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A Short History Of Myth (Canons)

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  4,577 ratings  ·  528 reviews
Human beings have always been mythmakers. So begins best-selling writer Karen Armstrongs 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 ...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published August 2nd 2018 by Canongate Canons (first published October 1st 2004)
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(B-) 70% | Satisfactory
Notes: Written academically, its more a long essay than a book; covering lots of subject matter, it never really goes in depth.
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
This is a likeable book, but it is overwhelmingly Karin Armstrongs book and my lasting impression was that I am not in tune enough with Karin Armstrong to best appreciate this book, which made it far more complex for me to read than I suspect that she intended.

To my mind, a couple of days after reading, this book is like an upside down pudding and to explain it I need to flip it round and start discussing it where this book ends, perhaps I need to give the book a new title to better in my
Dec 03, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
A brief but highly instructive overview of the development of mythology throughout the Western World and the Middle East (with a quick look at China). Armstrong breaks down the history into epochs. We're in the time of no myths, leading to a sense of despair and a loss of felt meaning to life (according to Armstrong: makes sense to me).

Interesting to me was her connections between myth story, ritual, and life enactment. It makes it clearer to me why I'm a Catholic (embracing the mythology in its
Dec 23, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: myths-related
I guess, after reading Mircea Eliades related works, nothing can surprise you. This book doesnt bring anything new and I cant even say that its well written. Or maybe its the translation, although it doesnt seem so.

It reads like a summary and thats exactly what it is. Half the book has references from Eliades works, the other half from various other authors, which Im not familiar with but I dont think I want to be: Adonis, a political myth (according to Robert A. Segal)? Hm. Im all for different
Welwyn Wilton 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 ...more
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
A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. Its an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which Ive read: Margaret Atwoods The Penelopiad, Jeanette Wintersons Weight, and A.S. Byatts Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)

Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we
Aug 29, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Oct 19, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
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
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

Al Bità
Aug 31, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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, ...more
Jan 02, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Armstrong declares, unconvincingly, that historically believers havent taken their holy texts literally. Her argument is unconvincing because its 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
Catherine Austen
Dec 14, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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?
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 - ...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
Feb 07, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a Composition Instructor with a rhetorical background, I enjoyed this much. If the subtitle of Armstrongs '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 Aristotles Artistic Proofs as the framework for guiding the whole books structure). Specifically, her focus on outer vs. inner rituals (or the interplay between effective speech and writing) ...more
Sep 26, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion, reference
A slightly helpful book that, in a mere 150 pages or so, gives an overview of the role of myth in human existence. Slightly helpful in that, it does give the reader a sense of how myth has functioned, or not functioned, over the vast sweep of prehistory and history. It also makes the important point that mythos is not the same as logos--this is something that is very hard for us postmoderns, who are steeped in philosophical materialism, to understand.

Is the book overly simple? Yes. Would this
Jul 10, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion-history
Armstrongs style in this and many of her other books might come across as cold or dispassionate to those not familiar with who she is or her approach to these topics. For someone particularly sensitive to the types of myths she refers to in this short work, it might even be jarring to see her refer to some of the great religions of our own time in a way that she might even describe as coming from a place of logos vs. mythos. Her style is very academic, scientific, even though as other reviewers ...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
Beth Asma
Dec 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found the end of Armstrong's argument to be very powerful, enlightening, and beautifully said. This book was a very fast and intriguing read on what Armstrong perceived the history of myth to be. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the quest of understanding myth, spirituality, religion, and humanity.
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 ...more
Muath Aziz
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interpretation is tricky. Who says that ancient people buried their dead with their belongings because they believed of an after-life and that these dead people might need their belongings in that after-life? Maybe they buried the belongings just because no one wants to use dead-man stuff. What I mean is, they did in order to close that chapter, a man and his things, are part of our daily lives no more.

Whats making the understanding of ancient people very difficult, is that theyre no more with
A fascinating case for myth as a form of psychology and emotional growth as opposed to something that early man believed to be fact. She daringly compares this to that of Biblical literalists and points out that stories (be they myth, fiction, or holy book) are only as good as what you can learn from them, and a story that doesn't grow has no place in humanity's consciousness. I liked the way she built up her history chronologically and showed how myths changed as humanity and its place in the ...more
Jun 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ; )
Dec 23, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook, mythology
3.5 For a review of the book please see my website : A Short History of Myth
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Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion specialist is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and Fields of Blood, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion,

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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.” 46 likes
“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value” 29 likes
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