A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

I picked this book up at the Grande Biblioteque Nationale and had it read by the next morning. It gives you a huge, huge picture of humanity and religion (or myth) with out getting bogged down in academic crap. Here’s some quotes:

The Palaeolithic Period – 20,000 – 8000 BCE (hunter/gather)
p. 22 “…the myth of the Sky God was a failure, because it did not touch people’s ordinary lives, told them nothing about their human nature and did not help them to solve their perennial problems. The demise of the Sky Gods helps to explain why the Creator God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims has disappeared from the lives of many people in the West. A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.” My thoughts: the myth we tell people about must be relevant to real life. It must be practiced in ritual in order to be meaningful.

p. 37 “The myth tells us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person. Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives. Every baby forced through the narrow passage of the birth canal, which is not unlike the labyrinthine tunnels at Lascaux, has to leave the safety of the womb, and face the trauma of entry into a terrifyingly unfamiliar world. Every mother who gives birth, and who risks death for her child, is also heroic. You cannot be a hero unless you are prepared to give up everything; there is no ascent to the heights without a prior descent into darkness, no new life without some form of death. Throughout our lives, we all find ourselves in situations in which we come face to face with the unknown, and the myth of the hero shows us how we should behave. We all have to face the final rite of passage, which is death.”  My thoughts: – this idea of life coming from death (à la Jesus)goes way, way, way back in our genes.

The Early Civilisations – 4000 – 800 BEC
p. 72 “Survival and civilized society depends upon the death and destruction of others and neither gods nor men can be truly creative, unless they are prepared to give themselves away.”

p. 77 “Urban life had changed mythology. The gods were beginning to seem remote. Increasingly the old rituals and stories failed to project men and women into the divine realm, which had once seemed so close.

The Axial Age – 800 to 200 BCE

p. 79 “The German philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period the ‘Axial Age’  because it proved to be pivotal in the spiritual development of humanity; the insights gained during this time have continued to nourish men and women to the present day.” “It marks the beginning of religion as we know it…New religious and philosophical systems emerged: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism and Hinduism in India; monotheism in the Middle East and Greek rationalism in Europe.”

p. 80 “All the Axial movements had essential ingredients in common. They were acutely conscious of the suffering that seemed an inescapable part of the human condition, and all stressed the need for a more spiritualized religion that was not so heavily dependent upon external rituals and practice. They had a new concern about the individual conscience and morality.”

My thoughts: I find the Axial Age fascinating: to think that the ‘zeitgeist’ of this age was so spiritual, but not only this, concerned with compassion for others, not just ritual. I think in the Jewish tradition, the prophet Isaiah well represents this age: Starting in chapter 41 he hammers away on monotheism -“I am the Lord, there is no God besides me; and also his emphasis on compassion and justice – chapter 58.

The Post-Axial Period – 200 BCE – 1500 CE