A Short History of Myth, part 1
The first book by Karen Armstrong which I read was A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was absolutely amazing to me — chock-full of new ideas, fascinating religious philosophy, and beautiful writing. Since then I have read a few others as well by Armstrong, and I was delighted at the marvelous mix of feminism and freshness of thought she brought to the spiritual topics she wrote about. Her writing was scholarly and intellectually freeing, but she always managed to present her information in an informal and easily accessible manner. I was also interested to discover she was a former nun; that, I thought, was possibly part of the reason she was both so well educated on the subjects she wrote about, and such a religiously thoughtful feminist.
I was quite excited, therefore, to hear a textbook for one of my classes would be one of her newer books: A Short History of Myth. I checked it out from the library — a slim little volume — and settled down with pleasure to happily devour her wonderful writings.
The book had an introductory chapter titled “What is a myth?” and then was broken up into six sections dividing up human history, to whit: the Paleolithic Period: the Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE), the Neolithic: the Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE), the Early Civilisations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE), the Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE), the Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to 1500 CE), and the Great Western Transformation (c. 1500 to 2000). By the end of the introductory chapter I was pleased to find a few rather good comments regarding myth:
A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. … if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. … Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented (pg 10).
One chapter later, however… I was feeling rather disgruntled. It hit me rather strongly: throughout the entire chapter there was a disturbing focus on only men. In fact, women were mentioned only once or twice, and always in reference to men, i.e. “men and women” was the generalization — but all actual examples given were solely concerning men. It felt almost as if, to Armstrong, women simply did not exist during the Paleolithic! Unfortunately she was also drawing from extremely dated information: she referred to the Paleolithic males (i.e. not all humans?) as “the hunter ape” (pg 28) and “man the killer” (pg 30), rather than realizing the humans of that time period appear to be, from the research done, more likely gatherer/scavengers — with women collecting the vast majority of the food.
Later she makes the breathtakingly inaccurate statement: “Hunting was an exclusively male activity” (pg 38). That one caused my jaw to drop in astonishment, as we’ve known for over a decade now from examining the debris in Paleolithic middens and graves that the women hunted using woven grass nets with small rock weights, and killed their prey with beating sticks or rocks. Equally, we’ve known most of the so-called big game hunting the men were supposed to have done was in actuality scavenging: due to microscopic examination of the bones of large prey animals found in the middens of the Paleolithic humans, scientists noted the scratches caused by humans tearing meat off the bones was on top of — therefore came after — the scratches left by the teeth and claws of big predators, such as sabertooth cats.
I could rant on for quite some time concerning the string of equally inaccurate assumptions threading constantly through the book, but I won’t waste our time in that fashion. Instead I’ll confine myself to just three issues which I think perfectly exemplify how inaccurate and unfortunate this book is: Armstrong’s apparently unwitting double-standards, her reliance on outdated and blatantly inaccurate source material, and her dismaying view of history as a constant “upward” progression.