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A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth

4.3 6
by Karen Armstrong

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Human beings have always been myth makers. . .

So begins Karen Armstrong's concise yet compelling investigation into myth: how it has evolved and why it is so essential to our ability to live well. She takes us from the Paleolithic period and the earliest mythologies of the hunters up to the "Great Western Transformation" of the last 500 years, including the recent


Human beings have always been myth makers. . .

So begins Karen Armstrong's concise yet compelling investigation into myth: how it has evolved and why it is so essential to our ability to live well. She takes us from the Paleolithic period and the earliest mythologies of the hunters up to the "Great Western Transformation" of the last 500 years, including the recent discrediting of myth by science. The history of myth is the history of humanity. Our stories and beliefs, our curiosity, and attempts to understand the world link us not only to our ancestors but to each other. Today, more than ever, myths help us make sense of the universe and of ourselves, our longings and our weaknesses.

Heralding a major series of retellings of the ancient myths by authors from around the world, Armstrong's characteristically insightful book is an eloquent introduction to any understanding of myth -- and why, if we dismiss it in the modern age, we do so at our peril.

Editorial Reviews

Karen Armstrong had already taken on perhaps the biggest subject a writer can attempt in A History of God, but this book -- an introduction to the vast impact of myth on human society, in fewer than 200 pages -- is equally audacious. Delving deep into the beginnings of recorded history and beyond, Armstrong arrives at some provocative conclusions about our collective need for myth, even in a world organized around the dictates of reason.
"Human beings have always been mythmakers." With these words, A History of God author Karen Armstrong begins her accessible yet subtle history of mythology. She manages to explore this vast subject without trivializing it or clipping its wings.
Caroline Alexander
A Short History of Myth is a handy stand-alone overview of the ever-evolving partnership between myth and man from Paleolithic times to the present. Succinct and cleanly written, it is hugely readable and, in its journey across the epochs of human experience, often moving.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This is an pedestrian study from the noted and popular religion scholar, in which Armstrong takes a historical approach to myth, tracing its evolution through a series of periods, from the Paleolithic to the postmyth Great Western Transformation. Each period developed myths reflecting its major concerns: images of hunting and the huntress dominated the myths of the Paleolithic, while the myths of Persephone and Demeter, Isis and Osiris developed in the agricultural Neolithic period. By the Axial Age (200 B.C. through A.D. 1500), myths became internalized, so that they no longer needed to be acted out. Reason, says Armstrong, largely supplanted myth in the Post-Axial Period, which she sees as a source of cultural and spiritual impoverishment; she even appears, simplistically, to attribute genocide to the loss of "the sense of sacredness" myth offers. Armstrong goes on to relate that in the 20th century, a number of writers, such as Eliot, Joyce, Mann and Rushdie, recovered the power of myth for contemporary culture. Although the book offers no new perspectives or information on the history of myth, it does provide a functional survey of mythology's history. But a more engaging choice would be Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much About Mythology (Reviews, Sept. 5). (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
This companion to a new series of retold myths offers an historical look at the role of myth in human history from 20,000 BCE to the current century. To Armstrong, myth is an art form that should "inspire compassion and a respect for the sacredness of all life." The book is scholarly but very thought provoking and readable, especially for advanced high school or college students studying literature or world religions. Armstrong, who has written widely about all major religions, addresses the role of story and myth in Judaism, Islam and Christianity: "the Trinitarian myth was designed to remind Christians that they should not even attempt to think of the divine in terms of a simple personality." She sees myth, however, not as a way of belittling religion or faith but as necessary to create a "spiritual attitude and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness." She challenges readers to think about myth in new ways, especially the importance she believes it should have in our modern world. The myths retold in the new series include the Odyssey (from Penelope's point of view), Atlas holding up the earth, Samson and Delilah, and the Minotaur and the labyrinth. 2005, Canongate, Ages 16 up.
—Karen Leggett
Library Journal
Conceived by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng and launched this year by 30 publishers worldwide, this series will offer the retelling of favorite myths by leading authors from A.S. Byatt to Donna Tartt. Armstrong weighs in with a concise (and, one suspects, insightful) history. Byng expects the final volume to appear in 2038. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“With characteristic incisiveness, Armstrong explores the development of myth from prehistory to the present day.” –Daily Mail (UK)

A Short History of Myth is a good companion piece to the series, and a fine primer on the basics of mythological truth.”
Toronto Star

“Armstrong has the gift of being able to compress a lot of information into a small space without losing focus or clarity … and she succeeds admirably here.”
Edmonton Journal

A Short History of Myth is a handy stand-alone overview of the ever-evolving partnership between myth and man from Paleolithic times to the present. Succinct and cleanly written, it is hugely readable and . . . often moving. . . . Armstrong’s exposition is streamlined and uncluttered without being simplistic.”
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Myths Series
Product dimensions:
5.45(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Short History of Myth

By Karen Armstrong

Random House

Karen Armstrong
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0676974198

Chapter One

What is a Myth?
Human beings have always been mythmakers. Archaeologists have unearthed Neanderthal graves containing weapons, tools and the bones of a sacrificed animal, all of which suggest some kind of belief in a future world that was similar to their own. The Neanderthals may have told each other stories about the life that their dead companion now enjoyed. They were certainly reflecting about death in a way that their fellow-creatures did not. Animals watch each other die but, as far as we know, they give the matter no further consideration. But the Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it. The Neanderthals who buried their companions with such care seem to have imagined that the visible, material world was not the only reality. From a very early date, therefore, it appears that human beings were distinguished by their ability to have ideas that went beyond their everyday experience.

