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Berghahn Books

Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

Author(s): Chiara Bottici
Source: Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, Special Issue:
Myths and Maps of Europe (Autumn 2009), pp. 9-33
Published by: Berghahn Books
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Accessed: 13-07-2017 05:14 UTC

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Myths of Europe:
A Theoretical Approach
Chiara Bottici

Research Fellow in Political Philosophy, University of Florence

Abstract What are the myths of Europe? This article provides the conceptual
framework through which this question may be approached. It begins by defining
myth in such a way as to distinguish it from other forms of political symbolism and
points to the distinction between cultural and political myths. From here, the rela-
tionship between mythical and historical narratives is analyzed via a study of how
the main narrative cores through which Europeans have perceived themselves
have worked in different periods and contexts as both. It concludes with a more
detailed analysis of some of the icons that convey the myths of Europe.

Keywords collective identity, cultural myth, cultural and political identity, Euro-
pean identity, historical narratives, icons of political myths, political myth, political

Many cit inherent scholars

cit inherent in theinEuropean
have the construction.1
emphasized European
citizens the symbolic and European emotional citizens defi-
do not feel attached to the European institutions, often perceived as
part of a gray Brussels bureaucracy. For some, this is the inevitable
result of a process of political integration understood as the spill-over
effect of economic imperatives. The European Union is a "regulatory
state,"2 a "performance-based" polity, which can (and should) rest
on a merely output-oriented legitimacy.3 The European project could
therefore be considered legitimate simply because it contributes to
the well-being of its citizens and does not require any further sym-
bolic underpinning or any common identity such as that which sup-
ports most national identities.
Conversely, there are those who vindicate the need for a strong
political and/or cultural identity to sustain the European project. In
this view, the latter cannot build its legitimacy without relying on

Journal of Educational Media,

Memory, and Society Volume 1 ; Issue 2, Autumn 2009: 9-33 GEI
doi: 1 0.3 1 67/jemms.2009.01 0202 ISSN 2041-6938 (Print), ISSN 2041-6946 (Online)

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Chiara Boffici

some form of identification on the part of its citizens in a series of

common symbols, myths, and values.4 If Europe is to be more than a
simple economic and bureaucratic project it must search for a com-
mon European identity among its different peoples. Europe needs its
soul, and this can only stem from a common European cultural and
historical heritage.5
Another variant of this position is that held by the supporters
of a common European identity who do not consider it possible (or
desirable) to build it based on a common cultural identity. In this
view, cultural and political identities are two different matters that
can and should be kept separate.6 Habermas, a supporter of this view,
has argued, for instance, that a European political identity does not
require any common cultural substratum (as is the case for most na-
tion-states), but only a common political culture. This is the culture
embedded in a European constitutional patriotism, which can and
should unify all the different European national political cultures.7
The position I defend in this article is a fourth variant. In contrast
to the first, it holds that no European integration is possible outside
of a symbolic network, but, unlike the second, argues for the need to
distinguish between different forms of symbolic integration (myths
being only one), without suggesting that we could separate cultural
from political identity as the supporters of the third view maintain.
In order to defend this fourth position, I first provide a definition of
myth that distinguishes it from other forms of political symbolism
and points to the distinction between cultural and political myths. I
then discuss the relationship between mythical and historical narra-
tives by arguing that the main narratives through which Europeans
have perceived themselves have functioned as both in different peri-
ods and contexts. I conclude with a more detailed analysis of some of
the icons that convey the myths of Europe.

Definition of Myth: Cultural and Political

Even mere economic integration (imagining for the moment that

the European Union could be reduced to such) would be impossible
without some sort of symbolic medium. Indeed, every act we per-
form within a society (market exchange, making war or peace, sign-
ing contracts, etc.) is inconceivable outside a network of symbols. The
idea that there could be a purely performance -based polity deprived
of a symbolic underpinning is the result of an essentially flawed du-


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

alistic view of human beings, according to which there are "inter-

ests" - objective, rational, and predictable - on the one hand, and
"symbols" - subjective, irrational, and unpredictable- on the other
hand. In this view, the first side, rational and objective, could also do
without the second. However, as Cassirer has persuasively argued,
there is no such dichotomy because symbols are the a priori condition
of human communication and understanding.8 It should therefore
not come as a surprise if we discover that even a purely performance-
based, regulatory Europe has its symbols.
Unlike the supporters of the need for a cultural identity, however,
I do not maintain that the mythical and symbolic underpinnings of
the European integration process should be treated together. Most
contemporary commentators have done so with the result that it has
become impossible to differentiate between them.9 If there cannot be
any social integration outside of a symbolic network, the same does
not hold for myth, for a quite simple reason: Myths are symbolic,
but not all symbols are mythical. A mathematical equation consists
of symbols, but only very few would argue that it is a myth. Symbols
are the a priori form of human experience and consciousness.10 They
are the medium through which we understand the world, without
which no experience is possible at all. I cannot experience the world
without translating it into a language, which, consisting of symbols,
is the first and foremost universal medium of human experience. Ul-
timately, human beings are inevitably "symbolic" animals; they are
not, however, always "mythical" animals.
The need for a mythical mediation of the world emerges only
under certain conditions, whereas the need for symbols is always
present. As Blumenberg has argued, myth arises from a need to face
the "absolutism of reality," to mitigate the indifference of the world.11
A myth consists in the "work" on a narrative that answers the human
need for significance. Besides meaning human beings also need what
Blumenberg calls "significance" (Bedeutsamkeit) in order to imagine
a less indifferent world. The result is that meanings are everywhere
because symbols are everywhere. On the contrary, significance is not
everywhere, because not everything is significant.12 In other words,
something can have a meaning and yet one might remain completely
indifferent to it because what is significant for one person here and
now may not be so for another person in another situation.
Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that a myth is neither an ob-
ject, nor is it something that can be universally determined or "thrown
before us," as the etymology of the term "object" implies.13 A myth is

