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on 29 December 2005
In this brief account, Karen Armstrong looks at the general changes in mankind's mythologising that have occurred over the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages, the early civilisations, the 'Axial Age' (800 to 200 BCE), up to modern times. It is interesting to see how changes in the way we live have caused corresponding changes in our myths: Palaeolithic hunters were concerned with pacifying the spirits of the animals they killed, whereas Neolithic farmers' myths were more to do with the ground and the natural forces that affected their crop-raising.
In her introduction, Armstrong points out how mythical thinking is different from the rational or scientific-minded thinking that predominates today, though it is interesting to note that even the earliest men of the Palaeolithic period seemed to sense a gap in their lives, a separation from the world of their myths. The final chapter, The Great Western Transformation, looks at how art has come to replace sacred myth in our demythologised culture.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 3 November 2007
This is a slender tome on a massive subject, so if you're looking for someone to cover all the bases as regards the life of myth then forget it. If you're looking for someone to give you a quick gallop through the evolution of mythology, some of its central preoccupations and some key starting points for a further exploration into the world of myth, then Armstrong is your woman. Written as the first and introductory tome for the Canongate Myths series, which invites well known authors to rewrite and refresh their favourite mythological stories, this is just as useful as a standalone, educational text, and doesn't need to be read in conjunction with any of the books featured in the series, particularly as each author prefaces their work with the reasons behind why they wrote what they wrote. This is still a good book to have. It deals with the broad concepts of what drives and keeps myth alive rather than the debate over how to study or interpret it, which is fine, as there are hundreds of books out there by anthropologists and other students of myth, all with their own particular axe to grind. It is particularly refreshing here to find a reasonable, coherent argument that just is.
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on 3 July 2006
As someone who has a real interest in myth, its origins and its uses, but has found the likes of Joseph Campbell (who Armstrong references regularly) somewhat over my head, this was a very accessible and enjoyable read. She doesn't assume previous knowledge of the great mythologies, and builds a solid foundation from which to decide a future direction in one's reading.

The final chapter, "The Great Western Transformation," makes her perspective regarding the famine of mythology in the modern world clear and is very persuasive, although I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find she did not touch on Jung in particular and pyschoanalytical theory in general. I empathised with, rather than believed in, her conclusions regarding the power of the novel as a replacement for myth.

But overall, a thought-provoking introduction into a facinating topic.
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on 29 May 2017
Myth explores human spiritual evolution and explains our process of change over time. In the past, for example human filth was a sign of holiness. Layers of dirt were thought to prevent disease. Because writers, artists and scientists dare to imagine and attempt new scenarios, harmful ideas are replaced by new myths, narratives that continue to identify and encourage our evolution. A wonderfully written and super - encouraging read, for those seeking encouragement for their own creativity!
Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife: Memoir of a Canadian Teacher and Writer
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VINE VOICEon 24 January 2010
One of my reading resolutions for 2010 is to read the entire Canongate Myths series - re-tellings of age old stories by great authors. While I'm not intending to read them in strict publication order necessarily, it is sensible to make Karen Armstrong's scholarly appraisal of the role of myth in history the first.

But, what is a myth? Chambers dictionary defines it as:

"myth / mith or (archaic) mîth/ n an ancient traditional story of gods or heroes, esp one offering an explanation of some fact or phenomenon; a story with a veiled meaning; mythical matter; a figment; a commonly-held belief that is untrue, or without foundation. [Gr mythos talk, story myth]"
This doesn't get us much further, as there is scope within that definition for rather almost contradictory ideas - from tales of the divine exploits of ancient Gods told for a moral purpose, to the tabloid-fuelled rubbish we're pushed to believe today.

However, for Armstrong myth is spiritual; it is all about belief and the evolution of human society. She takes us from the Paleolithic belief in the sky gods, through the development of more anthropomorphic gods, to the great classical era when cities were built and the ancient Greeks started philosophising. The balance between myth and what the Greeks call logos - the logical, pragmatic thinking was beginning to change.

"Plato disliked tragedy, because it was too emotional; he believed that it fed the irrational part of the soul, and that humans could only reach their full potential through logos. He compared myths to old wives tales."

Then she carries on beyond this time when mythical thinking began to pivot towards logic, to the crises in belief systems that occurred later as science began to come of age around the time of the Renaissance.

"Scientific logos and myth were becoming incompatible. Hitherto science had been conducted within a comprehensive mythology that explained its significance. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a deeply religious man, was filled with horror when he contemplated the 'eternal silence' of the infinite universe opened up by modern science."

