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Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4) by Karen…
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Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4) (original 2004; edition 2006)

by Karen Armstrong

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1,901537,225 (3.52)103
"What are myths? How have they evolved? And why do we still so desperately need them? The history of myth is the history of humanity; our stories and beliefs, our curiosity and attempts to understand the world, link us to our ancestors and each other. Myths help us make sense of the universe. Armstrong takes us from the Palaeolithic 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. 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 why we dismiss it only at our peril" -- publisher's web site.… (more)
Member:Jacqui_C
Title:Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4)
Authors:Karen Armstrong
Info:Canongate Books Ltd (2006), Paperback, 168 pages
Collections:Your library
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A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong (2004)

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Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
If you've read any of Karen Armstrong's books on religion, you likely won't see much new material here. The 3 star rating largely reflects that lack of novelty. However, if you've ever wished that you didn't have to page trough a book with hundreds of pages to find that bit about the development of myth you remember from one of Armstrong's books, then you'll likely find this to be handy.

The most interesting foray into not-stock-Armstrong ground is the last chapter, which discusses myth in the modern west. If it's true that, as Armstrong says on pg 141 "in the pre-modern world, the divine was rarely regarded in the metaphysical terms imposed upon it by Western logos, but was usually used to help people understand their humanity" then the traditional religious mythos is fundamentally broken for many Westerners. Given that our greater understanding of science has made it hard to pull meaning from myths that relate to phenomena that we now understand from a naturalistic perspective, how can we salvage that understanding of our humanity that religious myth brought to us? What are our modern myths?

Armstrong finds the answer in art, especially literature. But not art casually consumed; such consumption will not cause us to delve deep into ourselves, coming out with a new understanding. Just as religious texts were most meaningful when experienced as part of ritual and liturgy, to take on the transformative role of myth, art must be consumed mindfully, as part of a process where you are open to transformation. This may sound like a tall order, but Armstrong points out that any art that immerses you has the potential to provide this transformative experience.

[T]he experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of 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 becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other 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, it can change us forever. ... Any powerful work of art invades our being and changes it forever. -- page 147-8

This is a perspective which I wish Armstrong had had a chance to develop more fully. I feel like compared to a religious based mythos, art has the strength that the broader variety means that most everyone will have something that speaks to them, if they can just find it. Art also evolves more gracefully over time and thus can more flexibly fit the different needs of different eras. But religion, when it is a successful mythos, can be more unifying. If we each have a personal mtyhos, we will likely end up more fragmented. It is also harder to dismiss the transformation a myth demands of you when you accept the metaphysical truth of that myth.

But those of us for whom the myths of religious paradigms are no longer functional still need our own form of myth, and cultivating the idea of art mindfully consumed as that myth can provide valuable guidance. ( )
  eri_kars | Jul 10, 2022 |
A book on this subject that is this short is bound to have some very broad generalizations, and that is definitely true in this case. There were some interesting sections, but overall the book felt a little disjointed. ( )
  evenlake | Mar 23, 2021 |
This is the shortest book I have ever read that has the potential to change your life (excepting maybe Ayn Rand's Anthem, which may be shorter). I picked it up because of my interest in mythology, but anyone could and should read it. This is a great overview of mythology and the human experience. I cannot recommend it highly enough. ( )
  ErinCSmith | Jul 24, 2020 |
In seven chapters and 159 pages, religious scholar Karen Armstrong attempts to give a brief outline of the history of mythology, producing an engaging, thoughtful book that, while perhaps not completely successful as history, is certainly a persuasive argument for the great meaning and significance of her subject matter.

In the first chapter, Armstrong examines the nature of myth - what it is and what it does - arguing that it is a particularly powerful type of storytelling that humans use to make sense of the world around them and their place in it. Its five characteristics are: 1) being rooted in death, and the fear of extinction, 2) being inseparable (usually) from ritual, 3) addressing the extreme and unknown experience, 4) demonstrating how one should behave, and 5) addressing parallel planes of existence, usually divine. The author argues that the truth of myth lies, not in its factuality, but in its effectiveness in providing insight into the meaning of life.

