A Short History of Myth, part 4
Source material that is simply bad
To be fair to Armstrong, I would assume much of her previously mentioned double standards arose from her source material. I do not know why she chose to lean so heavily on such dated and inaccurate material for a book written in 2006. I do not refer here to original source materials such as religious texts. Not only will they, almost by definition, be extremely old, but there are those who would also claim they are quite outdated. ;) Instead, I am bemused as to why Armstrong made the choices she did of modern researchers. In the rapidly expanding and changing field of prehistoric archaeology, as a single example, it makes no sense to depend on “armchair theoreticians” rather than the primary sources of archaeologists out in the field and doing the actual research.
For example, while Burkert’s works on ancient Greek rituals of sacrifice may be completely accurate, they were written in 1985; a great deal more research and discovery has occurred since that time. Joseph Campbell’s theorizing works aren’t much more recent, being written in the late ’80s, and the dates of other reference works Armstrong quoted from are even earlier. N. K. Sandars’ initial (and, I believe, somewhat clumsy) translation of Inanna’s descent into the Underworld was from 1971; he referred to the myth as “Inanna’s Journey to Hell,” for example, which clearly shows a christian gloss on a religion which had no hell equivalent. Searching the References section of the book, I find works and translations published in 1960, 1953, 1923, and even 1912. The most recent book I can find was published back in 1999, for a book written in 2006 — almost a decade later!
Even worse, Armstrong’s most frequently referenced author is Mircea Eliade. Sadly, Eliade has been quite clearly unmasked as a definite — and very unscientific — mysogynist, to the point that he either ignores or actually mistranslates original works in his writings! For example, in his 1951 book Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ecstasy he never actually talked to any shamans — he just reported on the writings of those who did. Even then he was astonishingly bigoted, referring to the Chilean Mapuche women shamans as evil “sorceresses,” considering the traditional predominance of women in Korean shamanism as “deterioration in traditional shamanism,” misquoting authors to imply the great and revered Chinese and Japanese shamanic women were “possessed persons of rudimentary type” with ritual “techniques of possession by ghosts” (Eliade quoted by Tedlock, p. 64). If this happened once or twice, it could be just a lamentable error. When there’s a consistent pattern of Eliade denigrating, ignoring, or re-defining information on women (and women alone) from all his original sources… as they say, that’s definitely enemy action.
Admittedly, this patricentric viewpoint was par for the course then. I suppose it simply didn’t occur to most Western men to realize either that their cultures were not the norm for all human societies — or that women might be not just the peers of men, but also powerful and revered leaders of entire cultures. For an excellent (if also somewhat depressing, since this issue is unfortunately still extant) rebuttal of the pervasive male bias of the time frame in which most of Armstrong’s reference works were written, I recommend the opening chapters of Barbara Tedlock’s The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine.
The myth of human history as always progressing ‘upwards’
This is both a common misconception, and (sadly) incredibly easy to disprove. For example, if human history is a tale of constant improvement of the species, how do we explain the two world wars, or all the current wars in which the US is engaged? How do the horrors of the Holocaust or the brutal modern rapes and beatings of African lesbians — supposedly in order to ‘cure’ them — theoretically ‘improve’ the perpetrators of these obscenities? In what way do we consider the torture at Abu Ghraib a reaching towards the sacred?
Fortunately Armstrong’s belief in this myth is not quite so graphic as the examples I have provided. Her support of it, however, can be seen in her writing. I’ve already mentioned her peculiar double standard regarding gendered deities through time. For another set of examples, the last chapter in her book is titled “The Great Western Transformation” — as if all Eastern thought was not an important part of civilization, and as if nothing truly ‘great’ in religious thought occurred anyway until about 1500 CE.
There’s also the use of the term “Axial Age” for another, earlier chapter — a time which seems to be ‘axial’ mostly because men of the time (who almost across the board considered women not worthy of consideration) came up with, and violently enforced, monotheistic theocracies for the first time. I’m not sure how this is so wonderful a development that we’d want to name an era after it, however. If anything, I’d think modern scholars would be embarrassed to admit to such a short-sighted and mysogynistic worldview.
Finally, the even-earlier chapter 4 is titled “The Early Civilizations” — as if Armstrong does not consider our ancestors civilized until the rise of the militaristic city-states around 4000 years ago. I find this a common and perplexing trope. In what way is killing people en masse so you can steal their stuff a sign of civilization? Wouldn’t it be more civilized to live peacefully together, as occurred in the Neolithic city of Catal Hoyuk?
For that matter, two of the definitions of civilization are: “a society in an advanced state of social development (e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations)” and “a particular society at a particular time and place.” I would tend to believe clumping up into large, quarrelsome, settled groups — with the ensuing increases in disease, warfare, slavery, interpersonal argument, violent death, and damaging hierarchy — is not necessarily an accurate indicator of “civilized” behavior. Keeping that in mind, how do we know our Paleolithic or Neolithic ancestors had no complex, advanced social rituals? Quite bluntly: we don’t. It is yet another inaccurate assumption of Armstrong’s, concerning the myth of human history being a constant “upwards” progression.
By the end of the fifth chapter I simply could not stomach any more, and I stopped reading. From what I’ve been told, and reviews I’ve read, Armstrong continues for two more chapters with her inaccuracies by focusing strongly on the three religions of the book (judaism, christianity, and islam), and apparently misunderstanding the true nature of hinduism. Supposedly she closes her book with a call for us to return to belief in myth, but quite frankly if what she presents us with was all myth really represented, I’d eschew it in disgust as well.
I’m truly sorry to see her writing so riddled with anthropological fallacies and religiously ethnocentric conservatism. Further, I consider it a tragedy there will be people out there who believe the peculiar version of human history which this book presents is actually correct. Honestly, what this book presents as ‘history’ is just as much a pack of myths as is the book’s actual subject matter. I’d hoped for so much more.