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Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4) [Paperback]

3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Well written Feb. 9 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
My husband delivers the sermon once a month for our tiny church. I gave him this book and others in the series to help him prepare. He enjoyed it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mythconceived. March 3 2010
This is a poorly researched and weakly argued bit of pseudo-scholarship. Her footnotes cite a tellingly small set of references for a book of such ambitious scope; when making assertions about the Paleolithic & Neolithic periods, a solid grasp of evolutionary theory and current research would be beneficial.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  62 reviews
111 of 123 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Oct. 30 2005
By Edward Tsai - Published on Amazon.com
This book is not an introduction to the mythology ... there are many other books for that. Rather, it is an essay on what role myths (and ultimately religion and spirituality) play in human life and why they remain important. Myths provide a means to connect our finite lives, bonded by our inescapably mortal condition and the fear that inevitably accompanies the knowledge of our ultimate fate, with the infinite beyond us, a connection that we feel in moments of transcendence where we literally lose our individual selves and communion with something greater than ourselves ... be that God, the universe, our antecedents or heroic examples. Myth in short gives our lives meaning and significance in an otherwise frightening and indifferent world. Myths are not to be taken literally, because to do so would take the sacred out of the realm of the sacred and make it profane. Myths inhabit the world of the sacred because they are meant to exist beyond the world of profane explanation.

What Armstrong does very well is to explain how advances in the material and economic condition of human civilization throughout history and prehistory interacted with this basic human need to transcend his immediate condition to create various epochs of myth. She goes beyond myth to explain the competitors to myth, be it ritual without mythology (i.e., Confucianism) or logos (i.e., Greek rationalism) and how they had their roots in myth and why they are linked still. Her explanations are lucid and her prose is clear. For such a short book, she packs a lot of information in and, more importantly, compelling ideas.

The only shortcoming I felt was the last chapter on Armstrong's view of the future in the West, which seems to rely too heavily on literature. When was the last time your average joe picked up Joyce's Ulysses for spiritual sustenence? I would have liked to see something more about the reemergence of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism and even something about Falun Gong in China. These are all important developments which tie directly into what Armstrong's essay discusses. But this is a very very minor complaint. The book otherwise is a compelling guidebook both to our spiritual past and to the inner maps of the human soul. I think it will serve well as a reference for those anxious about the future.

[UPDATE: I am inclined now, after some time and much additional learning, to believe that "myth" is not the appropriate way to describe the spiritual experience, and hence think Karen Armstrong's entire thesis, as logical as it seems, to be flawed, if not outright wrong. Notable and credible scholars have indicated that there is a reality to the spirit world, which one can shield oneself against through excessive rationality, but cannot be entirely denied. The fact of the spirit world then throws into doubt the entire edifice of the materialist's belief system, where the supernatural is denied. Armstrong's views are definitely more in the humanist, materialist camp, and hence deny the reality of the spirit world. If one assumes the spirit world has reality, then her views are not useful. I recommend reading Gary North's "Unholy Spirits" as a counterpoint. It will definitely open your mind to other possibililties which are not widely discussed in our modern materialist culture.]
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Myth-ing in Action Jan. 22 2006
By mrliteral - Published on Amazon.com
Karen Armstrong, an adept writer about religious history, takes a bit of a breather with this short book on the role of myth in society. Not that this book is missing her typically astute writing, just that it's brief, almost more of an extended essay than an in-depth look at the subject.

Armstrong follows the development of myth from prehistoric times to the present. Myth, as she describes it, is a fundamental part of human development, and similar stories can be found from culture to culture. The use of myth is a way for people to connect with the unseen forces of the universe. In the earliest days (the era of the hunter-gatherers), everything seemed to be imbued with this supernatural force: rocks, animals and the sky. With the development of agriculture and civilization, new myths developed and eventually, there would be a rebellion against myth.

In fact the concluding portion of the book revisits the ideas Armstrong presented in greater detail in The Battle for God. Namely, when there is a conflict between myth and reason, a backlash will occur (taking the form of what we would consider fundamentalism).

As with other books of Armstrong's that I have read, this is written with a sophisticated audience in mind and will not be an easy read for everyone. In addition, the more religiously orthodox may be offended by some of her writing, which treats the stories of the monotheistic faiths as mythical as the tales of Zeus or Odin. But with these caveats in mind, this is a good, insightful book that will provide perspective on the role that myth has played in human development.
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Drives home her themes Nov. 16 2005
By David E. Levine - Published on Amazon.com
In reading other works by Karen Armstrong, a recurrent theme is the dichotomy between mythos and logos. Mythos implies myth and wonderment. Logos, on the other hand, seeks to make sense of reality through scientific and historic reason. In "A History of God," Armstrong, by examining the development of the three major Western religions, shows the progression from mythos to logos. In that book, it was unclear to me whether Ms. Armstrong, a former nun, believes that this progression is ultimately a good or a bad development. However, here, in "A Short History of Myth," it is clear that Ms. Armstrong decries the disappearance of mythos.

