Saints, heroes and legend

March 14, 2012

March 14, 2012            Ira Chernus           

According to folklore, Saint Patrick drove snakes from Ireland. Considering snakes are not indigenous to the shamrock isle, the tale is just one of many legends surrounding this most celebrated Irish icon. But true or not the snake lore is an example of a need by people, says CU-Boulder religious studies professor Ira Chernus, to create human-like figures with legendary powers.

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Saints, heroes and legends

According to folklore, Saint Patrick drove snakes from Ireland. Considering snakes are not indigenous to the shamrock isle, the tale is just one of many legends surrounding this most celebrated Irish icon. But true or not the snake lore is an example of a need by people, says CU-Boulder religious studies professor Ira Chernus, to create human-like figures with legendary powers.

CUT 1  “It’s just about people wanting to be able to imagine being more than they are -- being smarter, being more powerful, just going beyond the ordinary human limits. And since people know they can’t do it themselves, they want to believe that there was somebody who could do it. (:21) If there was even one person who could magically clear out all the snakes of Ireland, or do something incredible, it shows you what human beings are capable of.”            (:30)

Another theory, says Chernus, as to why people have a need for attaching mythical attributes to ordinary people like Saint Patrick ,is it creates a framework for holding societies together.

CUT 2  “In other words, because we all share a common reverence for a certain figure, kind of a hero worship for a certain figure, that’s a way to hold us together as a group. (:12) It’s kind of the glue that holds society together.”            (:15)

Chernus also points out that hero worship doesn’t have to be in the context of religion. Societies around the world create stories, myths and legends about ordinary people who seem to be larger than life.

CUT 3  “Babe Ruth - how incredible he was, how extraordinary he was. So, it doesn’t have to be in the context of religion, either. (:08) It can be athletes; it can be explorers, adventurers, the first man who went to the North Pole or the South Pole, the first woman who climbed Mount Everest. (:18) It’s that sort of quality, of amazingness, that we want to believe that somebody can do this because then, in our imagination, we can do it too.” (:28)

These larger-than-life figures also include everything from political leaders to -- you guessed it -- Hollywood stars.

CUT 4  “You think about the stories of the Presidents. Stories about Abraham Lincoln or George Washington and even we are not sure what’s fact and what’s fiction. So sure these stories will always continue. (:13) You think about the rumors that spread about movie stars. That’s another whole great set of examples, movie stars. (:20) Hollywood figures are larger than life. And that, I think, is a lot of the key that every culture wants: to have people that are larger than life.” (:31)

Chernus says it’s a good idea to remember that even the people we credit with the most amazing powers or abilities basically are just ordinary people like us, dealing with the similar life problems. Says Chernus: As the old saying goes, ‘they have to put their pants on one leg at a time.’

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