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A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth (2005)

by Karen Armstrong

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Myths (1)

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Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
I read this as part of my year long study of fairy tales, in which I include some mythology. It really wasn't what I was looking for, which might explain my lack of interest in A Short History of Myth. What I'm really interested in the "story" aspect of myths, and I'd like to know how far back they go and across how many different cultures. Armstrong's look at myths is much more like the development of religion.

In 149 small pages, Armstrong traces the development of myths from the palaeolithic period through to the current. She takes a very high level approach and only occasionally delves into any particular myths. Mostly she talks about what myths mean to people and why they develop them.

Apart from not writing about the aspects of myth that interest me, the other thing I didn't like about this book is how often Armstrong made absolute matter of fact statements about things that she couldn't possibly know or about things that I know others think completely differently. She does have some references in the back, but they are very slight and I don't believe support her claims. One example is that she gives the reasons and motivations of prehistoric people--ah, no, you can have your theories, but no matter how firmly you word it, you can't know that. A second example is where she says the Judeo-Christian Bible shows god creating the world by killing a sea monster--I didn't remember this part from Sunday school, and when I checked her supporting Bible verses, I found they didn't say that at all.

Despite this, there were some interesting bits here and there, and it was short.

Recommended for: Not sure I do recommend this. I personally know many Christians who would be outraged by her claims, but at the same time I think Armstrong would tick off some non-religious people too with her anti-logic, anti-science, longing for the good ol' myth-belivin days. ( )
  Nickelini | Jan 15, 2014 |
Ms Armstrong has written a brief summary of myth from the Paleothic period to modern day. I found her inclusion and description of different female deities enlightening. I also thought her summary of how science has underminded myth recently accurate. She argues that art in the 20th century has stepped up to fill some of the vacuum which has been created by the undermining of myth.

I include this lengthy quotation as an example:

We have seen that a myth could never be approached in a purely profane setting. It was only comprehensible in a liturgical context that set it apart from everyday life; it must be experienced as part of a process of personal transformation. None, of this surely applies to the novel, which can be read anywhere at all witout ritual trappings, and must, if it is any good, eschew the overtly didactic. Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel bcomes part of the backdrop of lives long after we have laid the book aside. It is an excercise of make-believe, that like yoga or a religious festival breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies to empathise with others lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to 'feel with' others. And, like mythology , an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, can change us forever./ ( )
  Your_local_coyote | Dec 29, 2013 |
This book is a good, short, readable introduction to the study of myth. Armstrong traces human engagement with myth in a chronological fashion, describing the function of myth during the different eras of civilization. But while this history is presented concisely and readably, it ultimately misses an opportunity to engage the reader with the actual myths and convey their continued relevancy even (perhaps especially) in today's modern, scientific world.

For that, you will have to read Joseph Campbell. Start with The Power of Myth and then move on to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. ( )
  Osorio | Nov 2, 2013 |
This is interesting, although not exactly revelatory if you're interested in mythology and the like. I couldn't take it seriously after this section, though:

Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they -- not the expendable males -- who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself -- a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals.

...Which is not exactly the whole story, is it? Has this author heard of women dying in childbirth? I'm sure they did so plenty often in the Palaeolithic period. And the part about frustration from ritual celibacy, just, ugh. In this model she has the men voluntarily abstaining from sex and then blaming women for it. What?

Mind you, I know some men are perfectly capable of believing that, the whole idea just doesn't quite ring true for me as a model for society and religious belief.

Oh, and the idealisation of primitive belief over science is just. What? ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
I really enjoyed this as a brief dip into one way of approaching mythology (though I did feel like it's more about approaching/appreciating religion as something that can enhance your life if you just stop worrying about those dang pesky untruthy bits). At a 159 pages, it's very short and not really much of a history, but it's a book that does present some food for thought and that's something I always appreciate. ( )
1 vote h_d | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Karen Armstrongprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Johansson, IngerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Human beings have always been mythmakers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184195800X, Paperback)

“Human beings have always been mythmakers.” So begins best-selling writer Karen Armstrong’s concise yet compelling investigation into myth: what it is, how it has evolved, and why we still so desperately need it. She takes us from the Paleolithic period and the myths of the hunters right up to the “Great Western Transformation” of the last five hundred years and the 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, which link us to our ancestors and each other. Heralding a major series of retellings of international myths by authors from around the world, Armstrong’s characteristically insightful and eloquent book serves as a brilliant and thought-provoking introduction to myth in the broadest sense—and explains why if we dismiss it, we do so at our peril.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:32 -0400)

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Human beings have always been mythmakers. Theologian Armstrong here investigates myth: what it is, how it has evolved, and why we still so desperately need it. She takes us from the Paleolithic period and the myths of the hunters, up to the Great Western Transformation of the last five hundred years and the 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, which link us to our ancestors and each other.--From publisher description.… (more)

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