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A Short History Of Myth (2006)

A Short History of Myth (2006)

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3.67 of 5 Votes: 1
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184195800X (ISBN13: 9781841958002)
canongate u.s.

About book A Short History Of Myth (2006)

A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]Back to myths in general...Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture)2. Neolithic (agriculture)3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.)4. Axial Age5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe)6. Post-Reformation EuropePaleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world (p. 149)I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well.2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age.3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures.4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world.

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 historyThe 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.

Do You like book A Short History Of Myth (2006)?

A rather nice overview. Armstrong tells things clearly and doesn't make the reader feel stupid. There is plently about myth connecting to religion, in particular how the age of Enlighment led to a reading of the Bible as truth, which Armstrong points out does a disservice to reliigon and myth. I found her idea about our age doing away with myth except in terms of literature to be interesting. She has a point, but the writers do carrry it. Perhaps we have just changed the nature of our myths - the popularity of vampires at the moment for instant could be tied, and is most likely tied to, this need for a myth as well as a need to re-invent it. For instance, how many UF vampires are really taken from the old vampiric folklore?Armstrong also does a good job of showing the difference between myth and icons. She believes that we have now have icons (Princess Diana, for example) instead of myths.

Armstrong's book is indeed short. It's a small book and only 149 pages. I was able to read it in just three evenings in bed right before sleep. Armstrong's book is a mass market book. Which is fantastic, in that it's highly readable. However, the academic in me was on bullshit-alert throughout. There are very few citations in the book (108 endnotes over 149 pages). And as I read, I was a little anxious about the broad generalizations Armstrong was making that seemed (a) almost impossible to prove due to their global character, and (b) likely to provoke many disagreements over the reading of mythological history. I don't mind that her readings might be considered controversial to some, but the academic in me always wants some kind of evidence for controversial claims. And often, she provided none.That said, this book would probably be pretty uncontroversial among many Pagans and Goddess worshippers. Hard polytheist Pagans would probably be upset by this book, as Armstrong rightly points out that conceiving of Gods and Goddesses as beings with distinct personalities and mythological stories as literally true is a very recent phenomena. Thus, those that claim to be "reconstructing" the old religion are actually creating a very new, very contemporary religion. Ironically, it's the soft polytheists, who see myths as revelatory of "truths" about what it is to live a human life, who are most similar to ancient Pagans in their beliefs. And it's this soft polytheist position that Armstrong seems to write from.Additionally, Armstrong makes the argument that Goddess worship came first, as females are the life-givers. Only after a number of technological advancements and civilizational changes does the idea of a male-centric mythology find some traction. The picture she paints of the shift to male gods (and therefore male supremacy) is a tragic one and the axial religions, as she presents them, are seen as problematic in that they get in the way of our ability to understand ourselves in interrelation with the world and other beings. This isolation we experience is further compounded by the rise of scientism. Until finally, we end up in a dead world, treated as though it's expendable and meant to be dominated by human desire. The shift that takes place with the axial religions, compounded by scientism, results in the widespread environmental destruction we're experiencing and the precarious future we've made for ourselves. Armstrong argues that we need to rediscover myth in order to live a more fully human life in balance with all of the other forms of life in this world. She writes, "We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those that belong to our ethnic, national, or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the [E]arth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a 'resource'. This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet" (136-137).And here, I'm inclined to agree with Armstrong. I see the modern Pagan movement (with the exception of the "reconstructionists") as taking up this project of myth making. Making myths that encourage social and environmental justice, reverence for the Earth, for difference, for love and other humanist, Earth-centered values. And so, while not explicitly Pagan, this book is compatible with the Pagan project. And for that reason, Pagans and other Earth-based groups may find this book both enjoyable and useful.

A slightly helpful book that, in a mere 150 pages or so, gives an overview of the role of myth in human existence. Slightly helpful in that, it does give the reader a sense of how myth has functioned, or not functioned, over the vast sweep of prehistory and history. It also makes the important point that mythos is not the same as logos--this is something that is very hard for us postmoderns, who are steeped in philosophical materialism, to understand.Is the book overly simple? Yes. Would this work as a college text on myth? No. Does it cover basic points of mythic history? Yeah, pretty well. So, if you want a very quick, brush up book, this might work for you.BUT, keep in mind that this is the first book of a series of novels based on myth. So, using the logic of the market, it is only natural that Karen Armstrong--scholar of religions--be used as a shill for selling the novels listed in the frontispiece of the book. Wonder of wonders, Armstrong says myth only makes sense in the context of liturgy (very catholic perspective, but a valid one). Today, nobody believes in myths anymore (malarkey), and there are no rituals in modern life (has she never seen a football game?), so, of course, our mythic experience can be found in NOVELS!!! Read novels, maybe the ones listed by this publisher in the front of this book, and you'll have a mythic experience, get it? The book left me feeling a bit dirty and used. Never thought I'd say that about a treatise on myth.

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