As modernity progressed, most myths were 'debunked'. However, modernity was unable to fill the psychological vacuum created by the negation of these myths. This has created problems for the society. Hence, it is time to reinstate mythology. This is the essential argument which Karen Armstrong makes in this book.
The book is divided into seven short chapters. She first defines myths. She then goes on to analyze mythmaking from the Paleolithic period (20000 BC), through the so-called Axial Age, down to the present times. (Curiously, this division of ages itself may be a modern myth!) She concludes the discussion on mythmaking with a peculiar digression into the modern literature as a form of myth-making, which to my mind is an extremely flat argument, as there is no ritualization surrounding this literature. She ends with a plea for reinstatement of mythology, to help people deal more comfortably with the world.
However, her plea is fallacious, to say the least. Mythos and logos are mutually exclusive - you cannot believe a myth unless you believe it to be true. You cannot have a such a thing as a logical treatment of myths. Therefore, when Ms. Armstrong argues that we should be allowed to believe in myths because it is useful (and not because they may be true), she is either being naive, or being very clever, and politically correct.
It must be noted here that though the word myth is derived from Greek mythos, it also has a parallel in Sanskrit: mithya, which literally means unreal. In Hindu thought, the world as we see it is unreal, and is only a projection of the God (Brahman). The term mythology came to be applied to the beliefs of others, as a pejorative, to suggest that they believed in a falsehood, whereas one's own religious beliefs were based on historical truth. In time, the birds came home to roost, and today there is a wide-ranging intellectual attack on the beliefs of the 'historically true' religions.
Ms. Armstrong's approach is mostly analytical. It is also by and large fair. The text, though dry, is peppered with illustrative myths, and this helps maintain interest.
However, the book also suffers from certain flaws. Firstly, Ms. Armstrong treats most speculations about myths of the ancient (pre-historic people or extinct cultures) as demonstrated facts. Her own speculations are presented as definite statements, rather than tentative conjecture. This is an extremely dangerous approach, and perhaps may create a myth about myth-making itself.
Secondly, her knowledge of non-Western mythology may not be all that reliable. My assessment is based on her understanding of Hindu mythology, which appears to be based on a reading of secondary sources by non-Indian translators. This makes her interpretation suspect and often it drifts away totally from the reality, in a kind of Chinese whisper. Indian tradition repeatedly emphasises that Vedic texts have to be meditated upon in order to understand them. These can not be read or interpreted like ordinary historical texts. Vedic pundits were expected to spend 12 years in learning just one Veda - and there are four of them!
For instance, we are told that Brahman is the power engendered by ritual ceremonies. This appears to be quite confusing. In Hindu thought, Brahman exists on its own - it is not dependent on power released through rituals. Then we are told that in Vedic India, ritual actions were known as karma, deeds. Actually, karma is any deed, of which ritual actions may be one category.
This is a short book, and you can easily finish it in a few sittings. You can also carry it around and read it during a journey. The font is easy to read.
While on this, I would also like to suggest a recent book 'Myth = mithya, A Handbook of Hindu Mythology' by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik (Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology). This book, provides an interesting, modern perspective on many of the Hindu myths, without being overly analytical or condescending. The book has been available in India since 2006 as a Penguin India publication. It will be available globally in January 2008.