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a process or, as Blumenberg has put it, a myth consists in the "work
on myth" (Arbeit am Mythos). Every narrative has variants, as its very
concept implies, yet a myth does not simply express itself through
variants. It is the work on a sequence of events that coagulate and
produce significance. In this sense, a myth consists of its variants, or -
even better - consists of the work toward lending significance to the
world. The stories accessible to us are only traces of such a process.
Myths are not "pieces of paper."14 The work of and on a myth
cannot be reduced to the stories that we read in books and archives.
These are only some of the products of such work. In order to estab-
lish whether a narrative is a myth or not, we must look not only at
its production, but also at its reception. It is the entire process of pro-
duction, reception, and reproduction that constitutes the "work on
myth." As a consequence, myths are not usually learned once and for
all, but rather apprehended through a more or less conscious cumu-
lative exposure to them. The work on myth is at the same time always
the work of myth; it is always both active and passive. Ultimately, this
is the reason why myths cannot be created around a table.
Significance is located between conscious learning and subcon-
scious apprehension; the very concept of significance questions all
the dichotomies produced by the Western philosophical tradition:
conscious/unconscious, interests/passions, or reason/myth. This also
explains the condensational power of myth, as expressed by the con-
cept of icons.15 This concept points to the fact that, by means of a
synecdoche, any object or gesture - a painting, an image, a song, a
film, or an advertisement - can recall the whole work on myth that
lies behind it. The condensational power of myth is also the reason
why it is often difficult to analyze them: work on a myth takes place
through icons that allude to the given narrative rather than explicitly
conveying it.
Not only is "work on myth" difficult to locate; it also continually
changes. With changing living circumstances, human beings need to
refer back to the mythical narrative cores or mythologems they have
produced in order to adapt them to the new circumstances. Either
they succeed in doing so or the narrative ceases to work as a myth.
Human beings have this need because, in contrast to other animals,
they are not adapted to a specific environment; they can potentially
change their conditions of existence at any time, which (among other
things) means that they undergo a problematic relationship with such
conditions. Not only can they change them; they also raise questions
about them. Myth specifically questions the indifference of the world


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

by inserting it into a narrative of events. Myth typically addresses the

question "whence?" rather than "why?" As Kernyi has pointed out,
the function of myth is neither to provide a name for things nor to
explain them, but to "ground" them (begrnden).16 Myths tell stories.
They elucidate the origins of things and thus, simultaneously, their
destination. In this way, they provide a "ground."
There are, then, three elements to the definition of myth: pro-
cess, narrative, and significance. A myth is a process and not an ob-
ject; a process of elaboration that takes place around a narrative core
and must respond to a need for significance. If this goes for myth in
general, is there a difference between cultural and political myth? A
political myth is work on a common narrative that grants significance
to the political conditions and experiences of a social group. It is not
the content that makes a simple narrative a political myth. There is
nothing per se political in the fact that the world is about to disappear,
even if the narrative of the millennium did work as a political myth,
and as a powerful one in certain contexts.17 So what makes a political
myth out of a narrative is the fact that it a) coagulates and reproduces
significance, b) is shared by a given group, and c) can address the spe-
cifically political conditions in which a given group lives.
Precisely because they address the specifically political conditions
of a social group, political myths are typically oriented toward action.
In contrast to cultural myths, political myths are an invitation to act
here and now. As Sorel has observed, a political myth is not a theory
as to the constitution of the world, but the expression of a determina-
tion to act within it.18 This is why a political myth cannot be falsified:
it does not claim to describe the world; it aims to create its own world.
If political myths are prophecies then they are self-fulfilling.
But if it is not its content but rather the capacity of a myth to ad-
dress the specifically political conditions of a given group that makes
a specifically political myth out of a narrative, than it is quite dif-
ficult to keep cultural and political identity separate.19 The myth of
the millennium, that of a general strike or the myth of the Aryan
race are specifically political myths because, at a certain point in time
and within given circumstances, they each came to address the need
for common action that affected the particular political conditions in
which this action took place. They were not the result of an already
given identity, but the means of creating a new identity, one that was
or is indeed both cultural and political. The Aryan race myth is politi-
cal for the reasons given above and at the same time cultural because
the idea of the Aryan race recalls a series of cultural presuppositions,

