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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong The first third of this book by Karen Armstrong overlaps much of the same material covered by Barbara J. King in her book Evolving God where she discusses the origins of religion from an anthropological point of view.
(link to my review of Evolving God.) King uses the word "religion" where Armstrong is using the word "myth." King used the word "belongingness" where Armstrong uses words such as "meaningfulness" to explain the human drive to create religion/myth. The following quotation of Karen Armstrong shows how her definition of mythology pretty much is the same as that which most of us think of as religion:

"... but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence...An experience of transcendence..."

She points out that the Neanderthals left signs of ritual, as did also Paleolithic era modern humans. Evidence of ritual acts is taken to be an indication of myth making. Myth is so intertwined with human prehistory and current history that it appears to be an integral part of being human. She defends myth making as a necessary human activity that provide a means to connect our finite lives with the infinite beyond us. In other words, myth gives our lives meaning and significance in an otherwise unfriendly world.

From speculation of paleolithic myths she progresses on to the better documented neolithic era myths. Here the book truly starts sounding like a "short history of myth" where the activites of the various gods and heros are reviewed.

Karen Armstrong applies the term myth to stories from monotheistic faiths along with the tales of Zeus or Odin which I suppose could bother those deeply enmeshed in western religion. But they are all obvious instances to mythologies trying to make sense of the unknown forces and destinies beyond human understanding.

In the final third of the book Armstong explores the role of myth in the age of enlightnment and modern era. Now that science and rational thought has removed much of the mystery from our lives, can we live without myth? Perhaps, but according to Armstrong we can't achieve human fulfillment and completeness if we try. For example, if you confine yourself to only rational thinking, how do you describe the human experience of art and music? She notes that artists and novelists are the current day myth makers. She suggests mythology is a valuable tool toward achieving good mental health.

"... purely linear, logical and historical modes of thought have debarred many of us from therapies and devices that have enabled men and women to draw on the full resources of their humanity in order to live with the unacceptable. ... " She goes on to say that the role of "an ethically and spiritually informed mythology" can heal "deep-rooted, unexorcised fears, desires and neuroses."

She admits that we can't simply ignore our rational education, but we can learn to appreciate the value of myth.

"We cannot completely recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education, and return to a pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. We are myth-making creatures ..."

The following is my commentary (not necessarily ideas from the book):
Near the end of the book she gives a good summary of outstanding examples of 20th Century literary fiction, and she describes how the literature speaks to modern myth. It's a list of literature that most English teachers would probably support, but it's not necessarily the literature that has been widely read. Which is an observation that can probably be applied to this book as well. I'm not so sure that the view of myth presented in the book is the sort of view that can be appreciated by the population at large.

She is obviously accentuating the positive side of myth in this book. However, I can't help but think that the rise of radical fundamentalism in various faith traditions is a negative use of myth. So if our goal is to save the world's human community from militant religious fundamentalism which approach do you suppose is the more effective; A declaration that all myth is false, or a suggestion of an alternative interpretation of myth? I guess I'm suggesting that the later is the preferred approach. And this is a good reason to be informed about how myth can help us understand both ourselves and others.