, 1997.















[1]Pål Kolstø «Historical Myth as Boundary-Defining Mechanism among the South Slavs», introduction to the book Mitovi 2003.

[2]Joanne Overing «The role of Myth. An Anthropological Perspective».

[3] Ranke ”how it really was”, found in Iggers and Kolstå’s article p. 3.

[4]Kolstø, p. 3-10. *The page numbering I am using here comes from a unedited Kolstå’s article, and can therefore be inaccurat compared to the book.