Starting the Canongate Myths series …

A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

One of my reading resolutions for 2010 is to read the entire Canongate Myths series – re-tellings of age old stories by great authors. While I’m not intending to read them in strict publication order necessarily, (I managed to snaffle a copy of the latest addition Orphans of Eldorado by Milton Hatoum from the publisher – thank you Canongate), it is sensible to make Karen Armstrong’s scholarly appraisal of the role of myth in history the first.

But, what is a myth? Chambers dictionary defines it as:

myth / mith or (archaic) mīth/ n an ancient traditional story of gods or heroes, esp one offering an explanation of some fact or phenomenon; a story with a veiled meaning; mythical matter; a figment; a commonly-held belief that is untrue, or without foundation. [Gr mythos talk, story myth]

This doesn’t get us much further, as there is scope within that definition for rather almost contradictory ideas – from tales of the divine exploits of ancient Gods told for a moral purpose, to the tabloid-fuelled rubbish we’re pushed to believe today.

However, for Armstrong myth is spiritual; it is all about belief and the evolution of human society. She takes us from the Paleolithic belief in the sky gods, through the development of more anthropomorphic gods, to the great classical era when cities were built and the ancient Greeks started philosophising. The balance between myth and what the Greeks call logos – the logical, pragmatic thinking was beginning to change.

Plato disliked tragedy, because it was too emotional; he believed that it fed the irrational part of the soul, and that humans could only reach their full potential through logos. He compared myths to old wives tales.

Then she carries on beyond this time when mythical thinking began to pivot towards logic, to the crises in belief systems that occurred later as science began to come of age around the time of the Renaissance.

Scientific logos and myth were becoming incompatible. Hitherto science had been conducted within a comprehensive mythology that explained its significance. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a deeply religious man, was filled with horror when he contemplated the ‘eternal silence’ of the infinite universe opened up by modern science.

She ends by bringing us up to date by looking at T.S.Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which looks at “the spiritual disintegration of Western civilisation”, through the symbology of Picasso’s Guernica, to the Homeric tribute of Joyce’s Ulysses.

In conclusion, myth is proabably more important than ever. Going back to the dictionary definition above, wherein myths give meaning, it seems to me that we need myth to help explain the spiritual side of life, the universe and everything really!

I really enjoyed this short overview of the world of myth, particularly as it introduced me to many Middle Eastern and Asian mythologies that I am less than familiar with. Appetite whetted, I can’t wait to get going on the stories themselves now. (8/10)

0 thoughts on “Starting the Canongate Myths series …

  1. Michelle (su[shu]) says:

    I've only read 2 of the Canongate Myths Series, but I really love the idea behind it, and am hoping to be able to read all of them.Never read Karen Armstrong before, though I'd like to try. And your review tells me that this book may be the perfect place to start!

  2. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Michelle, I've been looking forward to reading them so much. This non-fiction starter was quite thought-provoking and will certainly make me think more about the underlying bases of the stories I would have previously. I understand that Armstrong is an author or reknown in her field, but I've not encountered her before.

  3. savidgereads says:

    I own a few of the Canongate Myth series but I don't think I have read any of them. I really want to get my Mum the whole series as she is a classicist (for Oxbridge and the like) and would adore it, I bought her Weight and The Penelopiad already, maybe one day I can get them all for her, we will see.

  4. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Simon – I think this'll be my year for myths and fairy tales. I'm sure your Mum would love a set. I believe their plan is to keep publishing a few a year for several years yet though! My Mum was going to read classics, but couldn't take up her uni place – but she definitely instilled a love of the subject in me.

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