Modern Mythology

Modern Mythology: Suicidal Lemmings

The idea of lemmings mindlessly following each other off a cliff is so ingrained in modern mythology that lemmings are an analogy for anyone following a group mindlessly. But do lemmings actually commit mass suicide?

No. No, they don’t. Lemmings do tend to have cyclical population explosions, which leads them to migrate for food, and during this migration, as happens with any animal, some of them die along the way. But where did the whole mass suicide story come from?

The huge and seemingly sudden increases in lemming population have interested people for centuries. In the 16th century, some people believed that lemmings fell from the sky during storms, and Edward Nelson, a 19th-century naturalist wrote that “the Norton Sound Eskimo have an odd superstition that the White Lemming lives in the land beyond the stars and that it sometimes comes down to the earth, descending in a spiral course during snow-storms.” But throughout the centuries, no stories mention lemmings throwing themselves off cliffs en masse.

Turns out that this gruesome myth was brought to us by that bastion of ethics and truth–Walt Disney. In a 1958 “documentary” called White Wilderness, Disney filmmakers pushed them off a cliff and filmed them hurtling to their deaths, many of them subsequently drowning in the water below. Here’s the clip, if you have the stomach for it.

 

 
So yeah, one of our most well-known modern myths stems from a Disney snuff film. Nice.
 
 
Read more about it: Lemming Suicide Myth: Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior

Image created from a photo by  Johannes Grødem and a Wikimedia Commons photo.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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