A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong (Book Review)

A Short History of Myth | Karen Armstrong| | A review written by Rajarshi looking into the mythical heroes and their relevance through our history mentioned in the book - A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong (Book Review) introduction || Karen Armstrong| | A review written by Rajarshi looking into the mythical heroes and their relevance through our history mentioned in the book. Submitted to Mr. Anil Persaud. | | By Rajarshi (S122E0137)| 2/22/2013| | A Short History of Myth Myth has always been a part of our lives, and affected the human mind and thought process in various ways. As Karen Armstrong said, “When Freud and Jung began to chart the modern quest for the soul, they instinctively turned to classical mythology to explain their insights, and gave the old myths a new interpretation. [] From the age of Neanderthals even till today we speak of a divine realm and a person, a messiah, a hero and person who brings hope not in human but a psychological form. From Jesus to Oedipus and Narcissism to Moses and Gilgamesh every one of them survived their period and brought out a heroic personality of a person. Human beings are unique in retaining the capacity for play. Unless they are living in the artificial conditions of captivity, other animals lose their early sense of fun when they encounter harsh realities of life in the wild. ] To survive that harsh world a person needs someone to look up to, and hence I would like to follow the thought of hero throughout the book. In the Palaeolithic period mythology was and essential to their survival as the hunting weapons and skills they evolved in order to kill their prey and achieve a degree of control over their environment. [] The very first vision of a hero who achieved the power of ascent was the shaman of the hunting groups; they provided the hunters with a vision and gave it a spiritual meaning. He flew through air and communed with gods for the sake of his people. ] The Shaman was the chief representative of the hunting societies and he travelled through world and cosmic realities to please the lords and to protect his own society. One of the examples of this heroic act can be, in Greenland, the Eskimos believed that the seals belong to goddess, who is called the Mistress of Animals. When there is a shortage of game, the shaman is dispatched to appease her and end the famine. [] Even though the shaman gave them relief and shelter, the hunters still faced guilt after a successful expedition.

Because, even if they didn’t want the animal to be killed it was their soul mode of survival and even after the hunts, they collected the bone of the animal to reconstruct the animal for it to have a new life. [] To provide shelter from this psychological trauma a myth of the hero was created where he embarked a journey away from their tribe and went through a divine dark passage with death defying monsters and dies to find a new beginning to his life. The people of the tribe told these myths not to entertain the people but the mere fact of telling a myth is what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person.

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Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives. [] And to do this, one must give up everything and descents into darkness to find his true self, and so was the myth of heroes had to do. The new Neolithic myths continued to force people to face up to the reality of death. [] The mother Goddess was not a gentle figurine but was and aggressive and who is struggling and battling the forces of nature. They considered the birth of a seed was as dangerous as giving birth to a child as it put both the lives of mother and child in danger. ] The concept of death still thrived and the myth of hunters going into a death defying journey changed to the concept of mother earth dying and comes back to life as a new seed. The Mother Earth became a symbol of female heroism, in myths that speak ultimately of balance and restored harmony. [] The myth of Anat and Baal clearly specified the struggle and the difficulty which in faced by mother Earth and the immense battle of Mot and Baal and the sexual reunion of Baal and Anat represents the whole act of dying and difficulties and the joy of a new seed and rain.

Similar myths thrived throughout the world, including Egypt and Mesopotamia where the goddesses descended from Earth to underworld and their rebirth just like what the Earth faced. This Mother Goddess is not a redeemer, but the cause of death and sorrow. Her journey is an initiation, a rite of transformation that is required of us all. [] Agriculture led to a new optimism. The seed had to die, in order to produce grain. As Karen said, In Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow. ] The beginning of a new era changed the outlook of the hero, as the people of the cities changed these heroic myths to the kings and the high rulers so that their cities could prosper and thrive. In these myths the heroic personalities concentrated on the evolution and the creation of the human being. In the myth of Tiamet and Marduk, Marduk stands on Tiamet’s massive corpse, and splits in it half like a giant shellfish, to create the heaven and earth that will be inhabited by human beings.

