29. ‘A Short History of Myth’ by Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth is a really fascinating little book. It was sent to me as part of Canongate’s #TheMyths series, and it’s the only non-fiction book in the set. In it, Armstrong explores the history of myth-making in humans, how it has changed over time, and how it might fit into our future.

a short history of myth karen armstrong

This book is divided into sections for different periods of history, starting with the Palaeolithic period (from 20,000 years ago), through the Neolithic period, early civilisations and the Axial Age, right up to the Great Western Transformation of the modern day. This really is a comprehensive history of myth, from our earliest stories as hunter-gatherers to the modern, post-religious myths. I’m fascinated by early Homo sapiens, so starting so far back in time really appealed to me. Also, Armstrong’s writing style is quite straightforward, so it’s relatively easy to follow her argument across this vast swath of time.

A Short History of Myth is basically an extended essay about how human storytelling has changed over tens of thousands of years. To begin with, we told stories about the divine, which was seen to be part of nature and part of life. ‘Gods’ tended to be spirits associated with certain elements of nature (e.g. that river, that tree) and shamans communed with them on behalf of their people. As time progressed, the gods became more human; there were heroes who faced death and sacrifice; their stories helped us to deal with tragedy and the unpredictability of nature. Eventually religions started to emerge, and mythos (those stories of the divine, accessed through ritual) split from logos (science and rationality). This caused a big problem for the religions and some (notably Christianity) attempted to claim that their stories were literally and scientifically true. It is this that has caused today’s crisis of religion: science can prove that the religious stories are not factually true (e.g. the Earth is billions of years old, not thousands), and thus myths that were never meant be literally true lose their power by claiming to be so. Now we need a new mythos, perhaps one that can be provided by the arts.

At least, this is my understanding of Armstrong’s argument, and I find it a fascinating idea. After reading this book, I understand that religion and myths and stories of divinity have always occupied a different part of our minds than truth and rationality. For example, I don’t literally believe that the novel I’m reading is true, but I can still feel that it is valuable and it can teach me about the world. This is what myth is for. It should never make claims to scientific truth because it has a different purpose entirely, one which we can access through suspension of disbelief and which can provide us with comfort and meaning. I wholeheartedly agree that art forms such as fiction should be the basis for our modern mythos. Science is wonderful and important and revolutionary; art is nurturing and educational and inspiring. We can have both, but the two should remain separate, so they can each improve our lives in their own ways.

“Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology … is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

If you want to read it, you can buy A Short History of Myth here.

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