She ends by bringing us up to date by looking at T.S.Eliot's poem The Waste Land which looks at "the spiritual disintegration of Western civilisation", through the symbology of Picasso's Guernica, to the Homeric tribute of Joyce's Ulysses. In conclusion, myth is proabably more important than ever. Going back to the dictionary definition above, wherein myths give meaning, it seems to me that we need myth to help explain the spiritual side of life, the universe and everything really! I really enjoyed this short overview of the world of myth, particularly as it introduced me to many Middle Eastern and Asian mythologies that I am less than familiar with. Appetite whetted, I can't wait to get going on the stories themselves now.
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on 18 November 2010
This is a small book with large ambitions. In seven short chapters it surveys the history, development and meaning of myth from the Palaeolithic to the modern age. This is clearly ambitious, and as some other people have pointed out, it is bound to be both limited in its view and selective in its frame of reference. But to criticize such a book on these grounds seems to miss the point. This is a short history - and it makes no claims to be comprehensive or definitive. This is a primer to the working of myth, it is a thought piece about mythology, it is not a textbook.

If you approach this book with that it mind I think you will find it both interesting and thought provoking. In this book the role of myth is seen as helping people face the unfaceable realities of human life - consciousness has brought many rewards, but it has also brought an awareness of death, this is a aspect of life in which we may be truly unique. Myth helped people face this reality. Myths were never intended to be literally true, in the sense that they were demonstrable fact, but in the sense that they had a utility to help people deal with issues of change and transition. They were true because they were seen to be true every time they helped people deal with their world.

The (much) later development of logos - logic - in Greece, where the idea of what was true truth shifted to those things that could demonstrable rather than those which were found to be utilitarian, set the stage for our current view of myth. The old myths were seen as being untrue, and hence not of value, and those who held on to them were seem has somehow primitive. To make their myths seem more expectable in an age coming to be dominated by logic, some religions tried, and continue to try, to show that they not only have truth as myths, but are true in the logical / evidence sense of the world. This seems to have resulted in little but pain. The modern fundamentalist beliefs associated with some religions stem from that fact that narratives that were written as effective myths - as some form of early psychology - began to be treated as if they had been written with the intention that they were the actual literal truth. It's worth reading this book just for the last chapter, where the role and (in the author opinion) the debasement of myth in the modern world is explored.

This is not a comprehensive book, but I doubt that was ever its intention. This is not a definitive book, and I doubt that such a book could ever exist. It is an opinionated book, but I would have thought that was inevitable when the subject matter itself is so fluid and insubstantial.

It is though well written, lucid and thought provoking. Could you really ask much more of a book?

Highly recommended.
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on 24 May 2006
I must confess I did enjoy this book, and it acts as a good introduction to the Myths series. It deals with a vast range of myths and, perhaps more importantly, their contexts, something missed in many tellings of old stories. The old favourites such as the descent of Persephone are recounted as are the oft-neglected Mesopotamian myths. Armstrong also successfully deals with the place of myth in people's lives and society throughout the ages, tackling the resurgence of myth as well as the great western drive towards logic and science over the study of myths and symbolism.

I do have a few gripes however, as a student of Anthropology I have to note that her portrayal of early Homo sapiens and other hominids tends to be a bit askew, seemingly biased by the typical "caveman hunter" stereotype and how this would affect myths and world-views. In actuality most hunter-gatherer peoples in relatively good areas of land largely relied (and rely) on plant materials, not on hunting. Hunting provided a small percentage of food, other than in difficult areas such as the far north (ie modern Inuits). This aside, her theories provide much of interest, and although not the most complete book on the subject, "A short history of myth" acts as a very good starting point.
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on 5 July 2015
This book should have been entitled 'Wild speculations about myths, written with an obvious Christian agenda'. I'm sorry to say that it is nothing but Bible-bashing disguised under the pretense of talking about humanity's myths. It is clear from the start that, far from presenting myths and their history, the author is trying to convince us that religion is the sine qua non of any human activity. To this aim, she mixes a lot of completely unfounded speculations with a tiny bit of anthropology, just enough to give her so-called arguments a thin veneer of credibility. But scratch the surface and it soon becomes apparent that it's all very clumsily done. I quickly got fed up with every single assertion being crudely slanted towards religiosity.

First, Armstrong claims we know a great deal about the Neanderthal mind - it definitely had religiousness in it, and we know this for sure because ... we found a handful of graves. Then, the Paleolithic people: 'Everything they did was a sacrament that put them in touch with the gods' (p. 15). Oh, really? May we ask, how do we know all of this, what irrefutable archaeological proof is there? Well, we don't get that answer in this book. Instead of presenting any kind of evidence, Armstrong cites mainly the tomes of Mircea Eliade, who, as well-read as he was, wrote in the 1930s and was a man also given to wild speculations and who, guess what, didn't provide any actual proof for his theses, either. Oh, and she mentions Freud and Jung ... yes, 'cause that's really scientific stuff, isn't it.

Her claims then get more and more unlikely. For example, 'As soon as human beings had completed their evolutionary process, they found that a longing for transcendence was built into their condition.' (p. 27). But just because something sounds fancy, it doesn't make it true. I would ask again: really? Because first, as any fule knows, the evolutionary process is never "completed". Second, assuming (wrongly) that humans did finish evolving at some point in the past, when exactly was that? And exactly what proof do we have? And which type of prehistoric humans did first have concepts such as "longing for transcendence" -- and they didn't just kinda know that it was there, but that it was "built into their condition"? Correct me if I'm wrong, but even we 21st century people would not understand what this means. Ask any reasonably intelligent and well educated person today if they find that a longing for transcendence is built into their condition, and their answer would be 'Huh?' Yet Armstrong breezily purports that prehistoric humans were universally acquainted with this sort of meanings and/or feelings. Wow.

