SEXUALITY IN THE MEDIA - Culture and Medicine Myths and...

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Culture and Medicine Myths and medicine In this issue, WJM starts an ongoing series called Medi- cal Myths. We aim to encourage readers to evaluate criti- cally even the most standard and widespread practices, when they are based on tradition and the weight of au- thority, but in the absence of, or contrary to, available evidence. Although our use of the term myth does not necessarily imply all the elements of classical mythology, it is appro- priate because mythological medical practices may well arise from the same social needs, and serve a similar pur- pose, as cultural mythology. In the larger sense, myths are shared stories that arise and live for generations, initially in oral tradition, but eventually taking on new life in literary versions created by poets, journalists, and historians (or textbook authors). Myths seem to respond to profound communal needs, most often including the need to justify existing power relations, whether they be between gods and humans, the community and the individual, men and women, parents and children, teachers and students, or specialists and generalists. Myths try to assure us that our experiences are shared, and they can function as a means of social control and certification of legitimacy. Myth does its work in the heart and can therefore be more powerful than the logic to which it has always been opposed. Poets like Homer were the first great mytholo- gists, but myth plays a role in all aspects of communal life. Great logicians—like Plato, for example—frequently rec- ognized this, and deployed mythos to support their abstract logos , which they thought most people would never be able (or even want) to comprehend. Politicians, throughout history, have used and manipulated mythology to win support for projects the underlying logic of which might be otherwise unappealing. Hitler used the Greek myth of racial purity with enormous success, and the feuding ar- istocracy of Europe, in World War I, relied on myths of nationalistic pride, religious hatred, and racial superiority to help convince the poor of their countries to murder each other by the millions. Modern politicians exploit all types of mythology—from ancient Biblical “promises” about land, to religious pronouncements about the “proper” relationship between men and women, to memories of glorious past battles against brutal enemies, to nationalistic concepts of racial or ethnic unworthiness—to further their ends. Readers can surely think of many of the ways in which myth is used today to incite group hatred, or attack protest, or innovation, or any real challenge to the status quo. Medicine, too, has long been the subject of mythology. The Greeks and Romans created myths about the first physician, Asklepios (or Aesculapius), a son of Apollo. The Greeks believed that all human skills came from the gods, and by tying medicine to such an important god as Apollo, they invested it with great power and importance.
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