Karen Armstrong’s new book, A short history of myth  looks at the alienation of modern society from mythology. In the context of the Parthenon (& many other monuments around the world) this is a very interesting subject. When it was built, it was a building that existed within a cultural framework of myths, stories that everyone knew & that not only related to the building but the reason for the building’s being. When we look at it now, we tend to see it as a grand architectural edifice that has lost much of its cultural context, or as a historical curiousity – a window to a past civilisation. Modern society has diverged from myths, ostensibly due to science, although as this article points out there was already an intricate understanding of science at the time monuments such as the Acropolis were created.
If people still believed in the Parthenon in the same way as they once did, would people see Lord Elgin’s denuding of the building in the same way? Do we now tend towards valuations of these monuments only for their artistic merit, or through their provenance? They have for many people lost their context & become something that could be displayed anywhere or that is appropriate to any part of the world.
The mythless society
November 2005 | 116
Science has not fulfilled its promise, and new fiction provides no more solace than reality television. We desperately need myth again. Can Canongate’s new publishing venture provide it?
A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong : (Canongate, £12)
Weight by Jeanette Winterson : (Canongate, £12)
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood : (Canongate, £12)
Who but a madman would launch a series of 100 book-length myths, as reimagined by contemporary authors, publicly committing his company to publishing several highbrow titles per season through the year 2038? The madness of Canongate publisher Jamie Byng, instigator of this epic project—simultaneously debuting in 24 countries this month—is an issue perhaps best addressed by psychologists. What the cultural critic might consider, on the other hand, is whether our society is, likewise, cracked.
This is a serious question, and a relevant one. As Karen Armstrong notes in A Short History of Myth, her smart general introduction to the series, the purpose of myth historically has been “primarily therapeutic.” Since Palaeolithic times, myths have been told, in countless forms, to help people understand the world and to guide them through life. Each society, in every era, has revisited fundamental storylines—from the labours of Heracles to the temptations of Christ—not to provide general amusement, but to serve a specific need. Since the Enlightenment, and especially in this past century, that need has ostensibly been eradicated, our anxieties addressed by science, eliminated by technology. And the mechanism of myth, our facility for make-believe, has been channelled into fiction, some literary, most entertainment: innocuous stuff easily sidelined by fact artfully arranged on page or screen.
If society is cracked, however, then science has not fulfilled its promise, and fiction as currently construed isn’t going to provide any more solace than a new reality television series. If society is cracked then we desperately need myth again. Yet, as the history of myth makes clear, not any old telling will do. Canongate has proclaimed that its Myths series, featuring books by Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, Donna Tartt and David Grossman, Victor Pelevin and Milton Hatoum, will be “the most ambitious simultaneous worldwide publication ever undertaken.” Far more significant, though, and far more challenging, will be the effort to make myth mythic again.
“Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented,” Armstrong persuasively argues in her Short History. After several hundred years of disuse, myth has lost its entire context. We encounter myth in the way that we encounter any other archaeological artefact, as point of reference to a remote time and place. When we visit the Parthenon, it isn’t out of respect for the goddess Athene, but out of curiosity about the worship practices of the ancient Greeks, or simply to admire the temple’s spectacular stonework. Likewise, our encounters with Athene in the Odyssey are borne of anthropological interest, or appreciation for Homer’s artistry. We know that the Parthenon was a temple and the Odyssey was a song, yet both are held captive by the past tense. As Armstrong writes, “Reading a myth without the transforming ritual that goes with it is as incomplete an experience as simply reading the lyrics of an opera without the music.” For myth to work mythically, it must be integral to the culture, not an escape from it.
But the problem goes even deeper than that. Our culture is not only mythless, but antagonistic to myth. We believe, falsely, that myth is a primitive worldview, a predecessor to science. In truth, scientific reasoning always coexisted with mythic belief, each serving a separate purpose: learning to hone a spear was an empirical process, but psychological preparation for the hunt was accomplished by the ritual enactment of myth. Crucially, stories of gods and goddesses were taken as true, but not factual. “A game of sacred make-believe,” Armstrong calls it, elegantly capturing a degree of sophistication common even in the Palaeolithic age that we’ve now lost: nobody knew quantum theory 10,000 years ago, but even a caveman could have told you that the uncertainty principle wouldn’t help you to reckon with death.
Every mythic system describes a fall from paradise, yet it was the descent from myth that brought us to our modern existential malaise. In a scientific age, myths in the Bible, such as the story of Adam and Eve, had to be taken as factual or dismissed as fraud. As we came to regard the world in terms of astronomy and biology, to the exclusion of wonderment, the Bible became a textbook, from which could be harvested data bound to conflict with observation. Senselessly, people were compelled to take sides. And it is this needless schism between science and religion that cracked us as a civilisation. If myth is to have any hope of healing us, individually or as a society, it must reach a part of us that neither laboratory nor church now satisfies.
