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A Short History of Myth Paperback – October 1, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 94 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This is an pedestrian study from the noted and popular religion scholar, in which Armstrong takes a historical approach to myth, tracing its evolution through a series of periods, from the Paleolithic to the postmyth Great Western Transformation. Each period developed myths reflecting its major concerns: images of hunting and the huntress dominated the myths of the Paleolithic, while the myths of Persephone and Demeter, Isis and Osiris developed in the agricultural Neolithic period. By the Axial Age (200 B.C. through A.D. 1500), myths became internalized, so that they no longer needed to be acted out. Reason, says Armstrong, largely supplanted myth in the Post-Axial Period, which she sees as a source of cultural and spiritual impoverishment; she even appears, simplistically, to attribute genocide to the loss of "the sense of sacredness" myth offers. Armstrong goes on to relate that in the 20th century, a number of writers, such as Eliot, Joyce, Mann and Rushdie, recovered the power of myth for contemporary culture. Although the book offers no new perspectives or information on the history of myth, it does provide a functional survey of mythology's history. But a more engaging choice would be Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much About Mythology (Reviews, Sept. 5). (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In this essay, superpopular religion historian Armstrong (Islam: A Short History, 2000) fastens the attributes of myth to the major chronological categories of human history. At each transition from the Paleolithic to scientific eras, she argues that a mythical conception of natural forces has drifted ever further from interpretation in pragmatic and logical terms, such that myth in modern times is a beleaguered species of fiction. To Armstrong this state reflects a profound misunderstanding of what myth is and does. Defining it as an art form that, on the assumption of the existence of an invisible realm of reality, protects one against the despair arising from the limitations of the tactile world (death in particular), Armstrong relates how mythology has historically been reformulated. She traces a theogony, illustrating it with examples from Chinese, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek cultures, as sky worship phased into anthropomorphic gods and then into ethical systems such as those of Confucius or Jesus. Written with great explanatory clarity, Armstrong's review of mythology is an efficient, fascinating experience. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.; Reprint edition (October 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184195800X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841958002
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (94 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David E. Levine on November 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In reading other works by Karen Armstrong, a recurrent theme is the dichotomy between mythos and logos. Mythos implies myth and wonderment. Logos, on the other hand, seeks to make sense of reality through scientific and historic reason. In "A History of God," Armstrong, by examining the development of the three major Western religions, shows the progression from mythos to logos. In that book, it was unclear to me whether Ms. Armstrong, a former nun, believes that this progression is ultimately a good or a bad development. However, here, in "A Short History of Myth," it is clear that Ms. Armstrong decries the disappearance of mythos.

Throughout the ages, myth has developed appropriate to the society of that time, whether it be early hunting societies, later agricultural societies, urban societies or modern society. The early mythology was understood to be mythology. Mythology is a way to get at the truth. I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Ms. Armstrong at a booksigning when I purchased this book. I told her that I believe in God but, I do not view God anthropomorphically. I related to her that God is unimaginable to me but that I nonetheless pray to anthropomorphic mythological images of God because I cannot pray to an abstraction. Ms. Armstrong (to my great pride and delight)heartily endorsed my viewpoint. The tragedy today is that so many people have no appreciation for myth. They either do not believe in any sort of divinity and only accept what can be proven logically, historically, and scientifically or they take an opposite view which also denies myth. This opposite view is that everything in the Bible actually happened and can be proven through reason; that everything is scientifically and historically true and not a myth.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is not an introduction to the mythology ... there are many other books for that. Rather, it is an essay on what role myths (and ultimately religion and spirituality) play in human life and why they remain important. Myths provide a means to connect our finite lives, bonded by our inescapably mortal condition and the fear that inevitably accompanies the knowledge of our ultimate fate, with the infinite beyond us, a connection that we feel in moments of transcendence where we literally lose our individual selves and communion with something greater than ourselves ... be that God, the universe, our antecedents or heroic examples. Myth in short gives our lives meaning and significance in an otherwise frightening and indifferent world. Myths are not to be taken literally, because to do so would take the sacred out of the realm of the sacred and make it profane. Myths inhabit the world of the sacred because they are meant to exist beyond the world of profane explanation.

What Armstrong does very well is to explain how advances in the material and economic condition of human civilization throughout history and prehistory interacted with this basic human need to transcend his immediate condition to create various epochs of myth. She goes beyond myth to explain the competitors to myth, be it ritual without mythology (i.e., Confucianism) or logos (i.e., Greek rationalism) and how they had their roots in myth and why they are linked still. Her explanations are lucid and her prose is clear. For such a short book, she packs a lot of information in and, more importantly, compelling ideas.

The only shortcoming I felt was the last chapter on Armstrong's view of the future in the West, which seems to rely too heavily on literature.
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Format: Hardcover
Karen Armstrong, an adept writer about religious history, takes a bit of a breather with this short book on the role of myth in society. Not that this book is missing her typically astute writing, just that it's brief, almost more of an extended essay than an in-depth look at the subject.

Armstrong follows the development of myth from prehistoric times to the present. Myth, as she describes it, is a fundamental part of human development, and similar stories can be found from culture to culture. The use of myth is a way for people to connect with the unseen forces of the universe. In the earliest days (the era of the hunter-gatherers), everything seemed to be imbued with this supernatural force: rocks, animals and the sky. With the development of agriculture and civilization, new myths developed and eventually, there would be a rebellion against myth.

In fact the concluding portion of the book revisits the ideas Armstrong presented in greater detail in The Battle for God. Namely, when there is a conflict between myth and reason, a backlash will occur (taking the form of what we would consider fundamentalism).

As with other books of Armstrong's that I have read, this is written with a sophisticated audience in mind and will not be an easy read for everyone. In addition, the more religiously orthodox may be offended by some of her writing, which treats the stories of the monotheistic faiths as mythical as the tales of Zeus or Odin. But with these caveats in mind, this is a good, insightful book that will provide perspective on the role that myth has played in human development.
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