Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Karen Armstrong - A short history of myth

I'm currently reading Karen Armstrong: A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005. 1841957038

Karen Armstrong asks 'what is myth?' and looks, as a starting point, at Neanderthal graves. There are, she says, five things about myths that these Neanderthal graves can tell us:

1. '[Myth] is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.'

Well, it hardly takes a genius to work out the first part of that and the second is a logical consequence, so I'll go along with it.

2. 'The animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. Mythology is usually inseperable from ritual.'

Not as inseperable, it seems to me as archaeologists and ritual. Might the bones have simply been food? Still a ritual, perhaps, but not a sacrifice. Something more prosaic.

3. 'The Neanderthal myth was in some way recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience.'

No problems with the latter point, but how can she possibly extrapolate this from the evidence of Neanderthal graves? How can she know this?

4. 'Myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.'

Again, no argument with the latter sentiment, but how can she possibly reach that conclusion from Neanderthal graves? Fine, there were many grave goods in them, but how can she possibly link those goods to specific myths, and how can she divine any message from those myths?

5. 'All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology.'

And yet again, it seems to me that this is to ascribe something to Neanderthal graves that is unknowable. For this to therefore be the basis of a thesis about the nature of myth is surely an uncertain foundation.

This put me in mind of the Nietzsche quote I posted a while back:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

It seems to me, in this work, it's not only history that myth is being turned into. What we have here is the development of metamyths - myths about myths.

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