A SHORT HISTORY
Also by Karen Armstrong
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004)
Islam: A Short History (2000)
The Battle for God (2000)
A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996)
In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (1996)
Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings (1994)
A History of God: The 4000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993)
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1992)
The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (ed.) (1991)
Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World (1998)
The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986)
Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience (ed.) (1985)
Beginning the World (1983)
Through the Narrow Gate (1981)
Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human. The Myths series brings together some of the world’s finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way. Authors in the series include: Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong, AS Byatt, David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Victor Pelevin, Donna Tartt, Su Tong and Jeanette Winterson.
A SHORT HISTORY
Copyright © 2005 by Karen Armstrong
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Canongate, 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
First published in Great Britain in 2005 by
Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh, Scotland
Printed in the United States of America
New York, NY 10003
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|i||What is a Myth?|
|ii||The Palaeolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE)|
|iii||The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE)|
|iv||The Early Civilisations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE)|
|v||The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE)|
|vi||The Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to c.1500 CE)|
|vii||The Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000)|
What is a Myth?
Human beings have always been mythmakers. Archaeologists have unearthed Neanderthal graves containing weapons, tools and the bones of a sacrificed animal, all of which suggest some kind of belief in a future world that was similar to their own. The Neanderthals may have told each other stories about the life that their dead companion now enjoyed. They were certainly reflecting about death in a way that their fellow-creatures did not. Animals watch each other die but, as far as we know, they give the matter no further consideration. But the Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it. The Neanderthals who buried their companions with such care seem to have imagined that the visible, material world was not the only reality. From a very early date, therefore, it appears that human beings were distinguished by their ability to have ideas that went beyond their everyday experience.
We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But 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, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.
Another peculiar characteristic of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally. We have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence. The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective. The imagination of scientists has enabled us to travel through outer space and walk on the moon, feats that were once only possible in the realm of myth. Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.
The Neanderthal graves tell us five important things about myth. First, it is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction. Second, the animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. Mythology is usually inseparable from ritual. Many myths make no sense outside a liturgical drama that brings them to life, and are incomprehensible in a profane setting. Third, the Neanderthal myth was in some way recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before. 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. Fourth, myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. In the Neanderthal graves, the corpse has sometimes been placed in a foetal position, as though for rebirth: the deceased had to take the next step himself. Correctly understood, mythology puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action, in this world or the next.
Finally, all mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology. It has been called the ‘perennial philosophy’ because it informed the mythology, ritual and social organisation of all societies before the advent of our scientific modernity, and continues to influence more traditional societies today. According to the perennial philosophy, everything that happens in this world, everything that we can hear and see here below has its counterpart in the divine realm, which is richer, stronger and more enduring than our own.1 And every earthly reality is only a pale shadow of its archetype, the original pattern, of which it is simply an imperfect copy. It is only by participating in this divine life that mortal, fragile human beings fulfil their potential. The myths gave explicit shape and