A Short History of Myth
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A Short History of Myth (Canongate Myths #1)

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  2,360 ratings  ·  265 reviews
“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 discre...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published October 9th 2006 by Canongate U.S. (first published October 1st 2004)
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Riku Sayuj

Karen Armstrong attempts to take us through the story of how myth has evolved in human history, affected its progress, how the contemporary society deals with it and the future direction it might or should take. For such a vast scope, a book that is less than 200 pages was bound to end up with a sketch that is barely an outline, let alone a complete history.

For a student of myth, this cannot even serve as an introduction to the scope and breadth of the study of mythologies, but for the casual re...more
Brittany
This book began by making a sweeping, general, unfounded statement, and then irritated the heck out of me.

That's not a great way for a book to start.

In fact, if I'd just been reading it for fun I would have been tempted to stop. But I'm determined to read all the Canongate Myths, and for whatever reason this one is listed first. And it's only 150 pages long so, I figured, how bad can it be?

It starts by stating categorically that humans are the only animals to have language, the think on a meta...more
Welwyn Katz
I should have been warned by the title. It is impossible for someone capable of writing 15 books on topics as diverse as the development of sexism, St. Paul, life in the convent, Islam, the English mystics of the 14th century, and so on, to have had time to study the subject of mythology sufficiently well to understand it, let alone put it together in such a way that others can understand it on any but the most superficial (and European biased) level. And to call it a history in the roughly 27,0...more
Nikki
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 wit
...more
Megan
There are some who are best at showing, and some that are best at telling. Karen Armstrong is best at telling. I really appreciate her lucid, straightforward narrative here, in such a huge, swimming subject. She rarely ever oversimplifies. It's like a little guidebook to western culture, and it often got me thinking about similarities between the role of myth and the role of art; I was a little surprised to see them converge so smartly at the end. The ending is more determined than I'd like it t...more
Pablo
Armstrong declares, unconvincingly, that historically believers haven’t taken their holy texts literally. Her argument is unconvincing because it’s demonstrably false. Islam, for example, has hundreds of millions of adherents who would declare her claim ridiculous and demonstrate their disagreement vehemently. Their mythology is so literal to them that many of them live a life that's more similar to their religion's 7th century origins than it is to the modern world.

