The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Karen Armstrong's Short History of Myth

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.


Evan Davis said...

I have found that Catholics in general have this social block about understanding the Bible. The fact that it the New Testament does not support celibate leadership, the Divinity of Mary, Transubstantiation and many other Catholic doctrines does not seem to make it into their heads. So I am not surprised that an Ex-Nun ignores some basic research that would not support her beliefs.

Anthroslug said...

To be fair, I have yet to see a Christian sect (or, for that matter, a Jewish or Muslim one) that is entirely consistent with their texts. Part of this is the nature of the texts - they tend to be self-contradictory in at least a few places - and part of it is that history and culture both put pressures on them to not be as consistent as they would like (as discussed in the earlier morality post).

That being said, I don't think her former status as a Catholic (as I understand it, she no longer adheres to Catholic dogma or theology) is the factor, it's rather more basic. She has a particular view about the need for myth and has decided that all of our modern problems are due to that.

It's rather like the person who thinks that a return to the attitudes and values of the 1950's will save America, but who refuses to akcnowledge that, what with lynchings and the red scare and the government testing out radiation on citizens and all, maybe it wasn't such a swell time.

Kay said...

Heh like the "office of moral concern"?


Armstrong's issue seems to be that whole confirmation bias thing....

Evan Davis said...

I fully understand the contradictory text thingy, but those are usually minor things that can be attributed to one thing or another. I'm talking about major doctrinal beliefs. A missionary in the bible mentions to another missionary that putting off women while traveling is a good idea does not mean that all leadership must necessarilly be celibate.

Oh, and I do agree, she does seem to be trying to hard to make her point work. Confirmation bias!

Anthroslug said...

The problem with dismissing contradictions in the text as minor things is that what is major or minor is purely in the eyes of the beholder - and some of the inconcsistencies are pretty damn huge but never acknowledged (for example, how could Adam and Eve have sinned if, by definition, they had no knowledge of such a thing?). If a church teaches something, they will find Biblical legitimation of it (not hard, given the nature of the Bible), but those places where it contradicts said teaching will be dismissed as a minor thing or an explainable inconsistency (or sometimes people will try to bend reality so that it is not an inconsistency at all). What is a major doctrinal belief and what is something simply mentioned in passing varies from sect to sect, and each sect engages in this sort of selective interpretation.

To an outsider, it all looks very odd, seeing people having at each other over something that each blames the other for doing.

Evan Davis said...

Even though I am LDS I kinda grew up as an outsider watching other religions fight and argue over what a specific scripture means and who is right/wrong. Not only does my religion entirely discourage arguinng with other churches about the bible, we also view the Bible similarly to how archaeologists view it: Really old writings that have been trannslated many times and include folklore. We try to take a common sense view of the Bible.

A good example would be the Adam and Eve sin thing you mentioned above. We say they did not sin, transgress yes, sin no (sideote: I cannot find anywhere in the Bible where it says they sinned). I think our view of it is more like Pandora's box. God does not create imperfect things so for this to be an imperfect world, someone other than God had to introduce it. By introducing trials, disease and death they also introduced love, happiness and hope. I would't be surprised if that was the origin of the Pandora story. Hmm...

Anthroslug said...

And viewing the Bible in that way is probably good. Before we proceed further, though, I need to ask two questions. The first is - do you want to discuss your own church's teachings in light of your comments about Catholic inconsistencies? If the answer is "no", that's fine, and we can drop the subject of churches ignoring texts or non-textual evidence for the time being.

If the answer is "yes", then I have to ask another question. Am I mistaken in thinking that the LDS church holds that the Book of Mormon is a more-or-less accurate description of a specific set of events in the Americas prior to the arrival of Clumbus?

One further question, if the answer to both of the above is "yes", will you take it well if I write another post to discuss the matter (anticipating that you will comment and that we'll get some good information flying back and forth, and knowing that it will take me a while to assemble information)?

Evan Davis said...

Yes, we do believe the Book of Mormon to be an accurate description of a specific set of events in the Americas prior to Columbus. However the book does not give an accurate description of any locations. All I do know is that if chronicles 2 groups. One arrived in around 2200 BC and lasted till around 600 BC. The other group arrived around 600 BC and lasted till about 400 BC. I do not know the size and scope of the first group and the second groups population might have peaked around the million range.

I must warn you that I am ill equipped to interpret any archaeological evidence you might be able to present, nor am I well equipped to provide new evidence you might not have seen. I imagine that the FARMS institute might be better suited for the task. You can find them at

Appropriately the comment "word verification" code is mently.

Anthroslug said...

Fair enough.

I have looked at FARMS before, on your recomendation. It's been years, and I don't recall the specifics at this point, but I was very unimpressed. My experience of looking at their work was that it was very much the confirmation bias on a large scale - they had decided that a particular hypothesis was true, and so they worked to hammer data to match that hypothesis, while ignoring the actual context of the data.

Evan Davis said...

Well, maybe you can fix that and come up with better info.

Anthroslug said...

When I have some time, I intend to. But, and as I say I can not recall the specifics at this point, when I read the stuff before I kept running into things that left me thinking "hold on, that's not right, they're exluding disconfirming data", unless they have radically changed, I suspect I will see more of the same. But, again, I will check into it and see.

Anthroslug said...

I read a couple of article posted during a break today, and I will read more. However, the two that I read (one trying to place the setting of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica and the other reviewing a book critical of FARMS) were pretty much what I remember. There was an a-priori assumption that the Book of Mormon was true, a grasping for information that seemed to confirm it, and a lack of acknowledgement that there might be more information available or a flat-out denial that such information exists (and I can assure you that it does).

I will read more and see if I just stumbled on to a couple of bad articles, but, so far, it appears to be simply an apologetics organization rather than an actual research organization.

Evan Davis said...

D'oh! Oh, well, they're supposed to be producing scienfically based stuff. I have never actually looked into the info they produce. So, maybe I might be better equipped to cover the topic than I thought.

Anthroslug said...

Yeah, and I have read more. The more I read, the worse it gets. I may read more and write something on it down the road, but for now all I can say is that these guys aren't a credible source for archaeological information.