Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

A Short History of Myth (Myths, The)Book Details:
A Short History of Myth (Myths, The)
By Karen Armstrong
Genre: History
Published 2005, Random House
Hardback, 149 pages
ISBN: 0676974198

          'Human beings have always been mythmakers.' So begins best-selling writer Karen Armstrong’s concise yet compelling investigation into myth: what it is, how it has evolved, and why we still so desperately need it. She takes us from the Paleolithic period and the myths of the hunters right up to the “Great Western Transformation” of the last five hundred years and the discrediting of myth by science. The history of myth is the history of humanity, our stories and beliefs, our curiosity and attempts to understand the world, which link us to our ancestors and each other. Heralding a major series of retellings of international myths by authors from around the world, Armstrong’s characteristically insightful and eloquent book serves as a brilliant and thought-provoking introduction to myth in the broadest sense—and explains why if we dismiss it, we do so at our peril.
For such a short book, I developed quite a strong opinion about the text while reading it. I have been curious about Armstrong's writings for a long time, but this is the first attempt I have made at actually reading anything by her. I have always been a fan of ancient mythology, such as Greek and Egyptian, so this seemed like an easy choice.
In seven chapters, Armstrong takes a simplified stroll through history, focusing on the concept of myth and its impact on civilization. All throughout the book, she attempts to support her claim that a person can believe in myths without believing that the myths are actually true, and that the failure of modern society is by not following her specific edict. While this notion strikes me as absurd, I keep reading because, hey, it's a short book.
While I know only bits and pieces about many of the world's religions, I do know both the history and the holy book of my religion, Christianity. It becomes apparent to me early in the text that she is masking her opinions and interpretations of this religion as actual fact, so I can only imagine how she misconstrues other religions.
Her citations were lacking to me, with many claims going unsupported, others only partially supported, such as citation #84 and #30, and some citations simply not even applying to the specified text, such as citation #87. In citation #55, she claims that the Bible contains a Creation myth in which God brings the world into being by killing a sea monster, but one of the four verses she cites make no reference to anything of the sort (Job 3:12), and the other three (Isaiah 27:1, Job 26:13, Psalm 74:14) that do mention a leviathan cannot be interpreted that way when read in context. Isaiah is describing the end of days, while Job merely says that God created the serpent, and the verse in Psalm is within the context of a song about God rescuing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery -- no relevancy to Creation. She makes the claim that Paul "was not much interested in Jesus's teachings, which he rarely quotes, or in the events of his earthly life." This claim is easily disproved by examining how Paul's words line up with Jesus's in John 5:21 vs. 1 Corinthians 15:22, Matthew 6:25 vs. Philippians 4:6, and many other passages.
While going through the citations, I got the feeling that the author depended on secondary sources for her information without actually studying the original source of her information. The book struck me as highly opinionated, vague, and too general for the topic being addressed. I have no doubt that there are better and more thorough books available on the topic of myth. I do not believe that I will be reading any more of Armstrong's works in the future.

Read For: Read a Myth Challenge


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