Entire nations live under sys...more
Trevor
The best of this is where she explains that myths have two lives. There is the myth as it is supposed to have happened once in historical time – Jesus at the last supper sharing his body and blood with his followers – and the myth that is forever present and forever made new – the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (and to many Christians, particularly those who believe in the literal transubstantiation of the bread and wine, this is the literal presence of Jesus today and always) is the forever...more
Al Bità
This short book is an attempt by Armstrong to reinstate a kind of appreciation of selected, mostly Western, myths after what she believes has been their modern discrediting by science. In doing so, Armstrong needs to strip the old myths of any historical relevance to reality to argue that they represent rather a kind of psychological reality and wisdom based on compassion, tolerance and understanding. The book ends with the hope that these virtues will survive through the work of artists, writer...more
Nicole Marble
We are treated to the standard litany of leftover Victorian 'thinkers' of dopey primitive people (our ancestors) being awestruck by the night sky, weather, seasons, birth, death, and the miracle of farming, which resulted in, ta da, myth and religion. Maybe.What she does not discuss is the manipulation of the tribe/city/group/country by the cult/religious leaders who create fear and lay down the rules that favor themselves.
However, she does make one interesting comment on religion as practiced t...more
Azy
هرگز نمی توان به یک اسطوره از زاویه نظامی نزدیک شد. اسطوره تنها در یک بستر آئینی قابل درک بود که ان را از زندگی روزمره جدا می کرد. اسطوره را باید به عنوان بخشی از یک فرآیند تحول شخصی تجربه کرد. در حالیکه این ها در مورد رمان مصداق ندارد، زیرا می توان آان را همه جا و برکنار از دام های آئینی قرائت کرد. اما تجربه ی قرائت یک رمان کیفیت های معینی دارد که درک سنتی اسطوره را به یادمان می آورد. خوانندگان ناگزیرند روزها و حتی هفته ها با یک رمان زندگی کنند. آنها به خوبی می دانند که این قلمرو خیالی واقعی نی...more
Khalid Almoghrabi
محتوى الكتاب جيد لمن يريد أن يعرف تاريخ مبسط للأسطورة في حياة الشعوب وتطورها ولمن قرأ لكارين ارمسترونج يعرف جدية هذه الباحثة ولكن تتوقع تحيللاً أعمق من هذا حين تقرأ أسم الباحثة الكبيرة عليه. وهو شيء تلاحظه في الفصل السابع الذي لذي تتحدث به عن الحضارة المعاصرة ودور الثورة العلمية والأدب في زحزحة الأسطورة من عقليات الشعوب.
الترجمة ممتازة ولا تخلو من أخطاء طباعية بسيطة جداً
Jamie
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 prof...more
Eric
As a Composition Instructor with a rhetorical background, I enjoyed this much. If the subtitle of Armstrong’s 'A Short History of Myth' had been ‘A Rhetorical Approach’, I think that would have been most fitting. The strongest case she makes is her focus of ‘mythos’ vs. ‘logos’ in the Axial Age (with a nod toward Aristotle’s Artistic Proofs as the framework for guiding the whole book’s structure). Specifically, her focus on outer vs. inner rituals (or the interplay between effective speech and w...more
Chris
A rather nice overview. Armstrong tells things clearly and doesn't make the reader feel stupid. There is plently about myth connecting to religion, in particular how the age of Enlighment led to a reading of the Bible as truth, which Armstrong points out does a disservice to reliigon and myth. I found her idea about our age doing away with myth except in terms of literature to be interesting. She has a point, but the writers do carrry it. Perhaps we have just changed the nature of our myths - th...more
Asma Fedosia
This nonfiction book chronologically presents mythmaking at different historical periods mostly in Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian societies, giving reasons for surges in newly created myths at times of potentially alienating, great changes:
"...the purpose of myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension,that surrounds them on all sides and was a natural part of life.
It covers a lot of time between the first Paleolithic hunter societies and Neolithic agricultural soc...more
Hesper
I'll keep this short. This book is a fantastic mythology primer for:

A) Someone who's never read a single mythology book. Ever.
B) Anyone who finds Joseph Campbell too challenging
C) Those inclined to believe mythology can be explained by exactly one theory
D) All of the above

Brock
It's presently 2:14am and I've just completed Armstrong's book. While I'm unable to offer a lengthy, in-depth criticism of the text, I will say it's completely undeserving of the scathing reviews it's received.

These angry, angry reviewers seem to have lost their marbles for a couple of reasons:

1) They may have neglected the presence of the word "short" in the book's title. This is a primer, a brief overview. What were they expecting in this amount of pages? Armstrong makes religion and religiou...more
Dezra
This is exactly what the title says it is, a short history of myth. Karen Armstrong writes a sweeping overview of the history of myth and its role in helping humanity relate to the world. I've read it all before as I studied anthropology and religion, but it was a nice reminder of myth's history and why it is still important to us.

If you believe that the definition of myth is to describe something that is not true, then you are using the wrong definition. I like the definition Joseph Campbell g...more
Catherine Austen
If you think of this as an essay and NOT a history, it`s a very likeable book. It is beautifully written and full of interesting stuff that gets you thinking. I`d recommend it to anyone intererested in myth and the "nature of man" and such stuff.