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such as the concept of Aryanism together with its alleged history, a

certain biological determinism, and so on.
Once we have acknowledged this, it makes little sense to distin-
guish between a political culture as embodied in a European con-
stitutional patriotism versus cultural and national interpretations.20
Indeed, what renders a series of values, principles, and symbols spe-
cifically political is the way in which they address the political condi-
tions of a context; that is, their interpretations, or the way in which
they are read each time within a single national or even regional
context. The same principle can lend itself to both a political and a
non-political interpretation. What renders it (and as a consequence
the identity that it can contribute toward shaping) specifically politi-
cal is the way in which it is appropriated within each context.
Should we then discard the distinction between cultural and po-
litical identity? The distinction remains helpful at the philosophical
level. Although the two can at times overlap, we should keep the dis-
tinction in order to avoid what I have called the "culturalist fallacy."21
This consists in the attempt to reduce the identity of the members of
a polity to their cultural commonalities, and is not only misleading
because a group may share a feeling of attachment to a given polity
despite their radical cultural differences; it is also problematic because
it suggests a necessity for homogenization. This, I believe, would be
particularly unsuitable for a sui generis polity such as the European
Union, which succeeds in possessing a specific political identity along-
side radical cultural differences.
To conclude this point, the distinction between cultural and po-
litical identity should serve as a ladder. We must be prepared to leave
the ladder behind us and return to single examples once we have
reached the top of it. Even if this distinction may prove helpful at
a conceptual level, it should not blind us to how it can break down
under the strain of history. As this article will show, in most cases it
is difficult - if not impossible - to establish whether a given myth is
cultural or political. The distinction between the two should therefore
serve as a guide, reminding us that there are no political contents per
se; rather, it is always the context that renders them thus.

Myth or History? How Europeans Have Perceived Themselves

Before proceeding to the analysis of single examples, we still face an

important question: If both myth and history are narratives, how do


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

they differ? In particular, if both are told from the standpoint of the
present, should we then conclude that there is no difference between
the two and that history is simply another form of myth making? If
history is also a turned-back prophecy, as Schlegel argued, how does
it differ from political myth?22
In Robert Young's view, the writing of history implies a process of
organization of events in a narrative plot, in a totality within which
only events are conferred with meaning. In this respect it hardly
differs from creating a myth.23 As the provocative title of his book
suggests - White Mythologies: Writing History and the West - "history" is
simply a "white mythology." The idea of "history," Young claims, re-
flects a totalizing mode of the structure of events that is not only
particularistic because, as Foucault sustains, each society has its own
way of organizing knowledge, but it is also mythological because it is
based on the exclusion of the Other's perspective. Ultimately Young
concludes that history should be seen as myth, as "the preposterous
off- spring of a distorting egocentric illusion to which the children of
a western Civilisation have succumbed like the children of all other
Civilisations and known primitive societies."24
There are two problems with this theory. First, it works with a
rather reductive and misleading concept of myth, used here simply in
the polemical sense of "illusion." It does not make sense to speak of
myth in general, and of political myths in particular in terms of truth
or falsity because myths do not aim to describe the world as it is, but
rather to recreate it. Even if they are illusions, they are self-fulfilling.25
Second, it is a view that conflates myth and narrative. Young argues
that it is the use of chronology, the code most often used by histo-
rians, that creates the illusory impression of a uniform, continuous
progression. Dates, he observes, tell us something only in as far as
they are members of a class. This class may or may not correspond to
other classes, such as periods, millennia, or ages and thus reflects a
specific organization of an event.26 This narrative of uniform progres-
sion is, however, illusory and, in this sense, a myth.
Even if we accept the (limited) view of myth as illusion, the fact
remains that myth and historical narrative cannot be unified based
on their being both distorting and biased. If a narrative is a simple
series of events,27 then it appears pointless to argue that it is illu-
sory because it superimposes on "real" events a structure that they
would otherwise lack. Certainly, a narrative involves selection as well
as some form of organization. It presupposes a plot that structures
events, conferring them with meaning as part of a whole. So Young

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is right in pointing out that there is a certain organization of events

taking place.
However, the point is that every "event" has been interpreted al-
ready. No "pure" event is ever accessible to us. As the very etymology
of the word points out, an event is something that e-venit, that comes
into being from a background of non-becoming events, which is ul-
timately the reason why history is based on oblivion as much as on
memory.28 The point is, therefore, not to counterpoise "interpreted"
and "non-interpreted" events, but rather the degree to which these
events have been organized. As White has demonstrated in The Con-
tent of the Forms, it is true that there cannot be content that has not al-
ready been organized in a form, but different modes of writing history
imply different forms and also different degrees of organization.29 An-
nals and chronicles - even statistics - all talk about events that have
been organized in one way or another; yet not all of them have been
organized and therefore interpreted in the same way.
Although myths in general and political myths in particular are
organized through a dramatic structure, the writing of history does
not necessarily stage a drama because it needs to provide significance
for a given group. One may, however, be part of the production and
reception of a historical narrative without necessarily feeling that one
is taking part in a play. This is not to say that a historical narrative
cannot come to work as political myth. Although mythical and his-
torical narratives do often overlap, such as in the case of Europe and
most national mythologems, it is not always the case, which is why we
should endeavor to differentiate between the two aspects.
It therefore comes as no surprise that mythical and historical nar-
ratives differ in their temporal perspectives. Both are narratives re-
counted from the standpoint of the present, although a myth may
also be located outside historical time (such as most of Greek mythol-
ogy for us today), while a political myth may well be projected into
the dimension of the future (such as the myth of prosperity). In other
words, both history and myth may work as prophecies, but the fact
that the historian is a "turned-back" prophet, to use Schlegel's expres-
sion, places further constraints on him or her. A historian is often asked
to follow a method, whereas the very idea of a "mythical method" is
senseless. A method implies that there are procedures that can be
followed by anybody in order to reach the same results, but no such
possibility is offered in the case of myth. Work on myth is particu-
laristic; it must provide and coagulate significance for a given group


