Mythology & Folklore

It's easy to dismiss myths simply as lies. After all, did Apollo really pull the Sun around in a chariot? Did Coyote really create the Indian tribes by flinging a defeated monster in several directions? Did Onamuji really die twice and have to be rescued by his mother? Who on earth is Onamuji? As children of the Enlightenment we have little patience for such absurd stories, condescendingly studying them (if we pay attention at all) as artifacts of primitive socities, or simply transforming them into comic book adventures.

Which is probably exactly what most of the originators of the myths would have wanted, at least the comic book part. As the great Roman poet Ovid demonstrated in his masterful Metamorphoses, myths aren't about telling what actually happened or describing the physical realities of the world so much as they're concerned with renewal, transfiguration and change.

There is a sense in which myths are intended to explain some perplexing aspect of the known world, as when the Scandinavians attributed lightning and thunder to Thor charging around in his goat-drawn chariot. But there's another sense in which it didn't really matter if they believed the stories they told at religious gatherings or by the fire at night; the mythologies of the Greeks, Chinese, Sioux tribes, Congolese and Slavs were all intended to impart to their listeners particular ideas about the world, about justice, about life and death, and about themselves.

Postmodernists like to call this sort of thing metanarrative, a universal story that imparts meaning on the chaos of existence. Men like G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien preferred to call it a search for truth. It was in this sense that Chesterton called the Christian Gospel a Myth—not because it was in any sense not true; quite the opposite, because it is perfectly true. Old mythologies worked hard to discover truth, while the Christian myth (the only completely true myth, as C.S. Lewis would say) is truth.

This is not to undermine the Christian narrative as found in the Bible, nor is it to apotheosize the ancient myths. There's plenty the old mythologists got wrong, and nothing untrue in the Word of God. Not only that, whereas the old myths are complete fabrications, the narrative of Scripture presents real historical events that actually transpired.

What is also true, however, and what is often ignored, is that what the Bible does for real, the myth-writers were trying to do. They wanted understanding, and the often bizarre stories they conjured weren't weird for the sake of weirdness: they were attempts at building a framework that would make sense of everything they knew existed, its origins, and its ultimate destiny.

Folklore shares a similar goal, though it's generally less universal, more homespun and culture-specific. Zeus is a mythic figure; Paul Bunyan is a folk hero. The folk hero is generally a national symbol, a human distillation of the peoples' spirit, someone they can identify with while looking up to them at the same time. Mythology and folklore often merge, especially in places with a long and deep heritage. The United States has no mythology, but its people have developed a rich folklore to make up for it.

At its best, mythology promotes noble conduct, self-sacrifice, and peacefulness. At its worst, it depicts a universe at the hands of capricious deities with appetites only different from ours in that they're bigger, more depraved, more destructive. We don't suggest building a worldview out of ancient myths, but if you have any desire to understand how people of the past thought and what motivated them, we do suggest starting with their stories.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

