Mar 26, 2008

Myths and Scottish Fairies

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong offers her interpretation of the nature and role of myth, and of the way in which changes in the myths we tell reflect wider social, cultural and civilizational changes – changes in the ways in which we lead our lives.

Karen Armstrong starts by attempting to define myth, and then traces its history from the Palaeolithic Period to the modern and contemporary Western world, in which, she says, myth’s divorce from ritual and its subjection to logos resulted in its decline.

Along the way, she interprets several myths and exposes her ideas about the complementarity of myth and reason. According to her, mythology and rationality are different ways of making sense of the world that do not have to oppose each other. She says that one of the problems with contemporary Western culture is the refusal to acknowledge that mythology can be a valid framework through which we can make sense of our experiences.

A Short History of Myth is intelligent, very readable, and full of interesting ideas, but it is more of an interpretive history than a rigorous one. The one problem I had with the book was the fact that Karen Armstrong sometimes makes categorical affirmations about things that can only be speculation. For example, about the Neolithic period she says:
We can sense the awe, delight and terror of these pioneering farmers in the mythology they developed as they adapted to their new circumstances, fragments of which were preserved in the mythical narratives of later cultures.
This claim is unsourced, and I can’t help but ask myself, which fragments? How do we know that they come from the Neolithic period? We are talking prehistory here, so can we know this for sure?

Another example:
“n early Neolithic mythology, the harvest was seen as the fruit of a hierogamy, a sacred marriage: the soil was female; the seeds divine semen; and rain the sexual congress of heaven and earth. It was common for men and women to engage in ritual sex when they planed their crops.
Again, there is no source for this statement, and so I have to ask myself those same questions once again. It’s not that I am accusing her of making things up out of thin air – she is obviously a very knowledgeable woman. I just wish the book were more rigorous when it comes to that. I am very interested in ancient myth and ritual, and in this case I would have been very grateful for a reference letting me know where I could read more on the topic.

The conclusion Karen Armstrong reaches is one that I agree with. She says that art in general, and literature in particular, has these days the role that myth had in past societies. Art, like myth, “helps people understand their own humanity”. I am just included to think of this as a continuous process, rather than a post-Enlightenment break and later recovery. What she defines as "myth" is what I tend to think of as "stories" in a more general sense. The way in which we tell stories has changed, but it only makes sense that the reasons why we tell them, why need them, haven't. Despite my complaints, I do think that A Short History of Myth is very much worth reading, and I will leave you with a few favourite passages:
Mythology, as we shall see, is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it

Myth is about the unknown; it’s about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence.

A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it do so, it can change us forever.
(Don't you just love this last one?)

In the introduction to Scottish Fairy Belief, Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan state the purpose of the book clearly:
This book is concerned with the ‘real dramatis personae of fairy narrative, the people in them’. We are not concerned with proving the reality, or otherwise, of fairies; such an endeavour would be as futile as it is irrelevant. What we can prove is that many Scots people, who lived mainly in the period from c.1450 to c.1750, had no doubt that fairies actually existed.
I knew from this paragraph alone that I was going to love this book. I have a great interest in Scotland and in folklore in general, but so far I had been unable to find a good book that combined both things. I have pondered reading Evans-Wentz’s classic The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, but I was a bit put off by the speculative approach it uses. What I wanted was not a book that speculated about the nature and origins of fairies, but rather a book about what people believed, and how that belief helped shape their lives and their society. Scottish Fairy Belief is that book.

Using sources like traditional ballads, witch trials records, and several treaties, Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan trace the history of fairy belief in mostly sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland. The book covers such areas as locations associated with fairy sightings, fairy enchantments, changelings, the post-Reformation demonization of folk belief, fairies in literature, and Robert Kirk and the reinstatement of fairy belief. Scottish Fairy Belief is mostly concerned with the common people’s version of events, but of course that folk culture was often appropriated and changed by the ruling classes, and then re-introduced in a transmuted state. The book covers this as well.

The book is clearly very well researched, and everything is rigorously sourced and referenced. At only 215 pages, it could not cover the subject exhaustively, but it’s a great introduction, and the long list of primary and secondary sources at the end lets you know exactly what to look for if you want to read more.

