Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Short History of Myth (reviewed by Tom Bland)

Karen Armstrong Canongate Books, 2005

Myth is one of the most important subjects for those of us who are interested in spirituality, as myth is a way of describing spirit. For me, there is no difference between spirit and vision, for to encounter spirit, is to encounter a vision of the spirit. Myth is a way of describing the vision, of bringing it into the world, so it can be seen through the world.

An example of this can be seen in the writings of St. Paul, who encountered the spirit of Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus. The vision is always paradoxical as it embraces the tangible and the intangible. On the one hand, it is a vision that is so present, it appears as a tangible presence, but on the other hand, it is intangible, composed of light. Light is a perfect metaphor for visionary experience, for it has substance and transparency to it.

One of the writers Karen Armstrong often refers to in her work is the scholar of esotericism, Henry Corbin, who writes on gnosis in Islam. He writes:

We are dealing with visions, theophanic visions. There is an actual perception of an object, of a concrete person: the figure and the features are sharply defined; this person presents all the ‘appearances’ of a sensuous object, and yet it is not given to the perception of the sense organs. This perception is essentially an event of the soul, taking place in the soul and for the soul. As such its reality is essentially individuated for and with each person; what the soul really sees, it is in case alone in seeing.(1)
Those of us who have had visionary experiences will find our own experiences reflected in Corbin’s words. He describes something quite special in his writings on gnosis. Paul’s vision would certainly be theophanic in essence, although his vision, recited in churches, is only one exoteric expression of such an experience. In his quote, Corbin is referring to the visionary experiences of a group of women, described in the apocryphal Christian text, Acts of Peter, where each of them sees a different Christ, but their visions are united in a common luminosity.

Armstrong is a very readable writer with a vivid and compelling style. Her sources for her books are truly wide ranging from the exoteric to the esoteric, which can sometimes occur in a single paragraph. Although her work is not gnostic, she refers extensively to gnostic currents in the Abrahamic faiths, revealing their mythic and visionary dimensions. In A Short History of Myth, she refers to the kabbalists’ visions of the sefirot as representing an ‘unfolding revelation’ of the divine names of God. (See p. 110) The wonderful phrase, unfolding revelation, is an apt definition of gnosis.(2)

She reveals that myth is still very much present within commonly held faiths, and shows that the polytheistic roots of these traditions, have not been lost, but simply forgotten. She is asking us to remember where our traditions come from, to see into the histories of our beliefs, ideas, thoughts and feelings. It is about understanding the myths of God and the Gods. Her book is about the myths that we live with. It is particularly about those that deepen our presence in the world. She writes:

A myth, therefore, is true because 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. If 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. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play. (p. 10)
I imagine most people with a sense of the spiritual will be able to resonate with her words. I find in it a series of questions concerning myths I live with, in particular do they enrich me and allow me to grow and become? Are they still valid and do they still resonate with me? I won’t bore the reader with my responses to them, but I say this, to show that Armstrong is concerned with myths in an experiential sense, which is, she says, one of the best ways to understand myths.

I find one of the most fascinating aspects of her work, and one that I think is of the utmost importance to us in the present age, is that myths are not fixed in time, but change through history. Although certain archetypal themes can be said to be transhistorical, like a notion of oneness, myths that reveal such richly rewarding themes, manifest in different ways in congruence to the changing nature of history. She writes:

There is never a single, orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions. But we shall also see that nature does not change much, and that many of these myths, devised in societies that could not be more different from our own, still address our most essential fears and desires. (p. 11)
And now, I want once again to turn to the vision of Paul. But before I do I first want to quote a contemporary storyteller, who said to me, ‘Stories are about making connections.’ In this regard, he seems perfectly in congruence with Armstrong. In the language of storytelling, she is asking us to address an important and valid question, ‘Do the myths we live with, connect with us?’

