I have an ambivalent relationship with the writings of Karen Armstrong, and not just because of her name (she and I share a surname, and my mother’s name is Karen). Those books and articles of hers that I have read are full of fascinating ideas, and I think that one of her recurring themes – that modern religion has placed claims of factual accuracy of religious texts over the value of these texts as explanatory of what it means to be human – is quite correct. However, she also has a tendency to look towards past religion and mythology with rose-colored glasses, claiming that prior to the beginnings of science the question of whether or not Biblical stories were literally true was seen as irrelevant (no doubt there are many who did feel this way, but the history of the Church’s persecution of heretics indicates that they were concerned about the literal truth of church teachings) and that modern society has problems that past societies didn’t because of the lack of compelling myth (there may be some merit to the basic idea, but Armstrong draws conclusions from it that are demonstrably false).
First, a definition. The term “Myth” is used here, and in the book being reviewed, not in its popular way, to indicate a false story being propagated, but in the sense that anthropologists and folklorists tend to use it – a story that holds symbolic meaning beyond the literal meaning of the story. Myths can refer to events that never occurred (the Paiute culture hero Helldiver retrieving the Earth from the bottom of a cosmic sea) or they can refer to events that are real but have become imbued with meaning beyond their original significance (the Emancipation Proclamation being viewed as a symbol of the equality of all people, when its actual purpose was mired in the more mundane politics of the day).
In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong provides the reader with an overview of the development of mythology from our ancient ancestors up through the present day. The book lives up to its name, and is very brief, meaning that Armstrong deals in broad themes over wide spans of time, and tends to generalize. In and of itself, this isn’t too much of a problem, Armstrong acknowledges it, and it does serve to provide a framework for studying the development of mythology, so that is all to the good.
However, Armstrong’s mistakes begin in the first section on our ancient ancestors. She over-generalizes, implying that archaeological evidence of particular customs indicates that they were universal when they weren’t necessarily, and she draws rather broad conclusions that, while consistent with the evidence, are not necessarily supported by it. For example, she discusses flexed burials (where a body is bunched into a fetal position) and the placement of grave goods as indicating that the body was being prepared for rebirth in the next life, and holds that this is evidence for a general belief in a particular sort of afterlife among ancient cultures. Such an interpretation is not unreasonable, but it ignores such facts as that burial in the flexed position requires the excavation of a smaller grave, requiring less work on the part of the survivors, that the burial of goods may represent something other than the need for these goods in the next life (among a mobile population, for example, it may represent the need to dispose of goods so that the survivors are not carrying extra weight during their yearly rounds), and among sedentary populations such graves with grave goods may have served to legitimize land holding (this is the land of my ancestors and I can prove it! Look in this hole!) rather than veneration of the dead or a hope for a better afterlife.
Additionally, type of inhumation varies over both time and place (flexed burials, burial of an outstretched individual, burial of different body parts in different locations, cremations, etc.), as does the practice of depositing grave goods (some cultures don’t leave grave goods, others leave an abundance, some leave only certain types, and some leave all manner of household and daily task tools). So, it’s best not to assume too much based on mortuary evidence.
Another problem is that Armstrong seems to assume that there are basic over-arching myths that will be found expressed in remarkably similar ways across all cultures. Again, this is not an unreasonable notion, but it is one that requires more exploration rather than simple assertion that all hunter/gatherer and early farmer mythology is essentially the same. There are common themes, even some common images, that show up time and again across time and space, BUT there are also definite differences, some of them quite important that show up even between neighboring groups. Although I don’t think it is her intention, it is easy to read Ms. Armstrong’s books and come away with the impression that there was a single ancient religion practiced by all early peoples, a notion that is complete nonsense. In fact, the ancient religion that Armstrong discusses is heavily biased in favor of what many European archaeologists and folklorists have attempted to reconstruct for Europe and (to an extent) Africa, but it may have been quite alien to ancient Asia, Australia, and the Americas.
Still, to be fair, she is working with the accounts of a specific group of archaeologists and folklorists working in Europe, and the errors and mis-steps that she makes in this section of the book are likely due to the fact that the people she is relying on for sources tend to do the same. In other words, this is probably a problem more with her sources of information than with her reporting. Nonetheless, it would do her well to be more critical when examining this information, while some of it is quite solid, much of it is little more than conjecture, and in this book it is reported as fact. Of course, that assumes that she wants to be factually accurate, rather than writing a polemic disguised as a scholarly work, and this latter idea might be a more accurate description of her intention.