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

and under given circumstances, and is therefore located between the

conscious and the subconscious.
Europeans (leaving aside the question as to who they are for now)30
contemplate themselves in the light of diverging and ever-changing
narratives. Three such narratives have proved to be particularly cru-
cial as they recur over time.31 All of them are historical narratives
but, in given contexts, they have also worked as both cultural and
political myths. Let us refer to the first of such narratives as "Classical
Europe." It traces Europe back to its alleged Greek and Roman origins
and has been highly powerful for centuries. It may, at times, have
been obscured by other narratives, but it has always re-emerged, par-
ticularly when a need for regeneration was felt. Husserl's The Crises of
the European Sciences presents a typical example: When faced with the
European crisis of the interwar period, he returns to the Greek nation
of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, presenting it as the birthplace
of the "spiritual shape of Europe."32 In Husserl's view, the new "theo-
retical" attitude, inspired by Greek philosophy, not only helps us to
identify the "distinctive European spiritual shape," but also aims at
finding a possible cure for the crisis faced by Europe as a whole. This
interpretation of the past not only lends identity to the "European
sciences"; it also provides orientation for acting in the present.
Husserl thus follows a durable strategy or reappropriation of the
Greek past in the light of the present. The idea that ancient Greece
was the birthplace of philosophy has played an extremely power-
ful role in the self-perception of the West in contrast to an Orient
still shrouded in mythical thought.33 It suffices to recall the role that
this image played during the Renaissance or in eighteenth- and nine-
teenth-century Europe, particularly among German intellectuals.
The point is not only that locating the roots of European identity in
its Greek, rather than its Christian origins, may seem arbitrary; it is
also a highly misleading narrative, occulting what has been called
the "black Athena": the Afro-Asiatic roots of classical civilizations.34
The removal of such roots from European identity rendered Greek
philosophy the apparent absolute beginning: the "birthplace" of phi-
losophy. As Vernant has put it, it provides Europe with its identity
We need only consider the importance of other - and much
older - philosophical traditions to assess the arbitrariness of such a
view.36 More generally, if philosophy means the critical use of thought,
then it appears at best naive to say that it was born in Ancient Greece,

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as if nobody else had ever philosophized before then. Certainly one

may object that by "philosophy" we mean the sort of theoretical spec-
ulation conducted by the Greek philosophers, but in this case the
argument is almost tautological: Greek philosophy is the philosophy
born in Greece.
It is clear why Ancient Greece and Rome have constituted such a
powerful symbolic reservoir as the "cradle of civilization," and thus
the epoch to which all that is considered good and praiseworthy is
repeatedly traced back: the alleged birthplace of philosophy, freedom
in all its declinations, democracy, beauty, and art. This attitude cannot
help but recall Vico's concept of the boria delle nazioni: the conceit of
nations.37 As he observed, every nation of every epoch has claimed
to be the first to invent all that is valuable to human life and history.
There is a tendency to trace the origins of all that is held as good and
valuable for human life to some more or less remote epoch of "our"
past. As the Greek case shows, even if this past is not ours, we would
find a way to vindicate our right to it. The very expression of the
"cradle" of civilization reveals that what is at stake is the need to trace
one's own genealogy back to a "motherland" that might provide both
the identification of a birthplace as well as orientation for action in
the present. This is ultimately the reason why the narrative of "classi-
cal Europe" has worked as both a historical and a mythical narrative,
as we will see in more detail through the analysis of specific icons,
and as Gerdien Jonker argues in her contribution.
Before moving to a more detailed analysis of this narrative, two
other narratives should be mentioned. Alongside the narrative of clas-
sical Europe there exists what we call "Christian Europe." By tracing
European identity back to the Christian religion, this narrative core
points to the historical experience of the Christian Roman Empire as
the first experiment of European unification, to the contribution of
the Christian intellectuals traveling from one university to another as
the first examples of European travelers, and to the feeling of same-
ness generated by the idea of being part of "Christendom" as the first
(if not the only) content of European identity.38 However, it is dis-
putable whether this historical experiment was really one of unity,
and not at the same time also one of strong diversity. As it has been
argued, the experience of "Europe" in the Middle Ages was that of
strong tension between cosmopolitanism and intense localism, which
ultimately resulted in the victory of the latter.39
We could argue that such an experience of a unitary space was not
that of "Europe," but rather of Christianitas. Even those who thought


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

about toponymy, and therefore needed to imagine a common space

did not use the Latin word Europa to designate the geographical and
cultural entity we now call "Europe."40 They called it, and thought
about it, as Christianitas. This is an important point, because the idea
of a common Christianitas possesses a much more cosmopolitan voca-
tion than the term "Europe." The former has no a priori limits as it
includes the entire community of believers, while the latter is neces-
sarily a limited space, primarily denoting a geographical and political
Despite this, the idea of a Christian Europe is at least as important
as that of a classical Europe, which at times overlapped (the Greek
and Roman heritage being Christianized in a variety of ways), and
with which it has at times entered into conflict. Recent debate over
the possible inclusion of a reference to the Christian religion in the
preamble of the draft of the European constitution is a significant
example.41 What is the meaning of such a debate? Why should we
choose this from all the potential narratives that history proposes as
possible candidates for the "origins" of the European identity? Why
should we feel more attached to our European fellows if we think
of them as sharing a common Christian past and not, for instance,
as believers in other religions who have equally contributed to the
shaping of European history? In other words, why this narrative and
not another?
As the debate on European identity shows, the narrative of Chris-
tian Europe could compete not only with that of Greek Europe but
also with what we can call the narrative of "Enlightened" Europe. In
this view, Europe is presented as the birthplace of the Western En-
lightenment, again with all the values and symbols that can be traced
back to this experience. This narrative often overlaps with that of clas-
sical Europe, as the Greek and the Roman civilizations served as mod-
els for the attempt at a spiritual rebirth operated by Enlightenment
supporters. European travelers during the Enlightenment with their
Grand Tours in pursuit of the ruins of ancient civilizations contrib-
uted to the discovery but also to the invention of a specific European
civilization.42 They were modernity's secular pilgrims with a ritual
of passage, embarking on journeys to pay their respects to the Holy
Land of civilization rather than to other obscurantist sacred sites.43
Perhaps the most influential variant of such a narrative is the des-
ignation of Europe as the birthplace of modernity. The idea of Europe
as the cradle not only of the Enlightenment but of modernity as a
whole is rooted in Western thinking to the extent that it has become