And so it goes on, one preposterous pronouncement after another, with no supporting evidence whatsoever. The book has no bibliography or index. So much for the history part, then. The few books/papers cited are overwhelmingly religious in their preoccupation. And nowhere does the author say that she might be wrong, or that different points of view exist and may be at least as valid. Nowhere does she say that this or that author or researcher thinks differently. Or that divergent interpretations, especially for such hazy topics like myths, might also merit consideration. Furthermore, as the excellent 2-star review here notes, Armstrong's knowledge of at least some of the myths she talks about is wholly unsatisfactory.

By the end, Armstrong completely loses the plot. From bad history, she moves to full-on bad interpretations. So desperate is she to persuade us that without religion the entire human civilization is sure to fail, that she concocts the most incoherent list of examples ever, just because they can conveniently be forced into connections with one form or another of religion or mythology. Thus in the last chapter we are served a bizarre mix of disparate examples such as of Picasso's 'Guernica', Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain', Elvis, Princess Diana, and a poem by T.S. Elliot, almost in the same breath, as proof, according to Armstrong, that everything, and everyone worth mentioning in the world, is religious or religion-related. Oh dear.

Of course, throughout the book atheist thinkers, artists, and fiction writers do not get a single look in. So for this author, no work of philosophy, fiction or art has merit unless it is overtly religious or if it can be interpreted as such. I should have researched Armstrong before I bought her book. Knowing what else she has written and that she was (still is?) a Catholic nun would have told me everything I needed to know.

Now, if you are a religious person -- only of the Western Christian persuasion, mind -- then this book will probably be your thing, and then some. If, however, you were fooled by the title and the good reviews, and hoped for a balanced, erudite argument presenting all sides with fairness and an open mind, and if you thought you'd get an informative and thought-provoking book and learn something useful . . . then you will be sorely disappointed.

I will end with another utterly bamboozling quote. On pages 134-135 the author reckons that we've actually regressed since prehistory because we lost our capacity to imagine and believe in myths, but we still crave that kind of spirituality, so 'We try to enter this dimension by means of art, rock music, drugs, .... film'. It isn't the only time in this awful book when Armstrong equates art with drugs. I rest my case.

PS - If you are looking for serious books on the subject, written by real scholars, I warmly recommend anything by the superb Stephanie Dalley.
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VINE VOICEon 2 January 2010
This short work, inevitably, does not have room to fully explore the ideas and themes it describes. It also has to give rather sweeping statements, some of which really need justifying rather than simply announcing.(e.g., page 9 : "Human beings are unique in retaining the capacity for play" to which the query "dolphins..." immediately sprung to my mind.) But this is meant as an overview, an introduction to the thorny study of belief and mythmaking and its brevity and clarity are remarkable. It covers a lot of ground, from the prehistoric Neanderthal to the Twenty First Century, it must be expected that this is therefore a wide rather than deep analysis.

The book as a whole is both a description of and a strong argument for the importance of Myth in human history.

The historical descriptions are all illuminating. Though the descriptions of the earliest periods must, of course, be speculative, these are sensible and thought provoking (e.g. P29, discusses how , even in the Palaeolithic times, it is likely that life was too complicated for logic alone to explain.)

Armstrong's potted version of "Gilgamesh" is truly insightful, but any and all of the myths and cultures described are treated fairly.

Like all right minded historians, if only by implication, she give the Classical Athenian Greeks pride of place, their philosphers manage to achieve rationalism without the Greek religion being damaged (p.107)

The conclusion of the book, that humanity needs its myths, needs to believe in something other than mere facts, is well made, if unsurprising. What is surprising is where and how Armstrong sees this need being answered in the modern world...not via a resurgence of religion, nor in sport or TV or in shared technological simuations of worlds via the internet. No, she sees the humble novel as the tool which can rebuild a shared belief in something other than material gain.

The Church of Dan Brown? We can only hope not !
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VINE VOICEon 30 September 2012
Karen Armstrong has created a masterpiece in this deceptively small book. I cherished every word while I was reading it and would have been happy if it had continued for 10 times as long as it does.
Armstrong has a clear vision of the place of mythology and religion in human history and explains it with marvelous economy and precision; not a single bit of padding or any unnecessary explanations at all.
This is a book I would very much like to have written.
The book starts with the very earliest expressions of a belief in something other than this life; the Neanderthal graves and grave-goods, which appear to show a belief that something else happens to a body after it has died. She moves on through the ages until the modern day where we have cut ourselves adrift from mythology and in many cases from religion too and the possible consequences of this detachment.
I found this a profoundly moving book to read and it left me with a yearning for the spiritual element in life that so many people have lost.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like a broad overview of our mythological and religious past and who would like to catch a glimpse of what may in store for the human race in the future as well as gleaning an understanding into the way we are now.
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