A Short History of Myth
By Karen Armstrong
Canongate, 2006, 176 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1841958002
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 3, 2010
Karen Armstrong, a world-recognized expert on religion, summarizes the history of the development of myths from pre-historic to modern times in plain easily understandable English. She defines "myth" as attempts to explain through narratives what people see, hear, fear, or yearn for. Myths change over time when circumstances change. Myths helped Paleolithic people (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE), for example, to face up to their mortality. It taught the people of the Neolithic period (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE) that life follows death, just as a dead plant yields new plants. Where people began to live in cities, there were other changes; the gods were beginning to seem remote. The God of the early Hebrews, for example, was seen as a being who could eat and converse with Abraham as a friend. But the prophets of a later period thought of the same God as a fearful transcendent being.
When philosophy was introduced, the philosophers, who did not believe in the truthfulness of myths, used them to help explain their ideas, such as the Greek philosopher Plato's famous myth of the cave, where the intelligent person moves from the dark cave (ignorance) to the sunlight (enlightenment). Myths are still used. Jewish cabbalists, for instance, use myths to explain God, how he function, and the duty of humans to him.
Armstrong compares the myth to a novel. While both are capable of informing people with open minds about the truth, myths are unfortunately too often understood to be the literal truth.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.gefenpublishing.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes daily samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.