Don’t Know Much About Mythology:
Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest
Stories in Human History but Never Learned
Kenneth C. Davis
545 pages, $36.95 cloth
Review published in Books in Canada, March 2006.
By Gwen Nowak
Kenneth Davis begins Don’t Know Much About Mythology with a personal anecdote about his earliest experience of myth, at age eleven. By grade five he was fully frustrated by the grind of the regular school curriculum. But each day was redeemed for Davis in its closing minutes when his teacher read from Homer’s Odyssey, “magically” connecting him “over vast centuries to the people who heard these tales”, making him want to know more – much more.
Davis’s story reminded me of a related experience I had at about age twelve. I walked into a library and was struck by the sheer number of books. I found myself in a state bordering on awe as I scanned the shelves, attempting to calculate how much knowledge so many books might contain. I wondered how long it would take me to acquire this knowledge – all of it. Deciding to start at the beginning I opened a heavy tome that purported to inform the reader about humanity’s earliest beginnings. My eyes scanned explanations of artifacts and charts labeled Paleolithic and Neolithic. After an hour or so I began dozing off, dimly yet poignantly aware of the huge scope of the task I had set for myself. I thought of the oh so tantalizing Tree of Knowledge in the biblical Garden of Eden.
Now, almost five decades later, I learn that a certain Kenneth Davis has been dubbed “The King of Knowing” by that virtuoso virtual purveyor of just about everything, Amazon.com. This honorific acknowledges Davis’s phenomenally successful Don’t Know Much About series launched after the unexpectedly wild success of his publishing ‘IPO’ Don’t Know Much About History in 1991. The series grew exponentially to include King Kenneth’s compendiums on geography, the bible and, not to leave any aspect of his reader’s visible world uncharted, the universe itself. KK’s fruitful venture eventually split into two streams, generating an equally successful series for children alongside the one for adults. If you don’t know much about King Kenneth and his bucolic garden/empire of knowledge you can just click, not on magic red slippers, but on www.dontknowmuch.com and presto, you’ll find yourself in the magic land of All Knowledge. There is no yellow brick road, but there are links leading to Everywhere and Everywhen.
One very sobering reality question arises concerning the promise of Davis’s subtitle to tell you everything you need to know about the greatest stories in human history: Is the King of Knowing actually a marketing magician who promises more than he can give, like the flustered powerless old man Dorothy unmasks in the dreamland of Oz – or – is he more like the wise old professor who encourages the Pevensie children to believe that what they experienced in the land of Narnia was ‘real’ in spite of seeming so, well, magical?
In Davis’s Introduction he describes DKMAM as an “accessible portal into myths”. He states clearly that this guide is not the “last word” on the subject of myth but that it includes what you “need to know” for the experience to be authentic. He invites those who want to know more to explore further with the aid of his 3-part bibliography. Once you enter the magic portal with KK you trace a path through the world’s ancient civilizations, their mythologies and histories. At the conclusion you arrive in the ancient aboriginal landscape of Dreamtime, Australia, a mythical place inhabited by ancient spirit ancestors that just happen to have left real artifacts in ‘realtime’, specifically the discovery of the identifiable skeletal remains of ‘mythic’ pygmies on an island east of Bali in 2004.
KK’s guided tour through world mythology is designed to prepare you for the realization that Dreamtime is in fact “more than just a period in the past – it is ever present.” Throughout the tour Davis is informative, engaging and entertaining, as previous commentators have enthused. The question is: Is he a reliable guide? That is: does he give a clear idea of where he wants to take you and how he plans to get you there? Davis begins by distinguishing his guided tour from other available guides (There is a guide for Dummies, as well as Idiots) by pointing to his somewhat unique emphasis on the interface between the myths of ancient civilizations and the actual history and achievements of those cultures. He also promises to show that myths are “alive in our art, literature, dreams, psychology, religions, and history.” His pedagogy reflects the portal as a symbol of an open mind, a mind respectful of questions, all questions being real invitations to knowledge. So he prompts his reader’s natural curiosity by mapping his journey with questions: What are myths? Are myths all in our minds? How did myths “rule” in Egypt? When Sumer disappeared where did its myths go? What kind of hero kills his wife and children? Do myths reach some deeper level of human thought and experience, as many anthropologists and psychologists suggest? How did myth transform into religion and how did that transformation change history? What is Dreamtime?
Throughout the tour Davis introduces his reader to a host of ‘guest speakers,’ both ancient and modern. These personages appear at regular intervals, particularly in the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, as well as in sections titled ‘Mythic Voices’. Quoting commentaries from various periods and civilizations underscores a major theme of the book: all of the ideas articulated are relevant to the evolving understanding of our inner and outer world.
Davis doesn’t neglect his readers’ need for a sense of the progression of linear historical time versus mythical sacred – eternal – time. At the beginning of each chapter he provides a chronology titled ‘Mythic Milestones’ which in fact charts actual historical events for the civilizations under discussion. ‘Ancient’ civilizations which emerged several thousand years ago - Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece - suddenly seem like yesterday’s news compared with Africa where the earliest human ‘footprint’ dates back 2.5 million years.
Davis regularly updates his reader on scholarly debates about myth, many of which are relevant to his preoccupation with the issue of the historical context of myth. The earliest example he cites is the Greek scholar named Euhemerus (late 3rd century BCE) whose Sacred History records his attempt to prove that the gods of Olympus were “all real heroes and conquerors who had been deified”, an idea that influenced Isaac Newton centuries later. Davis traces the debate about the historicity of the Trojan War, from Heinrich Schliemann’s nineteenth-century discovery of Troy to the recent scholarly commentaries on the subject i.e., an article by archeologist Manfred Korfmann in the Archeology Institute of America (May 2004).
Davis’s particular preoccupation with the historical context of myths seems timely now that The Myths project has been launched. The project is a truly ‘historic’ event given its international scope – 34 publishers, 28 languages - as well as its mission to “change the world” (Toronto Star, A Storytelling Odyssey, Oct 22/05). In order for bibliophiles everywhere to comprehend and appreciate this project a quick survey of humanity’s mythmaking past like Davis’s would be helpful. Davis quotes classicist Barry Powell: History and myth are a perennial tangle; humans are mythmaking animals, retelling ancient stories to fulfill present needs.” Davis demonstrates that myths function as “one of the central organizing principles” for cultures and entire civilizations. Such an international mythmaking project may well signal collective humanity’s present need to generate a global civilization in order to save our blue planet, that numinous icon ‘unveiled’ for us by the astronauts of the last century, an icon that belongs to every child of the universe.
On the journey with King Kenneth I became even more convinced that Dreamtime is Realtime and more hopeful that the myths we generate can function as midwives to the birthing a global civilization. When I heard Black Elk speak during the tour I felt like I was sharing the vision of a Native American Moses standing on some high mountain surveying the promised land:
While I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
— Black Elk Speaks (1932)