NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

`Everybody,' writes Karen Armstrong, `wants to know where we came from and where we're going. As soon as people became aware of their own mortality many thousands of years ago, they created stories that gave their lives meaning, that explained their relationship to the spiritual world, that instructed them on how to live their lives.' In "A Short History of Myth," religion writer Karen Armstrong describes what these stories are and what they're not. A myth is not a lie or just a story, for example, nor is it simply an explanation of scientific phenomena, as we're often told. Myths are also not about comfort or condolence, but force people to face the realities of life and death. And as we moderns become more captivated by ideals of truth and science, Armstrong warns that we've also become more rigid, unable to accept stories that don't conform to our expectations of a literal truth; we maroon ourselves in a less joyful existence.

Later in the program, 21st-century piracy. We'll look at the attack on a luxury cruise liner off the coast of Somalia.

But first, "A Short History of Myth." Is myth a presence in your life in any way or has it been relegated to the closet, along with your eighth-grade Athena costume? What do you experience as myth? Movies, television, theater, literature? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Karen Armstrong joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

And it's good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "A Short History of Myth"): Thank you. It's good to be here.

CONAN: Is there a first myth?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think some of the earliest myths we have probably date back to the paleolithic period when human beings were hunters for about 20,000 years. And this myth is the myth of the hero. The hunters used to have to leave the safety of their caves and go out, face awful dangers and bring back meat and food for their tribe. And they evolved the idea of the hero, and this is a current in all cultures, that the hero is somebody who looks around his society and decides that there's something wrong, something missing, and so he goes out, he leaves normality and safety behind, and he braves untold dangers--he might have to fight with monsters, climb terrible mountains--but he brings back something of immense value to his people. And this myth is repeated again and again and again. It's telling us what we must do if we want to unlock the heroic potential within ourselves.

CONAN: And it's interesting. You point to the shaman, the person often misidentified as the medicine man or some other terminology, but someone who replicates the hero's journey but goes to a different world.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, the shaman is the religious priest, as it were, of the hunting societies. You still find them in societies that have not yet developed agriculture and depend on the killing of animals for their food and sustenance. And the shaman has a talent for ecstasy. From--he learns to open up his inner world and he goes on a journey, as he thinks; he falls into a trance, surrounded by his tribe, and goes on the journey psychically in his mind, in his spirit to the other world.

Now often the shaman's task is quite practical. He goes to the gods. He asks them where the game is, where the animals are. But it was an idea of flight and transcendence. It's mysteries--the idea that when we go beyond our mundane, ordinary experience, we seem to fly, we levitate, we go higher up. This has remained with us all these centuries, eons later.

CONAN: And this idea of ascent, you say, one of the first things that people made up stories about was the sky, certainly an intimidating and a far-off and distant prospect. And it led to the creation of, I guess, the first gods, you would say.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the sky was itself a transcendent experience for people. They looked up at the sky. It was an image of transcendence that goes beyond our existence. It's very dramatic. It's filled with life. There are clouds, there's changes of light, there are the constellations, there are thunder and lightning. And it seemed as though there's a whole other world, inaccessible, out of reach, yet majestic, and somehow in--connecting with us for the rain falls from the sky. And the early--gradually, people learned to put faces or to humanize these natural elements. They saw the gods in human form, but the gods were also associated with the elements--with the wind, with the sun, with the stars. And this expressed their very holistic view of the world, that in the very early periods of human history there was no great gulf between human and divine. Human beings, animals, the natural world, the natural forces, the constellations all shared the same life. They shared the same predicament. They were in the same boat. And this early theology tried to express that sense of affinity people felt with their natural surroundings, which they experienced as a divine force.

CONAN: That people--gods, animals--all were made of the same stuff.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. The idea that you had to strain desperately over a great gulf of being to reach out to an inaccessible god--this didn't come in until about the sixth, seventh century BC. Until that time, most people had a much closer sense of relationship with the divine. And that's still felt by people in some of the indigenous societies today, for example. You find it among the Native Americans, you find it among the native Australians, the pygmies. And there is a sense of them feeling at one with the universe.

CONAN: We're talking with Karen Armstrong about her new book, "A Short History of Myth." If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

Now let's take a question from Michelle. Michelle calling us from Tulsa.

MICHELLE (Caller): Charleston, South Carolina.

CONAN: Charleston. It said Tulsa, South Carolina. I had to guess at one.

MICHELLE: That's OK. Hello to Ms. Armstrong...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Hello.