I think the question is not so much about believing, or even an accepting a myth, but instead being inspired by a myth. It is about being inspired to tell a myth, not only to myself, but to others who I connect with. One of the myths that intrigue and fascinate me is the myth of Jesus and the resurrection. I see it as being a myth about the nature of the divine living and dying as we live and die. It is a myth that I had a dream about, read through gospels (including the gnostic ones), and discovered a myth I resonate with, even though I am not a Christian.

For me, Paul reveals something of this way of interpreting the myth of Christ. He considers Christ a visionary experience. Armstrong writes:

St Paul did the same with Jesus. He was not so much interested in Jesus’ sayings, which he rarely quotes, or even in the events of his earthly life. ‘Even if we did once know Christ in the flesh,’ he wrote to his Corinthians converts, ‘that is not how we know him now.’ What was important was the ‘mystery’ (a word which has the etymological root as the Greek mythos) of his death and resurrection. Paul had transformed Jesus into a timeless, mythic hero who dies and is raised to new life. After his crucifixion, Jesus had been exalted by God to a uniquely high status, had achieved ‘ascent’ to a higher mode of being. But everybody who went through the initiation of baptism (the traditional transformation by immersion) entered into Jesus’ death and would share his new life. Jesus was no longer a spiritual figure but a spiritual reality in the lives of Christians by means of ritual and the ethical disciplines of living the same selfless life as Jesus himself. Christians no longer knew him ‘in the flesh’ but they would encounter him in other human beings, in the study of scripture, and in the Eucharist. They knew that this myth was true, not because of historical evidence, but because they had experienced transformation. Thus the death and the ‘raising up’ of Jesus was a myth; it had happened once to Jesus and was now happening all of the time. (pp. 107-8)
So, we can see that myth is not about believing it, but living it, and being transformed by it. My dream of the resurrection led me to an insight, that the divine reality lives and dies, for it is a mirror of the world. It exists throughout the world, and experiences itself through the world. I am able to tell this myth, for I have, in some small sense, lived through it, through the dream I experienced.(3)

I think in some respects this is what Armstrong is advocating in her books, for in them, she retells the myths, revealing their importance for our postmodern times, making a case that we have not left myth behind, but simply that we have forgotten its presence, through overt rationalism and an abandonment of the senses. I cannot agree more with this, and I’m sure anyone who picks up A Short History of Myth, will find a rewarding work that speaks to them.


1) Henry Corbin, ‘Divine Epiphany and Spiritual Rebirth in Ismailian Gnosis,’ Papers from the Eranus Yearbook, Volume 5, Bollingen, 1964, p. 70.

2) Gnosis is a Greek word that translates literally as ‘knowledge,’ but figuratively means something more akin to ‘insight.’ It is essentially an unveiling of the divine, which lead to insights concerning the origins of the spirit. See Elaine Pagel, The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin, 1990.

3) Such dreams are common to many people undergoing life changes. Petruska Clarkson writes on this in her essay, ‘Metanoia: A Process of Transformation,’ in her book, On Psychotherapy, Whurr, 1993, pp. 67-9.

An Afternoon Workshop

‘There is a light within a person of light
and it shines on the whole world.
If it does not shine it is dark.’
The Gospel of Thomas
An afternoon workshop for anyone who wishes to have a deeper sense of spirit within his or her life. We will be opening a space wherein we can bring spirit into being as a shared experience. We shall do this through specific exercises, such as reading from the heart, storytelling, dialogue and meditation. In this way, we hope to cultivate qualities associated with spirit, like intuition, inspiration and insight.

Facilitator: Tom Bland is a writer, storyteller and group leader. He has a passion for wisdom stories and sayings. He is deeply influenced by the writings of Carl Jung.

Date: 2-6 pm, Saturday 3rd July Cost: £20
Venue: Jung Club Library, 1 More’s Garden, 90 Cheyne Walk, London. The nearest tube is Sloane Square.
To book a place, please contact Tom at or 020 8686 4373.