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commonplace. Historians, sociologists, and philosophers generally

agree to recognize Europe as the birthplace of that particular form of
life that goes under the heading of "modernity." Most scholars agree
to place the origins of the specifically modern way of life with its cor-
ollaries of individualism and democracy in the convergence of capi-
talist economy, territorial state, and modern science, which began in
sixteenth-century Europe.44
In the context of present-day Europe, the narratives of "Classical"
and "Enlightened" Europe appear prominent if we take the draft of
the European constitution as the outline of its fundamental charter.
Unlike the reference to Christianity, which was finally replaced by a
more general reference to Europe's "cultural, religious and human-
ist inheritance," both other narratives were also mentioned in the
draft, with a quotation from Thucydides, claiming that democracy
was born in Greece, and references to typical values of the Enlighten-
ment such as equality of persons, freedom, and above all "respect for
reason." These link the narrative core of Classical Europe with that of
Enlightened Europe.45 But the victory of these two narratives is only
provisional: although a battle has been won, it is not yet clear who
will win the whole war. In the end, the capacity of each narrative to
exercise the seductive power of a myth - that is, to come to coagulate
and provide significance to the specific conditions in which they op-
erate - could be the trump card of the whole game.

Icons of the Myths of Europe

Which are the most powerful European myths? Should we search

among political myths as well as cultural? This section briefly exam-
ines some of them through the analysis of icons: images that convey
an entire myth by means of a synecdoche. The idea is not to provide
a fully fledged analysis of the European mythical reservoir, but rather
to demonstrate how the theory that we have described so far can be
applied to examples. The icons presented have been selected from a
sample of French, Italian, and German textbooks published in the last
thirty years (see appendix for a description of the sample). Textbooks
are crucial media for the transmission of political myths. They are the
means through which the basic knowledge and self-representation
of a society is transmitted from one generation to another. Conse-
quently, icons transmitted through such a medium enjoy what has
been called the primacy effect: they can slip into our subconscious and


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

thus constitute the most fundamental background knowledge about

the world that is difficult to dismantle later.46 The analysis of such a
sample confirms our earlier observation that the prevailing narrative
cores through which Western Europeans see themselves are those
of classical Europe and of modern or Enlightened Europe. Certainly
more empirical work is required on icons circulating via other media
as well as on alternative narratives;47 the other contributions to this
volume are a first step in this direction. Yet narratives circulating in
textbooks are particularly relevant because textbooks display in an
accessible format "the bottom line of what a society 'knows'" and "are
therefore the instruments per excellence with which a society promotes
its basic values."48
Of all narratives openly revealing their character of myth, that of
the eponym heroine Europa has certainly attracted the most attention
from scholars (if less attention from European citizens). Most work
on the mythical underpinning of the European integration process
revolves around this narrative.49 In this case, we see how a historical
narrative core, that of classical Europe, can go hand in hand with the
mythical by providing it with the appeal of a narrative that coagulates
and reproduces significance.
The first problem with this narrative is that of its elitist connota-
tion. Although it has attracted the attention of artists, poets, and in-
tellectuals,50 most people have remained indifferent to it. If the myth
recalled in Figure 1, that of the beautiful Phoenician princess raped
by the bull, has lent itself to artistic creation, it is perhaps only its
political variant that has had a more lasting impact. Figure 2 shows
the divisions within a political Europe presented as a unity by the an-
cient Greek version of the myth of the heroine Europe: it is a Europe
which - torn between the different attitudes of its various member
states - must decide whether or not to join the United States in the
Iraq War. This icon, which recalls by means of a synecdoche all the
work on myth that lies behind it, is a perfect example of the way
in which such work can also be a site for critique; indeed, even for
political critique. The difference between the myths of Figure 1 and
Figure 2 is that the former constitutes work on myth that is purely
cultural, whereas the latter has a clear political connotation.
The problem, however, is that the myth of Europe raped by the
bull risks excluding all those that are "in but not of Europe."51 The
myth cannot but recall in the minds of those exposed to it the narra-
tive of classical Europe that we have described above. Indeed, Greeks
perceived themselves in the light of their Roman, Byzantine, and Ot-

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Figure 1 . Detail from a Pompeii Fresco.

Source : Frdric Delouche et al., Histoire de l'Europe 1 st ed. (Paris: Hachette, 1 997), 9

toman past at least until the eighteenth century, when some expatri-
ate Greek merchants rediscovered their Hellenic past via the narrative
of classical Europe and began to reimport their glorious Hellenic past
to Greece.52 German intellectuals, poets, and archaeologists played an
important role in this process of internalizing the gaze of others, the
construction of a common Greek identity by importing the European
identification of Greece as the "cradle of European civilization." To-
gether with their sensibility for the symbolic dimension of power, this
explains why it is in German sources that we most often encounter
work on the myth of Europa raped by the bull.
But it is much more difficult for others, particularly those from
the Eastern bloc, or for those who perceive themselves as "in" but


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

Figure 2. Political Caricature from a German History Textbook.