MICHELLE: ...one of my all-time favorite people. Wonderful writer. Thank you so much for your work. Are you familiar with the phrase `myth is the history of the human soul'?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I would put it this way. I'd say it's the history of the human psyche.

MICHELLE: Yes.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And of course, `psyche' means soul, of course, in Greece. And when you look at mythology, you see what--in a world of human beings, which actually doesn't change that much...

MICHELLE: No.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...we still keep telling ourselves the same stories, whatever culture we're in and whatever period of history we're living in. And you can see mythology as an early form of psychology. All these stories of gods and heroes going down into the underworld, threading their way through labyrinths, fighting and struggling with demons and monsters--these were never intended to be taken literally. But they were telling people how they cope with their own labyrinthine inner worlds. They had to fight their own monsters in order to achieve some kind of peace and harmony. So yes, I think the history of myth is a history of the interior development of humanity; of how we try to make sense of our puzzling and beautiful world.

CONAN: It's interesting, Karen Armstrong, you write at one point that humans are easily given over to despair...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CONAN: ...and that myths help us overcome that despair at the thoughts of our own mortality, among other things.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, we're--as far as we know, we are the only animals that have to cope with a knowledge of our own mortality and we find that very, very disturbing. Now--and we, unlike dogs, for example, who don't seem to have much difficulty with--if a dog gets sick, they just go with it, they don't bash their foreheads and say, `Why me? Why did it happen to me? What will happen to me after my death?' But we do do that. We are meaning-seeking creatures. And if we don't construct meanings for ourselves and find that our lives have some significance, we fall very easily into despair. It's the way we're constructed.

And so from a very, very early stage, as soon as we became recognizably human, we began to create religions and myths and works of art, all works of the imagination, to help us make sense of a world that is filled with tragedy and pain. And very often mythology is developed at a point of human extremity. Facing the grave, for example, facing extinction--we're in front of a reality where our ordinary words and concepts and ideas no longer apply. So myth helps us to look into the heart of a great silence and to articulate and deal with our fears about our condition.

CONAN: And myth, you say, also adapts to new conditions as they come along. We were talking about the paleolithic hunter-gatherers at one point, then you say it adapts when people take up farming, the agricultural revolution; then adapts again with the invention of cities.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, because as our circumstances change, so we formulate our problems to ourselves differently. Now when we invented agriculture, there was a huge spiritual explosion, too; a spiritual revolution. People noticed that when you put a seed into the ground, it seemed to die, just as when you buried a dead person. But then up came wheat and crops and things that nourished the human community. And there developed all kinds of myths about--for example, the myth of Persephone, who's kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, and dragged down into what we'd call hell. And her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain, goes in search of her daughter and tries to bring her back to the world.

And what these myths are telling you is that you can't have life without death. Demeter is the goddess of grain, but grain comes from the underworld. And so life--the grain that gives us life is associated with death. It's forcing people to confront the reality of death, not to push it to one side, as we often do in our society. We don't like to talk about death; we don't see people dying in our own homes; we push them off into hospitals and try to pretend that death isn't going to happen to us. But it is. And what they're saying is it's not until you really grasp that nettle that you can live a fully human, a fully humane life.

CONAN: We're talking with writer Karen Armstrong about the uses of myth, why they've fallen from favor and why we may need them more than ever. Let us know what you think about the usefulness of myth. (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org.

Coming up later in the program, piracy on the high seas.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today with Karen Armstrong about closing the gap between the sacred and the profane and how human beings have done that through myth-making. Her book is called "A Short History of Myth." If you think that myth and science are incompatible or does your understanding of myth inform how you think about science? What myths would be most useful to retell these days do you think and why? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's get some more listeners on the line. And we'll go to David. David calling us from Imperial Beach in California.

DAVID (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, David.

DAVID: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVID: I wanted to ask about your opinion, Karen, of the Bible and how many of ancient mythology's stories seem to be superimposed into this text and wondering or not if you believe that it is also mythologically based.

CONAN: We're losing your phone there at the end. You were saying...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CONAN: ...questioning whether it was mythologically based.

Karen Armstrong, go ahead.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think that religious stories are nearly always mythological, and I'll tell you why; because myth is doing a different job from history and a different job from science. And that was always recognized in the premodern world. They realized they both had spheres of competence. A myth tells you what to do. It tells you how to behave. If you want to be a hero, for example, if I said you have to do what the hero does in order to develop your full potential. And similarly the religious myths. They tell us--it doesn't mean that these events didn't happen. But the mythology and the ritual and the action that derive, comes from these myths brings that historical event, whatever it was, into the hearts and minds of people, of worshipers and believers centuries distant from the events described.