We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Another peculiar characteristic of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally. We have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagin­ation is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. The imagination of scientists has enabled us to travel through outer space and walk on the moon, feats that were once only possible in the realm of myth. Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

The Neanderthal graves tell us five important things about myth. First, it is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction. Second, the animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. Mythology is usually inseparable from ritual. Many myths make no sense outside a liturgical drama that brings them to life, and are incomprehensible in a profane setting. Third, the Neanderthal myth was in some way recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before. Myth is about the unknown; it is about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence. Fourth, myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. In the Neanderthal graves, the corpse has sometimes been placed in a foetal position, as though for rebirth: the deceased had to take the next step himself. Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next.

Finally, all mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology. It has been called the 'perennial philosophy' because it informed the mythology, ritual and social organisation of all societies before the advent of our scientific modernity, and continues to influence more traditional societies today. According to the perennial philosophy, everything that happens in this world, everything that we can hear and see here below has its counterpart in the divine realm, which is richer, stronger and more enduring than our own.1 And every earthly reality is only a pale shadow of its archetype, the original pattern, of which it is simply an imperfect copy. It is only by participating in this divine life that mortal, fragile human beings fulfil their potential. The myths gave explicit shape and form to a reality that people sensed intuitively. They told them how the gods behaved, not out of idle curiosity or because these tales were entertaining, but to enable men and women to imitate these powerful beings and experience divinity themselves.

In our scientific culture, we often have rather simplistic notions of the divine. In the ancient world, the 'gods' were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with discrete personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience. People thought that gods, humans, animals and nature were inextricably bound up together, subject to the same laws, and composed of the same divine substance. There was initially no ontological gulf between the world of the gods and the world of men and women. When people spoke of the divine, they were usually talking about an aspect of the mundane. The very existence of the gods was inseparable from that of a storm, a sea, a river, or from those powerful human emotions -- love, rage or sexual passion -- that seemed momentarily to lift men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they saw the world with new eyes.

Mythology was therefore designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament. It helped people to find their place in the world and their true orientation. We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of prehistory, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help to explain current attitudes about our environment, neighbours and customs. We also want to know where we are going, so we have devised stories that speak of a posthumous existence -- though, as we shall see, not many myths envisage immortality for human beings. And we want to explain those sublime moments, when we seem to be transported beyond our ordinary concerns. The gods helped to explain the experience of transcendence. The perennial philosophy expresses our innate sense that there is more to human beings and to the material world than meets the eye.

Excerpted from A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Karen Armstrong’s first book, the bestselling Through the Narrow Gate (1981), described her seven years as a nun in a Roman Catholic order. She has published numerous books, including A History of God, which has been translated into thirty languages, A History of Jerusalem and In the Beginning: A New Reading of Genesis. Her more recent works include Islam: A Short History and Buddha, which was an international bestseller. Since 1982 she has been a freelance writer and broadcaster. She lives in London.

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A Short History of Myth 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
How did man survive a world without the tools of photography, satellite communication, computers, DNA analysis, and tomes of philosophy volumes and socioreligious dissertations, and all the accoutrements of 'civilization' with which we are inundated? The way man explains the so-called controllable present by machines and intellect (that present of course must include events such as Katrina hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, computer viruses and worms etc etc etc) was once the service of myths - and have we really come so far as to mock them? Writer and scholar Karen Armstrong takes on the vast history of myths from the Paleolithic period to the present (the present being the apparent absence of myth since the entry of Reason in Western culture). The examples from the basics of the hunter and the hunted to the galaxy of gods that have dotted the minds of civilizations past all show how myths maintained credibility for things otherwise unexplained. Armstrong pulls this thread of history through her well-written essay to the present where she mourns the present state of the mythless culture we have burned onto the face to the planet. The big questions that have confronted man for centuries have not changed: death, natural phenomena, the need for a great organizer of the universe, the inexplicable occurrences once called fate and now dismissed as random interactions of atoms. In this easily digested short book, Armstrong makes clear that the romanticism and spiritual need of myths is sorely missing from our present state. And that is a reason for mourning! Not a definitive volume, but certainly an accessible one that deserves wide readership for those concerned about the human condition. Grady Harp
Guest More than 1 year ago
let me tell you, this book is so inspiring it changed my life around. I used to view life liek it hated just me but it made me relize that there is more to life. I recomend this book to maby people!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Short History of Myth was a fascinating little book. Armstrong defines the meaning of myth, and walks the reader through myths as they relate to history how myths change and shift in accordance to human needs. I found her theories to be insightful and enlightening.
Eleanorcowan 28 days ago
Myth explores human spiritual evolution and explains our process of change over time. In the past, for example human filth was a sign of holiness. Layers of dirt were thought to prevent disease. Because writers, artists and scientists continued to imagine and attempt new scenarios, harmful ideas are replaced by new myths, narratives that continue to identify and encourage our evolution. Wonderfully written and super encouraging read! Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife
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