The Power of Myth

I’ve just finished reading a great little (155-page) book by Karen Armstrong called ‘A Short History Of Myth’.

Mythology is one of these areas that fascinates me but that I always seem to push back from digging into any greater detail – hence the bookshelves filled with a few classics (such as my namesake-but-no-relation Joseph Campbell). I think that attitude is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of myth in society over the millennia. And loathe as I am to say it, perhaps it shows a bit of snobbishness towards stories that are clearly untrue, when there’s so much raw factual ‘knowledge’ out there just waiting to be hoovered up.

But what the book has shown is that this is the common mistake that people make towards myths – particularly over the last century or so, as learning and technology has accelerated.

For me, the key point of the book is this:-

“Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative.

“We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought. We cannot complete recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education and return to a pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. We are myth-making creatures”

The approach towards the origin stories of religion is also fascinating. Part of the problem, as Armstrong views it, is that from the time of the Enlightenment in the Eighteenth Century, the rational approach to the world took hold. This was a huge improvement in many ways. But as she says:-

“By this time, people were reading the cosmogonies of Genesis as though they were factual….Creation stories had never [in the past] been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion”.

In many ways, the problem is becoming even more acute today. Practical improvements that have been based on research have revolutionised lives – but they overwhelmingly fail to give humans the sense of significance that they require. Or to put it another way:

logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was discredited”.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. But on a rational level, it’s always been slightly mystifying why he is just as successful as he is. Literally everything he touches, across every genre – novels, screenplays, audiobooks, graphic novels etc – wins awards. Pretty much without exception. His book signings go on for hours upon end – I know, because I’ve been to a couple of them.

But it’s clear what the attraction is. Each of his stories is heavily based in a mash-up of mythologies, modern but informed by the hundreds of years of the very best stories that have come before and been successfully taken in and shared by many thousands if not millions of people across the ages.

“Before the modern period, it was generally taken for granted that there was no ‘official’ version of a myth. People had always felt free to develop a new myth or a radical interpretation of an old mythical narrative”.

That is, I believe, exactly what’s happening with Gaiman, amongst many others. There’s a human yearning to learn the lessons of humanity via the method of mythology. So I can’t imagine that fan base disappearing any time soon.