CONAN: I thought your explanation of Exodus and Passover was particularly interesting in this regard.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Yes. You see, we read in the Bible the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, crossing through the Sea of Reeds. The seas part for them, if you remember. Now that myth, that story is brought alive for Jews every year at the Passover ritual festival, and each Jew is told during the course of that ritual that he or she must think of himself or herself as though they belong to the generation that came from Egypt. This is a timeless truth, a myth. This is my definition of a myth. It's something that in some sense happened once but which also happened all the time.

Now we don't actually know what exactly happened at the Sea of Reeds that night because the story has it has come down to us has been written up deliberately as a myth. In the ancient Near East, gods were always splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. Often they split a god or a goddess or the sea in two to create the cosmos, to create the world. Here, Yahweh is splitting the sea in two to create not a cosmos but a people here and going through water, passing through water like a baptism ceremony is an important rite of passage. It symbolizes a passage from one state to another.

So what myth is trying to tell us is what are the meanings of these events, not what actually happened, but how--myth is more than history. It is telling us what the deep significance of these events is and how these myths must mesh with our own lives because just as the Israelites liberated themselves from slavery, Jews have been told also that they must become free people too. And here in America the slaves, the black slaves, took the myth of the Exodus--you know, let my people go--and treated that as their charter myth to create their own freedom. They took that myth that applied to ancient Israelites centuries ago and made it a reality with their songs and singing and festivals in their own life and made that myth and that freedom a reality for themselves.

CONAN: David, thank you.

Here's an e-mail we got from Johanne Mathison(ph)--Mattison(ph), I think I've got it. `What I find interesting are the non-spiritual uses of myth. Most of all endeavors generate their own myths. A good example of a creation myth in a political context is the story of the Pilgrims. It really happened, but not as we remember it, nor with the significance that we give it today.'

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. This is what we do with myth. The idea that history simply defines that exactly happened is really quite a new development. Scientific history concerned with what actually occurred developed in the 18th century at the time of the Enlightenment. Before then, when people wrote about the past, as when they wrote about the Pilgrims, they were looking for its inner resonance. And still today we do it. It's amazing how quickly a story of our own lives changes as we tell it and as it occurs--you know, it changes from one listener to another, one event to another, it's often quite hard to distinguish what actually happened from the various interpretations. But the interpretations are important to us. They make that event, a random happening, a spiritual moment in our own lives or in the life of a nation.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from--well, I'm not sure who it's from. `I don't see why complex explanations have to be replaced by symbolic and often cryptic representations which carry obsolete baggage from previous cultures. Along with this cultural baggage, there's unintentional transmission of psychosexual hang-ups. Aren't we at war today for that very reason? This is the failure of myth,' he writes or she writes, `which ought to be rethought.'

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I think we've become rather--I would agree in a sense with this. I'm not quite sure what he's saying or she is saying. But the--I think we've become rather inept in our dealing with myth. In the 18th and 19th century, logos, reason, science achieved such spectacular results that myth became discredited. So we often find it quite difficult; we lack the skill in interpreting myths. And very often what we're seeing today is bad mythology. The Nazi myth of the German-chosen people, for example, was a retelling of an ancient German folkloric myth that had developed since the time of the Crusades and was made a reality in Germany, together with huge rituals, with devastating and terrible effect. But writers, you know, and artists and poets have continued to use these myths because these are the building blocks of our thought and the way we relate to the world.

So there are good myths and there are bad myths. Bad myths make us cruel, narrow our horizons, give us a sort of pride and sense of self-sufficiency and a sense of our self-importance, whereas good myths make us confront hard reality. It's not escapism. They make us confront the limits of ourselves, and they're supposed to make us open our hearts to other human beings and to the natural world. I mean, we've rather lost that mythological reverence we have for the natural world in the ancient times and we now think of the natural world simply as a resource, something that we can ransack for our own benefit. And we've lost the old myths which helped us to relate to the natural world as something sacred and holy and precious.

CONAN: Let's go to another caller, Terry. Terry calling us from Manhattan, Kansas.