Source: Haris-Jrgen Lendzian, Zeiten und Menschen 2, Vol. 2 (Braunschweig, Paderbon & Darmstadt:
Verlag Ferdinand, 2005), 360.

not "of" Europe, to identify with such a myth. Certainly, as Passerini

has shown, many have interpreted Europe's origin as a Phoenician
princess as a form of recognizing the wider non-European heritage
of Europe (albeit limited to Asia Minor). Yet this, together with the
fact that many European artists recovered such a myth,53 is not a suf-
ficient condition for stating that the mythologem has been liberated
from its Greek pedigree. One must look at work on myth as a whole:
not only at the production but also at the reception of such a myth.
In the minds of contemporary Europeans, simultaneously exposed
to the narratives of classical Europe, the Europe raped by the bull

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Chiara Bottici

cannot help but recall its Greek origins. It is from the fact that this
myth links Europe to a glorious past, to an epoch and a culture that
produced great achievements in art, literature, philosophy, politics,
and culture, that this myth derives its significance. Work on both a
cultural and political myth lends significance to our existence by con-
necting our banal everyday life with a larger, more poetic and glori-
ous past, which predates and will outlive us. It is from the feeling of
being born of such a culturally rich mother(land) that the appeal of
this myth derives.
As I have suggested, however, the myth of Europa and the bull,
can only provide significance to a limited European elite. The mytholo-
gem of the rich, prosperously feeding Europe, which only at times
overlaps with the former, has a much broader and deeper impact.
Figure 3 provides an example of convergence. Compared with the
representation in the original Pompeii fresco, we see that, under the
conditions of modernity, the princess Europa has become much more
prosperous, displaying larger breasts and more generous curves. We
may note here that a highly similar image of Europa on the bull,
with an equally voluptuous figure, appears on the Greek 2 Euro coin.
Europa ceased to be the ideal princess of the Greek myth and is no
longer even the lascivious woman of the ancient Roman sources that
Jonker reconstructs (in this volume); she is now the icon of the vic-
torious political option: "go and vote for Europe!"
The image of a prosperous and voluptuous Europe recalls the
gender dimension of this myth and of the European representation in
general. A beautiful woman who may be conquered, she is also our
motherland; she gave birth to us and nourishes us. Figure 4 shows the
power of the archetype of the feeding mother. In this icon, European
politicians are fed by the she-wolf Europe born with the 1957 Treaty
of Rome, which established the European Economic Community.
We are moving from the domain of purely cultural to more cru-
cially political myth; consequently, we are also moving from the do-
main of work on myth, which is limited to a few well educated elites,
to more widely perceived images and icons. The icon that links Europe
with the image of the prosperous, feeding mother is certainly one of
these. The relevance of such a mythologem further proves that the idea
of a purely performance -based polity deprived of a symbolic under-
pinning is mistaken. Even a mere association of "interests" can have
its myths, not least the myth of prosperity itself. This has two ver-
sions: that of the mother, which is eminently feminine, but also that
of the train, which recalls a series of more masculine archetypes.


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Figure 3. German political poster.

Source: H. Brack arid D. Brckner, Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 4 (Bamberg: C. C. Buchners Verlag, 1 996), 1 83.

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Figure 4. Dutch caricature of 1 962 reproduced in a French history textbook.

Source: J. Le Pellec, Histoire. Terminales L, ES, S (Paris: Bertrand-Lacoste, 2004), 190.

The icon of Europe as a train to prosperity, to the promised land

of modernity and well-being, which is detailed in Benot Challand's
contribution to this volume, is a highly powerful and widespread
icon. The fast train symbolizes modernity with its corollaries of ra-
tionality and speed. Europe consequently appears as a modern, fast,
and rational means of transportation. "Getting on the Europe train"
has become an imperative for European politicians and citizens. The
same figure recurs in English, German, French, and Italian sources,
demonstrating the Europe-wide reception and re-elaboration of this
version of the myth.54
The power of the prosperity and modernity myth is perhaps best
demonstrated by its non-European attractiveness. The "Europe train"
is the train that leads to the "promised land" (Figure 5), a land of milk
and honey, but only for the select few (Figure 6). It can easily turn
into a fortress, symbol of a polity that destroys internal boundaries in
order to erect even more powerful external borders.


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

Figure 5. French Caricature of 1 93 1 .

Source : J.-M. Lambin, Histoire. Terminales ES-L-S (Paris: Hachette, 2004), 208.

The capacity of such a narrative to work as a powerful political

myth is perhaps best illustrated by the high numbers of aspirant pas-
sengers of the "Europe train" that are prepared to die at its borders.
Figure 6 demonstrates the power as well as the tragic destinies in-

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Chiara Bottid

Figure 6. German Caricature of the "Fortress" Europe.

Source: M. Tremi, Oldenburg Geschichte fr Gymnasien, Vol. 1 3 (Mnchen: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1 994),

herent in elaborating on the myth of prosperous and modern Eu-

rope while being denied access to its palpable reality. This is a cultural,
and - at least under present conditions - also a powerful political
myth. As everybody aspires to some sort of well-being, however, it is
not specifically a European one.