He promulgates laws and establishes a Divine Assembly to consolidate the new cosmic order. [] This battle between the two gods showed the people the importance of chaos in order. Similarly, the tale of Gilgamesh went. He was a historical figure, who is listed in the records as the fifth king of Uruk and a folk hero. His legends included typical heroic and shamanic feasts, and as the old Palaeolithic mythologies, it became a quest for eternal life but still remaining in the domains of the human culture. ] Later on after his return from his heroic quests, he heads back to civilization and builds monuments and structure so that even after his death he will be immortal. The people of this age started to get away from the facts of myths and soon entered the age where the need of a heroic myth is questioned which gave rise to The Axial age, the age where there was a true mark of religion and knowledge and logos and understandings. The need of the hero turned to not only surviving but an inner resolution and thus the need of a religion started to expand.

In this age people continued to examine the myths critically, but when they confronted the mystery of the psyche, they found that they still instinctively turned to old myths. [] The Chinese had no stories about gods, but they did revere culture heroes, who were in fact mythical figures but were thought to be historical. [] But even after the myth of heroes Confucius considered these mythical stories to be more important that just some old stories teaching about sacrifice, they concentrated on both the emotional resonance collected by these rites and the teachings of a correct ethical manner. ] Later on Buddha and Laozi used old myths to understand the new ideas, believing that animal sacrifice was not only useless but also cruel. [] In the Axial period, the Greeks presented logos and regarded myths as irrational and tried to find meaning but even after the end of the axial age, they continued to use myths till they were replaced by Christianity. The Jews, Christians and Muslims tried to prove their gods bidding is true historically because of the uneasy attitude to myth which had entered the Western mind with Plato and Aristotle. ] The ritual of baptism reminds us of the same hunter period where one had to endure death to begin a new life, similarly the death of Christ and his resurrection was. From a historical figure Christ became a hero, a religious god who showed the path of Christianity. Christ’s death represented mystery, and mystics make a journey into the depth of the psyche by means of disciplines of concentration that have been developed in all the religious tradition and become a version of the hero’s mythical quest. ] The importance to philosophy started growing during this period and it started to relate with spirituality, rituals and prayers. After the Dark Ages Plato’s and Aristotle’s work were found again which started to question the rationalization of myth which started today’s great era of the modern world, which solely was a child of logos. [] The whole concept of heroes changed from myths to the logical facts and scientists.

They started to scroll the scriptures and re-interpret them, question the existence of the religious matter and myths. There was no powerful mythological explanation of people’s fear and so they tried to rationalize these fears with ‘facts’. [] From the starting Karen Armstrong pointed out the fact that as we grew in technology and modernity, the grip hold of the myths started to loose. In the early stages of the human life, we were more attached and connected to the myths rather than being at distant, and the myth of the hero always gave he human mind a relaxing corner where he knew that his journey may be tough but his ultimate goal is same as everyone and should not be afraid of death. When hunters went on a hunt they made their soul pure but as we in “modern” era go to our economic markets we don’t think even once how the myths and the tales of the heroes inspire us. Our view of a hero has been turned to the logical pattern and the connection of myths from our lives is vanishing as we are advancing towards technology.

The historical element given to a myth is making something to give us shelter a cause of a destructive measure, as the value of our lives fall lower than of animals. As Karen Armstrong said, “A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. ” [] The Book “A Short History of Myth” is an attempt to bring back the connection we had once with our myths and heroes and the escape from everyday chaos.

It is a brilliant attempt by Karen Armstrong to shed light into religion reality and mythology and the chaos we live because of the logical reasoning we try to give to myths and bring a fresh start to our lost and damaged world. We should turn our views of a hero to myths not only as fascinating characters but as an inspiring idol who teaches us the importance of self realization and peace and realize the true meaning of our existence rather than just wandering this Earth and help in the destruction of our “Mother Earth”. References

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