A Short History of Myth

Karen Armstrong
Canongate, Edinburgh, New York, Melbourne, 2005, Hardback, 159 pp, $18.00

Review by G. Richard Wheatcroft

The common understanding of the word myth is that it is a narrative that is not true. This understanding assumes that truth is discovered only by the use of reason. The thesis of the author that it is a “mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason.” In her short history of myth, she demonstrates that it is “designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament.”

The author structures her history of myth into six periods. The first was The Palaeolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c.20000 to 8000 BCE) Mythology emerged in this time period “when homo sapiens became homo mecans, ‘man the killer’, and found it very difficult to accept the conditions of his existence in a violent world.” Myths developed that enabled people to “see through the tangible world to a reality that seemed to embody something else.” In this period, myths developed describing the sky as a symbol of the sacred and personified as a Sky God.

The second period was The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE) During this period, agriculture was developed, which led to a “great spiritual awakening that gave people an entirely new understanding of themselves and their world.” They believed that a “creative energy” infused the entire universe and they regarded the earth as a manifestation of the divine. In time, the earth became the “Earth Mother who becomes a symbol of female heroism, in myths that speak ultimately of balance and restored harmony.”

The author calls the third period, The Early Civilizations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE.) This period was characterized by the building of cities. She writes, “Whenever they enter a new era of history, people change their ideas of both humanity and divinity.” The challenge of urbanization resulted in a mythology that celebrated city life, and people began to understand themselves as “independent agents.” This led to seeing the gods as “remote” and “indifferent to the plight of humanity.”

The author maintains that the resulting malaise of the third period led to another period which was a great transformation. It was a time of political, social and economic change which resulted in widespread suffering and the need for a “more spiritualized religion that was not so heavily dependent upon external rituals and practice.” She titles it The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE) “because it proved to be pivotal in the spiritual development of humanity” and marked “the beginning of religion as we know it.” It was during this period that Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle emerged.

These religions and philosophies shared in common an understanding that morality and mythology must be “interiorized” and lead to “the exercise of practical compassion and justice in daily life.”

The next period was The Post-Axial Age (c. 200 BCE to c. 1500 CE) She concentrates on the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which claim “at least, in part, to be historically rather than mythically based.” Biblical literalism is an attempt to make Christianity a historically based religion. However, as the author points out, “unless a historical event is mythologized, it cannot be a source of religious inspiration” and become a “transformative ritual, which brings it into the lives and hearts of generations of worshippers.” Although during this period, people regarded mythology as “problematic” the three historical religions used mythology to “explain their insights or to respond to a crisis.”

The last period is The Great Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000) The author maintains that during this period a civilization was created that was without precedent in human history, “founded on the technological replication of resources and the constant reinvestment of capital.” Civilization was driven by a scientific ‘enlightenment’ which began an age of reason that “denigrated myth as useless, false and outmoded.” The result, she states, is that “Life would never be the same again, and perhaps the most significant – and potentially disastrous – result of this new experiment was the death of a mythology.”

From her study she concludes that “We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth century fallacy that myth is false and that it represents an inferior mode of thought.” We need myths, which she calls an ‘art form,’ that “help us identify with all our fellow-human beings,” that “help us realizes the importance of compassion,” that “help us create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience transcendent values that challenges our solipsistic selfishness,” and that help us venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource’.” In the last sentence of the book, she states that “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight into our lost and damaged world.”

This is a book you would expect from Karen Armstrong, scholarly, but readable, about a neglected dimension of spirituality that we must recover.

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