NYC - Rockefeller Plaza - Atlas: Wally Gobetz (note: image unrelated to publication)
NYC - Rockefeller Plaza - Atlas: Wally Gobetz (image unrelated to publication)

Title: Myth: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Robert A. Segal
Media: Trade Paperback
Publisher: Oxford (163 pp. with endnotes and index)
Date: 2004

Myth: A Very Short Introduction should be useful for those interested in the anthropological, philosophical and theological aspects of myth.

The layout is well organized. Eight chapters deal with different aspects of myth (e.g. Myth and Science, Myth and Philosophy, Myth and Religion), followed by a conclusion, index and suggestions for further reading.

Mythology is a huge topic and Segal’s presentation is made manageable by using the myth of Adonis as a kind of maypole around which various theories are compared, not in a purely linear fashion, but more as a kind of dance of recurring themes.

Other myths are mentioned, usually when it’s too much of a stretch to apply the Adonis myth to a given theorist. As Segal notes, Myth is not a summary account of world mythologies. It’s a multidisciplinary presentation of recent attempts to understand why myth came into being, what it is and does.

Those familiar with Segal’s earlier work, Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (1987), will be impressed with the quantum leap that the author has taken in a relatively short period. Altogether, the exposition in Myth is tighter and the analysis more thorough. Not surprisingly, Myth provides competent observations on the notion of the hero.

My greatest reservation with Myth is Segal’s treatment of science. In several places Segal seems to trivialize earnest attempts to understand the scientific enterprise. Karl Popper’s idea of falsification and the postmodern view of science as stories are duly noted but Myth tends to dismiss serious contemporary thinking about science as if these inquiries are merely a “fashionable” trend (p. 13).

Moreover, Myth provides no working definition of science or a very inadequate one at best. The reader finds just a few asides about Segal’s perception of science and its supposed “authority” in the 21st century (pp. 12, 18, 128, 138). In contrast to his definition of myth, Segal’s commentary on science comes off paradoxically ambiguous and monolithic.

Another shortcoming may be found in the somewhat limited discussion within Chapter 8, “Myth and Society.” No mention is given to Roland Barthes and his seminal work, Mythologies. Nor do we find much on the idea of social power and how this might inform an understanding of both myth and science.

But in all fairness, this is part of Oxford’s A Very Short Introduction series. I imagine that various sacrifices were made for the manuscript to fit the concise format. As such, the writing style is a bit laborious in places. One would think that Oxford, the supposed crรจme de la crรจme of universities, would have provided a better editor. But then again, the times might be changing in an academic world compelled to make economic sense.

These difficulties aside, Myth: A Very Short Introduction is, on the whole, a good handbook. Casual readers should find this work more than adequate, whereas seasoned scholars and academics will perhaps gain some new insights.