Books, Exegesis, Reviews

A Short History of Myth :: Review

This book is an old favorite of mine. I read it several years ago when I first started my undergrad and it has informed much of my thinking ever since, more than I expected. By revisiting it for this review I was shocked to find how deeply Armstrong has guided my spiritual journey even though I haven’t touched this book for several years. It is a truly important book, especially for atheists.

Quotes

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. (pg. 2)

Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it. (pg. 3)

Mythology is usually inseparable from ritual. (pg. 3)

Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next. (pg. 4)

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. (pg. 7)

A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. (pg. 10)

A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. (pg. 10)

There is never a single, orthodox version of a myth. (pg. 11)

‘Dreamtime’ – which Australians experience in sleep and in moments of vision – is timeless and ‘everywhen’. (pg. 13)

Most of the religions and mythologies of archaic societies are imbued with longing for the lost paradise. The myth was not simply an exercise in nostalgia, however. Its primary purpose was to show people how they could return to this archetypal world, not only in moments of visionary rapture but in the regular duties of their daily lives. (pg. 15)

In our skeptical age, it is often assumed that people are religious because they want something from the gods they worship. … But in fact this early hierophany shows that worship does not necessarily have a self-serving agenda. People did not want anything from the sky, and knew perfectly well that they could not affect it in any way. (pg. 18)

If a myth does not enable people to participate in the sacred in some way, it becomes remote and fades from their consciousness. (pg. 19)

…the old Sky Gods did not touch people’s lives at all. This very early development makes it clear that mythology will not succeed if it concentrates on the supernatural; it will only remain vital if it is primarily concerned with humanity. (pg. 21)

Unlike myth, logos must correspond accurately to objective facts. It is the mental activity we use when we want to make things happen in the external world: when we organise our society or develop technology. (pg. 31)

This is an important point. A myth is not a story that can be recited in a profane or trivial setting. Because it imparts sacred knowledge, it is always recounted in a ritualised setting that sets it apart from ordinary profane experience, and can only be understood in the solemn context of spiritual and psychological transformation. (pg. 35)

To understand the true meaning of the myth, you must not only perform the rites which give it emotional resonance, but you must also behave in the correct ethical manner. (pg. 89)

Both Laozi and the Buddha were willing to use old myths to help people to understand the new ideas. (pg. 92)

But the history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent. (pg. 94)

In Hinduism, history is regarded as ephemeral and illusory, and therefore unworthy of spiritual consideration. Hindus feel more at home in the archetypal world of myth. Buddhism is a deeply psychological religion, and finds mythology, an early form of psychology, quite congenial. In Confucianism, ritual has always been more important than mythical narratives. But Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that their god is active in history and can be experienced in acutal events in this world. (pg. 105)

A myth demands action: the myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others. (pg. 107)

The words mysticism and mystery are both related to a Greek verb meaning: ‘to close the eyes or the mouth’. Both refer to experiences that are obscure and ineffable, because they are beyond speech, and relate to the inner rather than the external world. (pg. 109)

Western modernity was the child of logos. (pg. 119)

The new hero of Western society was henceforth the scientist or the inventor, who was venturing into uncharted realms for the sake of his society. He would often have to overthrow old sanctities – just as the Axial sages had done. But the heroes of Western modernity would be technological or scientific geniuses of logos, not the spiritual geniuses inspired by mythos. (pg. 121)

Because most Western people did not use myth, many would lose all sense of what it was. (pg. 122)

But logos had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. (pg. 122)

In premodern religion, likeness had been experienced as identity, so that a symbol was one with the reality it represented. Now, according to the reformers, a rite such as the Eucharist was ‘only’ a symbol – something essentially separate. (pg. 123)

Paradoxically, however, the Age of Reason witnessed an irruption of irrationality. The great Witch Craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which raged through many of the Catholic and Protestant countries of Europe, showed that scientific rationalism could not always hold the darker forces of the mind at bay. (pg. 129)

Without a powerful mythology to explain people’s unconscious fears, they tried to rationalize those fears into ‘fact’. (pg. 129)

But the higher states of mysticism were not for everybody. It required special talent, temperament and one-to-one training. A group experience of untaught, unskilled individuals could lead to mass hysteria and even mental illness. (pg. 130)

By the nineteenth century, people in Europe were beginning to think that religion was actually harmful. (pg. 130)

This was the scientific age, and people wanted to believe that their traditions were in line with the new era, but this was impossible if you thought that these myths should be understood literally. (pg. 130)

Creation stories have never been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion. (pg. 131)

The Higher Criticism is still a bugbear of Protestant Fundamentalists, who claim that every word of the Bible is literally, scientifically and historically true – an untenable position that leads to denial and defensive polemic. (pg. 131)

Mythical thinking and practice had helped people to face the prospect of extinction and nothingness, and to come through it with a degree of acceptance. Without this discipline, it has been difficult for many to avoid despair. The twentieth century presented us with one nihilistic icon after another and many of the extravagant hopes of modernity and the Enlightenment were shown to be false. (pg. 132 – 133)

We learned that a rational education did not redeem humanity from barbarism, and that a concentration camp could exist in the same vicinity as a great university. (pg. 133)

We may be more sophisticated in material ways, but we have not advanced spiritually beyond the Axial Age: because of our suppression of mythos we may even have regressed. We still long to ‘get beyond’ our immediate circumstances, and to enter a ‘full time’, a more intense, fulfilling existence. (pg. 135)

We still seek heroes. Elvis Presley and Princess Diana were both made into instant mythical beings, even objects of religious cult. 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. (pg. 135)

Mythology, we have seen, is an art form. (pg. 148)

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 into our lost and damaged world. (pg. 149)

A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

Summary

A Short History of Myth explores the evolution of mythology over human history and elucidates the mindsets of logos and mythos in relation to that evolution. There is great emphasis on myth’s value to human well-being. Armstrong explores the relationships of ritual to myth and belief to fact through western and eastern mythological traditions. While primarily a historical text, this book explores Armstrong’s own opinions on the value of mythological thinking. Perhaps more than her other works, Armstrong makes a case for why humans need to return to our mythological practices.

