Karen Armstrong. A Short History of Myth, 2005
First book done! for 12 Books, 12 Months
I am SO glad I started 12 Books, 12 Months with this one. It was the only non-fiction book in my list but it paves the way for much of the fiction that I’m planning to read this year (and into next). I started with Short History of Myth because it is the first title in the Canongate Myth Series — books by different authors, from different countries, retelling a myth from their culture. I heard about this series because Philip Pullman’s latest book is the latest addition to the series (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ). But I have this thing about putting my media consumption in chronological order, whether it be movies, books, or TV series. I can’t start Buffy in the middle or end, I have to see it from the pilot episode, moving forward… for example.
With the Canongate Myth Series, I am making an exception because: 1) I can’t get all the books anyway since a couple of them have not been translated yet, as far as I know, and 2) I really don’t want to wait that long to read Philip Pullman’s book, man. And besides 3) I only have the Pullman book from my local public library for another week, so I have to start reading it, like, now.
It also helped that Mark happened to own a copy of Karen Armstrong’s book already.
The book is a nice, short introduction to mythology — just 150 pages long. In such a small amount of space, it would be hard to really do justice to any particular aspect of mythology so I have to give Armstrong some credit for summing things up as well as she did. My biggest problem with the book was in the second and third chapters when she is describing the development of mythology and religion during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Periods. There were so many universal statements and broad sweeping assumptions that I started getting really annoyed with the writing, even though I was really into the topic. Starting with the fourth chapter on early cities and city-states, the writing improved and the book got a lot more interesting. I now have a longer reading list with things I never thought I would want to read, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, when man first turns his back on his gods — “Mortals are better off without these destructive encounters with irresponsible gods” (p. 74).
From there, we go into the Axial Age – so named because it is considered a pivotal time in humanity’s spiritual development and marks the beginning of religions as we know them today. Post-Axial followed that with religions trying to become rational – throwing out their mythology in favor of silly attempts at “proving” the facts in their respective literatures. And finally, we get The Great Western Transformation, which brings us up to modern day. This chapter is terribly sad, depressing, emotional, but, by the end, hopeful.
This might be a weird analogy, but bear with me … I felt like I was reading something like Peter Pan, with a lot of foreshadowing of Tinkerbell’s death and not knowing if this new altered version of Peter Pan would save her or not. At the same time, I found myself rooting for Tinkerbell even though I’ve always thought of her as rude and troublesome before. Replace Tinkerbell in this equation with religion/mythology and maybe you’ll get what I mean.
Mythology is the hero in this little book. A misunderstood, riches-to-rags character of heartache. Our heartache. Their heartache. Everyone’s heartache. But if another person’s mythology isn’t dressed up like our own, we try to destroy it … then steal the clothes to drape over our own mythology anyway. Does mythology die in the end? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
The last twelve pages of the book are some of the best twelve pages I have ever read — Armstrong mentions both T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and magic realism as two examples of modern literature foreseeing and dealing with the nihilistic position we’ve put ourselves in by rejecting all our mythologies. And no, she does not accept fundamentalist nuts as participants in mythology — one of my favorite quotes from the book: “once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.” (p. 130)
And why do we need mythology, you might ask? Armstrong gave plenty of reasons, but I like how her quote from Blaise Pascal summed it up best: “When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.” (p. 127)
Some other quotes to end with:
p. 124 “Myth had made human beings believe that they were bound up with the essence of the universe, yet now it appeared that they had only a peripheral place on an undistinguished planet revolving around a minor star.”
p. 138 “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of our past.”
p. 149 “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 to our lost and damaged world.”