Throughout the ages, myth has developed appropriate to the society of that time, whether it be early hunting societies, later agricultural societies, urban societies or modern society. The early mythology was understood to be mythology. Mythology is a way to get at the truth. I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Ms. Armstrong at a booksigning when I purchased this book. I told her that I believe in God but, I do not view God anthropomorphically. I related to her that God is unimaginable to me but that I nonetheless pray to anthropomorphic mythological images of God because I cannot pray to an abstraction. Ms. Armstrong (to my great pride and delight)heartily endorsed my viewpoint. The tragedy today is that so many people have no appreciation for myth. They either do not believe in any sort of divinity and only accept what can be proven logically, historically, and scientifically or they take an opposite view which also denies myth. This opposite view is that everything in the Bible actually happened and can be proven through reason; that everything is scientifically and historically true and not a myth. A religion that states that you must accept certain doctrines as historically true and accurate or you will not be saved is an example of this type of denial of myth. The view is that the doctrine is historically true and verifiable and that to think otherwise is a sin.

Ms. Armstrong notes that mythology was never meant to be historically and scientifically accurate. Rather, in combination with logos, it is a legitimate way to understand the world around us. Ms. Armstrong notes that in the arts, there are secular myths that have arisen. Nonetheless, she believes that spititual mythology is healthy and necessary. She states, "We must disabuse ourselves of the ninetheenth century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought." She states that we "need myths that will help us identify with all our fellow human beings, not simply those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe." I highly recommend this book as a fine, succinct history of the development of mythology throughout the ages and as a cogent defense of importance that myth holds in a healthy society.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Importance of myth for human flourishing Nov. 27 2005
By W. Jamison - Published on Amazon.com
Karen Armstrong addresses an issue very much a concern with regard to the separation of faith and science. There is the impression that all myths are fictional, false, stories while science uses empirical methods to establish facts and gather data on which effective prediction is possible. While this is essentially correct about science and explains why it has been such a boon to mankind, the importance of myth is missed entirely by comparison. Karen Armstrong examines the various species of myth and relates them in a very accessible way that focuses on their importance with regard to how they do succeed in accomplishing a mission that is just as important for human flourishing.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview of myth Nov. 20 2006
By Greg - Published on Amazon.com
Unfortunately in our 'scientific' age myths are often seen as fairy tales which we need to dispense with in order to complete our transition from our barbaric and primitive past and take up our glorious future ruled by science and technology. The negative attitude towards myth and creativity in the artistic sense which often doesn't follow the rules of logic and empirical scientific investigation which often comes from scientists, analytical philosophers and others has in many ways had a dark and crushing effect on an essential human capacity, that to make art.

Armstrong in this book aims to redress this imbalance between the 'mythos' and the 'logos' in our culture. Armstrong rightly argues that in pre-modern societies, myth and logic were seen as essential and also complementary to human existence. Myth, often involving the combining of religion, story, creative dramas (which re-enact some primordial event or process which often takes place in a more perfect archetypal world) and ritual, gave humans a sense of the sacred in life and also put them in touch with their unconcious selves and allowed them to deal with psychic imbalances or traumas which would otherwise result in mental breakdown. (The modern forms of psychotherapy seem to play a similar role to myth). The function of logos was to approach reality in a rational and discursive manner, analysing and breaking down reality into simpler parts and making practical decisions about a problem. Ancient science, philosophy, economics and politics all used logos to arrive at truth.

Both in Armstrong's view helped humans keep balanced and sane in an often painful and terrifying world where the conditions of existence were difficult and precarious at best, and humans often lived between existence and annihalation, and helped them deal with mysteries such as birth, aging and death.

However, myth was devalued and discarded when the rise of capitalism and the scientific revolution, which enshrined logos as the surest and only path to reliable truth, about the world and ourselves. This is exemplified in the physics of Newton and the rationalist philosophy of Descartes, which expelled the irrational as valid forms of knowledge in favour of empiricism, mathematical logic and science. This project reached its zenith with the Enlightenment and with logical positivism in the 20th century, which aimed to clear away all metaphysical and mythical accretions from all knowledge.

However, this imbalance had a dark side, as the collapse of mythos also led in a large extent to the collapse of organised religion in the West as well as the repression of the emotions and also leaving a dark vacuum in human life, crying out for a sense of meaning in a seemingly pointless and empty universe. The triumph of science and technology also brought its own problems, from environmental pollution to nuclear weapons.

In Armstrong's view it is imperative humanity regain a sense of mythos to balance logos. While it may not be realistic to resurrect some myths from our past, Armstrong feels creative artists will in the future help restore mythos by delving into their unconcious selves which are the roots of creativity, and in so doing transform civilisation through providing a renewed sense of transcendance. While I don't agree entirely with this argument, it does have its merits and in many ways religion needs to be approached not as a dogmatic set of truths about things as they are, but rather as a work of creative art which gives us a sense of purpose and value in our lives and the world. Certainly a lot of valuable work in religion and theology is recovering the creative aspect to religion and myth, and is showing religion is very much an artistic process of creation.

The future will need both scientists and artists to develop a deeper sense of the unity between ourselves and nature. Certainly science indicates we are deeply rooted in the natural world and to other creatures by virtue of evolution, but also mystics and theologians sense our sacred connection to all in the sense of sharing in Being. The task is for a bridge to be formed between these, which is not made easy by dogmatists in all areas fighting to keep religion/science/art/theology 'pure' from anything which may 'taint' their fundamental truths. We will need to learn to be more balanced in our approach to reality than we have been, and Armstrong points in a positive direction as to how we might bring this about.
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