Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4) Paperback – Jun 1 2006
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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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.