Recommend Books on Various Mythologies

I’m thinking about adding books on mythologies to my library. I’d like to get some grounding in them just to be able to appreciate the frequent literary allusions to them and the debt owed them by so many later writers, but I’m at a bit of a loss to find out what I should look at, and what editions to seek. Usually I prefer annotated scholarly editions, but I’m willing to settle, especially with translations, for better reading instead.
Just to give you a better idea of what I’m looking for, I’m mainly interested in material that can be said to be influential in English and American literary thought. I’m guessing this excludes Japanese and other Asian mythologies until the middle of the nineteenth century or thereabouts, and leaves them fairly marginal afterwards.
Here’s a preliminary list of what I think I should have read as a solid foundation.
[li]Greek Mythology[/li][li]Indian Mythology: the Bhagavad Gita, anything else?[/li][li]Norse Mythology: the Edda, anything else?[/li][li]Native American Mythology[/li][li]Christian Mythology: probably should read the Bible for that, but I’m thinking that lots of the Christian myths came about later, so I’m looking for something along the lines of a history of the faith[/li][li]The Koran – I’ve got next to no knowledge of Islam, but if there’re non-Koranic Islam myths, please recommend a good read on that[/li][li]Anything else?[/li][/ul]

Basically, if you can suggest a good overview over any of these mythologies, please let me know.


Islamic myths is an oxymoron. If it’s in the Koran and the Hadith (examples and sayings of the Prophet) then Muslims are obliged to accept them. There are sects that argue that Hadiths aren’t important or whatever but that’s a whole other thread.

Maybe you mean Arabic or Middle Eastern myths? In that case, The Arabian Nights is the way to go. Make sure you get the real, unexpurgated version and not the Disneyfied, family version. Search Amazon. They’ve got plenty.

Ancient writers: Homer, Hesiod, Apollodorus and Ovid
Modern: Robert Graves (although he’s occasionally a bit cuckoo).

“Indian mythology” is a strange term that covers a wide range of religious traditions and sub-traditions in a very large amount of textual material, but you could go for:
Rg Veda, Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (or other upanisads), Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavadgita is only a very small part), Ramayana, the Bhagavata Purana (or other puranas, such as the Skanda Purana, Siva Purana, etc.). Should be enough for a few year’s of study. OR you could take an easier way by reading Wendy Doniger’s Hindu Myths. I haven’t read it myself, but she is a skilled sanskritist and a reliable authority on Indian religion and mythology. It seems like it is a thematic book, which is good since the task of rendering the total corpus of texts “useful” (for your needs) can be almost blindingly complex.

Try Bulfinch’s Mythology. Amazon link.

I suppose Christian and Greek myths would be as oxymoronic to people who hold either to be gospel. I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to prejudice any of those faiths. Muslims are obliged to accept whatever they are obliged to accept, and I’ll call it mythology anyway…

Thanks, I suppose. I know of Amazon.

Hhhm, I don’t suppose I’ll want to spend years on this – a general idea of what’s out there is more like it. I’ll check that book out, it sounds like a good compromise between too much time spent elsewhere and too little information.

Oh, interesting. Will look at it.

I didn’t wan’t to scare you, merely point out that “Indian Mythology” is a huge world. That said, it is still very much worth exploring (and I have spent years doing it). Good luck on Doniger, her book should be a good place to start, and I am sure she won’t disappoint.

Robert Graves’ Greek Myths is an excellent source–& widely available. He used his exquisite Classical education to recount all the tales of gods & heroes, using various Greek & Roman sources. Contradictions included. Then, he appended the “truth” to each chapter–based on now outdated archaeological theories & his own very personal devotion to The Triune Goddess. Which illustrated very well that myths can live & grow.

Cuckoo? This little article on The Language of the Birds illustrates the delights of mythic investigation. (Meet the Sufis!)

When considering Christianity, The Bible is the 800 pound gorilla. Anyone wanting to understand Western lit can’t ignore it.

Joseph Campbell (like him or not) wrote some essential books on mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces being the prime example. Levi-Strauss and other anthropologists have written interesting studies of myth cross-cultually.

Don’t overlook Celtic mythology - Evangeline Walton wrote a wonderful series of fantasy novels taken directly from the Mabinogion (Welsh cycle of myths). and then there’s the Kalevala from Finland and don’t forget Gilgamesh from the ancient Middle East.

Do you count King Arthur as a myth? Cinderella? Urban Legends? Trickster Tales?
The high school where I work has a Myth-Lit class in the English Department, which makes sense since so many great stories come from mythology. Remember - Religion is what I believe; Mythology is what you believe.

I love Joseph Campbell, but we’ve been fed simplistic summaries of his works in recent years. The massive Masks of God series includes some anthropology & archaeology that seem so mid 20th century now. But he was great on the Arthurian thing. And the last volume is a real help with interpreting 20th century literature–Joyce, anyone?

He started another series, incorporating newer studies. But was only able to publish the first 2 volumes before his death.

(Orthodoxy is my Doxie–Heterodoxy is the other fellow’s Doxie!)

That’ll be second stage, I suppose. Right now I’m interested in myths as foundations for literature, rather than their sociocultural context.

I had forgotten the Kalevala (despite its Tolkien connection) and Gilgamesh as well – both now on my Amazon list.

The foundation of great stories is exactly why I’m reading this. I’m not sure about Arthur, but more because I know the story in general terms. I would consider Arthur mythology, and very intriguing, but I suppose I need to concentrate monies and energies on those things I know less well. Even less well, I should say. Trickster tales I would consider mythology, but I’d prefer them lumped with creation myths (the Norton Anthology of American Literary has, I believe, some Indian creation myths as well).

