Saturday, January 07, 2006

Myth-making in an age of reason

One of the points repeatedly made by Karen Armstrong in A Short History of Myth, the anchoring work in a provocative new series by Canongate, is that myths were never meant to be taken literally, or to be seen as providing factual information. Their function rather was to help people cope with spiritual emptiness and make sense of their lives:
“…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…[Mythology] helped people to find their place in the world and their true orientation. We all want to know where we came from, but because our earliest beginnings are lost in the mists of pre-history, we have created myths about our forefathers that are not historical but help to explain current attitudes about ourselves, neighbours and customs. We also want to know where we are going, so we have
devised stories that speak of a posthumous existence…”

Armstrong emphasises that mythology is not an early attempt at history and that myths do not claim to be objective truths. But their purpose has been widely misunderstood in modern times, where the tendency is to scoff as mythology as being unscientific and opposed to the Age of Reason. In the conflict between logos (reason) and mythos, the importance of the latter was undermined – to the extent that defenders of myths were forced into the ludicrous position of evolving “proofs” for the existence of Allah or the “literal truth” of everything stated in the Bible.

A Short History of Myth discusses the development of myths and the change in people’s attitudes towards them through various periods of human existence: the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Ages; the first civilizations when the growth of cities occurred; the Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BC – called so by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers because this period “was pivotal in the spiritual development of humanity”); the post-Axial period (c. 200 BC to 1500 AD); and the Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to the present day), a reason-obsessed age when logos and myth became incompatible. “God is dead” announced Nietzsche in 1882. “In a sense he was right,” says Armstrong. “Without myth, cult, ritual and ethical living, the sense of the sacred dies. By making ‘God’ a wholly notional truth, reached by the critical intellect alone, modern men and women had killed it for themselves.”

But there is hope. Armstrong turns to poets, painters and novelists as the great myth-makers of our time: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past.” She discusses Eliot’s The Waste Land, Picasso’s Guernica, Joyce’s Ulysses, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And she ends on an optimistic note:
“A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see the world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”
In a sense, then, myths continue to be written all around us. And so it’s fitting that for its Myth series, Canongate has called on the services of leading novelists like Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, A S Byatt and Donna Tartt. The Penelopiad, Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife Penelope, and Weight, Winterson’s account of the meeting between Atlas and Hercules, are out in paperback now. Posts on those books to follow soon.

P.S. I’m not sure how Armstrong can be so certain about the true intentions of mythmakers and storytellers in the ancient world, or about their attitudes to their Gods, but the idea of mythology being separate from religion (as we know it today) is an appealing one. To take a simplistic example, I always think of the Mahabharata as an incredibly rich, complex human drama – an empathetic record of different lives and conflicting motivations – rather than as a story rooted in divinity. Krishna is most interesting not when he is seen an incarnation of Vishnu, fully aware of his celestial purpose, but when he is an ordinary man trying to balance the larger picture with his own human concerns (the respect and affection he feels for some of the people fighting on the Kaurava side). In this case, the supernatural element of the story (the association of Krishna with a remote God) can be seen as a metaphor for human beings trying to overcome their baser sides and reaching for godliness.


  1. Gorblimey. All these days I thought this was obvious. I mean, a god who works his wicked will in a shower of gold? A god who lifts a mountain on a single finger? Allegory, parable, the presentation of popular perceptions of another time.

    Except that the Flood is common to all mythologies and is therefore taken to have historic basis. And Atlantis ...?


  2. I was a little surprised to see the author's description of literature as myth-making tool for modern age. I thought literature's role was to enlighten, to make us see beyond myths.

    I am not an expert on Eliot but calling him a myth-maker just because he used some ancient myths as metaphors is surely wrong. And Orwell and Conrad were nothing but myth-busters, those of politics and modern age.

    Modern literature, perhaps even more than Science, has been responsible for freeing us from a life protected by myths. This is a very good book which explores similar themes.

  3. Hmm.. Will pick up Armstrong's book, since I've read her other works. But the best books (and documenatries) I've read on this subject are the ones by the late Joseph Campbell. A true master.

  4. With all due respect, Alok, I think you miss Armstrong's entire point. John Kennedy once said that "the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie . . . but the myth."

    But Kennedy’s use of the word myth, like yours, is modern & skeptical: myth = the untrue. Armstrong’s idea is ancient, spiritual, and rehabilitative. She writes that myth “is about the unknown; it is about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence.” “All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it.”

    What is myth except a certain kind of storytelling, a certain kind of explaining not suitable to science? How is that different from the role of literature, modern or otherwise?

  5. Agree with Brendan. Alok, I think you're being a little close-minded. And do you really believe myths can't be enlightening too? Drop the Proust for a day and turn to Pratchett! You might enjoy it. You might even *shudder* be enlightened :)

    JAP: I christian thee Already Enlightened.

  6. And then there's geo-mythology: a study of story or folk-lore to understand how they might have described natural phenomena without attaching dates and maps and diagrams. Recent interest because of tsumanis.

    Margaret Atwood doesn't do it so much, but Winterson's always mythologised her stories a bit--esp Sappho, for obvious reasons. There's also Marguerite Youcenaur's I'm wondering why the series?

  7. good one. hmm...perhaps that explains 'one night @ the call center' and why the book is working despite a incredulus plot. agree?

  8. The works of Joseph Campbell are worth mentioning in this regard. Campbell built on some of Jung's ideas about archetypes and wrote about the universal quality of myths. Studying mythologies of various cultures including several American Indian mythologies, he examines myths of heroic achievement, myths of the coming of age of youth etc. and tells them in a timelessly, relevant and contextual way in books such as "Myths to Live By". Of course, it is a well known fact that the Star Wars stories was influenced by Joseph Campbell's writings just as he himself took interest in the movies.
    There was also a wonderful series of conversations with Bill Moyers that are now available in DVD form as well as a coffee table book called The Power of Myth.

  9. fabulous review.

    an amazing trove of reading in Armstrong & Atwood: the way they address the anthropology of mankind... how the split of mind & body... society & self are bridged through intricate tales of intrigue...

    to communicate history, role, society, wisdom & cautionary tales of experience... between people, across Time... we're fools to judge the wisdoms before our Time

    Classics endured... & so might we.

    thank you!

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