The power of story-telling has always struck me as being most obvious in the way ‘urban legends’ and other apocryphal tales persist over decades and it doesn’t matter just how publicly they are exposed as un-true they just keep keeping on.
In honour of this I’m going to have an occasional post aiming to spread a teeny bit of truth. And to celebrate a wonderful Australian word for it, I’m calling this the ‘furphies’ series.
So, to begin with what is possibly most persistent furphy… Lemmings and their habit of committing mass suicide.
The idea that these rather adorable little rodents were prone to mindlessly, or otherwise, wandering off cliffs to their doom was really ingrained in the world’s imagination thanks to a bit of staged film making in a Disney wilderness film. Yes, that’s right folks, the film makers essentially pushed a bunch of lemmings off a cliff.
Initially the idea that lemmings are suicidal (or too stupid to avoid falling off cliffs) came from the centuries old mystery of why lemmings have a rather extreme boom/bust cycle where their numbers explode and then suddenly drop off again. Humans only really figured out the cause of this recently.
So, for the record, lemmings do migrate in large numbers when they’ve denuded the immediate area of food, and they do – happily – dive into rivers because they’re very good swimmers. Yes some do drown, but that’s about it.
My favourite lemming story is actually from the local folklore in the Arctic area where they live, which attributed the sudden large numbers of them to them falling from the sky in stormy weather.