A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong: a spiritual history of humanity

I am very grateful to Canongate Books for sending me a collection of six books to read and review. Each of these books is a contemporary retelling of a classic myth, by a generally renowned when not rewarded writer. I am very excited to dive into this collection and the first on the list, A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, did not disappoint.

This short non-fiction book relates the evolution of humanity focusing on the aspect of spirituality. It is organized chronologically, each short chapter describing one major step in the evolution of humanity, from the Paleolithic period to contemporary days. The writing is very clear and undemanding, explanatory without being academic. It makes for an easy, pleasant and very interesting read on questions that we do not pause to consider often enough.

Armstrong, who spent some years as a nun in the 1960s and who is now famous for writing on religious topics, explains how myths are strongly related to a sense of the divine. For the Paleolithic men, myths were not to give factual information but to help men live their “life more fully“. Just like in science, she explains, myths stem from the question “what if?”, which makes it wrong to consider it as an “inferior mode of thought“.

One of the most fascinating things I read in this book was that the myth of the hero was actually born in the Paleolithic age (to save you a trip to Wikipedia, the Paleolithic age corresponds to c. 20000 to 8000 BCE). When their time came, young men were driven through long tunnels and dark caves to undergo secret rites of passage. These rites would involve festivities such as torture, branding, physical and psychological sufferings, during which young boys died to their childhood and were born to their adult self. As Armstrong points out, we encounter the same patterns in almost every story, even today: the young man has to go through similar ordeals and die to a certain part of himself in order to become someone new.  So, the myth of the hero was born from the rituals of Paleolithic young men, which makes it a myth almost as old as humanity itself.

Armstrong then explains how, progressively, humanity distanced itself from the gods, and one of the major steps was when nomads became city-dwellers. Humans felt, then, that they were not made out of the same substance anymore.
At some points in history (and the Greeks have something to do with it), logos takes over, which leads to undermine myths. This began with the greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato and ended some centuries later (I will not venture to count, I’m way too dumb with numbers) when Nietzsche declared that God was dead. At that time, in the XIX° century, the belief in science came first and myths could not answer to the great questions of humanity anymore. However, science also led to the great catastrophes of the XX° century. Armstrong mentions the Titanic, the First World War, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the 9/11 as examples of how logos can be put to its most evil use. At the same time, the disappearance of old myths gave way to the creation of new ones based on ethnicity, race and “an egotist delirium“, “an attempt to exalt the self by demonizing the other“. “These myths have failed because… they have not been infused with the spirit of compassion, [and] respect for the sacredness of life” that we found in the Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE), a period when new religion were born such as Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and monotheisms.

At this point, I thought that this failure  is the reason why literature, and the arts in general, are so important in our societies. And just when I was thinking this, Armstrong began to suggest that literature could be where our contemporary societies can find new and constructive myths. She concludes her Short History of Myth by expressing the hope that artists and writers can step into priests roles and field the spiritual void from which humanity suffers. The book ends on a beautiful ode to literature and novels, with which everyone of of us, bookworms, can only agree.

A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong, Canongate Books

A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong, Canongate Books

There’s one thing that I would reproach Armstrong with, though: it’s her canonical and thus problematical, analysis of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. “In Conrad’s novel“, she writes”, “the labyrinthine, sinister African river recalls the subterranean tunnels of Lascaux…”, and later on: “In the underworld of the primeval jungle, Kurtz does indeed look into the darkness of his heart” (my emphasis). She recognizes that Kurtz “is caught in the toils of a sterile egotism“, as the novel is often analyzed (which would supposedly make it an anti-colonialist novel), but she fails to recognize the racist dimension of the simple fact that, as Chinua Achebe remarks, Conrad chose Africa as the setting in which a white man loses his mind, that African lands (peopled by disembodied, threatening humans with a dark skin, described only as “white teeth” or “glowing eyes”)  are the trigger for a white man to become delusional. Africa is “sinister”, “primeval”, and these terms reproduce the racist ideology that is the basis of the novel. Armstrong does not intend to bring a postcolonial perspective to Conrad’s text, of course, because she only analyses it through the perspective of the myths, suggesting that “Heart of Darkness can be seen asa heroic quest and initiation that has gone wrong“. But I still find it highly problematical that Conrad’s racist novel could still be quoted as canonical example.

In spite of this minor reproach (minor in so far as the rest of the book is highly recommendable and enlightening), I was fascinated by the way Karen Armstrong managed to cover several milleniums of history in a pedagogical and coherent way. The simple and clear structure makes it easy for the reader to follow the evolution of the spiritual history of humanity: it is detailed enough for us to understand how men related to myths and gods in their different times, and short enough so as to remain a light and pleasant read, without over-burdening the reader’s memory with dates and complicated names (this, from someone who does not read much non-fiction for leisure, which is a high compliment!).

I would like to end this review with a quote from the book which strongly resonated with me:
We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource’. This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.

What Karen Armstrong describes in these lines perfectly matches the religion I practice, which is Nichiren Buddhism: a religion that invites human beings to make their human revolution — that is, change themselves before others — that transcends barriers of race, ethnicities, nationalities, languages; that helps us develop compassion and respect for every form of life and thus spread values of peace, joy, wisdom and harmony. Karen Armstrong advocates for such myths, and I say: they already exist, and I am positive that Buddhism is one of the answers to keep our planet safe, and bring peace and joy to humanity. So, even though humankind has distanced itself from myths, even though Nietzsche thought that God is dead, spirituality and the search for happiness surely aren’t, which is where our hope for humanity lies.

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