Jeanette Winterson makes a noble effort with Weight, her beautiful, flawed reworking of the myth of Atlas and Heracles. It is a simple story, almost an anecdote: in the standard telling, Heracles must retrieve the golden apples tended by Atlas’s daughters as one of his labours. Since Atlas knows where to find them and Heracles does not, the strongman offers to hold up the world while the Titan fetches the fruit for him. Atlas hands over the burden, anticipating that this will be his liberation, but when he announces, apples in hand, his intention to trade roles with Heracles permanently, the ruffian shows a rare flicker of cleverness. He begs Atlas to hold the world momentarily while he adjusts his posture—and traps the old god under the great planet once again.
To capture the voices of Atlas and Heracles, Winterson has taken advantage of myth’s timelessness. (As Armstrong aptly puts it, a myth is “an event that—in some sense—happened once, but which also happens all the time.”) For Winterson, the trick is accomplished most overtly through the use of modern vernacular. At times, Atlas and Heracles practically sound like south Londoners, calling each other “mate,” muttering “bloody hell.” “So you think you’re stronger than I am, Atlas?” Heracles taunts his rival at one point. “Can you balance Africa on your dick?”
In her description, Winterson is both more subtle and more ambitious. Sometimes it’s as simple as a fresh simile: “After some discussion it was agreed that Heracles would slide himself up Atlas’s back, like a mating snail, and pull the world down on to his own shoulders.” In other cases, she invests the mythic situation with contemporary characterisation, as when she describes Heracles holding up the world: “Heracles was more afraid now than he had been in his whole life. He could accept any challenge except the challenge of no challenge. He knew himself through combat. He defined himself by opposition.” And in yet other cases, most interesting of all, her description reaches through history, by way of metaphor, as in her account of the gods burdening poor Atlas with the world for the first time: “[T]eams of horses and oxen began to strain forward, dragging the Kosmos behind them like a disc-plough. As the great ball ploughed infinity, pieces of time were dislodged. Some fell to earth, giving the gift of prophecy and second sight. Some were thrown out into the heavens, making black holes where past and future cannot be distinguished.”
In this passage and sections like it, Winterson brilliantly forges a continuity between the axial age and our own. We experience the ancient story in terms familiar to us, and the mysteries of the modern world are given mythic meaning.
According to the “perennial philosophy,” foundation of mythic thinking, the world is the heavens in microcosm: as above, so below. Science describes a heavens dazzlingly unlike any cosmos described before. Poets from Ted Hughes to Jane Hirshfield have distilled stunning metaphor from these discoveries, but Winterson’s project is grander. Making myth of science, blending them seamlessly, in some small way she heals the rift between the two.
There is a problem with Weight, though; a grave one. Impressive as the poetics are, the narrative is little more than a prosaic afterthought. Of course plot is a dirty word in literature today, the stuff of Michael Crichton and Stephen King. Inveterate modernist, Winterson makes her narrative disjointed enough that nobody will mistake it for a page-turner. The technique has served her well in novels such as Gut Symmetries. In the case of myth, however, the essence is storytelling. Narrative isn’t a method, but the very medium.
Nor is that to myth’s detriment, as Margaret Atwood, author of such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale, demonstrates in The Penelopiad. Beginning with the simplest premise—to retell the story of Odysseus from the perspective of his long-suffering wife—Atwood has wound up writing a stand-alone literary masterpiece.
Penelope’s point of view is ideal, because she does so little, relatively speaking, and feels so much. Throughout Odysseus’s years of adventure, Penelope is the homebody, loyal wife and mother, whose primary activity is to protect her husband’s legacy by maintaining her almost hopeless vigil. Her faithfulness is tested constantly, not only by the incessant efforts of ambitious suitors to wed her, but also, more powerfully, by the rumours she hears of Odysseus’s faithlessness toward her. She never knows what to believe. Captive to her perspective, captivated by it, neither do we: From one source, she hears that her husband “made his men put wax in their ears… while sailing past the alluring Sirens—half-bird, half-woman—who enticed men to their island and then ate them, though he’d tied himself to the mast so he could listen to their irresistible singing without jumping overboard. No, said another, it was a high-class Sicilian knocking shop—the courtesans there were known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits.”
This could quite easily become parody in a postmodern key, and indeed Atwood occasionally succumbs to her own self-conscious cleverness. But while Penelope is sometimes funny—“Helen Ruins My Life” is the title of one chapter—she is always fundamentally sincere. “And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat,” she says of her wedding, with typical candour. She has no illusions about herself, nor any urge to dissimulate.
The Odyssey is epic, but Atwood’s telling of it is intimate. She presents the whole scope of it, as lived. As Armstrong rightly notes, the ritual quality of myth requires that it “lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation.” With Winterson’s retelling of the Atlas story, we’re fascinated, but at a studied distance. With The Penelopiad, our emotional engagement puts us in the face of age-old truths, makes an ancient tale new again—a story that “happens all the time.”
Of course Atwood’s tale cannot alone solve the broader problem of our mythlessness. A whole new tradition is needed, hundreds of such stories, published over a span of many years. More than any single title on the list, this may be Canongate’s greatest legacy. Every society mythologises a fall from paradise, but each civilisation also has a myth of rebirth when all appears lost. Could the story of Canongate, this new chapter, be the rebirth of myth?
Jonathon Keats is the author of the novels The Pathology of Lies and Lighter Than Vanity. He is currently working on a cycle of fables called The Book of the Unknown.