Did you find this review helpful?
148 Items found Print
Adventures of Robin Hood
by Paul Creswick
from Reader's Digest
for 6th-12th grade
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Aeneid
by Virgil (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
from Vintage Classics
Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$11.90 $8.00 (1 in stock)
Aesop's Fables
by Aesop
from Henry Holt and Company
Fairy Tales, Fables, and Legends for 1st-5th grade
in Picture Books (Location: PICTURE)
$9.34
Aesop's Fables
by Aesop
from Signet Classics
Fairy Tales & Fables for 10th grade-adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$5.06
Aesop's Fables
Puffin Classics
by Aesop
Reprint from Puffin Books
for Kindergarten-4th grade
$5.94
Aesop's Fables
by Aesop
from Gallery Books
for 3rd-9th grade
in Animal Stories (Location: FIC-ANI)
$14.00 (1 in stock)
Aesop's Fables
by Aesop
from NorthSouth
for 1st-4th grade
in Picture Books (Location: PICTURE)
$4.00 (1 in stock)
Aladdin and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights
by William Heath Robinson, illustrator
from Everyman's Library
for 6th-9th grade
$15.26
Alex O'Donnell and the 40 CyberThieves
by Regina Doman
from Chesterton Press
for 7th-10th grade
Ancient Egypt: Life, Myth, and Art
by JoAnne Fletcher
First Edition from Duncan Baird
for 5th-9th grade
in Ancient Egypt (Location: HIS-ANCEGY)
$8.50 (1 in stock)
Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends
by Lewis Spence
Reprint from Dover Publications
for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Egypt (Location: HIS-ANCEGY)
$9.50 (1 in stock)
Annotated African American Folktales
by Henry Louis Gates & Maria Tatar
from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: LIT7-20)
Annotated Brothers Grimm
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Bicentennial from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Annotated Classic Fairy Tales
by Maria Tatar
from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 8th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
by Hans Christian Andersen
from W. W. Norton and Co.
for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Arabian Nights
by Sir Richard Burton, trans.
from Bracken Books
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
Arabian Nights
Scribner Illustrated Classics
by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, editors, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish
from Charles Scribner's Sons
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
Arabian Nights
International Collectors Library
from International Collectors Library
for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
Arabian Nights
Scribner Illustrated Classics
by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, editors, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish
from Charles Scribner's Sons
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$29.99
Arabian Nights I
Signet Classics
by Anonymous, Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$8.46
Arabian Nights II
Signet Classics
by Anonymous, Sir Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$7.61
Beautiful Stories of Life
by Cynthia Rylant
1st edition from HMH Books for Young Readers
for 4th-7th grade
$15.29
Best-Loved Folktales of the World
by Joanna Cole
from Anchor Books
for 7th-12th grade
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: LIT7-20)
$14.00 (1 in stock)
Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology
by Thomas Bulfinch
from Dover Publications
for 8th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$5.10
Bulfinch's Mythology: A Modern Abridgment
by Thomas Bulfinch
from Laurel-Leaf Books
for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$6.79
Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable
by Thomas Bulfinch
from International Collectors Library
for 9th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer (edited by Peter Beidler)
from Bantam Books
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$5.09
Child's Story Book
by Kay Chorao
from E.P. Dutton & Co.
for 1st-4th grade
in Picture Books (Location: PICTURE)
$4.00 (1 in stock)
Classic Fairy Tales
by Peter Opie & Iona Opie
from Oxford University
for 6th-10th grade
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$12.00 (1 in stock)
Complete Fables
Penguin Classics
by Aesop
from Penguin Classics
Fables for 9th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$11.05
Complete Fairy Tales
Penguin Classics
by George MacDonald
from Penguin Classics
Fairy Tales, Fables, and Folklore for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$14.45
Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
Signet Classics
by Oscar Wilde
from Signet Classics
Fairy Tales, Fables, and Legends for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$5.06
Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm
3rd edition from Bantam Books
Fairy Tales, Fables, and Folklore for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$19.55
Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
by Wilhelm Grimm, Jacob Grimm
from International Collectors Library
for 5th-10th grade
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Complete Tales of Uncle Remus
by Joel Chandler Harris
from Houghton Mifflin
Animal Fantasy for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
Complete Tales of Uncle Remus
by Joel Chandler Harris
from Dial Press
Animal Fantasy for 7th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$40.00
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
by Oscar Wilde
from Barnes & Noble
for 10th-Adult
in 19th Century Literature (Location: LIT6-19)
$12.00 (1 in stock)
Early Irish Myths and Sagas
by Jeffrey Gantz
from Penguin Classics
for 10th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
Elfin Knight
by Edmund Spenser & Toby Sumpter
from Canon Press
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: LIT3-REN)
$17.00
Faerie Queene
Penguin Classics
by Edmund Spenser
from Penguin Classics
Allegory/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: LIT3-REN)
$18.70
Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg
by Gail Carson Levine
First Edition from Disney-Hyperion
for 3rd-6th grade
in Fantasy Fiction (Location: FIC-FAN)
$8.00 (1 in stock)
Favorite Folktales from Around the World
by Jane Yolen
from Pantheon Books
for 4th-Adult
$9.00 (1 in stock)
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves
by Roy Maynard & Edmund Spenser
from Canon Press
Allegory/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: LIT3-REN)
$17.00 $12.00 (1 in stock)
First Houses: Native American Homes and Sacred Structures
by Jean Guard Monroe, Ray A. Williamson
from Houghton Mifflin
for 6th-12th grade
in Houses & Homes (Location: G7B-HIS)
$4.00 (1 in stock)
Freedom's Fruit
by William H. Hooks
from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
in Picture Books (Location: PICTURE)
$5.20 (1 in stock)
Glittering Plain
by William Morris
from Newcastle Publishing Co
for 7th-Adult
in Fantasy Fiction (Location: FIC-FAN)
$6.00 (1 in stock)
Great American Folklore
by Kemp P. Battle
from Doubleday & Company
for 7th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: LIT7-20)
$5.00 (1 in stock)
Grimm's Fairy Tales
by Grimm Brothers
from Viking Press
for 4th-8th grade
$8.00 (1 in stock)
History of the Kings of Britain
Penguin Classics
by Geoffrey of Monmouth
from Penguin Classics
Historical Fairy Tale for 10th-12th grade
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$16.15
Hood
The Raven King Book 1
by Stephen R. Lawhead
First Edition from Thomas Nelson Publishers
for 8th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: LIT7-20)
$16.99
123