TERRY (Caller): Yes. I was wondering how Ms. Armstrong defines myth as opposed to literature. I'm thinking of, like, Gilgamesh and Beowulf. When does it cross over from a poem written for whatever reason into the realm of myth?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think this is a very good question and I think that this is a very small dividing line. We're talking about the human imagination here. Now the great, great literature can also make us change our lives. Mythology tells us how to behave, how to change our outlooks, how to modify our behavior if we're going to live a fully human life resonating on all levels of our humanity. And great, great literature can do the same. And very often great literature builds, as I say, on the old myths. Thomas Mann, I write about, wrote "The Magic Mountain." He didn't think at all that he was reproducing a myth and then a Harvard student who was writing his PhD told Mann that he had actually rewritten the ancient myth of the hero and an ancient initiation myth. And Mann suddenly realized, of course, `This is absolutely true. This is what I've done.' Because these myths are deeply imbedded in our consciousness.

Very often myth is something more social, however. Literature can be enjoyed very, very privately. Mythology usually affects the group, affects the community...

CONAN: And in that sense you write about how the invention of Greek tragedy, theater in the fifth century BC--this was putting myth in a new kind of ritual.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Theater in the West began as part of a religious festival, a part of the Festival of Dionysus. And there, every year, the people of Athens looked at their own problems but cast it back into a mythological form and they retold their ancient myths. The myth of Oedipus, for example. Sophocles put Oedipus on stage and changed that myth. In the early stories, Oedipus who, as you know, by mistake, not realizing what he was doing, married his mother and killed his father. In the old story, when he found out what had happened, he simply went on ruling in Thebes. Sophocles makes him tear out his own eyes in horror.

And this was Athenians in the fifth century looking at themselves at the height of their power and they new knowledge they were acquiring. They enjoyed political power and success, but saying, `Look, how far in control are we of our own lives? When we act how much do we actually know about what we're doing? How do we know the origin of our acts or where they're going?' And put suffering on stage. What the tragedies did was instead of letting us push suffering to the sidelines of our life, they put somebody like Oedipus on the stage and said, `Now, look, here is a suffering man who in real life we'd probably shun because of the things that he has done. But the chorus tells the audience to weep for Oedipus.' And the Greeks did weep. They didn't just wipe an embarrassed tear from the corner of their eye, as we might do in a theater. They wept aloud because they really believed, the Greeks, that to weep together as a community brought the community together, created a bond between men.

And every Athenian citizen had to attend all these plays every year. Prisoners were even let out of jail for the occasion. It was considered a very--a communal meditation where the community of Athens reflected on its current predicament, on what had happened in the last year and how to deal with it a profound level. And they did so by recasting their old myths.

CONAN: Terry, thanks. Good question.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Karen Armstrong about her new book, "A Short History of Myth."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail we have from Jason Ashlock in Memphis. `I'm wondering about the exclusive nature of today's religious myths. Has there always been a nature of exclusivity--Our myth is true and yours isn't?--which dominate myths? Was there a time when myths understood that their own "mythness" and--valued other variant myths along with their own?'

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, traditionally there never has been a single definitive notion of a myth. A myth could always be reinterpreted. In the Bible, for example, you have two mutually exclusive creation myths put side by side. And--because we're talking about indescribable events, and no one has the last word on this, and people of the ancient world understood that.

But it has to be said that human egotism comes in, human institutionalization comes in, and then you get a sort of myth group egotism which says not so much that our myths are better than your myths, but that our organization, our church, our salvation is true and everybody else's is false. This is egotism. The myths are usually going in the opposite direction from that if they're good myths. But exclusive myths build up as well; these are examples of what I call bad myths.

CONAN: Well, there are also situations where you find what you call the axial period. Buddha, for example, you had said, has a tolerance for older myths that, well, he sort of puts to the side and says, `Well, that's nice and we'll just leave them there,' whereas in the Near East the Jews assembling their myths about the same time--well, you describe Genesis as, for example, a critique about Babylonian cosmology.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think certainly in the Far East, Buddhism had outgrown its own gods; the old myths of the old gods no longer worked. But instead of lambasting these gods and saying they don't exist, they're useless, the Buddhists could simply set them to one side and even reinterpret these myths so that the gods became aspects of his own and the human psyche.

Now in the Bible, what you often have is quite a lot of idol-bashing--you know, other people's gods are simply gold and silver and, you know, we've gone beyond that. There's a certain--but that's not the whole of the Bible. The Bible is really a library, and what you're referring to is the first chapter of Genesis which causes so much trouble today because some Christians regard it as a literal, scientific account of the origins of life, whereas in fact the author is saying something very different. He's being deported to Babylonia; his Jerusalem has been smashed by the Babylonians, their temple destroyed, their state annihilated. And he's now living in an alien land, and a lot of the exiles were filled with hatred for the Babylonians. He is saying, `Look, during the creation, God created all things and he blessed everything and called everything good'--even the Babylonians, is the underlying thrust of that--`and you must do the same. If you want to live at peace here in exile in our new circumstances, don't go the way of being filled with hate and contempt for other people for your conquerors and the people who've harmed you, but be like Yahweh, be like God who on each day of creation saw all that he had made and blesses it and calls it good.

