A SHORT REVIEW OF A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH

Maybe this world is another planet’s Hell. -Aldous Huxley

Suppose you are among this world’s more comfortable creatures, living the good — even privileged — life. You may therefore think Aldous Huxley was a pessimist, at best. Maybe, from where you’re sitting, you don’t see his Brave New World as all gloom and doom. From “another planet,” however, maybe Huxley’s vision wouldn’t seem far-fetched. Maybe that vantage point would reveal how Earth’s other half lives. Two views vying for accepted wisdom; distance as metaphor for perception. What is myth? What is reality?

The above is the sort of rumination one might entertain as one reads Karen Armstrong’s A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH, which opens with the sentence Human beings have always been mythmakers. Because “myth is about the unknown, we are meaning-seeking creatures [with] imagination, the faculty that produces religion and mythology. 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.”

According to Armstrong, “mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience. People thought that gods, humans, animals and nature were inextricably bound up together, subject to the same laws, and composed of the same divine substance.”

“Some of the very earliest myths were associated with the sky, which seems to have given people their first notion of the divine. When they gazed at the sky [which] towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal, [they] had a religious experience.” The book goes on to trace mythical thinking and practice, which has helped “many to avoid despair,” down  through the ages up to the Enlightenment and the alienation of modern times.

Where I differ with Armstrong is her contention that “We must disabuse ourselves of the fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought.” Her reasoning is beyond the scope of a brief review such as this, and I do not wish to over-simplify it by trying to sum it up in a sentence or two (read her book, if interested). For my part, I grant that each of us must face the eternal questions with whatever coping resources we can muster, but I am not a “one size fits all” solver. To the contrary, history shows that “one size fits all” fits no one but tyrants, bigots and ideologues.

This is not to say that I believe myth “represents an inferior mode of thought” to those for whom, for whatever guileless reason (immaturity, honest ignorance, being brainwashed), myth is reality. For the un-guileless, purely rational thinking can be a brave but lonely place for someone without empathy for the myth believers. Perhaps Pope Francis (in another context) said it best: “Who am I to judge?”

 

 

 

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15 comments on “A SHORT REVIEW OF A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH

  1. Don Frankel says:

    Good one Muse. I’ve always been bewildered at how when I start to write something it often comes out quite different than what I was thinking of. I know if God was whispering in my ear when I got done it wouldn’t be the same thing he told me. Why? Because I’m using words and words are symbols. So in my little pea I have for a brain I think that everything, everyone, ever writes, makes an image of or vocalizes, is only symbolic.

    We can’t even see or hear all of what is out there. But somehow we know. I don’t think we do or well, I don’t. But like I said I have a pea for a brain. But I think we’re all just dancin’ in the dark, till the tune ends.

    Might as well enjoy the music.

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    • mistermuse says:

      Don, I can certainly relate to what you experience when you start to write something, although my experience differs somewhat. I start with knowing what I want to say, but not knowing how I’m going to say it. For me, it’s usually a process of one thing leads to another, then going back and polishing and editing what I’ve written (usually multiple times) until I’ve got it as right as I think I can get it. The downside is that this can be very time consuming, but that’s the price of being a relative perfectionist (how’s that for an oxymoron?).

      As for “Might as well enjoy the music” — absolutely! At the same time, I can’t help but be aware of those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to enjoy the music.

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  2. arekhill1 says:

    The fallacy is not that myth-making is an inferior mode of thought–it is–but that myth-makers and believers were inferior thinkers. They just didn’t have alternative explanations for reality.

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  3. mistermuse says:

    My problem is not so much with myth-makers and believers as with those who push or coerce their myths and beliefs unto others — which, unfortunately and all too often, seems to be the nature of the beast. I have little or no quarrel with simple believers (and I don’t mean that as a derogatory term) who simply believe, live and let live.

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    • In your last comment, mistermuse, your mistrust of religious teaching is obvious to us who know you as best we can. Perhaps all those myths peope think of is just an imaginary bridge to something supernatural that we only have a very slight glimpse of here on this planet. Or it may be that some human persons have an exceptional imagination that accompanies their high intelligence. I have a little idea of what I am going to write when a poem comes to mind but the way it now just appears on my computer screen is not easily explained. I am still questioning what I believe and don’t believe. It is an ongoing process.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mistermuse says:

    According to Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” — as opposed, I suppose, to accepting a thought without first entertaining it. Along those lines, I am NOT still questioning what I believe….but I am still OPEN to questioning what I believe.

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  5. mistermuse says:

    Michaeline, it is well that you are very grateful you are not a man, as I hear sex-change operations are very expensive.

    But seriously, I think we would do well to understand that the mere fact of being educated is less important than HOW one is educated. Religion educates to accept the beliefs and doctrines of whatever religion is doing the educating. Even secular education falls short if it doesn’t educate to question and think for oneself. I had to learn the latter for myself, so in the most important sense of all, I am self-educated. That is how the (for me) slow process of questioning what I was taught to believe led to questioning what I should believe, until finally I’ve arrived at the point where “I am NOT still questioning what I believe….but I AM still open to questioning what I believe.”

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  6. BroadBlogs says:

    Ok, but there’s a place between “myth is reality” and “myth is ridiculous,” right? You can learn a lot from mythology if you take it metaphorically. There are a lot of different resurrection myths in a variety of cultures. The fact that you see them so often suggests that they speak to people. And they certainly can inspire a sense that “what seems like an end may really be a new beginning.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. mistermuse says:

    Indeed. I even used the word “metaphor” in the first paragraph of my post. Regarding “a new beginning” (life after death), I have never foreclosed that possibility, either in this post or in previous posts which touched on the subject. We just don’t know….and not knowing is an invitation to speculation, which is what mythology really amounts to. I don’t condemn it – I just define it (at least, as I see it).

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  8. mistermuse says:

    Before moving on to my next, more taxing, post tomorrow, myth has it that I respect the four commenters to this post for their contributions to a civilized discussion. Well, you may think I’m myth-taken, but it’s true. I do. Thank you.

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    • I agree with BroadBlogs about the line between “myth is reality and myth is ridiculous.” And mistermuse, I had to chuckle when you said you wrote “myth-taken.” Clever use of words is your trademark and this is what makes such seemingly serious discussions happier ones.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I just reread your note about the next post and I realized it most likely will be about Tax Day on April 15.
        P.S. On April 20 could you write a little bit about how the sweet pea and the daisy are this month’s flowers? Also the gem stone for April birthdays is the Diamond which carries the meaning of Innocence. ( My birthday is on Monday the 20th. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. mistermuse says:

    Well, Michaeline, I don’t know about the sweet pea, daisy and diamond, but I’ll be glad to say something about your birthday, because ancient history is becoming one of my favorite subjects. 🙂

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  10. Thanks a lot, muse. Are you implying that I am ancient? Come to think of it, I guess I am.

    Liked by 1 person

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