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This review is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

THE STORY SO FAR KAREN ARMSTRONG, A Short History of Myth (Canongate) £12.00
JEANETTE WINTERSON, Weight (Canongate) £12.00
MARGARET ATWOOD, The Penelopiad (Canongate) £12.00

It was with some relief that I picked up these three volumes in Canongate's new series, The Myths. For too long the field of mythology has been aggressively ploughed by the more rigorous followers of Roland Barthes. When he himself began, half a century ago, to read certain artefacts of popular culture as 'myths', and to ponder their hidden bourgeois agenda in a series of elegant articles, it must have seemed very exciting. Who would have thought that a magazine cover or a wrestling match or an advert for washing powder could merit so much political speculation? But in the intervening years, with the institutionalisation of his insights, a speculative method has been reduced to a mechanical exercise. First, catch your artefact. Next, search out its secret. Now call it a 'myth'. The order is variable, in practice; but as long as one succeeds in demonstrating that the 'myth' suppresses history and discourages radical cultural change, the job is done. 'Mythology', in short, is synonymous with 'ideology', in its pejorative sense. It is a realm of delusion.

Such an approach may properly be assigned to what Paul Ricoeur called the 'hermeneutics of suspicion'. Insofar as it has triumphed, mythology as traditionally understood has tended to be overlooked. The approach works best with Hello rather than Homer, with Diehard rather than Dionysus, which rather narrows its potential. Just as importantly, the idea that mythology is valuable precisely because it ...


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