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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

A Short History of Myth

Karen Armstrong

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To purchase A Short History of Myth

Title: A Short History of Myth
Author: Karen Armstrong
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 149 pages
Availability: A Short History of Myth - US
A Short History of Myth - UK
A Short History of Myth - Canada
Une brève histoire des mythes - France
Eine kurze Geschichte des Mythos - Deutschland
  • Part of The Myths-series

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Our Assessment:

B- : packed and compact and not particularly convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A- 1/11/2005 Christopher Tayler
The Guardian . 17/12 2005 Tim Radford
The Guardian . 27/5/2006 Nicholas Lezard
Literature and Theology . (20(2)) Eric Ziolkowski
The LA Times . 30/10/2005 Susan Salter Reynolds
New Statesman F 31/10/2005 Simon Goldhill
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/12/2005 Caroline Alexander
The Observer . 23/10/2005 Peter Conrad
The Spectator . 22/10/2005 Sam Leith
Sunday Telegraph . 30/10/2005 David Flusfeder
TLS . 18/11/2005 Carolyne Larrington
The Washington Post C+ 25/12/2005 Elizabeth Hand

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "In other words, her short history of myth is also an even shorter history of religion, and Armstrong does a good job of showing in clear, concise language how both were shaped by the problems of the societies they served. (...) Armstrong's book is a readable, informed introduction to a fascinating subject, but her emphasis on myth's cultic origins makes it a slightly daunting preface to a series of contemporary retellings." - Christopher Tayler, Daily Telegraph

  • "So far, so provocative (.....) But somewhere in the scholarship and swift narrative, Armstrong also provokes some truculent challenges." - Tim Radford, The Guardian

  • "The book is more about provoking thought than supplying raw data, so do not come to it if you want chapter and verse on the Norse gods or the like. What Armstrong does in her skid over the millennia is make comparisons, connections and contrasts in a way that cannot fail to enlighten the general reader. She is particularly convincing on the significance and origins of paleolithic myth -- always a speculative matter, but here handled with maximum plausibility." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Here, given the task of writing a general introduction to the series, she has produced a book that will make any anthropologist embarrassed or angry. (...) Indeed, it is all-too-familiar a pattern: a fictional account of the past, told to make sense of the present. Unless I have missed some deep irony (a satirical expose of our fantasies about the past, perhaps ?), Armstrong has been extremely misguided in the conception and production of this book." - Simon Goldhill, New Statesman

  • "A Short History of Myth is a handy stand-alone overview of the ever-evolving partnership between myth and man from Paleolithic times to the present. Succinct and cleanly written, it is hugely readable and, in its journey across the epochs of human experience, often moving. (...) Armstrong's exposition is streamlined and uncluttered without being simplistic. She falters once, when she speculates that today it is novelists who can partly fill the void left by myth." - Caroline Alexander, The New York Times Book Review

  • "For Armstrong, myth is a symptom of our metaphysical anxiety, an unreciprocated appeal to gods who have let us down. (...) This academic study opens the way for the fictional efforts that follow, because Armstrong sees myth as a playful, whimsical, subjunctive activity." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "(E)legantly argued and consistently thought-provoking (.....) (S)he's an excellent, if sometimes over-moralistic, historian and guide." - David Flusfeder, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Short it truly is. Armstrong has a great deal to pack into 159 pages, and it is hardly surprising that some chapters are taken at a breathless pace. (...) The first half of the book is largely uncontentious (.....) Halfway through, Armstrong's account takes an unexpected turn. The author reverts to her occupation as a popular historian of religion and shows how the world's great belief systems -- first, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Greek philosophy, thereafter Kabbalah, Christianity and Islam -- spring from, then reject, the mythological element in the human imagination, preferring the abstract, the rational, the ethical: that which Armstrong defines as Logos." - Carolyne Larrington, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Her essay here is serviceable. She relies heavily on the usual suspects -- Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Walter Burkert -- and has a lamentable tendency to make sweeping pronouncements that sound trite" - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Short History of Myth is sort of the introductory volume of the international and multi-publisher 'The Myths'-series, which otherwise consists of creative retellings of various myths by many widely respected fiction-writers (see our reviews of other titles in the series).
       Karen Armstrong's essay is exactly what the title says -- but that's still a hell of a tall order. After an introductory chapter considering: 'What is a Myth ?' she then rushes through myths over the ages, dividing her history up into six periods of human development, from 200,000 BCE through the present.
       Armstrong has some very specific ideas about mythology. She's upfront about them, but they nevertheless result in a somewhat limited perspective. Given how little foundation she offers for some of her central theses the book as a whole can't convince.
       Armstrong begins with Neanderthal graves, and reads a lot into these already, insisting that they: "tell us five important things about myth". Her readings are (for the most part) plausible, but not nearly adequately explained to justify the universals she plucks out of this very limited evidence -- beginning with:

