A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

3 December, 2012

And so I come to the end of my brief foray into myths beginning with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and going on to Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Winterson’s Weight and ending somewhat appropriately with Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth. I like to tie things together and Armstrong’s book is like an afterword to my mini reading project.

It’s a short non-fiction account of the place of myth in literature and society and inevitably this touches upon belief as myths are often the basis of both history and religion. I wasn’t sure how Armstrong would manage it as going back into proto-history, before the written and oral traditions flourished, is like treading on water.

Although a little tedious and overwhelming at times, there were several fascinating strands in Armstrong’s short history. From the early stone age, bronze age, the Assyrian, Mesoptamian and Egyptian civilisations to the Green, Roman and Judeo-Christian world, it’s an absorbing study into how early priests and scholars assimilated and incorporated their basic understanding of nature and the world into their daily cosmology. These evolved into ideologies and structures of government and social rule simultaneously transforming the myths themselves as people’s understanding and needs changed.

Although I was expecting a more western-centric history, that is a failing on my part as Armstrong shows just how diverse and rich our literary tradition is. And in turn, it shows that however admirable her attempt is, this is a huge undertaking and probably needed a more extensive study. But it certainly opened my eyes to the wealth of stories out there and I will be sure to delve further into mythologies, and not just the Greek myths.

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17 Responses to “A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I’ll probably get around to reading this someday. I love Armstrong’s books, and I love books about myths, but I don’t think this is her strongest book (based on reviews). Nice to see a new opinion!

  2. lemon123 Says:

    I would like to read a good book about myths. I often hear about a Edith Hamilton’s book. It’s very hard to hear about any other books about myths. Glad to see and read your review.

  3. Gavin Says:

    I have this one on my list for the nest “Once Upon A Time” event, mythology being one of my loves. I’ve tagged you with an award. Please join in if you feel like it!

  4. Grizzly Says:

    Oh dear, said the great god Zeus,
    there’s this woman I want to seduce
    when I go as a bull
    I don’t always pull
    so I’ll see how I do as a goose.

    And thence the Trojan war and all that…


  5. Nice overview, I read Ragnorak by A.S.Byatt this year, she grew up with the Norse myths, and her writing is much influenced by them, I have a superficial knowledge but love reading about myths as an insight to ancient cultures and into how they continue to resonate for many today. Must look out for Armstrong’s work.

    • sakura Says:

      I was just looking at Ragnarok the other day in a bookshop. Hopefully I’ll get to read it soon. I’m not very familiar with Norse myths either, only catching snatches here and there, so I’m looking to find out more!

      • Fëanor Says:

        It’s a little book and has an autobiographical tenor to it – at least, I think it’s vaguely autobiographical. Norse myths are full of vim and violence and multiple consonants. Yggdrasil anyone? 🙂


  6. It’s been a long time since I read this, but I remember wishing it was longer, too!

  7. winstonsdad Says:

    I ve one of her other books in my tbr so if I like that I know what to get next ,all the best stu


  8. Reblogged this on Paul Robinsons Library and commented:
    An Interesting blog entry..


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