Brittany's Reviews > A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong
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Jul 29, 2015

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bookshelves: history
Read from December 07 to 09, 2011

This book began by making a sweeping, unfounded generalization, 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 level, and to play. These are all untrue. They're not even up for debate. The degree to which they're true is debated, hotly, but the bald fact that other animals have language, metacognition, and play is not at question in serious scientific circles. To suggest otherwise is just pure, blatant lazy thinking and bad research.

I figured these antiquated notions must reflect the old age of the book, but it turns out it was published in 2005. The source she cites for these ideas, however, was published in 1949. That's just lazy researching. That's fishing for a citation for a fact that you assume is true and don't want to put the effort into researching. And that just makes me crabby. How am I supposed to believe anything else Armstrong has to say if she's not even going to take researching seriously?

At that point, I really just started to squabble with the book, and Armstrong did nothing to redeem herself. For 100 or 120 pages, it all reads like a term paper written the night before its due date. There are interesting ideas, but they are scantily supported and the internal logic is not strong.

She makes sweeping generalizations (about why sky gods died out, for example, or assuming that sky god religions died out). She gets her logic confused, and repeatedly contradicts herself. She states that early humans did not distinguish between mundane, profane, and divine, but then uses exactly those terms to define how they thought about something. She makes unsupported statements about the state of mind of humans millennia ago, something she can't know, and gives no information regarding how she reached her conclusions. She uses modern perspective to analyze ancient times.

She keeps telling us that myths don't make sense without their liturgy or their rituals, but never explains this and, furthermore, doesn't explain how that fits in with her writing about myths in the first place.

The only reason I kept reading was stubbornness, and the fact that someone who'd read this (library!) copy before me had clearly had the same reaction. Wry, witty, comments in green ink at the most irksome sections kept me entertained. At least I wasn't alone.

I was all prepared to give this book two stars at the most when I hit page 130, and all of a sudden things got good.

The very last section of the book is where Armstrong hid her thesis: Humans need myths, and mythical thinking, to survive successfully. The degeneration of mythical thinking is at fault for most of our societal ills. Not that we need to believe someone can save us, but strict materialism doesn't seem to be working. This is extremely interesting, and she has some fascinating things to say on the topic of religious fundamentalism and creationism.

The last 20 pages or so are worth four stars, maybe even five. They are meaty, intelligent, and ripe for exploration. It's a pity I had to read so far to get there, and got so annoyed along the way.
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Quotes Brittany Liked

Karen Armstrong
“We have seen that a myth could never 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 mediation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It prljects them into another worl, 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 do so, can change us forever.”
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
tags: myth

Karen Armstrong
“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.”
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

Karen Armstrong
“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.”
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

Reading Progress

12/07 page 15
9.0% "So far I only have one issue with this book: Humans are NOT the only ones who play. From this statement, I thought this must be an old book, but it's not. It was published in 2005. The source she quotes for this claim, though, was written in 1949. There's no excuse for that kind of research irresponsibility."
12/08 page 62
39.0% "At this point, I'm reading the book mainly to squabble with it."
06/13 marked as: read
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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-3 of 3) </span> <span class="smallText">(3 new)</span>

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Erwin I just started in this book and the introduction part rubs me the wrong way but for possibly a different reason. If I have to count the number of times science, logic and reason is portraited as the evil brother of spirituality, intuition etc I would have to give up my day job. It is cheap, populist and nonsensical. If I want to hear that, I'll watch Oprah Winfrey. I'll read the book anyway.

Brittany Erwin wrote: "I just started in this book and the introduction part rubs me the wrong way but for possibly a different reason. If I have to count the number of times science, logic and reason is portraited as th..."

That's another really good point; this book just annoyed me on all sorts of levels.

message 3: by Thebluecat (new)

Thebluecat can you recommend a textbook to start reading methology from the beginning ?

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