Monday, June 26, 2023

Review of A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (12/02/2023)

Watch Short Review


“In art, liberated from the constraints of reason and logic, we conceive and combine new forms that enrich our lives, and which we believe tell us something important and profoundly ‘true’.  In mythology too, we entertain a hypothesis, bring it to life by means of ritual, act upon it, contemplate its effect upon our lives, and discover that we have achieved new insight into the disturbing puzzle of our world.  |  A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.” – Karen Armstrong, Chapter 1: What Is A Myth?, Page 9

“You cannot be a hero unless you are prepared to give up everything; there is no ascent to the heights without a prior descent into darkness, no new life without some form of death.  Throughout our lives, we all find ourselves in situations in which we come face to face with the unknown, and the myth of the hero shows us how we should behave.  We all have to face the final rite of passage, which is death.” – Karen Armstrong, Chapter 2: The Palaeolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE), Page 24

“The god of the dead is often also the god of the harvest, showing that life and death are inextricably entwined.  You cannot have one without the other.  The god who dies and comes to life again epitomizes a universal process, like the waxing and waning of the seasons.  There may be new life, but the central feature of the myth and the cult of these dying vegetation gods is always the catastrophe and bloodshed, and the victory of the forces of life is never complete.” – Karen Armstrong, Chapter 3: The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE), Page 32


Is This An Overview?

Myths are in disrepute.  Something to be dismissed as false.  But there is power in myth.  Myths are not meant to provide factual information, but their effectiveness makes them true.  Myths entertain a hypothesis, to reflect on reality.  Myths fails when they do not provide insights.  Insights into how to live life more meaningfully.  Myths are meant to change behavior, give hope, and make life more meaningful.  Myths are meant to be guides.  Myths are imagined realities, using the same imagination that scientists use to develop new knowledge.  Myth and science extend human reality.  Myth and reason are complementary.  Reason provides the technical steps needed to undergo action, but myths provide the emotional tools to handle the action and the consequences.  Myths are meant to be therapeutic rather than informative.

Myths are rooted in the experience of death, and fear of extinction.  Rooted in the cycles of life and death.  Myths are based on rituals.  Myths are about the unknown, about what has not been done before, about places not visited.  Myths set the example for how to behave.  Myths are about other planes of reality, living alongside the human one.  That there is more than just the material world.  Myths help people venerate the sacred, honoring what societies valued and feared losing.  In hunting societies, animals were venerated, while also acknowledging the danger.  With the rise of agriculture, the harvest was venerated, while also acknowledging the struggle.  The magnificence of civilization was venerated, while also acknowledging its fragility.


How Did Myths Change, And Stay The Same?

Every culture has myths about the divine.  A lost paradise, lost contact with the divine.  In religion, people worship the divine to have them on their side.  To gain the god’s favor.  In mythology, people knew that they could not affect the divine.  People accepted the mystery. 

A hero and heroine take risks.  No ascent without a prior descent into darkness.  No life without a form of death.  The hero and heroine set the example of how to behave.  The final rite everyone faces is death.

Animals were valued in hunting societies.  Animals provided people with superior wisdom. 

The harvest was valued in agricultural societies.  The seasons of harvest mirror the life and death.  That life is a perpetual struggle. 

Humans became more self-conscious with the rise of civilizations.  Humans became aware of cause and effect, taking control of the environment.  Civilization inspired fear of its destruction.  Civilization is magnificent but fragile.

Urban life made the gods seem remote.  People had become disillusioned with prior rituals.  Creating a spiritual vacuum.  A spiritual vacuum filled during the Axial Age.  Giving rise to various philosophies and religions.  Each recognized the inescapable suffering that is part of the human condition.  They sought for spirituality, without as many rituals.  They lived in a time of violence, and wanted a different path, a path for compassion and justice.  They taught to question belief systems.  To be skeptical.  To be critical.  To re-evaluate myths. 

The hero and heroine of the industrial age is the scientist and inventor.  An age that wanted an independent search for ideas, while also accepting the claims of experts who were the only ones who could decipher the nature of things.  Many of the hopes of the enlightenment proved false.  Science and technology gave rise to wonderful inventions, but they were fragile and could be very lethal.



The book is short, therefore limited in information.  Temping the reader to search for more information on each era.  The book sets the background of cultural myths, without going into detail about the specifics of various cultural myths.  There is limited information about what separates religion and myth.  Some parts of the book referenced popular interpretations of evidence, as the actual interpretations are inaccessible.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What are myths?
•What is the purpose of myths?
•What are myths not supposed to be?
•How are myth considered in the early 21st century?
•What do myths try to explain?
•How are rituals?
•What are myths rooted in?
•How do myths connect to the divine? 
•How do myths shape social experiences with resources? 
•Who are the heroes and heroines?
•What cycles are described in myths?
•What are hunting societies myths about?
•What are agricultural societies myths about?
•How did civilization change myths?
•What is the Axial Age?
•Who are the heroes and heroines of the industrial age?
•What is the role of the female, the goddesses in hunter and agricultural societies? 
•How did writing change myths? 
•What is the difference between myths and religion? 

Book Details
Publisher:             Canongate Books
Edition ISBN:      9781847673886
Pages to read:       83
Publication:          2008
1st Edition:           2005
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          4
Overall          4