Myth and Modernity


  • Karen Armstrong. A Short History of Myth. Cannongate, 2005.
  • Brendan McMahon. The Princess Who Ate People: The Psychology of Celtic Myths. Heart of Albion, 2006.

Are myths still valuable in our contemporary secular age? These two books, from very different perspectives argue that they are.

Karen Armstrong, a noted critic of religious fundamentalism, defends the role of myth in providing meaning in the world and argues for contemporary relevance. Sadly her short history is largely based on the work of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, whose theses were based more on their own radical Rightist socio-political agendas and religious concerns, than with the actual beliefs of historically or geographically remote societies. For example Eliade’s belief in a primal monotheism probably has more to do with his own Catholicism than the beliefs of the cultures he discusses. We probably know a lot less about these than we think we do, because often the real beliefs of many non-literate cultures were only available to the initiated, so much of the information comes from colonial anthropologists, officials and missionaries with their own often political agendas. By the time these people were reporting there was scarcely a culture on the planet which hadn’t been exposed to some degree at least to either Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

When it comes to arguing how myths can be made relevant to modern secular societies, and what the sources of mythology may be, all Karen Armstrong can come up with is that we might seek inspiration from novels. But the examples she gives are all from a high literary tradition, read only by a small section of the population. This may, of course, be because her book is the prologue to a series in which contemporary novelists give their own takes on the traditional myths. I would be tempted to argue that science fiction films, soap operas, comic books and computer games form a much more vital source of the mythic imagination today.

Another use for the mythic imagination is suggested by Brendan Mcmahon, a psychotherapist, in providing an insight into human psychology. His particular interest is in the traditional mythology of Ireland, which he sees providing a richer psychological portrait than the classical Freudianism in which he was trained. To some extent these stories, by the time they were written down, were no longer myths, they were in the fashion of legends and tales of daring-do in the olden times. They were no longer ritualised narratives which explained and upheld the cosmic order, rather they are stories which explore universal human themes of joy and sorrow, life and death, love and hate, crime and vengeance, faithfulness and betrayal, to say nothing of the high crimes and misdemeanours of the rich and powerful. They were the soap operas of their day. If we are looking to a therapy of the mythic imagination, then it is probably to contemporary narratives that we should turn, which is why soap operas and Sunday tabloids are so successful.

For Magonia readers perhaps the main interest will be in applying the views of Armstrong and McMahon to the kinds of ‘contemporary visions and beliefs’ which we study. These might make disturbing studies, for in many of these contemporary beliefs the people at the centre are no longer masters of their fate, in the interstices of their lives, they no longer undertake virtual adventures to remote realms, or battle with fearsome monsters, rather they are the passive victims, of things that happen to them. Unlike past times the core of our mythic imagination is no longer the hero but the victim.   |PR|

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