As a best-selling non-fiction author, Karen Armstrong needs no introduction. A recognized authority (some of us are mostly unrecognized) on religion in its broad sweep, she is an insightful writer and is worth paying attention to. I just finished reading her A Short History of Myth. The book does bear the marks of a religionist who hasn’t specialized in many of the materials she discusses, but when she reaches the time periods she knows, she comes alive. The book is a little unusual in that Armstrong believes myth began in the Paleolithic Period. I don’t doubt that early hominids who’d developed vocal skills probably told stories, but to be able to guess which ones in this first pre-literate period becomes rather speculative. The same applies to her treatment of the Neolithic. Still pre-literate, the people undoubtedly told religious stories but we will never know which ones.
Her discussion of the Axial Age considers mostly east Asian innovations, after acknowledging that distinct changes had also appeared in the Levant and Greece. It is, however, in her chapters on the Post-Axial Age and the Great Western Transformation that she demonstrates her craft fully. The western world, she argues, has lost something vital with the increasingly complete dismissal of myth. Those who see human history on an upward climb (mostly those who do not read or watch the news) are pleased to watch the demise of the non-rational. As Armstrong makes clear, however, pure reason comes with a very high price. The neurosis of the western world may be labeled “Exhibit 1.” Religions, institutions that evolved to improve the human lot in life, have turned destructive. Roping themselves in with a logic that doesn’t match their myth, they strike out at any who dare point out the inconsistency. Many of us have been on the receiving end of their lash personally.
Myth is where we seek meaning. Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. While science and technology may see us safely to Mars and back, once the colonists start to arrive chapels will appear. We find ourselves lost in a meaningless world. Religions have tended to cast their uneasy lot with rationalism. What is left? Mythology. Mythology was never intended to be a literal account of “what actually happened,” but instead it was to explain what it all means. In these days when religious leaders are as likely to lob a high explosive in your direction – or engage in the Schadenfreude of watching you squirm before an overfed lawyer while being deprived of a livelihood – as they are to offer you a “hale and god-be-with-ye,” maybe what we all need is a stiff shot of mythology.