Book Review: A Short History of Myth

ArmstrongShortHistoryMythCoverA Short History of Myth
by Karen Armstrong
Canongate, 2005
159 pages (paperback)

Powell’s Books

C. S. Lewis once claimed that myths were lies “breathed through silver.”  In asking my students how they define myth, I often get a similar response.  In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong reminds the reader that the myth-making enterprise is a proud human tradition and has evolved into particular new forms of which we may not be aware.

“We are meaning-seeking creatures,” writes Armstrong.  “Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize 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.”  Myths play an essential role in that seeking.  Human beings, she reminds us, are transcendence seeking beings.  It is our imagination that sets us apart from the dogs; the imagination “produces religion and mythology.”

As an aside, cognitive sciences have taken on the challenge of religion in significant ways, producing studies that argue for this very conclusion.   Back in 2008, New Scientist reported on this, noting the work of anthropologist, Maurice Bloch, of the London School of Economics.  No other creature, says Bloch—even those closest to us on the evolutionary scale—have this tool of the mind.  We have the capacity to “imagine other worlds” (see “Religion a figment of human imagination”), he argued, and this provides a functioning basis for religion and myth.

Myth is not about irrationality.  Like science, argues Armstrong, myth extends “the scope of human beings,” that is, it enables “us to live more intensely” in this world.  The same imagination that goes into religion, also makes it in the arts.  “A myth is essentially a guide,” writes Armstrong, “it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly.”


From a Christian catacomb (fresco, 4th century) of Orpheus as a type of Christ. Image: Wikipedia Commons

So what happened to myth?  How did it fall on hard times?  How did it become the thing of dusty used bookstores and when did it fall out of favor with the religious imagination?

Since the Enlightenment, perspectives on the nature of truth have often moved on to what is considered historical, rational, or provable.  There was a move to treat, as Spinoza once argued, all books (including the Bible) as any other book.  Higher criticism put human literature and knowledge to the test of scientific examination.  Today this can translate into evaluating myth against history, as if they have the same end game.  The value of a myth depreciates as a result.  Armstrong sets out to show us why we should still care about myth.

In a panoramic of human history, beginning with the Paleolithic period, Armstrong offers a coherent, but broad-brush, perspective on the development of myth.  The religious component is very important for the development of her argument on the role and value of myth.  This is a “short history,” so one should expect potential reductionism.  The hinging chapter (5) is that of infamous Axial Age (800 to 200 BCE), the period of human history that sees the great rise of Buddhism, Hinduism, and forms of monotheism.  In this chapter, Armstrong tackles everything from the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the all important Greek logos.

Of course, while many today may not necessarily object to her handling of ancient and dead mythologies and traditions, Armstrong’s volume does cross over into the formational period of Christianity and Islam, and in doing so this would undoubtedly make for controversy.  She handles these gently and sometimes with obvious kid gloves.  In part, I think this comes from her own journey.  In her book, Through the Narrow Gate (1995), Armstrong calls herself a “freelance monotheist.”  In A Short History of Myth, however, one gets the impression that those discussions, which can make some religious devotees nervous, actually refreshes her appreciation for spirituality and faith.

The last chapter helps put myth into perspective for today.  Armstrong points to newer art forms that help fill that gap lost with the demise of myth-making.

A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.  If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.

Many of those religious leaders may object to any use of myth; getting over the connotation of a myth as lie may be too difficult for some.  For example, many (though by no means all) evangelical Christians, the objection to myth playing a role in Scripture is as strong as the objection a naturalist has to religion as having something to say about the origins of the universe.  The idea that there is any connection between (even only by a shared tradition) Genesis and ancient myth-telling is viewed as abhorrent.  Some have even been removed from tenured faculty positions as a result.  A better understanding of myth is required.

Despite this difficulty, myth-making can happen in this world and even in the context of religion; C. S. Lewis himself wrote Till We Have Faces (1956) and The Chronicles of Narnia.  After his conversion to Christianity, Lewis also wrote his famous essay “Myth Became Fact,” in which mythology is no longer seen as a lie, but as the signposts of reality.  Writes Lewis:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history…By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

A Short History of Myth is a valuable introduction to the discussion of myth and a recommended read for those interested in comparative religions.

  • Great review. I read this over the summer and found it very helpful. Decided I need to read her other stuff, too, and now have a copy of The Spiral Staircase on the way, courtesy of a fellow BookMoocher.

  • Thanks. To read piles would be much smaller without BookMooch.

In search of belief changing ideas