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Short History of Myth (Volume 1-4) by Karen…

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

by Karen Armstrong

Series: The Myths (1)

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1,752496,824 (3.5)101
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)
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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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 |
I've felt that some of Karen Armstrong's books -- most notably "A History of God" -- tried to do too much in too little space, but "A Short History of Myth" is a beautifully economical little text. I'm the most general of general readers on this subject, but in this one, the author lays out the broad changes that have occurred in human civilization over the last twenty thousand or so years and ably demonstrates how our myths have adapted to give our lives meaning and purpose. Armstrong is also very good at defining and reiterating what myths are and what they are for to her inevitably modern audience, sensing, correctly, I think that most citizens of the twenty-first century will find it difficult to conceive of a way of thinking that lies well outside the scientific, literal, and historically oriented thought patterns difficult that have been inculcated in us for generations now. In doing so, the author also shows a rare sensitivity to and understanding of a largely vanished way of thinking, stressing to her readers over and over again that myths' functions were unifying and therapeutic and that their "veracity" was never really a question that people in prehistoric times would have sought to address. Armstrong's writing also communicates how desperate many premodern peoples' struggles for survival really were, and which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the early myths here can seem overwhelmingly intense, even to modern readers. For many of the people that Armstrong describes, life and death weren't at all abstract at any stage of their lives.

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that the book falls apart a little in its last pages. Even though she posits earlier that people still seek transcendence through any number of activities, including art, drugs, sport, sex, and pop music, Armstrong believes that global modernity is essentially post-mythical, and that this lack has brought about severe psychic damage. It's not a terrible argument, when one considers the twentieth century's various fanaticisms, but the author's indication of art, specifically the art of the novel, as a possible solution seems far-fetched. The novel's essentially a product of modernity, after all, and while many people take solace in fiction, I can't see it serving as any society's foundational myth. It's also a bit strange -- though she's working in a very constrained space here -- that the author doesn't really touch on Freudian psychology as a modern analogue to myth-making.

Despite these qualms, as a person who's generally unacquainted with this subject, I thought that the author packed an enormous amount of big thoughts into a small space here. I can see why specialists would object to certain sections of it, but this one sparked my interest and made me aware of how much I don't know about this important subject. I will probably start looking around for next steps. Finally, although I don't usually mention this sort of thing, I have to say that the Cannongate edition of this one I found was just lovely: a handsome little paperback embossed with graphics reminiscent of cave paintings. Find that one if you can. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Oct 15, 2018 |
While there was little material that I was not already aware of within the text, the book was a very good refresher on... the history of mythology. Having a relatively short book on the evolution of myth was helpful, and the concise writing allowed for it to potentially be a quick read. The book is divided chronologically, beginning with prehistory myth (the hunter-gatherers) and ending in modern myth (which she views as creative expression, music, creative writing, etc.)

My main reason for enjoying the book as much as I did (aside from getting a nice refresher) was in the questions that she raised near the end of the text. She mentioned rock stars being the current Heroes and Writers the current myth-makers. How myth relates to the human experience, and how religion has taken a downswing in current years are both interesting topics to me, and although not fully explored in the text, the fact that the questions were raised at all is one that I am happy about. ( )
  Lepophagus | Jun 14, 2018 |
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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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