A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong, is part of the Myths Collection of novellas put out by publisher, Canongate, under the banner of The Canons. These (mostly) fabulous little books include ‘bold retellings of legendary tales, by the world’s greatest contemporary writers.’ I have so far reviewed:
- Girl meets Boy by Ali Smith
- Lion’s Honey by David Grossman
- Weight by Jeanette Winterson
- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
The author of this latest read has been described as ‘one of our best living writers on religion’. Her style is factual but never didactic. She approaches her subject with insight and clarity, exploring how and why myths evolved with persuasive wisdom.
The book has seven chapters that take the reader from The Palaeolithic Period (hunter / gatherer communities) through to the present day. Opening with an explanation of what a myth is, Armstrong states
“mythology […] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”
“mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality”
There are recurring reminders that myths are not intended to be read literally. In tough times (and life has always included such times in abundance) they offer a means by which man may experience transcendence.
“Spiritual flight does not involve a spiritual journey, but an ecstasy in which the soul is felt to leave the body.”
“one of the essential yearnings of humanity is the desire to get ‘above’ the human state.”
I recently reviewed The Idea of the Brain: A History, by Matthew Cobb in which he explores, among other things, how centuries of scientific research has sought to understand the biology of man’s ability to reason and feel – ‘how neural activity is turned into thought’. Armstrong explains that, for millennia, ‘myth and reason were complimentary’. A fixation on logical explanation can be damaging to man’s well being.
“A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”
Myths – or beliefs – also help man come to terms with change, enabling personal growth and acceptance of mortality. Throughout history, as lifestyles altered, myths developed to match what was needed. Hunter gatherer became agriculturalist and then urban dweller. Alongside, myths evolved into religions.
Ever changing cultures require suitable deities. Although countries around the globe named their gods differently, many of the stories and characteristics were similar. They reflected what was needed. They served the psyche of the people.
The importance of ritual is explored. These also changed as cultural practices altered but remained a vital component in creating a sense of the sacred.
With the advent of literacy, philosophers questioned the rationale behind beliefs and their practices.
“[Reason] was indispensable in the realm of medicine, mathematics and natural science”
“But when they wanted to find ultimate meaning and significance in their lives, when they sought to alleviate their despair, or wished to explore the inner regions of their personality, they had entered the domain of myth.”
“[Reason] had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require.”
Moving on to the period of enlightenment, myths were abandoned. Instances of depression were recorded amongst advocates.
“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.”
In the present day the author posits that ‘We still seek heroes’. Perhaps this explains celebrity culture, although what is offered through them is unbalanced 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.”
Armstrong suggests that literature could provide a solution.
“A novel, like a myth, teaches us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”
I would contend that it is not just novels that can offer help. In a time of great change and fear for the future, this book provided me with a much needed hopeful outlook. Bad things happen, but will pass. Emotions need not always have a logical basis or justification. The purpose of myths is to encourage man to become: better, kinder, more generous and considerate.
This is a concise and well written history offering many ideas to ponder. A recommended read, especially in these uncertain times.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate Books.