But not so much to people interested in historical facts, as it makes huge sweeping statements based on a very narrow range of evidence. (What is the deal with social scientists? Are they overcompensating for the difficulty of testing their theories? Ph...more
Seth
This short book is NOT an objective or academic exploration (or summary) of mythology. After racing through several millenia, the author decides to focus only on the West and the rise of the 3 monotheistic religions. Ultimately, it is revealed that the author has an agenda - to preach about how humanity has lost its way by abandoning myth (an assertion that I don't agree with and which this book makes very little convincing argument). The author suggests that the only way we regain what we've lo...more
Kathleen
Armstrong's book is indeed short. It's a small book and only 149 pages. I was able to read it in just three evenings in bed right before sleep. Armstrong's book is a mass market book. Which is fantastic, in that it's highly readable. However, the academic in me was on bullshit-alert throughout. There are very few citations in the book (108 endnotes over 149 pages). And as I read, I was a little anxious about the broad generalizations Armstrong was making that seemed (a) almost impossible to prov...more
Clif Hostetler
The first third of this book by Karen Armstrong overlaps much of the same material covered by Barbara J. King in her book Evolving God where she discusses the origins of religion from an anthropological point of view.
(link to my review of Evolving God.) King uses the word "religion" where Armstrong is using the word "myth." King used the word "belongingness" where Armstrong uses words such as "meaningfulness" to explain the human drive to create religion/myth. The following quotation of Karen A...more
Shanthanu
Given the ambition and scope that the title implies this was either going to be a masterpiece or fail disastrously. Unfortunately, Armstrong takes the "short" in the title quite literally — at less than 150 pages this book makes too many generalisations and patently false assertions to be taken seriously. For instance, her constantly repeated assertion that "Creation stories had never been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic" is never backed by references or sources...more
Erwin
Chapters 2 through 6 are fairly readable, having some of the quality I know Karen Armstrong for. Chapters 1 and 7 run off a cliff. Simply put they are tirades against science. Chapter 7 is an absolute low point. Science is apparently the cause that the witch hunts couldn't be stopped by religious leaders. Excuse me? Newton was a fool, blind for everything outside science. Say what? Francis Bacon had no goal but to have science rid the world of religion. Did I read that right? Martin Luther was c...more
Mike
Read this brief and lucid treatment of mythology; you won't be disappointed. Armstrong carefully maps the importance of mythology in the lives of humans, from paleolithic man to the present day. In a short 155 pages, Armstrong will leave you pondering. Have the science and technology of the 20th century led us to destroy an essential component of our humanity? Will the hybrid lifestyles we create for ourselves in the 21st century lead us to no longer ponder the mystery of our existence?
Ivor
An interesting short introduction to the history of myth. I was particularly taken by Armstrong's suggestion that the novel has filled the void left by modern society's abandonment of mythology.


Yet the 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.
...more
DeeDee
In and out of this one. Mostly out at the moment, but can't leave it down for long.
Its consice, and so perhaps not for everyone, but I'm finding it a cool 'Cliff Notes' type reference and springboard for other reading or research.
Listened to the audio book format (up to the end of the neolithic age) with my boys in the car. This book would make a great film. Needs some beautiful illustrations to compliment the info. I'd love to edit this into a coffee table book. ; )
Bob
Likes: The first 6 chapters. Revealing, though cursory, analysis of how myths have changed along with human lifestyle.
Dislikes: The last chapter. Armstrong naively correlates some modern lack of ethics with the fall of myths. So, there was no genocide before the Enlightenment? Please.
Yara
I may disagree with Karen Armstrong on certain points, but if you're new to mythology and want a really brief introduction to the field, this is a decent read (although perhaps a bit too brief, and making some big claims it cannot entirely support).
Jrobertus
a decent analysis of the role of myth, and origin of myths, from the paleolithic to modern times. she is at pains to show has a role other than elucidation of facts (which itself seems dubious)
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2637
British author of numerous works on comparative religion.

Elsewhere:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Ar...
http://www.islamfortoday.com/karenarm...
http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/kar...

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
More about Karen Armstrong...
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism Islam: A Short History The Case for God

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“We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a 'resource.' This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.” 19 likes
“This was the scientific age, and people wanted to believe that their traditions were in line with the new era, but this was impossible if you thought that these myths should be understood literally. Hence the furor occasioned by The Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin. The book was not intended as an attack on religion, but was a sober exploration of a scientific hypothesis. But because by this time people were reading the cosmogonies of Genesis as though they were factual, many Christians felt--and still feel--that the whole edifice of faith was in jeopardy. Creation stories had never been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.” 14 likes
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