This article reveals the shortcomings of the view of Europe as a purely

performance-based polity that can do without any sort of symbolical
underpinning. Europe has its symbols, and even its myths. These are
usually both cultural and political. Even a purely cultural myth such
as that of the eponym heroine Europa can work as a political myth in
specific contexts. A myth consists in elaborating on a given narrative,
which evolves over time in order to adapt to new circumstances.
Yet in the face of the analysis proposed it seems legitimate to ask
which aspects of such a symbolic reservoir are specifically European:
neither prosperity, nor modernity, nor the rape by the bull could be


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

said to fulfill this description. Paradoxically it is in fact the history of

divisions and rivalries that culminated in the human catastrophe -
such as World War n - that appears specifically European. Indeed, if
European citizens look at their past, they cannot help but rediscover
themselves as former enemies, and certainly this has been an argu-
ment for certain constellations at various times and in different con-
texts.55 However, whether or not the narrative "Europe as born out of
the war" can become a founding myth for Europe depends not only
on the ability of political leaders to use it as an argument in political
propaganda, but also on its capacity to coagulate and reproduce sig-
nificance within contemporary conditions. In the current situation, it
seems as if the myth of modernity and prosperity, in all of its variants,
can only prevail. The question appears to be not when Europe began,
but rather where it will lead us.


1 . This article is the result of a research project conducted within the JERP
5.2.1 of the European Network of Excellence GARNET (Global Govern-
ance, Rgionalisation and Regulation: The Role of the EU), funded by the
European Commission within the Sixth Framework Programme (con-
tract n. 513330). I am grateful to the anonymous referees, to Bo Strth,
and to all the contributors to this special issue for their invaluable com-
ments and observations.
2. Giandomenico Majone, Regulating Europe (London: Routledge, 1996).
3. Fritz W. Scharpf, Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999).
4. Barbara Henry, "The Role of Symbols for European Political Identity -
Political Identity as a Myth?" in A Soul for Europe, ed. Furio Cerutti and
Enno Rudolph (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), vol. 2, 49-76; Luisa Passerini,
ed., Figures Europe - Images and Myths of Europe (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter
Lang, 2003).
5. Enno Rudolph, "Introduction," in A Soul for Europe, ed. Cerutti and Ru-
dolph, 1-10.
6. Furio Cerutti, "A Political Identity of the Europeans?" Thesis Eleven 72
(2003): 26-45; Jrgen Habermas, "Citizenship and National Identity," in
Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: MIT Press 1996), 491-515.
7. Jrgen Habermas, "The Postnational Constellation and the Future of
Democracy," in The Postnational Constellation (Oxford: Polity, 2001).
8. Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (Darmstadt: Wissen-
schaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985).

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9. See, for instance, Henry, "The Role of Symbols," and Passerini, Figures
d'Europe, 24.
10. Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen.
11. Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. R. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT Press,
1985), chap. 1.
12. I have dealt with what I have called the "particularistic" nature of sig-
nificance at length elsewhere. See Chiara Bottici, A Philosophy of Political
Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chap. 6.
13. The term "object" derives from the Latin obicio, and literally means some-
thing that is thrown before or against us. See John Simpson and Ed-
mund Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1989), X: 641.
14. Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere. Edizione critica dell'Istituto Gramsci
(Turin: Einaudi, 1975), n, 10, 41.
15. Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, 181; Chris Flood, Political Myth: A
Theoretical Introduction (New York: Garland, 1996).
16. Kroly Kernyi, "Prolegomena," in Essays on a Science of Mythology, ed.
Kroly Kernyi and Carl Gustav Jung (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1963), 6. The word begrnden, which can be translated as "to jus-
tify" or "to substantiate," derives from the root Grund, which means both
the English abstract noun "reason" and the concrete noun "ground."
17. See, for instance, Henry Tudor, Political Myth (London: Macmillan, 1972),
17, where it is maintained that it is precisely the subject matter of a myth
that renders it specifically political. This definition, however, contrasts
with the example of the myth of the millennium that Tudor himself
analyzes in his work.
18. George Sorel, Reflections on Violence (New York: AMS Press, 1975).
19. As we have seen, both Habermas and Cerutti argue for this distinction.
20. Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, 2001.
21 . Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, 2005.
22. F.S. Schlegel and A. W. Schlegel, Athenum. Eine Zeitschrift von A.W.Schlegel
and F.S. Schlegel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992),
fragment 80.
23. Robert Young introduces the concept of mythology by quoting a pas-
sage from Derrida's critique of metaphysics as "white mythology." The
mythological aspect here consists of the illusion of the universality of
metaphysics, which calls itself "Reason" but is in fact an "Indo-Euro-
pean Mythology," i.e. the mythos of a specific idiom. Robert Young, White
Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London: Routledge, 1990), 7.
24. Ibid., 19.
25. Indeed, it seems as if the white mythologies denounced in the title of
Young's book are all those theories which, from Marxism on, strive to-
ward the idea of a unique "world history," i.e., of history as a totality


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

26. Ibid., 46.

27. Chiara B ottici, "Narrative," in International Encyclopedia of Political Theory ,
ed. Mark Bevir (London: SAGE, forthcoming).
28. Bo Strth, ed., Myth and Memory in the Construction of the Community (Brus-
sels: Peter Lang, 2000).
29. Hayden White, The Content of the Form. Narrative Discourse and Historical
Representation (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987).
30. One starting point might be Article 8 of the Maastricht Treaty, which
defines a European citizen as being a full citizen of one of its member

