Armstrong. A short history of myth

Sara also read this book recently.  I think that helped me as we had already discussed it a fair bit while she was reading it, and I had the benefit of her blog post about it.

Go read Sara’s review, which is excellent; I’ll wait.  See.  Now perhaps you don’t even need to read mine.  Nonetheless, I shall press on.

The help and benefit I am referring to is in regard to some of the assumptions the author makes.  Much of this bugged Sara and is what we discussed.  My anthropological and sociological background, and my background in mythology (as a subject), is both broader and deeper than hers to some extent.  Her background in assorted specific myths is far better than mine, just like mine is in other specific myths.  But this book is about mythology as a subject as a whole, and while it discusses assorted myths it is not about any of them.

Thanks to previous discussions with my beautiful and brilliant wife, along with reading her excellent review, I was able to approach this short book with its sometimes collapsed assumptions and high level synopses in a highly positive state of mind.

All that said, I really enjoyed this book!  I hope to reread it someday in the not too distant future and to map out some of Armstrong’s analysis in outline form as I find it valuable and would like to have it better to mind for whatever uses I might deem appropriate in the future.

Contents

  • What is a Myth?
  • The Paleolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE)
  • The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE)
  • The Early Civilizations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE)
  • The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE)
  • The Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to c. 1500 CE)
  • The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)

As an example of an assumption one must accept or move past, take the opening sentence, “Human beings have always been mythmakers” (1).  If one browses through the Wikipedia articles on Homo and on the Oldowan period you’ll see that “human beings” applies to our ancestors going back to at least 2.4 million years ago.

“Most models rely on social and communication networks to hold the band together. These social networks range from requiring no more communication than modern primates, to requiring more sophisticated sharing and teaching. At present, no evidence has been found that sharply divides these theories.” [From Oldovan]

Exactly!  We have no idea, nor will we ever have conclusive evidence, as to when humans acquired a form of language that not only makes possible, but uses, narrative structure.  Both are required for mythmaking.  Anyway, not really a critical issue to the story Armstrong tells but an example of some of the rhetoric that might get in your way.

One more short example so that you can make a better judgement as to whether this book is for you.  The opening sentence of the second chapter begins, “The period in which human beings completed their biological evolution …” (12, emphasis mine).  Excuse me!  Again, not critical to the argument at all but perhaps difficult for the discriminating reader to ignore.

Again, let me state that I think this is a good book, and that the argument that the author makes is an excellent one.

Each age changed mythos and humankind’s relationship to it until it was, at least in the developed West, fully eradicated and we no longer had a relationship to it.

“Western modernity was the child of logos” (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. This meant that intuitive, mythical modes of thought would be neglected in favor of the more pragmatic, logical spirit of scientific rationality. Because many Western people did not use myth, many would lose all sense of what it was (121-22). … But logos had never been able to provide human beings 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 logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early as 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 early stages of modernization” (122).

It is with this comment, “… as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place …” that I want to point to W.H. McNeill’s Mythistory and Other Essays that I read last year.

While McNeill’s concept of “myth” is broader than Armstrong’s (each appropriate to their own contexts) he directly addresses this issue of the killing of all myth while offering nothing to take its place.  In the essay “The Care and Repair of Myth” he argues that public myth provides the basis for collective action:

“A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain” (23).

In this, and the title essay, he scolds his fellow professional historians for their destruction of myth and attempts to show them why responsible mythmaking to replace those they have destroyed is an ethical and professional responsibility.   His main concern in the book is a rehabilitated view of myth, and while broader than Armstrong’s it is one that melds well with hers.  Whether one accepts Armstrong’s or McNeill’s concept of myth and the functions they respectively assign to myth, it is clear that humankind *needs* myth.

Sara, in her review [linked above] gives a good inkling of how Armstrong ends the book.  I agree with much of her analysis in the concluding sections but I fear this is at best a temporary amelioration of the problem and not an actual solution.

Sara and I were discussing this this morning and as she wisely pointed out this conclusion may have been primarily slanted toward supporting the series which this title is the lead in to, the Canongate Myth Series, which is “A bold re-telling of legendary tales — The Myths series gathers the world’s finest contemporary writers for a modern look at our most enduring myths.”

Nonetheless, I think there is much of value in this little book.  It is easy reading, and it is a great introduction to the riches-to-rags story, as Sara called it, that is the history of myth in human thought and action.

2 thoughts on “Armstrong. A short history of myth

  1. The Canongate Myths series is so awesome it makes me weep a little. I’ve been peddling this series around since it first got off the ground. The only one I didn’t enjoy was “The Helmut of Horror.” I can’t recommend them enough.

  2. Hey, Helen. Thanks for the info. Sara is reading most of these and I passed your comment along to her. I may read some of them some day but no hurry.

    I read the Armstrong because I already had a copy and she discovered the series through the Pullman book, I believe, and when got excited about them and showed me I was all, “Oh, I have that book.”

    We discussed her thoughts on Armstrong a lot while she was reading it so I went ahead and finally read it too.

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