A Return to Mythos

'We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.'

'A Brief History of Myth' by Karen Armstrong has turned out to be a very thought-provoking book for me. I had become interested in the role of mythology in human life two years back when i read an interview of Joseph Campbell, but reading this book gave me the opportunity to visualize the issue more clearly. Despite the writing being ambiguous and muddled at several places, Karen Armstrong doesn't fail to convey a fair impression.

In the book, Armstrong sets out to overcome two challenges: to explain why myths are still relevant today; and to sketch a brief history of their development from prehistoric times to the present day. It was this first aspect which was of greater interest to me, and about which i shall have something to say.

The interesting thing is the way Armstrong perceives a myth. She does not agree with the general opinion of myth as being "purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events ... " but she sees myth as something deeper, something more significant. A myth, says Karen Armstrong "is an event that - in some sense - happened once, but which also happens all the time." A myth is not meant to be a historically or factually accurate account of reality... it is never meant to be taken literally... in fact, it cannot be described in terms of 'true and false'... it is beyond that. Mythology is designed to give meaning and significance to human life... to help us come to terms with the harsh realities, with death and disease. It is a sort of therapy.

She writes:

"A myth, therefore, is true becaus it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. It it works, that is, 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."


"A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice-- ritually or ethnically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible."

It is important to note that Armstrong also sees religion in the mythological light. Although she does maintain some sort of a distinction between the two, yet she blurrs it considerably.

The decline of myths began with the Enlightenment and the preference of logos, human reason, over mythos, the mythological narrative. Humans became so much used to rational thinking, that they began to see myths in literal terms... and this was a death blow to mythology, because myths were never intended as literal truths.

"The old myths were beginning to be interpreted as though they were logoi, an entirely new development which was doomed to disappoint, because these stories were not and never had been factual."

But this lack of myths has created a vacuum in our lives... we have lost the therapeutic effect which these myths once exerted on humans. We still long for a significance and meaning in life, to experience something deeper. Armstrong ends with an optimistic note, saying that arts and literature have the potential to play the role in our lives which mythology once did.

"A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our self-interest."

In the world of today, a victim of over-emphasis of logos, Karen Armstrong offers us the opportunity to bring the component of mythos in our lives, and to save ourself from the despair and alienation of a life based completely and absolutely on reason.


gaya said…
Well explained.
Ali K. said…
Good post. The meaning of life may differ from person to person but this should not stop us from from giving one to ours.

/But this lack of myths has created a vacuum in our lives... we have lost the therapeutic effect which these myths once exerted on humans. We still long for a significance and meaning in life,/

Have you heard of Logotherapy? Stumbled upon in it once. Havn't read the book-:


Awais said…
Welcome to the blog, Ali. It's so good to see an intelligent, knowledgeable person like you. Keep commenting! :)

Oh, i had read about the life of Viktor Frankl but i didn't know that he had formed a separate psychological school called Logotheraphy. Very interesting. Hmmm.