I was afraid you’d say that. I have a King James, and am willing to read it, but as I noted I’m wondering what I will miss if I only have the Bible – for an obvious example, lots of common allusions to Christian themes will be from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress rather than the Bible itself, and while I’m not looking for anything this modern, I’m figuring I will be missing Christian myth (perhaps just Papal decrees or whatever) that’s not in the Bible itself.

If you can find it, there’s a 13 volume series of ** Mythologies of the World**. It’s a bit dated, but still a pretty good introduction. I know that it’s been reprinted. Several libraries have copies.
If you can find it (I can’t), THE book on Greek mythology is Arthur B. Cook’s massive three-volume Zeus.It’s actually in five physical books, since two of the volumes consist of two books. Despite the title, it covers a huge amount of ground on myth and art, not just Zeus. I have one volume that was reprinted within the past couple of decades. When I need to consult the others, I go to the Boston Public Linbrary.

Go back to the original sources when you can – compendua like Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton are good, but only up t a point. Penguin books and Harvard University Press (The Loeb Classical Library) can give you the basics. Read The Library (Bibliotheka) of Apollodorus, for instance.
I don’t really trust Campbell or Graves (whose book Greek Myths needs to be taken with a LOT of salt, although it’s great on sources). Much more trustworthy are Karl Kerenyi’s books (The Gods of the Greeks and The Heroes of the Greeks) and Gantz’ superb Early Greek Myth (more than you ever wanted to know about the origins of Greek Myth, but it assumes you know the stories). Also get Theony Kondos’ book Star Myths, which translates the Katasterismoi of pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus.

For a lot of the others, it’s hard to recommend a few concise books. I’ve got a stack of books on Navaho myth and reprints from journals, all relating the same myths by different tellers. They al vary slightly, since there’s nothing like the “standard” greek version of the Iliad or the Odyssey.
If you haven’t got them, there’s a pretty neat series of books with the title “______Mythology” that were originally printed by Paul Hamlyn, Inc. I’ve been collecting them through the years Their titles pretty much match what the OP cites:
Greek Mythology
Roman Mythology
Chrisytian Mythology
African Mythology
Oceanic Mythology
Indian Mythology
North American Indian Mythology
Scandinavian Mythology
Near Eastern Mythology
Egyptian Mythology

… and so on. At the backs of the books are bibliographies you can use to assemble your own collection from elsewhere.

I popped by to mention this one. I’ve read quite a lot on greek mythology, but this gem holds a special place in my heart.

EDIT: No I didn’t. I meant The golden age of myth and legend.

If you don’t mind a certain degree of geekiness, you can get a decent over-view of several major mythos in the AD&D rulebook Legends & Lore or the older version called Dieties and Demigods. At least enough to identify the major players…with handy gaming stats and alignment info that is…arguable. For example, Loki is considered a Chaotic Evil god…not sure that really squares with the myths.

Only to someone who doesn’t understand the fundamental definition of myth as used in mythology.

Your one-stop shop here is A Guide to the Gods by Richard Carlyon. People keep walking off with my copy and I keep having to buy new ones.

Literature *is *part of the “sociocultural context.” History, archaeology, anthropology, psychology & all the other arts are connected.

About the Bible: the KJV is probably the best, for the language. Skim through some bits, concentrate more on others. Many “commentaries” are available. For further studies, consider some Lives of the Saints. Lots of myth & legend there.

You’re not going to find One Infallible Source for these studies. Each source will have its strengths & weaknesses. Read widely & use your intelligence. (How did you get out of school without enountering–at least–Edith Hamilton?)

Concerning New World myths–consider Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire series. They are a history of The New World–with emphasis on Latin America. The first volume contains short accounts of many New World creation myths. With sources in the bibliography for further research–especially if you know Spanish. You’ll find bits of legend & folklore in the later volumes, as well.

If what you’re looking for is a superficial knowledge of lots of different mythologies, instead of an in depth knowledge of any of them, consider children’s versions. Much quicker read, often pretty pictures, and you’ll still know more than most people do. After all, most of the peoples themselves learned these stories as children! D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is that rare children’s classic that really is as good as you remember it. They also have a Norsebook, but I haven’t picked that one up yet.

This Children’s Illustrated Bible is my favorite; the stories aren’t dumbed down nearly as much as other children’s Bibles I’ve seen, and there’s lots of extra information that’s really interesting and helps readers really put a lot of context and understanding around many of the stories. Of course, you’re not going to get the most bloody and sexy stories in the Bible here, but it’s a good start, and will cover the cultural biggies like the Ark, the Birth, the Crucifiction, etc.

Gods and Pharaohs of Egyptian Mythology is quite good, although hard to find these days. Tales of Ancient Egypt is my second choice, and probably easier to get hold of. But the biggest problem I have with most Ancient Egyptian mythology books is that they just make the people of Ancient Egypt seem so…strange. I mean, really, worshiping crocodiles? Melting perfume cones on their heads? WTF? To get a good feel for how the people may really have been and what their daily practices might have been like, I love The Golden Goblet. Not a book of mythology, it’s a novel set in Ancient Egypt which has lots of wonderfully rich cultural information hidden within an exciting story with very few obvious anachronisms to spoil the experience.

Loki shows up on the Santa Claus Family Tree. (Click on the image & make it bigger, of course.)

Lots of knowledge & a sense of humor! Definitely not for the Mythic Beginner! (Watch out for The Trickster(s)!)

(It originally appeared in The Fortean Times.)

Just want to second the previous recommendation for childrens’ collections of myths. A good reference librarian will help you find one. As someone who works in two libraries now, I find if I want to survey a topic that’s new to me, the youth department is the way to go for clear, concise explanations. Then I’ll go to the “adult” department.

Another idea if you want a general grounding in world mythologies is to go to a textbook on the subject. The one that the students’ use here for their myth-lit class is huge and covers all regions of the world.