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.
* 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.