Who Owns Myths and Legends?

In defense of artistic license

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Do ethnic groups or religious believers own their myths and legends? That is the question raised by a controversy involving British author J.K. Rowling. The creator of Harry Potter and Hogwarts has been condemned for incorporating Native American traditions — for example, stories about supernatural “skinwalkers” — into her expanding literary mythology.

It is impossible not to sympathize with the complaint. Few groups have suffered more than Native Americans from having their traditions stereotyped or appropriated by white Americans and Europeans. Outright caricature, like the big-nosed, red-skinned Indians in old cartoons, is the least of it. From the American patriots who dressed up as “Indians” to vandalize British ships during the Boston Tea Party of 1773 to the New York political machine named “Tammany Hall” after Tamanend, a Lenape leader, to the modern Washington Redskins football team and the appropriation of Native Americans as New Age sages and environmental heroes, the casual and disrespectful borrowing of Native American motifs and imagery by white Americans has paralleled the white supremacist tradition of blackface minstrelsy.

But “cultural appropriation” of all kinds is controversial. Members of other groups have complained recently about the appropriation of ancestral myths they hold dear. The casting of Idris Elba, a British actor of African descent, as the Norse god Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard, in the movie Thor (2011), was protested by some who pointed out that Heimdall was known in Norse legend as the White God.

If Native Americans can object to the use of skinwalkers in the young adult fiction written by a British author, why can’t white people object to a black Heimdall? The fact that many of the supporters of the “Boycott Thor” movement were white supremacist racists caused their complaints to be mocked and dismissed. But the non-racist wing of the faith called “Asatru,” sometimes called “Odinism,” which claims to be a modern version of the faith of the pre-Christian Scandinavians, takes pains to distinguish its members from neo-Nazi skinheads who also claim to worship Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods.

How seriously should we take a hypothetical objection by devout, non-racist members of Asatru to the creation, in 1962, of the Marvel comic book character Thor by three Jewish-Americans: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby? They turned the red-bearded Norse god of thunder into a muscle-bound blond male model in tights, and — even worse — they dispensed with the original Thor’s cart drawn by two goats, named Tanngrisnir (“teeth-barer”) and Tanngnjostr (“teeth grinder”).  If racial groups or ethnic nations can claim moral ownership of myths and legends, then surely Northern Europeans have as much a right as Native Americans to control the presentation of the myths of their ancestors.

In Rowling’s native Britain, there are self-described Wiccans or practitioners of the supposed ancient religion of witchcraft. Some of them no doubt are offended by the Harry Potter universe as a whole, with its stereotypical Halloween-style witches, warlocks, wands, and magic potions. Some might argue that there is a difference between powerful nations like Britain and colonized or marginalized peoples. But if you are a British Druid who claims Celtic descent, you probably think your ancestors have been colonized and oppressed — by Saxons and Normans and Christendom.

Believers in all religions tend to be outraged when their faith is treated as a mere mythology subject to poetic license. This was the case with another movie, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film version of the 1953 novel by the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ. Because of a scene in which Jesus imagines that he comes down from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, and lives out a normal life, the film was boycotted around the world and banned or censored in countries including the Philippines, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Turkey, and Greece, the homeland of Kazantzakis. A far-right French Catholic group set fire to a theater in Paris that was showing the film.

In recent years, violence by fanatical Muslims against those whom they believe have mocked the prophet Muhammad or the religion of Islam has become depressingly common. In 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting Muhammad, protests, including violent demonstrations, took place in many countries. On January 7, 2015, enraged by cartoons of the prophet, two Muslim terrorists massacred 11 people in the offices of the French satirical newsweekly Charlie Hebdo, killed a police officer, and wounded nearly a dozen others. In May of that year, during a provocative “draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas, two Muslim terrorists were killed by police before they could slaughter participants in the event.

Granted, there is a difference between the deliberately provocative mockery of religious believers and the inept or tasteless looting of religious or mythology lore by authors or screenwriters who merely seek to entertain readers or moviegoers. But if there is a principle that the most sensitive religious believers or members of ethnic nationalities have a right to control how their sacred stories or symbols are used by outsiders, then Muslims have a right to insist that Muhammad never be drawn, painted, or portrayed on screen, and Norse gods should only be portrayed by Nordic actors and actresses.

Groups that want to keep their symbols and stories to themselves should do their best to keep them secret. But even this may not succeed. The secrecy of the Masons did not prevent Mozart from putting Masonic symbolism into his opera The Magic Flute. In our time, the novelist Dan Brown has made a fortune with thrillers involving Masonic symbols and conspiracies, including The Lost Symbol.

It would be wonderful indeed if more Native American authors were to win wide audiences by employing subjects from Native American lore in works of art and literature that respect their community’s sensibilities. At the same time, Native American authors and artists are perfectly free to draw on and alter Germanic, Celtic, Biblical, Hindu, and Chinese myths and fables for their own purposes, noble or commercial as they may be. If the results are offensive or merely tacky, the solution is simple: don’t read the book, don’t watch the movie. Or better yet: create your own. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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