Book Review: A Short History of Myth

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:

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.

Faith, religion and bigotry: Part 4

Easter Sunday is a day of joyful celebration for Christians around the world. On this day we remember that our God defeated his enemies with love. For all those who ask for proof that God exists we can point to Jesus. Here was a man who could turn water into wine, heal the sick with a touch and raise the dead. Ordinary people heard him speak, saw what he could do and followed him in their thousands. The leaders of the church and state were angry at his popularity and terrified of his power. They had him put to death as a criminal but he rose from the dead. He defeated all of his enemies without harming any of them. He harmed their power and their wealth so they tried to stop him. They failed.

I am sometimes asked how I know that God exists. Do my questioners wish me to perform a miracle? If I were to heal a sick person then they would claim that it would have happened anyway. They would look for a scientific quirk or claim that the person had not really been sick. If I were to generate some wonder such as turning water into wine then they would claim I was doing some clever magic trick. If a person is determined not to believe in God then this sort of performance will not convince them. I would not be able to prove to them that God exists no matter what I did; they would always find some reason or excuse why the outcome had not been enabled by God.

Faith is defined as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. When I was growing up and started to ask questions about God and biblical teaching, much of my confusion centred around the difficulty of trying to prove facts. How could I know that the answer I was being given was correct when so many of the premises seemed hazy and disputed? I was told to look to the bible and found contradictions. I was told that this was due to the way the book had been written so long ago, put together by a committee, interpreted over time and eventually translated from the ancient language in which it was written. Given all of this, it is no wonder that some of it can be a bit tricky to understand.

I now read the bible as a guide book rather than a rule book. It provides historical context and accounts of lives that we can learn from. It also provides beautiful poetry and stories. It is a valuable resource and should be used to offer help and comfort. I do not like to see it used as a reason to condemn people; I do not believe that we have any right to judge others. If a person chooses to follow God then Christians should welcome them as Jesus did. If a person chooses not to follow God then they should be free to make that choice.

Some of my atheist friends cannot see how I can be a Christian and still love science. This is my explanation of how I see things. When I look around at the cosmos I see order. The interrelationships between the largest galaxies, their solar systems and planets is awesome. On earth we have the sun and moon affecting the life cycle of every living being and every living being affecting all others. From the largest predators to the smallest micro organisms, all have an important role to play in maintaining the balance of life. When something is damaged, be it a forest burnt down or a child cutting their knee in a fall, nature will try to heal itself if left alone.

I do not believe that this perfect order is a coincidence. I believe that, if the world we live in was initially created by a big bang, then God made that happen. In the most simple terms, I see God as a scientist and his creation is so vast and amazing that I am not capable of understanding it all. There are a great many things that I do not understand but accept; particle physics sounds fascinating but I have never really grasped it fully. Me being able to understand, explain and prove something is not necessary for that thing to exist.

God has done many things in my life, personal things, that have proved to me that he exists. He has healed a sick child when the medical experts told the parents that there was no hope. He has spoken to me when I have talked to him. Just as a young child will feel more comfortable and confident performing on a scary stage knowing that their parent is sitting, unseen in the audience willing them to do well, so God watches over my life. If I go to a party with my husband I do not need to hold on to him throughout the event to know that he is there. If I need him then I know that I can turn to him for support. Thus it is with God.

To those who seem hell bent on removing a belief in God from the world because of the harm that men acting spuriously in his name have wreaked I would ask them to consider the comfort that God offers those who believe in him, who aim to live in love as Jesus taught them. Why would the atheists wish to remove such an important element of someone’s life just because they disagree with the premises of the faith? We should not be afraid of something just because we do not understand it and we should not ridicule or condemn others just because we disagree with their beliefs.

I will try very hard not to judge, to be tolerant of disparate views and accepting of others choices. I will try to live my life showing love to myself and to others. I wish you all a very Happy Easter.

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