I have been looking over a book I purchased a few years ago, Gods, Demigods, and Demons, by Bernard Evslin. It is a small (relatively speaking) encylopedic book that has details on various characters in ancient Greek mythology. It is, of course, very interesting.
However, where does one go to get the “original” stories from Greek mythology (and those of other cultures)? If someone wants to read about the story of Samson or the golden calf, they just need to pick up a Bible, in whatever translation. But what book should I buy if I want to read the details, in story form, of Hercules’ labors or Perseus’ encounter with the Gorgons? I’ve looked up Clash of the Titans on IMDB and Wikipedia and don’t get much information on specific sources.
There are Homer’s works, but the mythology presented is not the source of the stories. Where did Homer, the people behind Clash of the Titans, Bernard Evslin, etc. learn the stories?
ETA: Actually, in the last question, I should take Homer out since during his time, the stories were probably as well known as how Bruce Wayne became Batman in our time.
Funny story: the first Starbucks I went into had wallpaper that included reproductions of excerpts from books all over the place. I was very pleased with myself when I recognized a passage from this book behind the register.
There IS no definitive collection of ancient myths. There are multiple versions of almost every tale, and quite frequently those versions contradcit one another, because they represent different traditions, and sometimes the clash of different cultures who worshipped different gods.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is probably the nearest thing to a comprehensive collection of mythology that the ancients had. Ovid doesn’t have everything, though.
I can’t recommend Hamilton’s book enough (see Kaylasdad’s link above). She gives a short introduction to each myth explaining what the source material is. She also has an excellent introduction that includes a section on “The Greek and Roman writers of mythology.” She mentions by name Ovid, Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Plato, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus, Apuleius, Lucian, Apollodorus, Pausanias, Virgil, and Catullus.
Robert Graves The Greek Myths is available in many editions–sometimes in two volumes, sometimes one. He recounts Graeco-Roman myth & legend from the several creation stories through Odysseus’s return from Troy.
Each brief chapter begins with a summary of the topic (“The Fates”, “The Birth of Aphrodite”, etc.)–usually giving several versions of the story. In the second part of each chapter he reveals his sources–from the earliest Greeks to the latest Romans; some are only fragments mentioned in larger works. Graves had an exquisite Classical education & he shows it here.
The third part of each chapter is somewhat different; Graves explains what each story “really” means. Be aware that some of his anthropological & archaeological theories are now obsolete and he is expressing his devotion to The Goddess. Enjoy these sections with The Ancient Skepticism. They reveal much about 20th century thought & Graves’ ideas have been widely influential in weirdly far-flung places. He was primarily a poet–not a scientist.
In short, 2/3 of this book is close to definitive. One third is proof that The Gods aren’t dead yet. Be a grownup & use your own intelligence!
(Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is great for absolute beginners. And she gives a taste of the Norse thing.)
If you want the Real Thing in Ancient Greek Myth, then I recommend:
The Iliad and The Odyssey I like Robert Fitzgerald;‘s translation and Bernard Fagels’. Essential reading, and very well done
Theogeny and Works and Days by Hesiod - as old as Homer, if not as famous. Penguin has an edition, but you can also get the Loeb Clasical Library
Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes – get the Loeb edition, or the Peguin edition (entitled “The Voyage of Argo”) One of the few non-Homeric epics to come down intact.
The Metamorphoses by Ovid – several translations available. Ovid changes myths sometimes, but he’s our only source for some of them. There are quite a few in here.
The Library (Biblioteca) of Apollodorus – you have to get the Loeb editiion. I don’t know anyone else who publishes it in English. It’s not pretty poetry like the others above, but it is awesomely complete. This is The Real Thing.
There are lots of other sources, but our accounts of the myths are often very fragmentary, or very late. Besides the cabove there are many plays by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. If you really want to know where to find the sources, look in Robert graves’ The Greek Myths (but don’t trust his weird commentary), or Karl Kerenyi’s The Gods of the Greeks or The HGeroes of the Greeks, or (and I cannot recommend this highly enough) Timothy Gant’s Early Greek Myth. Edityh Hamilton also tells you where to find the original stories, but not as comprehensively.
Other folks are covering the Graeco-Roman tradition, so I thought I’d jump in with some other traditions and cultures.
For Mayan mythology, there is the Popul Vuh, which is available in several translations. I’m sorry, my copy is in storage and I can’t tell from a cursory glance at Amazon which translation it is. (I’d need an image of the cover; is that not pathetic?)
For Indian mythology, the twin epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the best places to start. There is a 6 hour film of the 9 hour play adapted by Peter Brook, and the printed script, which are a good starting point. If you’re after the complete thing, this
is my favourite unabridged translation. Avoid the translations distributed by ISKON (aka the Hare Krishna movement.). My comparative religions prof referred to them as ‘Coca Cola Krishna.’ For the Ramayana, I remember enjoying an abridgement by R. K. Narayan.
That’s all I can do until we empty the storage locker, but I know I’ve got lots more to recommend if you can wait a couple of months…
One thing about Ovid. It’s true that he’s the sole surviving source for lots of amazing stories. But he wasn’t really a believer in the myths and couldn’t help adding some silly touches. He didn’t tell the myths straight, he had to add his own sensibility. Imagine if one of the sole surviving sources for the mythology about Santa Claus was “Fred Claus”. It would be very helpful in showing that there were widespread myths about Santa Claus in the 21st century, but you’d have a hard time separating out the Hollywood invention from the core mythology.
Wow, a lot of great references here! Thanks to all, also to Le Ministre’s suggestions of other myths. I always found Hindu art especially intriguing and was interested in reading up on that branch of mythology after I tackled a little of the Greek, Roman, and Norse ones.
For Norse myth, there’s the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturleson. For the Mayans, try the Popol Vuh. For India, I believe the Baghavad Gita might be what you’re looking for. For a single book that’s a clearing house for the major players in the major pantheons, I recommend Richard Carlyon’s A Guide to the Gods.
Being lazy. From Wickipedia:
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion is a wide-ranging, comparative study of mythology and religion, written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). It first was published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes. It was aimed at a broad literate audience raised on tales as told in such publications as Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855). It offered a modernist approach to discussing religion, treating it dispassionately  as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. The impact of The Golden Bough on contemporary European literature was substantial.
There used to be a paperback one volume abrigement.