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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Myth and Memory

There's a lot of tall tales in the martial arts.

We pad our stories of overcoming conflicts by making them seem bigger than they were.  Our founders grow bigger than life with stories told in each generation.  Our styles and organizations and lineages are chock full of these sorts of myths about those who came before us and the purpose behind what we do.

Take the one I was told when I started in the martial arts, in taekwondo.  I was told that flying side kicks were for knocking people off of a horse on a battlefield.  They were serious and believed this to be absolutely true.

Another tale often told in weapons circles - and I've heard or read this for more than one weapon - is that people would take a long blunt round weapon (like a bo, a jo, or a quarterstaff) and use it to flick things (dirt, rocks, sand, hot coals) into opponents coming in to attack.

I have tried this, and it didn't work very well. I mean, it sorta-kinda worked, but I wouldn't bet my life on it by a long shot. But, similar weapons with a flat blade - certain kinds of spears or pikes (like a naginata or guandao), an eku, or even the flat of a longer sword... that makes much more sense. That works.

From a certain point of view, it might look like people are telling deliberate lies.  And in a few cases, this is true - they are telling deliberate lies.  Some of us can't help but to edit stories to make our founders or our friends or ourselves look better or more important than we are, on purpose.

But in most cases, it's actually happening because memory is malleable.  Combine that with the effect of "the Telephone Game" and you end up with some really amazing, nearly unbelievable stories with grains of truth, coated in a big fuzzy ball of "alternate truth".  Read THIS for more insight on this effect.

I think that's how the flicking thing that works really well with one weapon got transferred to another where it doesn't work so well. Telephone game stuff combined with our tendency to take everything our instructors say as gospel.

The thing is, these distortions aren't usually deliberate falsehoods at all. We believe them to be true, because our memory says they are true, and we trust our memory.  I mean, we have to trust our memory, right?

So the truth of it gets buried underneath a myth that builds up around it.  And the story, which in reality were probably far more mundane than we believe, take on the properties of ancient myths and legends.

Modern Arnis is chock full of "Professor stories" about Remy Presas and things he did and said.  First generation direct students are full of them, as he was a colorful character. I'm sure there's lots of truth there, just as I am certain that in the retelling and in the time that's passed, certain parts are emphasized while others which are just as true are forgotten.

I think there's a lot of distortion in these stories that are told and passed around. Not on purpose, but just because that's how the human brain works, and how the retelling of stories also works.

On the one hand, I think we'd all like to know the real truth of the stories we are told, and the details that have been lost to time. On the other hand, the story in its more fantastic version becomes part of our culture.

Myths and legends become part of what binds us together.

Our memories are imperfect, but our myths stand the test of time and reach a deeper meaning than just the pure, unadulterated facts. It's not important whether or not the stories we tell actually happened as we tell them, because that's not their purpose.

They usually illustrate something larger than the mundane reality of what we do - how great our founder was (so that what they taught is worth learning for generations after), how creative we are in solving problems, how funny or strange circumstances helped us discover things about ourselves and what we do.

We need these stories.  Healthy skepticism about the truth of these stories is probably warranted, but don't discount their value, either.

So what are some stories you've been told in your style that have reached the level of myth?  Let us know in the comments!

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