First, it is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.
       This death and mortality focus remains a constant in Armstrong's myth-explanations, though it's not at all clear that myths are anywhere near as consistently founded in this concern as she believes. She does qualify it here ('nearly', not always), but she likes to see human fears of mortality -- something she believes to be a universal -- as a dominant point of myth-origin.
       Among the other "important things about myth" the Neanderthal graves tell her:
Mythology is inseparable from ritual. Many myths make no sense outside a liturgical drama that brings them to life, and are incomprehensible in a profane setting.
       It seems terribly presumptuous to insist that Neanderthal 'myth' necessarily depended on some sort of ritual (how can we possibly know that ?), but if she can't pigeonhole what they did in this way it's of no use for her myth-thesis. Like her death-obsession, the ritual-focus is entirely informed by religion -- specifically the currently popular monotheistic religions. (It's no surprise that Armstrong comes from the very depths of that tradition, as she was a nun for a while). Armstrong's insistence on rituals being a key to making myths meaningful is, in fact, also a lament for the loss of ritual in the modern day (as becomes even more obvious later in the book).
       All this makes for one way of seeing myths -- especially those of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- but it's not clear that it is the only way; indeed, it seems obvious that there are numerous alternate readings that are equally viable.
       This specific (and blinkered) approach is found throughout the book: for example, Armstrong states as if a fact that the earliest hunters felt guilty about killing their prey, and that this led to the myths (and rituals) associated with hunting -- again, far more of a leap than seems justifiable, based on the evidence. It's a plausible and interesting reading, but only a possible one -- but Armstrong has no room for (or, apparently, interest in) alternative readings: she has a very specific idea of what myths are, and won't allow for any other.
       Throughout, Armstrong makes little of the fact that what has come down to us, even of relatively recent myth, is strongly coloured by the many lenses it has since been refracted through, and that there is often no way of knowing even what the original myth was and meant in its original context. Even myths that have been written down (i.e. in a sense set down in stone) are open to many varieties of interpretation (and, again, tend to be seen from a modern perspective, as we cannot put ourselves completely in the places of those whose myths they were.)
       Moving to more recent times, Armstrong focusses more on the montheistic religions -- despite (well, for her: because of) the fact that: "The other major traditions have a less ambivalent attitude to myths" (something that might have also been worth exploring more closely ...). She's more convincing here, and throws out quite a few interesting ideas -- such as saying that St. Paul: "can be said to have transformed Jesus into a mythical figure" (which she explains quite convincingly).
       Closing in on the present, she finds the age of enlightenment pushing myth aside: the age of logos, of rationality, apparently having less respect for myths. (Well, certainly for myths the way she sees them.) She, of course, disapproves, certain that we need myths -- and in the final part of the book she tries to explain why.
       Like the preacher trying to explain why we should believe in his or her god, she insists we're lost without it, doomed to be petty, earthbound creatures missing much of our potential:
We need myths to help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipistic selfishness.
       This and her other reasons (in a similar vein) aren't the worst justifications for myths -- or rather: a particular idea of what myths are and should be -- but it closes off the myth-concept to so much more (closes it because Armstrong obviously thinks it's so much less ...).
       Finally, she also turns to the role of artists -- perhaps the last who can still effectively use (and create) myths in our modern world (or at least use them in the way she means). She does this quite well -- though again her examples cover only a few pages -- but the proof will perhaps be found in the series that this book introduces, in the myths (or retellings of myths) the writers commissioned with the task come up with.
       This book is really only A Short History of Myth. It reads quite well and certainly offers food for thought. It does, however, disappoint in its limited horizon and especially its absolutism (it's her way or the highway) -- especially since her reading is often far from convincing -- but as long as the reader doesn't take it as gospel certainly has quite a bit that's of interest and value.

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A Short History of Myth: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Karen Armstrong used to be a nun and has written extensively on religion.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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