A Short History of Myth, Paperback

A Short History of Myth Paperback

Part of the Myths series

2.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


'We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective.

But 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.' Karen Armstrong's concise yet compelling investigation into the history of myth takes us from the Palaeolithic period and the mythology of the hunters right up to the 'Great Western Transformation' of the last 500 years. She shows us that the history of myth is the history of humanity, and our stories and beliefs, our curiosity and attempts to understand the world, link us to our ancestors and each other.

Myths help us make sense of the universe, and of ourselves.

Armstrong's characteristically insightful and eloquent book serves as a brilliant and thought-provoking introduction to myth in the broadest sense - and why we dismiss it only at our peril.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Ancient religions & mythologies
  • ISBN: 9781841957036



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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

This extended essay on mythology seems to have a good thesis, but it is poorly executed in parts. Additionally, the final chapter focusing on the modern era rather deviates from its thesis about the role of mythology in daily life, instead unecessarily describing the conflict between rationalism versus mythology and not describing what came next.The first few chapters on Paleolithic and Neolithic mythology seemed very scant in examples and evidence. You can almost sense that the premise she is trying to support is true, but I had wished there had been stronger evidence presented. She argues that Paleolithic peoples used mythology to ritualize the behavior that sustained their survival, like hunting deities that hunters would invoke or child-bearing deities to aid in child-birth, and through proper magical emulation of these archetypal beings, achieve success. With the Neolithic period, she argues that agriculture engendered a different kind of myth-making. Instead of ritualizing everyday behavior, the rituals of worship and prayer take on a life of their own less strongly associated with their means of survival. At this point in the text I felt like I wanted to say that this "divorce" was because of the nature of agriculture itself, which has a prolonged period of time between planting and harvesting, between action and reward, but Armstrong doesn't make that argument. She makes observations that one feels she should follow up on, like the observation that Egypt's mythology of a sky goddess and an earth god is an exception to the tendency for myths in other cultures to have a sky god and an earth goddess, yet she doesn't explain why Egypt was the exception. I had to wonder, "Maybe it's because they lived in the middle of the desert and didn't see the earth as naturally fertile since their agriculture was determined not by the land, but by the Nile."I think the best part of her thesis is borne out by her discussion of the "Axial Age," when urbanized peoples became less convinced that worship and prayer would solve their problems and instead a code of behavior would keep society stable and flourishing. And so the concept of "Divine Law" became the dominant mythos. It was also here that I realized what our current predominant mythos truly is. Armstrong makes a rather understated but important point that myth has not always meant "untrue," but that like Aesop's Fables, while literally not true, did contain some kind of "truth." It may not be true that lawgiver gods came down with stone tablets to establish a new social order, but it is true that a system of laws can create a reliably stable society. So here this book made me think about what it is that we currently hold to be "true" that, while not supported by empirical evidence, is invoked as correct because of the social order they bring. The mythos that permeates our lives in the modern era is the mythology of rights, inalienable rights which people believe to be "endowed by their creator." But rights are no more than an idea. They are not subject to investigation through objective evidence and are therefore said to be simply "self-evident." They are believed to must be upheld as inviolable by the older mythology of law. It is here in the "post-axial age" that Armstrong goes entirely off-target. Not one mention of the Magna Carta. Not one mention of the American Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights. And yet the modern conception of human rights fits so well into the role that mytholgy has traditionally played. She tells us that our modern lives are devoid of the myths which serve to inspire us, which any observer of the history of struggles for rights will find to be an untrue statement.Her evidence is not well presented, but her thesis has so much potential that I cannot give the book a low rating. It is worth reading at least for the ideas about myth which it presents, though not for its grasp of history.

Review by

A look at mythology over the ages: The Paleaolithic Period, The Neolithic Period, The Early Civilisations, The Axial Age, The Post-Axial Age and The Great Western Transformation. It discusses different myths and how they have been shaped by the times and environment around them. Armstrong takes us up to modern time where science leads the way and discredits many myths.I don't have too much to say about this book sadly. I thought it tried to cover far too much in too small a volume. I thought it would spend more time discussing what myth is and defining it and I also disagreed with some of the statements she made and how some of the myths and timepoints were interpreted. A very average read, maybe more suited to someone just dipping into mythology for the first time.

Review by

Like most of Armstrong's books, this is well-researched, reasoned and well-written. It takes the reader through the story of mythology from Greek, Mesopotamian, Scandinavian, Native American history and many others. A must-read for all those interested in the subject.

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