Comparative Studies in Society and History



An Early Moment in the Discourse of “Terrorism:” Reflections on a Tale from Marco Polo


Bruce Lincoln a1
a1 University of Chicago

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Abstract

My goal in this paper is to revisit a classic text that raises the most contemporary of issues: Marco Polo's stereotyped, highly influential, and highly prejudicial description of the “Old Man of the Mountain,” a text of virtually mythic status and power. Having invoked the category of “myth,” however, in a context where it is not commonly applied, it is useful to indicate how I use this term and why it seems appropriate. To begin, I would reject three widely accepted notions. First, myths are not sacred narratives. Although many myths claim sacred status, in this they misrecognize their own nature, for they are human stories, like any other. They simply make more exaggerated claims to a more elevated kind of authority. Second, myths are not collective narratives or the speech of any group as a whole. Rather, they are stories that are told and retold in countless variants. Often the authorship of these variants is unacknowledged, forgotten, or deliberately hidden, but in its details each variant advances the specific interests of those responsible for its production, revision, and circulation. These anonymous agents and absent authors misrepresent themselves—and those for whom they speak—as the group as a whole. Third, myths are neither false stories, nor true, but simply stories that claim to speak with authority about issues of deep importance. Sometimes these claims succeed and sometimes they fail, and the same story can change its status over time from myth to fable and back again, since such status is a function of reception.

(Published Online March 8 2006)



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