The next sections deal with changes to mythology that occur as people become sedentary, and begin to develop farming and then civilization. Although some of the same errors are present here as well, these sections are generally better, both because the quality of the archaeological data improves (it’s easier to see patterns in the remains of a long-term permanent settlement than in the remains of a hunter-gatherer encampment), and because the eventual invention of writing allows records of both the myths and the rituals surrounding these myths to be kept. Her discussion of the Axial age, in which mythology had to undergo a change and become more abstract and philosophical, as opposed to something that can be easily applied to everyday life, is interesting and does help to explain much about modern religions. However, I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of her assertions in this section, as my training and experience in prehistoric archaeology does not cover it, nor does my knowledge of history from the Roman Empire on. It’s a blind spot in my education, and it is possible that Armstrong commits the same types of errors here that she did in the earlier portions of the book.
As the book approaches the modern day, Armstrong laments that so many of the problems of our modern day – a great social ennui, genocidal regimes, and weapons of mass destruction – are due to our disconnect from myth. It’s not that we lack myth, but rather that we fail to understand it correctly that leads to violence on a mass scale and widespread social ills. This, she offers, is due to a commitment to scientific rationalism that both negates myth, thus alienating the rationalists from the meaning of the myth and causing destructive despair or misunderstandings, and creates a destructive literalist backlash from those who consider the myths sacred.
It is here that the author begins to spew bullshit in massive waves. First off, it is clear from the section on early hunter gatherers that Armstrong either doesn’t quite grasp the role of myth in the lives of these people, or else disregards what it was in favor of her pet hypothesis that humans are moving away from myth to their detriment. She is correct in stating that humans need myth, but they need it in ways both profound and profane, and early myth was as much about orienting humans to the world around them in a practical sense as in a psychological sense. In the practical sense, we now have much more trustworthy methods of orienting ourselves, and so we are left with the need of psychological orientation – what Joseph Campbell spent so much time dealing with.
Despite Armstrong’s claim, modern humans have not become detached from our use of myth for this purpose. Consider US history – we make ready use of the story of the founding of the nation, of events such as the Civil War and the Great Depression, of documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation not simply as historical facts, but as evidence of who we are as a people, what our destiny is, and how we should interact with the world around us. Armstrong may be right that many of us have lost the old myths, or in the case of Biblical literalists lost the point of the myths even if the myths themselves are retained, but we have formed new myths and use them in much the same way – and this is the process that is occurring at all times throughout the history of humans as a species.
Armstrong would likely concede that point, but in discussing groups such as the Nazis and their myths of Aryan superiority, she claims that we have become unmoored from our use and understanding of myths and that this is responsible for the evils of groups such as the Nazis and Stalin’s regime. But that this is absolutely wrong should be obvious to anyone who gives the idea a moment’s thought.
Genocidal war, hatred for the outgroup, irrational and homicidal claims of ethnic superiority, and internicene warfare even within ethnic groups are nothing new. Ethnographers have discovered this amongst hunter gatherers living isolated from the rest of the world, amongst primitive farmers throughout only recently contacted by those outside of their culture, and among all other social and technological organizations up through and including industrial and post-industrial nations. Archaeological evidence indicates strongly that these tendencies have been present for much, if not all, of human history, and tend to increase as populations grow and come into more regular contact with each other. And, of course, the written record is filled with such atrocities – the destruction of Carthage, the wars that led to the fall of Nineveh, and of course the genocidal campaigns approved by God in the Bible (which Armstrong would know about, being a former nun and all) – all committed by groups who Armstrong argues would not have had such violent dysfunctions of behavior because they were in touch with their myths.
Really, it’s not the myths that have changed, or even our direct relationship to them, it’s the technology and population size that allows us to carry out atrocities of a level not possible, but certainly dreamed of, in the past. The notion that getting back to our mythological roots will somehow put an end to, or even reduce the severity of, this violence is absurd and shows either an ignorance of history or, more likely in the case of Karen Armstrong, an intentional distortion of the facts to support a pet hypothesis that simply doesn’t hold water.
Not surprisingly, this book has gotten bad reviews from historians and anthropologists, but generally good reviews from academics who do not deal as critically with the past and from many people in the general media.
If you want to hear what the professional reviewers have to say about this book, go here.