I was impressed with how easily the authors managed to combine academic rigour and accessibility. This book is definitely not dry. Of course that my passion for the subject makes me somewhat biased, but really, it's very readable and enjoyable. The only slight problem that I found had to do with organization. I found that sometimes two chapters with different titles ended up covering more or less the same ground. But I imagine that this is hard to avoid in a subject in which things are so hard to delimitate.

For those interested in folklore, in Scotland or in social history, this is a very good book to have around.


  1. it looks like someone else is off and running with the challenge! lol..

    I had to laugh when I got down to the sentence saying that your passion for the subject made you "somewhat biased"... heh! ya think??!! LOL LOL..

    but then we all are when it comes to the books we read and enjoy!!

    (you do believe in fairies right?!)

  2. I admit that I will probably never read either of these books, but I have to say that even so, your enthusiasm and genuine love for these subjects just leaves me feeling so incredibly happy.

    And I wanted to say, too, that I loved what you said about Ms. Armstrong's belief. "According to her, mythology and rationality are different ways of making sense of the world that do not have to oppose each other." It's just how I feel about science and religious/spiritual beliefs.

  3. I do really want to read the first book, but I am always a little wary of books like it for making generalisations and inventing quotes. It sounds mostly good though. I will put the Scotish Fairy Belief book on my list too. It sounds cool :)

  4. Nymeth -- the faerie book sounds fascinating. I'll have to see if I can find it. Thanks!

  5. Deslily: lol, yeah, just somewhat :P I guess there's no such thing as objectivity when it comes to books. I did try to put myself in the shoes of someone who wasn't as into this stuff as I am, though, and wonder if they'd be bored. And I believe in fairies like I believe in stories: they might not be real, but that doesn't mean they're not true :P

    Debi: aww, I'm glad to hear that :) I was looking up Karen Armstrong (I hadn't heard of hear before this book), and it turns out that she is a religious historian who has written books on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. So that seems to be her general viewpoint.

    Rhinoa: I was a bit wary of this one too, but it is mostly good. Scottish Fairy Belief is even better though!

    Melissa, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  6. I have a couple of Karen Armstrong's books in my TBR collection that deal with religion, but I haven't managed to get to them yet. I hadn't heard of A Short History of Myth and so was so glad to read your review of it.

    Scottish Fairy Belief sounds really interesting. I'll have to make note of that one on my wish list. I'm really fascinated with the history of certain ideas and beliefs and how they shape the individual as well as society.

  7. Literary Feline: I'll be interested in reading your thoughts on Karen Armstrong's other books. And I find that topic fascinating as well. That plus Scotland could only make this book a winner :)

  8. "that one of the problems with contemporary Western culture is the refusal to acknowledge that mythology can be a valid framework through which we can make sense of our experiences."


    I think that is one of the things I loved the most about reading The Road to Middle-earth by Tom Shippey last year. The way he describes Tolkien's views on mythology and then in the latter half of the book takes Tolkien critics to task about this is wonderful.

    I'll have to add this one to my list.

  9. Ooh! I love Karen Armstrong, I've read quite a few of her religion books and also the two about her nun years. LOVE HER. I will have to check this out. And I love fairy tales and anything about the subject, will have to check out both this books. Thanks!

  10. Carl: I'll have to read The Road to Middle-earth. I love Tolkien's ideas about mythology and fairy tales. He was such a remarkable man.

    Daphne: I'm curious about her other books. I hope you enjoy this one!

  11. I completely agree with your statement, "The way in which we tell stories has changed, but it only makes sense that the reasons why we tell them, why need them, haven't."

    Thanks for the "Scottish Fairy Belief" recommendation. I think a bias toward Celtic (especially Scottish)anything is perfectly acceptable. *grin* I

  12. I have both these books on my shelves! I read Scottish Fairy Belief a while ago and enjoyed it, and am reading A Short History of Myth at the moment - I do so agree with you about her categorical statements, which are rather spoiling it for me.

  13. Rachael: I'm glad you understand my bias :D

    Geraniumcat: I look forward to reading your thoughts on A Short History of Myth. And it's too bad she does that, isn't it? The book would have been so much better without statements of that kind.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.