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?”