In the second chapter, the author examines the mythology of the Paleolithic Period (c. 20,000-8,000 BCE), or "the mythology of the hunters." This is the period in which human evolution was completed (for now, one assumes), and is characterized by myth which teaches humans to look beyond the tangible world. Many early mythologies had sky gods, perhaps indicating a human desire to "get above" the human condition, whether that means to transcend it, or simply to understand it more fully. It also addresses the growing human awareness of the ethical quandary of living in a world that requires killing other creatures in order to survive. As the author notes, "mythology often springs from profound anxiety about essentially practical problems, which cannot be assuaged by purely logical arguments."

In the third chapter, Armstrong looks at the mythology of the Neolithic Period (c. 8,000-4,000 BCE), or "the mythology of the farmers." During this time we see many creation myths, particularly in Europe and North America, that imagine people emerging from the earth, like plants, teaching them that they belong to the earth. The more agricultural Earth Mother is a transformation of the Great Mother of many hunting societies. The cyclical nature of agriculture gives rise to a new optimism about death in many myth traditions, with the possibility that it is not the end being considered.

In the fourth chapter, the author examines the mythology of the early civilizations stretching from c. 4,000 to 800 BCE. The first emergence of cities, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Crete, lead to a new concern with order and chaos in mythology, perhaps pointing to the great fragility of these new human population centers. Urban life changes mythology, and the gods begin to seem more remote from the people.

In the fifth chapter, Armstrong discusses mythology in the Axial Age (c. 800-200 BCE), in which many of the religions and philosophies of the modern age had their birth. She focuses on Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism in the Middle East, and rationalism in Greece. Although sometimes very different, in their approach to how myth was used, each of these belief systems puts emphasis on a more interior, ethical interpretation of myth and ritual.

In the sixth chapter, the author looks at mythology in the Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE - c. 1500 CE), specifically examining myth in the West during this period. Because Western religion claims to be historical in origin, rather than mythical, its traditions have had a more problematic relationship with myth.

Finally, in the seventh and final chapter, Armstrong examines the "Great Western Transformation" (c. 1500-2000 CE), in which emphasis on logos leads to the death of myth. She examines the decline of myth, and the rise of existential despair in western societies, and how this has led to such horrors as the witchcraft craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the destructive and nihilistic ideologies of the 20th (fascism, communism).

Although long aware of Karen Armstrong's work, I had never picked up any of her books until A Short History of Myth was assigned as a class text in the course on the history of children's literature I took while getting my masters. On the whole, I found it an interesting book. I can see why some reviewers were unimpressed, feeling that too much had been left out, and that the book was too general, and not informative enough to be called a history. While I understand readers wanting more, I think that the qualities they critique are an inevitable result of the book's length and purpose. Perhaps if it had been called "A Short Introduction to Myth," it would not have aroused so much ire? I am not sure. In any case, I found the book engaging, even if it didn't cover much new ground, and I particularly enjoyed the final chapter, in which Armstrong argues for the importance of myth in human life, and posits authors and artists as the new keepers of that myth. This accords with my own analysis (and that of many other scholars) of fantasy fiction in particular - its relationship to folklore and myth, and the power it therefore has for contemporary readers. In point of fact, I taught a class on the connections between children's fantasy fiction and folklore while still an undergrad, something that remains a cherished experience.

Recommended particularly to readers interested in beginning to delve more deeply into folklore and mythological studies, but not sure where to start. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Jun 4, 2020 |
A remarkable and clear history of mythology. One of those books that I borrowed from the library and now want in my own collection for reference. ( )
  craigmaloney | Mar 21, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karen Armstrongprimary authorall editionscalculated
Johansson, IngerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rocēna, IevaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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. [from chapter i, "What Is a Myth?"]
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"What are myths? How have they evolved? And why do we still so desperately need them? The history of myth is the history of humanity; our stories and beliefs, our curiosity and attempts to understand the world, link us to our ancestors and each other. Myths help us make sense of the universe. Armstrong takes us from the Palaeolithic 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. 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 why we dismiss it only at our peril" -- publisher's web site.

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