In popular culture, the suicidal tendencies of lemmings have long been a grim joke. It’s funny that this opinion is based on… a banal myth.
Lemmings are small creatures with a strange reputation. In the XVII century, naturalists, puzzled by the habit of Norwegian lemmings suddenly appearing in large numbers, seemingly out of nowhere, came to the conclusion that the animals spontaneously originated in the sky, and then rained down on the ground. The prosaic truth is that they migrate in herds.
Some people also thought lemmings would explode if they got angry enough. Of course, this is also a myth — lemmings are really one of the most hot-tempered rodents, but mostly they direct their rage to fights with other lemmings. People probably came up with the idea of exploding lemmings after seeing the gnawed carcasses left after migration.
But there is one myth that persists to this day: every few years herds of lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping from seaside cliffs. They say that instinct makes them kill themselves whenever their population becomes unacceptably large.
Lemmings don’t commit suicide. However, this particular myth is based on the real behavior of lemmings. The number of lemmings increases dramatically every three to four years. When the concentration of lemmings in one area becomes too high, a large group goes in search of a new home. Lemmings can swim, so when they reach a water obstacle, such as a river or lake, they can try to cross it. Inevitably, several individuals will drown in the process. But it’s hardly suicide.
So why is the myth of mass suicide of lemmings so widespread? Firstly, it is an irresistible metaphor of human behavior. Someone who blindly follows the crowd—maybe even to disaster—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been used to express modern concerns about how individuality can be suppressed and destroyed by mass phenomena such as political movements or consumer culture.
But the main reason why the myth lives is deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film “The White Desert,” the filmmakers, eager for dramatic shots, staged a deadly lemming jump, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while the cameras were working. The images — shocking at the time because they seemed to show the cruelty of nature, and shocking now because they actually show the cruelty of people — convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents actually have a strange instinct destroy yourself.