Thoughts

Armstrong has been with me from the beginning. I first read this book while I was still fundamentalist, and I didn’t like it for obvious reasons. It felt like Jesuit propaganda at the time (Armstrong is an ex-nun). Now it has become one of my most cherished texts. I believe the conviction Armstrong allows to shine through this book (more so than her other work) is a beacon of light in a logos world. Due to its similarly compact size, where I once handed out Steps to Christ I now feel the urge to hand out A Short History of Myth. By educating me about mythos she laid the groundwork for my acceptance of the Syntheist epiphany I found in Harari’s Sapiens. I was able to accept my spiritual experiences without shame, and embrace naturalism without reservation. Both can coexist, and I thank Armstrong for teaching me that.


On page 3 Armstrong likens the value of mythology to science due to its effectiveness and talks regularly about how ritual and myth are inextricably linked. Such sentiments are similar to the Terranic assertion that science and religion are both magical practices. Science is the most powerful magical system in the modern world because it has a clear synergy between its myths (ex. objectivity) and rituals (ex. the scientific method). Even in this profoundly logos system, there is still a need for mythos scaffolding. This does not mean science is a religion or that religion is science, at least not anymore. The power of science as a logos framework is justification in itself. What Armstrong is getting at is that religion should be willing to specialize in mythos the way science has for logos. Religious thinkers need to overcome their insecurity that they aren’t science and return to the important work of practicing mythos.


Armstrong’s statement “mythology is usually inseparable from ritual” (pg. 3) is a huge motivator for my religious project. While I do put effort into philosophically justifying myself, I have a deep belief that if social justice and environmentalism are going to stick, they need myths and rituals. A ritual needs a myth just as much as a myth needs ritual.

Of course, this is far more difficult said than done; as I can attest. So far I have spent a lot of time exploring syntheistic philosophy on this blog, but I have yet to post lore and rituals to any satisfactory degree. Part of this is obviously that creative writing is difficult and time consuming, but it is also because Christianity gave me a very limited education in what a rite truly is.

For most of my upbringing my closest connection with the divine was through prayer, where I could feel myself directly communing with God. Communion, baptism, public prayer, foot washing, etc. were far more distant. Since Seventh-Day Adventists are vehemently against Catholicism, there was an overbearing emphasis that the sacred rites were only symbolic to distance themselves from more potent Catholic sacraments like the Eucharist. My rites were meaningful, but not powerful. They were motions, there was literally no doctrinal way to get past “going through the motions”. I could not apply the hero myth to myself, channel God in my good deeds, summon the Holy Spirit when I was fearful, or act as the body of Christ when needs arose. Instead I begged and pleaded for my distant, separate God to answer my prayers. After all, if God existed, He was perfectly capable of working on His own, and to presume that I could willfully make God act was blasphemous. I had no access to the sacred tools at my disposal. I would just cry and beg them to do something on their own.

Recognizing this fault in my education is helpful, but hardly a path forward. I need a new education. I am attracted to various occult and eastern spiritualisms partially because I feel they can offer me what protestantism didn’t; namely, powerful myth-rite complexes. My guess is that many people in the West feel the same, leading to all manner of odd movements. The phenomena of “corporate meditation,” secular yoga, and many New Age practices are such movements. Much of it is benign, some of it insidious, and all of it lopsided. New Age and occultism has an unfortunate tendency to veer into destructive supersition and conspiracy thinking, with anti-vax communities, breatharianism, homeopathy, and its ties to fascism being the most unsettling examples. Corporate meditation and secular yoga are Buddhist and Hindu practices respectively, which have been stripped of all myth and distilled into cynical versions of what they once were. No longer are they a means to enlightenment and virtue, instead they are means of endurance through the oppressive alienation of late-capitalism. It seems hard to find a religious practice nowadays that is neither insecure of its myths or un-logical.

My spiritual quest obviously continues, but it feels like being a rat in a maze. Syntheism has shown me what the exit to the maze looks like, but has given me few clues on how to get there. What is even more frustrating is that once I find the exit to this particular maze, it will signal just the beginning of my spiritual practice. Ahead will be the path I’ve been searching for, and the milestones I’m anxious to get to along the way. My hope is that I don’t become impatient and settle for a dead end of this first maze, losing all sense of direction and decaying in my undrained doctrinal filth. If I can just get to the exit, even if it is at the end of my life, it will be its own reward to walk along the Way for at least a few moments.

The one clue I can claim for this quest is doctrinal positivity. If I become stuck in defining myself by what I am not, I have probably been caught in a dead end. It is positive definitions, knowing what I believe in addition to what I don’t, which I think can pull me through this maze. This is a core syntheist stance which differentiates it from atheism.

Additionally, there are these clues provided by Armstrong:

Model Myths

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 realise 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 requriements, 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.

A Short History of Myth (pg. 136-137) – Karen Armstrong

She has given me just enough to begin my quest. It is enough to cast a glimmering of light on the edges of this blasted maze. Now I just need to write this shit. Aion help me.

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