Where have all the good myths gone?

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s 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 here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]

Back to myths in general...

Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).

In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:

1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture)
2. Neolithic (agriculture)
3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.)
4. Axial Age
5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe)
6. Post-Reformation Europe

Paleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).

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 with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)

The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).

The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.

The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.

And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):

The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….

But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logosachieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)

The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).

In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).

She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.

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 (p. 149)

I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.

1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well.
2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age.
3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures.
4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world.