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The Power of Mythic History

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Mythic History is history with horsepower. It ignites a fire in your belly and inspires you towards action.

Looking up at Little Round Top -- Gettysburg, PA

“A crucial aspect of how history is understood, and in a sense consumed, is as myth.”

-Tom Holland, Best-selling author of Rubicon and Persian Fire

As a kid living in Virginia, my parents often drove my brother and me to Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields. We’d climb the earthworks at Yorktown, straddle the cannons of Petersburg, and imagine ourselves colliding in battle – my brother in Confederate gray and me in Union blue. Twenty-plus years later as a Marine Captain stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, I visited some of those battlefields, except this time, I brought along fifty Marines from my platoon. I still recall one memorable trip to Gettysburg. In preparation, we packed sleeping bags, charcoal grills, and coolers filled with enough beer and meat to feed an Arm… well, a platoon of Marines.

Rising early from our Gettysburg campsite, we drove to the right flank of the Confederate line, where elements of General John Bell Hood’s division began their attack on the Union’s left flank. From Hood’s assault position, we trekked east on foot and imagined ourselves under heavy Union fire as we ran across the open ground towards the maze of 20 foot boulders known as "Devil's Den." From there, like Hood's division, we eyed our objective: the small hill a few hundred yards away known to history as "Little Round Top." On that hill, the very edge of the Union flank would make their stand.

From Devil's Den, we traversed through the low ground of thorn bushes, and then climbed up the face of Little Round Top. From our elevated position, we looked back down the hill towards the Devil’s Den. I told my platoon to “take a knee and feel the dirt. You’re defending this ground," I said, "just like the men of the 20th Maine did 143 years ago as waves of enemy soldiers attacked this very spot where you're kneeling.” Then I whispered, “now smell the horses, pines trees, and body odor. Hear the bugles blare, the rebels yell, and canons roar. Hear thousands of muskets fire and see the smoke of their discharges cover the battlefield. Hear the screams of shattered men. See the men in gray -- thousands of them, thirsty and emaciated -- charging towards us in utter desperation. Feel the sweat on your back, the fear in your stomach, and the rage in your soul.”

“Fix bayonets!” I yelled. "This is what the 20th Maine heard from their commander," I told my Marines.

"Running low on ammunition, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, ordered his entire regiment (hundreds of men) lined along this hill to fasten 18-inch blades to the end of their rifles and charge down the jagged slope of rocks and trees beneath you. A thousand Men from Maine,” I said, “charged with bayonets, impaling a human wall of faces, necks, and stomachs. Afterwards, more than 1,700 southerners lay dead on the ground before your eyes. It all happened right here, guys. Right here on this dirt. Feel their energy. Let their courage inspire you to live with character and courage"

What I presented to my platoon is something I call "Mythic History." It’s the romantic retelling of history to inspire more than inform. Mythical History excites us into action. When you walk the ground at Gettysburg (or any other historic site you're drawn to), I encourage you to momentarily escape the crowd to take a few meditative breaths. When you do, you might feel something billowing inside you. What you feel is the energy that lingers in sacred spots where people once reached the emotional and physical apex of the human experience. The hotter those human engines burned so long ago, the more exhaust they've left behind. Like the smoke from a canon, that exhaust lingers for us to feel.

Mythic History is history with horsepower. It's history you feel.


The Barbarian in You is awakened by Mythic History. So when you're feeling uninspired or unexcited about life, read a passage that moves you, watch a movie clip that excites you, or visit a site that stirs you. In doing so, you'll live life at a higher volume and use that passage, clip, or visit for inspiration.

When you lift weights, swing iron with the Vigor of a Norman Knight. When you write, scribble with the Wonder of a Romantic Poet. When you see a friend, hug him with the Fellowship of a Drunk Viking. When history inspires your imagination, it can also inspire your life. So don't just learn about history, use it!


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