CONAN: At the same time, though. Our God can do it once; it's permanent. Your god has to do it every year.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Certainly there is that. Certainly the exiles were living in Babylon where there was a huge festival where the Babylonian god Marduk slaughtered the sea monster and this had to be renewed every year, and it--even from a position of weakness with his temple destroyed, the priestly author is saying, `No, our God doesn't have to fight monsters to bring the world into being. He can just do it by complete--just by a word, and instead of fighting every year...

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...at the end of his creation it's finished; he can rest on the Sabbath Day.

CONAN: More myth after a break. This is NPR News.

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Today we're talking with Karen Armstrong about why myths may be necessary in the modern world. Who do you think are modern myth makers, the Homers of the day? Our number, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's get back to another caller. This is Ruth--Ruth, calling us from Sacramento.

RUTH (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

RUTH: I was just graduated with an English degree, and in the English Department we liked to rival with the Science Department and say that our myths and our stories were actually more true than their scientific truths because that's the way humans experience the world, and theirs was kind of almost a fake truth.

CONAN: Karen, is that--imagery work for you?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Ah, I see. Well, I would put it differently. I think that science and myth have different jobs to do. Plato called them mythos and logos--logos meaning science and reason. We've always needed science, even if only to sharpen an arrow correctly as an early hunter. We need logos, reason and science to find a cure for cancer, to make other medical discoveries, to do mathematics, to develop technology which is improving human life in many, many important ways, to organize our societies. But if we try to use--mythology won't help us here. But if we try to--but we also--but science has its limitations, and I think here I agree with you and so would any scientist.

If your child dies or you witness a terrible natural disaster, you don't want, necessarily, simply to hear a scientific or rational explanation. You want something like a mythology or a ritual to help you deal with the turbulence of your own grief and despair and horror at that time. And it was recognized in the ancient world that myth and science--logos--were both complementary; they weren't antagonistic to one another. They just had different jobs to do, different spheres of competence. We needed both; there were two ways of arriving at truth. And any scientist today would tell you, no, we can't deal with meaning, but we can tell you what happened and how things happened. But we need meaning too because as I said earlier, we are these meaning-seeking creatures.

RUTH: So part of the problem, when we interpret the bible then, is to try to impose a scientific interpretation...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

RUTH: ...on such as the story of creation that's a mythological meaning-based story.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CONAN: And we look at it through our logical mind, say, `This is silly.'

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we do because we're now uneducated in mythological thinking very often because we concentrate so much on logical and rational thought. And yes, you see when you--if you try to mix mythology and history and science in this way, as, for example, saying that the first chapter of Genesis is literally and scientifically true, you get bad science and bad religion. The two are meant to be separate and--because they deal with two different aspects of the human spirit.

RUTH: I had another question in a different area. Did you connect the myths in your book to Jungian archetypes at all?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, certainly Jung understood mythology very well. And yes, I do make that--because--but Jung didn't invent the idea of the archetype. The archetype was built into most ancient societies. People believed that every single object or experience we have in the physical, earthly world had its divine counterpart in what they called the world of the gods. There was a greater, more potent reality of which our world was a faint reflection, and on that insight most ancient religion and most premodern philosophy was based.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ruth.

RUTH: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Marina. `Have you thought about myth, legend and religion actually being hard-wired into our brain, much like language? Maybe a part of our brain develops under the influence of hope, which,' she says, `myth provides.'

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I do think we are religious creatures. Homo sapiens is Homo religiosus. Religion is something that we do, and I think there may be--part of the way that our brain's neurology is constructed. But it's not--we're not simply driven to it by Skinner's rats. We have imagination. This is one of the very strange human characteristics. Jean-Paul Sartre defined the imagination as the ability to think of what is not present, and in that case, it is--the imagination--it must be the chief religious faculty because we're endlessly trying to envisage the eternally absent and elusive God. And imagination is also what fuels our science, as scientists try to imagine what if something might occur. Get a hunch, get an intuition and then work to put it into practice. Without imagination we wouldn't have progressed from the caves.

CONAN: Karen Armstrong's new book is "A Short History of Myth," one in a series of books about myths published by Canongate Books. She was kind enough to join us today from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: When we come back, piracy.

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