A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

March 3, 2010 § 16 Comments

Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self- indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. The imagination of scientists has enabled us to travel through outer space and walk on the moon, feats that were once only possible in the realm of myth. Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

Having previously read a couple of books from the Canongate Myths Series, I was keen on reading another one. I came across Gaskella’s blog some time at the end of last year, and found that she too was interested in reading the series. As it turns out, her review of this same book was what made me put this book on hold at the library, and gave me a place to start reading the series again.

Karen Armstrong is very well-known for the books she has written about religion. I’ve always been interested in reading something from her, but her work has eluded me, one way or another. So I’m really glad to have started with this relatively short book, pertaining her thoughts on mythology and its importance in our daily lives.

Armstrong brings us back to the Paleolithic Period (20,000 to 8,000 BCE!) and describes to us what it might have been like for the society of those times to come to terms with the fact that they had to hunt and kill in order for themselves to survive. The birth of mythology was not so much to tell stories and to pass time, as what most of us would assume myths to be, but rather to allow the people to come to terms with why they had to do what they did and to abate the fear of the unexplainable.

Throughout the book, Armstrong points out to us the value of a certain myth at that one particular time, and how it might have come about. How it was that myths changed as society changed. And she puts this question out to us: What do we have today that allows us to live with ourselves, with so much unexplained, if we no longer believe in myths, and only look to the logical and scientifically rational as a basis for life?

The book was a little dry at times, but I did find this little book very interesting, and all-in-all gave me a lot of food for thought. There were many times while I was reading the book that I stopped to read a sentence or a paragraph to my dad, and we would have a spin-off discussion about what I just quoted. We had some good discussions, and I’m always grateful to books that give me that chance to talk about them.

There’s just one more quote I’d like to put out there, which I find relevant to us book-lovers.

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 out sympathies, so that we are able to empathise 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.

Rating: 3.5

* Note: I’m including this for the World Religion Challenge as well, which I’m planning on reading only non-fiction, and this book covers mythology in general.


§ 16 Responses to A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

  • gaskella says:

    Thanks for the link Michelle and a nice post. I’m reading Weight next in the series – which are you picking?

    • Michelle says:

      It’s a toss between The Penelopiad and Girl Meets Boy. I’ve read Weight, and it’s one of my favourite books from Jeanette Winterson so far.

  • Nymeth says:

    I really wanted to like this book, but unfortunately I was very disappointed :\ It really bothered me that Armstrong would sometimes make claims she couldn’t prove at all, that her clearly only her own personal conjectures, and present them as fact, you know? It really bothers me when non-fiction authors do that.

    Having said that, I love the myth series! My favourite so far is probably Girl Meets Boy, but so many of them are great.

    • Michelle says:

      I know what you mean. I think I got a little of that from this book too, especially when it came to the part where she wrote about Chinese myths. I think there are plenty of ‘god’ myths in Chinese mythology, and was surprised she said there weren’t any.

      Glad to know you loved Girl Meets Boy. I’ve yet to try anything from Ali Smith, though, similar to Sarah Waters, I feel like I love her even before reading anything from her. =)

  • Vishy says:

    Nice review! The book looks interesting! I liked the last quote on how novels take their readers into a parallel world. I watched a movie recently, about an artist, who meets his muse and gets inspired by her and he later discovers that the records show that she has been dead many years back. But she still keeps coming into his life and he is not able to believe it – it is like a being from a parallel world visiting him. When he describes this to his patron who is an art dealer, his patron says ‘As you grow older you will learn to believe in a lot of things that you can’t see’. Somehow I remembered that line, when I read this passage and your review.

    • Michelle says:

      That sounds like an interesting movie. And I like what the art dealer said. I rather think it’s when we are able to believe in things we can’t see that we find a lot of freedom to roam. It allows us space to just float and ‘be’, if you know what I mean. =)

  • savidgereads says:

    I am about to read (well when reading appeals again) a couple of the Myth series and this book sounds like an interesting one to look out for in the future.

  • Mel u says:

    great review-I love the ending quote comparing novels to myths than can get a hold of us in a transforming way-the only work from this series I have read in Atwood’s The Penelopiad which I liked a lot-I liked it more than most people did who reviewed it-

  • I plan on reading this one for the World Religion Challenge, too. I have read and really enjoyed some of Karen Armstrong’s other works.

    • Michelle says:

      This being my first Karen Armstrong, I’m not sure where next to go really. I might or might not want to read her after this, but still, it was a good book overall.

  • maphead says:

    If you are thinking about reading more by Karen Armstrong, read her History of God. After that you might want to check out her Bible:A Biography.
    There’s also a link to her Amazon page under “cool authors” on my book blog, if you wanna read more about her.

  • I combined reviews of both A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood in one post: http://bonniesbooks.blogspot.com/2009/08/myths-short-history-plus-one-example.html

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