A Short History Of Myth by Karen Armstrong
A Short History Of Myth is one of quite a few books written by Karen Armstrong on religious topics, with her excellent A History Of God being the only other one I’ve read. But A Short History Of Myth has a special place in my reading because of its lucidity and scope.
That scope covers everything from Palaeolithic times to ‘The Great Western Transformation,’ i.e. the Enlightenment and associated events. Central to Armstrong’s theme is the interplay of mythos (subjective, cultural, idealistic) and logos (objective, global, pragmatic), an opposition which runs through the entire work. I say opposition, but actually until the Enlightenment most people would have seen mythos and logos as complimentary.
What’s fascinating about the book is how it dissects the reasons for the types of myth we see in the past, from hunter gatherer societies, through the agricultural revolution, the arrival of monotheism in the Near East with the rise of patriarchy, and then a 600 year span from 800BC called the Axial Age (because it was so crucial to cultural development), when we see rationalism and the first hints of science in Ancient Greece, Buddha, Confucianism and Taoism. The types of myth and their fundamental reasons for appearing are all discussed. The Post-Axial Age is also an interesting chapter, seeing the rise of Western/Middle Eastern monotheism based in the juvenile beliefs of men, but also witnessing a much more uneasy relationship with myth, since the gods of the three Abrahamic religions are supposedly active in the world, i.e. they are conceived of as separate entities who contribute to history. This was not the case before, when no schism between deities and nature could be conceived. A Palaeolithic hunter looking at a tree for instance would have seen no abyss between the tree’s sacred and profane aspects (in this sense Armstrong’s thinking echoes that of David Lewis-Williams).
Elegant and profound, this is a great book for all SFF authors. I absolutely love it, and occasionally re-read it, to remind me of its (and humanity’s) range and depth. Myth is especially important in fantasy work, and this little book sets the standard for explaining why we needed the myths we created – and what they could offer our logos-saturated world.