On Myths and the Role of Novelists

Are you interested in creative writing?

Perhaps even fantasy writing?

Or are you simply interested in discussion on religion’s role in society, and its evolution?

Well, when I decided to read and review Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth” I thought I’d be catering to the writing/dreaming crowd. I hadn’t suspected that the conclusions from this small little book would be relevant and applicable to… well… EVERYONE.

So I’ll start with that latter part – the themes and message of the book, along with my thoughts afterwards. Since that part is long, I’ll dedicate a separate post to how one could use this knowledge in one’s own writing (and world-building!).

Summary

In “A Short History of Myth”, Armstrong builds the case that we, humans, have an ingrained capacity and need for mythical thinking. Or, in her words, we are “myth-making creatures.” She shows how the successful myths of each time period and people were relevant to their own circumstances, and how myths faded from importance when they no longer were relevant to them. To be relevant, a myth had to provide meaning to their lives. Good myths allowed people to transcend their circumstances, to face adversities and death with fortitude and acceptance, and to put meaning into their actions and their surroundings.

Armstrong claims that myths were originally never meant to be literal or historical – they were humanity’s efforts to understand and rationalize the world around them. Ultimately the point of myths were the lessons and meanings humans gained, usually through rituals, customs, and ‘coming of age’ ceremonies (for instance, boys in some cultures were put through a ‘near death experience’ so they could be reborn as adults and face hunts and battles with bravery) – rather than being the literal stories themselves.

We have two modes of thinking, Armstrong says: myth and logos – rational, logical thought. And she says both modes of thinking are essential – logos is crucial to survival in the real world, but myth is essential to our spiritual survival since logos has no answer for our existential questions, deepest emotions, and darkest thoughts and fears. Myths are meant to inspire us and guide us towards becoming the best people that we can be (for instance, the myth of the hero). They are meant to have us approach nature and the questions of the unknown with wonder and a sense of enlightenment, content, acceptance.

Basically, the best myths are meant to help us function as compassionate people that can deal on a spiritual level with questions of life and death.

But we have departed from those types of myths…

Due to a movement claiming that only proven, rational things should be believed in (physics, etc.) and that myths are a smudge left by “barbarian societies” that need to be done away with. This movement began in Greece with philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and then resurfaced in the 1500s when the New World was “discovered” and their works were rediscovered as well.

Armstrong claims that this movement failed to realize that myths were never meant to be seen as real historical events, or read literally. (Sometimes I wish I had lived in one of those myth-based cultures – so that I could see exactly what the differences between their views on their beliefs are versus our own views on our own today. Is it really that simple to take a non-literal view on myths, or religion? Or for almost everyone in a culture to, at least?)

Christianity tried to survive this logos-is-king down-with-the-myths movement by claiming that everything in the Bible was historically accurate. Reformists tried to remove mythical elements from Christianity (some even attacked the Holy Trinity). Armstrong notes that the reformers (Martin Luther, Puritans, Calvin) had frequent reports of depression and mania. She believes this is because they did not have myths to help them transcend the harsh unknowns that logos could not address.

In our modern age, Armstrong claims, logos alone has not improved humanity – without our original, compassion-teaching myths, humans needed something to fill the void. And some of us created ‘bad myths’ based on beliefs of racial superiority and fears.

Today we are causing environmental destruction, living passively and idolizing modern ‘heroes’ on TV while not taking action to be heroes ourselves (which was the intent of the original ‘hero myth’), and more lost, frightened, and separated than we have ever been before.

Yet Armstrong says there is still hope – people still seek that feeling of transcendence, and find it in music, art, and literature. She says that while myths were never meant to be read privately, but aloud during rituals to truly absorb the myth, she says that reading today brings people out of our reality into other worlds as well. She points to writers of magic realism and distopian novels (1984) that challenge us to think about how we should act, and at the most effective level change how we see the world, or live our lives.

She says she hopes that today’s novelists will bring myths back into our lives. These myths may help us realize, for example, that our planet is valuable, that we should practice compassion across cultures, and that we can and should act as heroes and embrace bravery in this day and age.

Thoughts

As an atheist, I found this little book to be incredibly thought-provoking, convincing, and view-changing. Especially from some of my earlier views, when I saw atheism as a movement against religion (kind of in Richard Dawkins’style – though I’ve only read a few chapters of “God Delusion,” I’m pretty sure that’s what he was going for).

The idea that we have mythical thinking hard-wired in us, that we have used it as a survival and life-enhancing mechanism – that’s big. I believe it. We all want the answer, we all seek the truth where we can, and when we see some crazy phenomenon that we can’t explain, such as perhaps an 80 foot tree growing on an otherwise barren 15 foot diameter rock sitting on and not in the ground, we think of stories – the seed with the most persistence survived, the brave seed took the dare, it was a challenge and thousands of seeds were plucked and eaten but one stayed and took thousands of years just to begin growing. Or perhaps there’s too much logos in those ideas. One might have thought a god decided to reward the traveler that had come through this difficult path with a symbol of fortitude. Or had put the tree there in some hero’s honor.

So why not make and use stories to encourage ourselves to transcend our current reality, our current selves?

I appreciate now more than ever the role that religions play for their followers. They provide that other dimension in life that so many of the rest of us skeptics feel the absence of, like we’re blind without guides.

But I am opposed to the idea that “one religion fits all.” Or “(insert religion here) is wrong, bad, evil.” Every society that has developed myths or religion has done so to bring meaning that channeled through their own circumstances, each one had a different experience, and each one armed themselves with the values and philosophy of their myths rather than the ‘facts’ from their myths to face the world. Not all religions have evolved perfectly, but no one is totally perfect or imperfect – it’s how people interpret them and live them that makes the difference. I believe we should see people for those values, for who they are, rather than simply from where they come from and what they prey to. We are all human, with the same basic spiritual needs, and by adding global compassion to our virtues, perhaps we can unite.

Aspiring writers – you’ve been called upon to change the world with effective books! Get to it! (I’ll try my best as well! Group effort!)

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