A Short History of Myth

Our world is one of stories. We tell ourselves stories to get through the hour, day, week, month, year. Our families share one or more stories, however cracked and crazy they might be. Societies and other collective gatherings come together based on a certain story or set of stories that resonate inside them. The best stories touch us emotionally and connect us to human themes that rise above time and place. In our electrified, advertised, and media-blitzed culture, effective messages appear as story.

Myth is transcendent story. My computer’s dictionary widget defines myth as “a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon….” Only in recent times has the word come to mean something essentially pejorative: “a widely held but false belief” or “a misrepresentation of the truth.”

After my years-ago immersion in the subject’s engaging classic (Edith Hamilton’s Mythology), the fascination remains and the topic is as relevant as ever to the world encountered daily. Much of our effort at communication, whether interpersonal or related to commerce, carries a mythic subtext: we solve problems, tackle subjects, and confront issues that perpetually vex all of humanity. Given the overwhelming information glut of the 21st century, emotionally appealing stories are just about all that cuts through the clutter.

In A Short History of Myth, ‘freelance monotheist’ Karen Armstrong flies through more than 20,000 years of history to illuminate the checkered value of myth to humans. For the amount of ground it covers, the book is true to its title — short — at 149 pages, and it’s certainly readable. Armstrong takes us from prehistoric hunters to farmers to first civilizations and into the “great Western transformation” of our most recent 500 years, showing how myth has fallen in and out of favor over millennia.

Armstrong’s explanation of myth recognizes a uniquely human quality that requires its creation.

“We are meaning-seeking creatures…. 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.”

From studying the gravesites of Neanderthals, Armstrong reminds that “mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience,” and she contends that Neanderthals gave us the five general characteristics of myth:

    1. “…it is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.”
    2. Burials are accompanied by [animal] sacrifice; ritual supports myth.
    3. It is “recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience.”
    4. Myths are not stories told for their own sake; they show us “how to behave…. Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next.”
    5. “All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology. It has been called the ‘perennial philosophy’ because it informed the mythology, ritual and social organisation [sic] of all societies before the advent of our scientific modernity….”

Myth — story — helps us cope with the unpredictability of the human condition. Its content details a particular event, but the meaning is timeless. “A myth,” says Armstrong, “was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time…. Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

Armstrong, a religious scholar and former nun, brings us through prehistory — including the drawings in the caves at Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, that were likely part of initiation rituals which included the sharing of tribal mythology — to the development of what are now the world’s major religions or wisdom traditions. She shows how an emphasis on logos, the notion that everything in the world can be rationally explained by logic and facts, has separated us from myth (mythos) — to our detriment. We need both in order to function. “A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise [sic] an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”

As we enter the 21st century, we are no less in need of something to help us deal with our ‘complicated emotions’ related to the unnerving and violent circumstances of our lives. Armstrong reminds that “without myth, cult, ritual, and ethical living, the sense of the sacred dies….”

What’s at stake may be the fate of our souls and of the planet. We can make amazing technological breakthroughs, but a similar “spiritual revolution” would enable us to better consider the ethical issues created by our ‘rational’ inventions.

Our ethical responses (should we pursue an issue), not our logical ones (can we do something), will ultimately determine the stories we tell, how we interact with each other, and whether or not our species survives and thrives.

Author: Karen Armstrong
Published: Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd. ©2005

Learn more…
— Karen Armstrong at TED
— Karen Armstrong in Christian Science Monitor
— PBS interview with Karen Armstrong
— NPR’s Speaking of Faith interview with Karen Armstrong
— Karen Armstrong’s author page at Powell’s Books

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos