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The Power of Myth

This is an excerpt from the last chapter of A Short History of Myth by religious scholar Karen Armstrong.

    We are myth-making creatures and, during the twentieth century, we saw some very destructive modern myths, which have ended in massacre and genocide. These myths have failed because they… have not been infused with the spirit of compassion [and] respect for the sacredness of all life…. These destructive mythologies have been narrowly racial, ethnic, denominational and egotistic, an attempt to exalt the self by demonising the other. Any such myth has failed modernity, which has created a global village in which all human beings now find themselves in the same predicament. We cannot counter these myths with reason alone, because logos cannot deal with such deep-rooted, unexorcised fears, desires and neuroses. That is the role of an ethically and spiritually informed mythology.
    We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a “resource.” This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.

Speaking of myths, allow me to recommend a couple of videos about what we might call the dark side of myth. Myth can be used in a political context to short-circuit reason and manipulate human behavior through emotional appeals. The first, a series of three hour-long segments aired on the BBC in 2005, is called The Power of Nightmares. It concerns the strange parallels between American neoconservatism, represented by people like Richard Perle and William Kristol, and Islamic extremism, represented by Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The second video, called Once Upon a Time in Iran (available here in a different format), follows a group of Iranian pilgrims to the shrine of Karbala in Iraq, where the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein died 1300 years ago at the hands of the caliph Yazid. It shows how Hussein’s resistance to tyranny helped to inspire Khomeini’s revolution against the Shah, seen as a modern Yazid, and is today informing the rhetoric of those who see Bush as yet another manifestation of Yezid’s spirit of tyranny.

As Karen Armstrong points out, “we are myth-making creatures,” so it would be a mistake to believe we can do away with myths and survive in the world on reason alone. We tried this in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it didn’t lead to the promised era of equality and peace. The only solution seems to be to stay alert to the myths that saturate our environment. Myths that reinforce our existing beliefs are the most effective, because we don’t even notice them. It’s easy for an American to recognize the story of Hussein and Yazid as a myth, though it is based on historical fact, but we are uncritical our own myth of America as a beacon of liberty for the world. Faced with so many myths, the most creative response is to become mythmakers ourselves. We must never forget that we have the power to appropriate myths, adapt them, attack them, talk back to them, rework them and make them our own.


Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: September 25, 2007, 15:27

Excellent post – I appreciate the deconstructivist tone…

Comment from Dave
Time: September 25, 2007, 18:41

Good stuff.

The War Against Terror is a myth born of 9/11, but it’s interesting to see how much it absorbs of other cultural myths. While frontier mentality seems to inform the T.W.A.T. discourse in America, Britain looks back to WWII, and France to the secular revolution of the early 20th century. The first two of these stories in particular involve struggling for sheer survival, and invoking these myths not only numbs critical discourse but greatly exaggerates the terror threat.

As you point out, only by learning to recognise and take control of our myths will we move towards more constructive ones.

Comment from Loula
Time: September 25, 2007, 20:48

Eatbees, this post is simply beautiful and full of wisedom as usual:-)

Comment from Loula
Time: September 25, 2007, 21:55

Eatbees, the documentary is absolutely powerful, one scene will stay with me forever the one of the goodbyes before battle. We tend to dehuminaze people, this particular scene is the proof of the contrary. Thanks again for this link, words simply elude me.

Comment from yunir
Time: September 26, 2007, 10:06

Excellent post.

Thx for this!

Comment from raqqash
Time: September 26, 2007, 17:31

I definitely agree. Myth, and the lack of it, the lack of positive myth and spirituality, is a thing I suffer inside my bones, my nerves, my very blood.
Western societies are so dry and dehumanized, I sometimes can hardly believe they are not already collapsed. But, they are dying.
The point is, do we want them to die in a damaging explosion? If we restore spirituality its rightful place in our lives, we can accompany the dying civilization to a serene death.
We have to change our myths, as you say.
My best regards

Comment from Bouba
Time: September 26, 2007, 23:28

@eatbees, this is a great post. thank you .
recreating out own myths is key. reminds me of efforts to take back the media being favorite container and pipe line for all sorts of myths. (devil, axis of evil, jewish-arab-conflist- war on staff…) i would like to see more myths about peace, democracy, rights of humans…

“As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth” (p11).

(i am reading the same book, eetbees.)

@Loula, you are totally right. it is hard to come back when we get stuck in dehumanizing myths. i totally see what you mean.

Comment from eatbees
Time: September 29, 2007, 11:29

This post seems to have hit a positive nerve with a lot of people. Isn’t the next step to imagine the kind of myths that can help us recover our sense of proportion, our connection to each other?

The cousin of myth is self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m afraid that in too many cultures today, group psychology despairs of seeing a harmonious future, so our myths are dystopian, and as a result we are spiralling toward Armageddon (the war that will destroy life on earth) as if it were inevitable—but it is only inevitable if we make it so.

@Loula — The scene of the soldiers on the eve of battle is my most powerful memory as well, from the documentaries I linked. I felt like I was there, and I wanted to be with them, because the sincerity of their feeling was so plain. It was like watching ghosts who had already crossed over, and were mourning yet celebrating all the beautiful things they had known. The rational part of me says it was folly and they were misled, but I don’t dare diminish the reality of that moment of truth. If only we could have the same sense of immanent miracle in our daily lives as these men felt on the eve of their death!

@Raqqash — If you mean that Western power and dominance are dying or already dead, I think I agree with you. But once that burden is off us, won’t it be a good thing for our civilization? Our myths will be able to express themselves freely without acting as apologists to power. Which reminds me, when I was a bit younger I used to imagine what life would be like once technology had imploded and nature had returned to the heart of the city. I used to invent myths of a return to innocence. Here is an example and here is another.

@Bouba — Aren’t the myths of our ancestors a bit like plants in the Amazon jungle that might turn out to cure cancer? They are part of our “gene pool,” a precious heritage of diversity that may have exactly the answers we need. Yet instead of preserving this resource we let it die from neglect, “improve” it with modernization (parking lots instead of gardens), or even destroy it in anger, as if the existence of something we haven’t made is intolerable to us. A good myth to tell would be of an arrogant king who destroys a magical bird that whose beauty he sees as a threat. Later he falls ill and discovers that this beautiful thing he destroyed was the one thing that could have saved his life.

Comment from Hisham
Time: September 29, 2007, 12:28

A delightful and educational post eatbees… waiting for more!

Comment from Yahia
Time: September 30, 2007, 13:18

The last sentence from the quoted book caught my attention:

“We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource.'”

I think it’s pretty silly to say this. We need no myths to know that planet Earth is in danger, and that the way we see it must change for the mutual benefit. J. Lovelock says that our planet, with all its living creatures, form one organism — that’s why we must protect and respect the planet.

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