The idea and history of myths is explored in Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth”. Myth is culture’s way of understanding itself and the word has many meanings across ritual and anthropological, literary and semiological fields. Armstrong primarily looks at the primary meaning: its ritual and anthropological function. She believes humans have been mythmakers since at least Neanderthal times and our imagination allows us to have irrational ideas. She said the five most important things about myths are
- 1) the fact they are rooted in the fear of death
- 2) it is inseparable from ritual
- 3) they force us to go beyond our experience
- 4) they teach us how to behave and
- 5) they speak of another reality, most commonly referred to the world of the gods...
Around 4000 BCE humans began to build the first cities and with them the first civilisations. The earliest successful cities were in Iraq’s Fertile Crescent where the rate of societal rate rapidly increased. People began to learn new skills and there were new occupations: Engineers, plumbers, builders, barbers, porters, musicians and scribes. But destruction was common-place: Cities brought wars, massacres and revolutions. The violence of cities was reflected in the new mythology. Cain was the first city-builder and the first murderer. The Tower of Babel caused those who built it to be unable to understand each others speech. Mesopotamian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh were the first in which the Gods withdrew from the world. Civilisation and culture were on the ascendency and God was becoming increasingly remote.
The next major development in myth occurred between 800 and 200 BCE. Armstrong quotes German philosopher Karl Jaspers who calls this period The Axial Age because it is a pivotal era in humanity’s spiritual development. It marks the beginning of modern religion. There was Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism (Zoroastrianism and Judaism) in the Middle East and rationalism in Greece. A new market economy developed that saw power pass from holy men and kings to merchants. All the new religious movements began to tamper with the older myths. City life was making the divine more remote and alien. Indian cultures reflected this with the severe asceticism of their holy men. The Chinese did not speak of the divine at all. The philosophy of Confucius and Lao Tse were based on the ethics of how humans dealt with each other.
All the new religions believed strongly in rites which gave the myths emotional resonance. Myths demanded action. The Jews, so convinced by the emptiness of earlier myths began to insist that their god, Yahweh, was the only God. Meanwhile the Greeks used logos to find a rational basis for old myths. In matters such as physics, philosophy and drama, they explored ancient themes in new settings. Plato was impatient with myths but he saw they had an important role in the exploration of ideas that lie beyond the scope of philosophy. He used the myth of the cave to show how enlightenment is relative. Irrational matters, he conceded, might allow a plausible fable.
In the post Axial Age of 200 BCE to 1500 CE, the status of myth remained constant. Judaism inspired the myth of Christianity. The historical figure of Jesus was mythologised by St Paul. Paul was uninterested in Jesus’s teachings. What was important to him was the mystery of his death and resurrection. He turned the death and ascension in to mythical creations of the ‘everywhen’. Western Christianity used the Fall of Rome to develop the myth of Original Sin, but the myth is unknown to the eastern Orthodox, where the Roman Empire did not fall. The Christians were followed by Mohammed and the Koran. The Muslim holy book is a series of parables that speak about the divine in terms of signs and symbols.
In the 16th century, Europe (followed by its North American imitation) was beginning its world dominance. The Western modernity was based on logos. Society was freed from its dependence on the constraints of traditional cultures and forged forward fuelled on technological advances and constant reinvestment of capital. The western economy seemed infinitely renewable. This modernity bred an intellectual enlightenment that deemed myth as useless, false and outmoded. Modern medicine, hygiene, technologies and transport revolutionised life in Europe and North America. However logos could not explain these successes’ intuitive sense of significance. As a reaction, religion was read factually; hence the horror of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
In 1882, one of Nietzsche’s characters in “The Gay Science” famously proclaimed God was dead. Armstrong argues that in a sense Nietzsche was right; without myth and ritual, the sense of sacred dies. Humanity had turned God into a wholly notional truth. The nihilism of the 20th century seemed to bear this out. Iconic events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the killing fields of World War I, the death camps of World War II and the Russian gulags seemed to indicate the results of a total loss of the sacred. Armstrong argues we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the myth is false or inferior. She says we need myths that help us identify with all of humanity, creates a spiritual attitude and helps us become transcendent. She argues that “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet”. Labels: books, myth, philosophy, religion, world history posted by Derek Barry at 10:22 PM