Public Opinion and the Power of Mythology

“The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people. Of course, the means and methods of accomplishing these ends have changed as society has changed.” – Edward Bernays

Stories and myths have been foundational to societies since our ancestors have been hunter-gatherers and farmers. Once the myths completed their function of providing a dynamic story of providing food for the community through the great hunt and harvest, they focused on more philosophical aspects. This came in the form of the tales of creation, codes of social and moral behavior, crime and punishment, classified gender roles, sanctioned wars, heroism and honor and eventually dealt with the despair of death and the afterlife.

The mythology of ancient cultures can be viewed as not only a way to answer deep metaphysical, social and moral questions but often as an ingenious form of a public relations campaign devised by the leaders of early societies to fortify their positions as masters and cement their ideology. For all the fantastic stories and life lessons mythology has given us, the fabled stories have often been used as powerful tools to manipulate populations.

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An interesting example of this is the use of mythology by the Egyptian Pharaohs to suggest that they have been divinely inspired and assigned to rule over the people of Egypt. The construction of the great pyramids by the Pharaohs as sacred tombs is one of the best examples of a publicity campaign to reaffirm their power and divinity.

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A more recent use of mythological ideas exploited to shape public opinion is the use of Viking culture and symbolism by Nazi Germany. The Nazis re-interpreted the cultural phenomenon of Viking expansion and Norse mythology for use as propaganda to support extreme military nationalism. These themes were infused with a new mythology of the Nazi party with Adolf Hitler being anointed as the great Aryan Messiah who has come to restore Germany’s might across Europe and the world. The powers of compelling narratives under the right circumstances have often mesmerized entire nations into believing they are part of a great, heroic struggle.

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Powerful mythological references have been used as a tool to create strong emotional reactions most often to serve a particular interest group such as when politicians use the ‘Good versus Evil’ and ‘Us and Them’ motif to create a distorted, separatist view of the world. It is astounding how many of the major conflicts around the world are held together by ancient as well as modern mythologies which lionize conflict and sacrifice for a cause or ideology.

As Joseph Campbell famously said, “All cultures have grown out of myths. They are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration.” It is extremely important to be able to identify how ancient and modern myths when manipulated can affect our perception of the world and shape complex opinions thereby shaping the future.

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