People will often work their experiences and the shared cultural memory of a people forms the tapestry of their myths and legends. Another factor, that plays an important part of our myths, is what lessons we want to impart to future generations.
Urban legends (or contemporary myths for the more academic crowd) are a primary example of this. Most of them used to speak to young men and women about promiscuous sexual activities and women about protecting children. The escaped mental patient, the hook handed man, etc patrolling the lover’s lane or the Scream style rendezvous gone wrong. They have changed over the year’s to incorporate the newer technologies we have and also the stories and morals have changed. There are not nearly as many crazy people lurking in lover’s lane as there are stalking young women. The girl who wakes to find pictures of herself sleeping on her cell phone or the girl who orders a pizza at the college dorm but someone intercepts the pizza guy and stalks the girl during the night. These stories while fun around a campfire all go to teach a moral, that women need to protect themselves or be wary of strangers, while we still have the babysitter protecting the children story. I’m not going to try and psychoanalyze these stories, because that’s for you to do on your own if you so desire.
Lessons for teenagers and young adults tend to be found in urban legends, while lessons for children are found in the booggins and faeries we tell children of. The boogeyman for example, every culture has one and they all hunt one thing: misbehaving children. So how do you avoid becoming the next victim, obey your parents. Santa Claus brings toys to children, but what do you have to do, obey your parents. You have the punishment and the reward system shown in those two options right there. Which one will elicit the proper attitude from your child? Which one will cause years of therapy and an aversion to closets, the dark, and under the bed? I think you know, but none the less both of these are examples of beings that assist us in teaching a moral lesson to children. Good is rewarded while bad is punished. Jenny Greenteeth, the water witch who snatches children who wander too near lakes so that she can eat them, is another example. A very prevalent danger to children years back in rural areas was most likely them getting too close to streams and lakes and risking drowning but if they think Jenny might reach out and grab them, well then they’ll stay away from the water and be safe.
Cultural experiences also shape our myths and legends. The shape shifter, or man that can take the form of animal, outside of Hollywood and popular fiction, this person was normally someone who was using magic to obtain this power and depending on the region of the world the animal is different. A jaguar in South America, a lion in Africa, wolves tend to be more ingrained in our minds due to Hollywood but for the people of Europe wolves were a very real problem. I’m sure that some of the animal attacks seemed to be guided by a more calculating mind than that of an animal also people are always looking to rationalize what they are experiencing. During that time if someone important was killed by that animal or an entire family slaughtered well it had to be an enemy disguising themselves through magic in order to get away with the heinous crime. The animal changes based on region but much like witches the persecution followed closely behind.
With the advances in science our scope of belief has shifted from the supernatural world to the scientific world. Now when crops fail we don’t think it’s the old widow three miles away who swore she’d get even with us. We now have procedures to determine what actually caused the blight. The same is said for disease. No longer are the undead spreading plagues to us as they leave the grave at night and seek the blood of the living, we now know about bacteria and the spread of germs.
It is this advancement of science and shifting of our gaze that turned our myths and legends from monsters in the night to madmen and murderers. Look at the legends and tales of other countries and look at the more modern myths and legends. Notice the shift from supernatural to disturbed natural elements. It is not surprising that our myths have changed as our society did. The beauty of myths and stories is that they are pliable to the conditions we face or the events of our past, but no matter when they are we can glimpse into the mindset of a people.