31. On these three narratives from a historical perspective see, for instance
Bernard Giesen, "Europische Identitt und transnationale ffentlich-
keit. Eine historische Perspektive," in Transnationale ffentlichkeiten un
Identitten im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. H. Kaeble, M. Kirsch, and A. Schmidt
Gernig (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2002), 67-85.
32. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phe-
nomenology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1954).
33. See, for instance, Wilhelm Nestle, Vom Mythos zum Logos: die Selbstentf
tung des griechischen Denkens von Homer bis auf die Sophistik und Sokrates
(Stuttgart: Krner, 1942); John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London
A. and C. Black, 1920); and Klaus Held, "The Origin of Europe with the
Greek Discovery of the World," Epoch. A Journal for the History of Philoso
phy 7, no. 1 (2002): 81-105. 1 have criticized the narrative of the Greek
birth of philosophy more extensively in Chiara Bottici, " Mythos and logos :
A Genealogical Approach," Epoch. A Journal for the History of Philosoph
13, no. 1 (2008): 1-24.
34. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisatio
(London: Free Association Books, 1987-91).
35. J.P. Vernant, Myth and Thought among the Greeks (New York: Zone Book
36. Some of them are explored in Bernal's work cited here on the Afr
asiatic roots of classical civilization.
37. Gianbattista Vico, New Science (London: Penguin, 1999), 53, 125, 126.
38. A recent example of this argument is detailed in Joseph Weiler, Un' Eu-
ropa cristiana (Milano: BUR, 2003).
39. William Chester Jordan, "'Europe' in the Middle Ages," in The Idea of
Europe from Antiquity to the European Union , ed. Anthony Pagden (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 83.
40. On the vicissitudes of the term "Europa," see Gerdien Jonker's contribu-
tion in this volume.
41. For a detailed analysis of the role played by this debate within the Eu-
ropean Convention, see the documents of the official debates at http:// (accessed 24 March

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42. Robert Wokler, "Rites of Passage and the Grand Tour. Discovering, Imag-
ining and Inventing European Civilization in the Age of Enlightenment,"
in Finding Europe. Discourses on Margins, Communities, Images, ed. Anthony
Molho and Diogo Ramada Curto (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007),
43. Ibid., 207.
44. There is a wealth of literature available on the concept of modernity e
posed here. For a brief presentation of the concept, see Peter Wagner
"Modernity," in International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Science
Neil Smelser and Paul Baltes (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001 ), vol. 1 5, 9949
54. See also work by the supporters of the idea of multiple modernities
who may be included among those who have questioned the idea o
only one existent modernity - the European one: Samuel N. Eisenstadt
ed., Multiple Modernities (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2002).
45. The draft of the European Constitution is available at http://europea (accessed 24 Marc
46. Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, chap. 9.
47. The countries in the sample are three of the six countries that ha
participated in European construction from the very beginning, even
though they represent very different attitudes toward it (for an analy
of such differences see Bottici, "European Identity and the Politics of R
membrance," in Performing the Past, ed. Frank Van Vree, Karin Tilman
and Jay Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming
and Benoit Challand's contribution in this volume. It would be part
cularly interesting to compare, for instance, those narratives with tha
circulating in the history textbooks of Eastern European countries.
48. Gerdien Jonker, "El Islam en los libros alemanes. La historia di una na
racin educacional, " in Conociendo al otro. El islam y Europa en sus manuale
de historia, Ed. Luigi Cajani (Madrid: Santillana, 2009), 37.
49. Peter J. Burgess, "The Abduction of the Abduction of Europa," in Mu
seum Europa. The European Cultural Heritage between Economics and Politics
ed. Peter J. Burgess (Kristiansand: Norwegian Academic Press, 2003
Henry, "The Role of Symbols"; Luisa Passerini, Il mito d'Europa. Radic
antiche per nuovi simboli (Florence: Giunti, 2002); and Passerini's edite
volume, Figures d'Europe, especially the chapters by Jacques-Ren Ra-
bier (65-76) and Michael Rice (77-86).
50. Passerini, limito d'Europa, contains a detailed investigation of the histo
of this myth. For a critical analysis of the myth of the classical Europ
see Jonker's contribution to this volume.
51. Stuart Hall, "In but not of Europe: Europe and Its Myths," in Passerini,
Figures d' Europe, 35-47. See also Challand's contribution to this volumes
on the Others of Europe.


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Myths of Europe: A Theoretical Approach

52. Jonathan Friedman, "Myth, History, and Political Identity," in Cultural

Anthropology 7, no. 2 (1992): 194-210.
53. Passerini, Il mito d'Europa and Passerini, Figures d'Europe.
54. The classical image of the train with European flags is reproduced in
M.-H. Baylac, Histoire. Terminales Series ES/L/S (Paris: Bordas, 2004), 193.
See also the German caricature "Europabus" appearing in T. Berger-von
der Heide and H.-G. Oomen, Von 1917 bis zur Gegenwart (Berlin: Cor-
nelsen Verlag, 2002), or the British version of a bus with the sign "Pros-
perity Drive" that appeared in a 1961 Daily Mirror caricature and was
reproduced in the French textbook, B. Binoist et al., Histoire. Terminales
ES etL (Paris: Magnard, 2004), 165.
55. I have analyzed this in more detail in Chiara Bottici, "European Iden-
tity and the Politics of Remembrance," in Performing the Past, ed. Vree,
Tilmans, Winter.

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