A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Karen Armstrong attempts to take us through the story of how myth has evolved in human history, affected its progress, how the contemporary society deals with it and the future direction it might or should take. For such a vast scope, a book that is less than 200 pages was bound to end up with a sketch that is barely an outline, let alone a complete history.
For a student of myth, this cannot even serve as an introduction to the scope and breadth of the study of mythologies, but for the casual reader, it can provide some interesting tea-time conversation at best.
To cut a short story shorter, here is A Shorter History of Myth:
The Paleolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE)
We are meaning-seeking creatures. From our earliest awakenings of consciousness, we started to ascribe meanings and stories to things we found among and around us. The traditions of myth started in tis earliest phase of human history. As hunter-gatherers, Armstrong contends that human’s being the only creatures conscious of their acts had a deep apprehension, a guilt, about killing other creatures for their own sustenance. So they built up stories to explain this and developed a cult of sacrifice to give the act of killing a symbolic significance of supplication and respect.
In this society, the males probably dominated and the mythology reflects this male domination. Most of these primitive gods were male. Everything that was wondrous and unexplainable were made the stuff of myth, The gods were the architects of the world and everything was orchestrated by them. The sky and the rains and thunder and fire were the great mysteries and these formed the earliest myths, the earliest gods.
The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE)
Then we invented farming. As our way of life changed, our myths too began to change. The cyclic nature of seasons and rain became more important than abstract entities life the sky and planets. The old gods were either forgotten or changed into agricultural deities. The greatest mystery now was this wonder – that earth can renew itself and bring out food for their sustenance. The seed they sow was converted as if in a womb. The Myth of the Earth-Goddess started to grow. Of a sustaining goddess that demands great sacrifice. The act of sex began to have symbolic meaning, human copulation aiding and abetting in earth’s fertility. With fertility cults and the personal gods who bring rain and floods and with a mother goddess that responded to care, the world was a very personal interaction with these mythical beings.
The Early Civilisations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE)
Soon agriculture gave way to city building and more organized ways of life. Men started to have more control over their lives. Irrigation and organized agriculture brought more and more of the mysteries of nature under man’s control. THe myths about the fertility gods too now started to sound remote. Myths that do not touch our everyday lives tend to die out, ignored.
But as the myths and the gods started becoming more and more distant, humans felt a deep spiritual anguish that was soon to culminate in the greatest spiritual revolution that man has ever seen.
The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE)
The axial age is called so because it was a pivotal time in which the greatest philosophies of the ancient age, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Jainism etc all arose in the same time.
It was a response to the great spiritual chasm that man was feeling as we separated from nature. We still needed an understanding of our significance in the world. A reason for living. As city life progressed. we developed myths about gods who lived in cities like ours with divine order – a utopia in the havens. We dreamed of recreating such order here in the world.
The axial leaders turned the focus away from gods and heavens and asked men and women to focus on their own lives, thoughts and action. They told that we are responsible for our own actions and no gods guide out fates. They wanted to recreate a heavenly order on the human sphere and focused on strict codes of living, rituals and mores and codes of conduct. These were the first stirring of organized religion and myths started the conversion to religion.
The Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to c. 1500 CE)
Men started codifying the laws of religions and laws of life and converted myths into beliefs. they turned from symbols giving us guidance on how to live to concrete facts and gods that tell us how to live in exact terms. We converted historical figures like Jesus into archetypal myths and imbued them with divine characteristics and tried to come to terms with the lack of guidance.
This was also the time when the early Greeks started their exploration of Logos or logic. They encouraged us to reject the unverifiable and the intuitive and to choose Logos over Mythos, leading humankind inevitably on to the next major change in human history
The Modern Age (c. 1500 to 2000)
Logos finally won over Mythos and we used our logic and our understanding to gain unprecedented control over our environment and our own lives. But while we progressed materially, we seem to have regressed spiritually. the respect and reverence for nature, to our fellow creatures and to each other turned into an attitude of exploitation and self-serving that led to great catastrophes like the world wars and mass massacres. We now are gradually realizing that perhaps we need to get back to the myths and the old stories to help us make sense of our lives and to get back an appreciation of nature and of life, to learn to live together without destroying each other and our planet.
For that we need to let Mythos come back from the corner it was beaten into by our all-pervading Logos.
The real message of the book comes out in this section. It deals with the modern societies obsession with Logos over Mythos and its rejection of these fundamentally psychological coping mechanisms that are myths, the primal stories that give us a sense of place in this otherwise meaningless existence. Apparently that is one of the fundamental requirements of the human condition.
This last section of the book is about how myth survives in today’s world. Armstrong says that it is now the duty of the artists and the writers to carry on the tradition of mythology, which is he only tool we mankind has ever developed that helps us cope with ourselves. She also goes into great detail to give examples of modern works that are built on myths such as Ulysses and The Waste Land.
“We have seen that a myth could never be approached in a purely profane setting. It was only comprehensible in a liturgical context that set it apart from everyday life; it must be experienced as part of a process of personal transformation. None of this, surely, applies to the novel, which can be read anywhere at all without ritual trappings, and must, if it is any good, eschew the overtly didactic. Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not real and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathize with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to feel with others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.”
The agenda at this point becomes very clear and the book’s denouement is clearly an invocation towards asking novelists to take up old myths and use them and reexamine them; this of course leads smoothly on to the fact that the book is an introduction to the Canongate Myth Series, which has commissioned a series of works from authors such as Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman and Victor Pelevin, each of which is designed to be a modern version of an ancient myth. I have to admit that this was my original motivation to pick up the book as I really wanted to read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
Karen Armstrong does give a clear and well reasoned argument for the need for Myth in our daily life and in our art but does not really do justice to the title of the book.
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