Mythology

Chances are you've heard about the similarities between the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis flood account, or how Tolkien's Middle Earth was inspired by Scandinavian and Germanic folklore, or how the Romans stole the Greek gods and gave them different names. What accounts for the continuity among myths? Why is there always a creation story passed down in every culture? Who cares about "the gods," anyway?

Humans have a common story. It wasn't as if the Arapahoe Indians came into being independently of the Mandarin Chinese or the Celts; their mythologies might suggest otherwise at first glance, but on closer inspection similarities emerge. One of the most striking is the prevalent concept of a god or gods emerging from a void to create the universe. Another, particularly common in the Near East, is the story of one good man who survives a universal flood in order to preserve human and animal life.

Similarities persist beyond creation myths. Basically every mythology around the world includes a trickster figure—usually a deity, always a supernatural being, the trickster exists to tempt humans and other gods, cause problems (both benign and disastrous), and betray anyone who gets too close. In Norse mythology the trickster is Loki; for the Native Americans it was Coyote; in West African tradition he takes the form of a spider, Anansi.

There are differences, of course. Myths encapsulate a culture's religious, moral, philosophical, psychological, and scientific attitudes, and as far as any two cultures are different, their myths will reflect that. Eastern mythology sees things primarily as a unity, whereas the Greeks liked to compartmentalize (anticipating even in ancient times the Enlightenment dualism their philosophers grandfathered).

Yet even here, specific gods in both the Eastern and Western traditions were attributed certain tasks and functions. Gods frequently took other shape and appeared to humans, gods were essentially humans on a large scale, the mysteries of nature were explained by the activities of the gods (usually with a bizarre earthiness). All this is true in nearly every culture that has produced its own mythology.

Does that mean the universality of mythological types and archetypes proves the general principles to be true? Of course not—ancient myths are at odds with both Christian doctrine and modern science, and people that still believe them either live far from civilization or spend their Saturdays browsing New Age bookstore shelves. What it does mean is that human nature is pretty universal, and man's imagination is ultimately limited by the boundaries of that nature.

What myths show us best is not man as he actually is, however; they give us a clear picture of man as he would like to be. By creating stories of gods that are essentially humans without boundaries, man is able to envision his deepest fantasy, to himself be godlike. Yet it isn't the biblical holy and transcendent god man wants to be, it's simply a being actually capable of doing whatever he or she pleases without fear of consequences. The gods of myth are simply men whose rebellion has been granted license.

Reading the ancient accounts is about as instructive as you can get if you want to know how we humans think of ourselves. If the picture is less than flattering, that may be due to fits of honesty on the mythologist's part, or to the fact that as Christians we view nobility much differently. Reading the old myths is sometimes entertaining, often jarring, but always helpful if you're looking to understand Man as he really is.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Aeneid
by Virgil, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
from Vintage Classics
Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$16.00
Ancient Egypt: Life, Myth, and Art
by JoAnne Fletcher
First Edition from Duncan Baird
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in Ancient Egypt (Location: HISW-ANEG)
$8.50 (1 in stock)
Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends
by Lewis Spence
Reprint from Dover Publications
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Arabian Nights
by Sir Richard Burton, trans.
from Bracken Books
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Arabian Nights
Scribner Illustrated Classics
by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, editors, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish
from Charles Scribner's Sons
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
Arabian Nights
Scribner Illustrated Classics
by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, editors, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish
from Charles Scribner's Sons
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
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$29.99
Arabian Nights
by Sir Richard Burton, trans.
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Arabian Nights
by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, editors, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish
from Book-of-the-Month Club
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
Arabian Nights - Two Volume Set
by Sir Richard Burton (translator), illustrated by Arthur Szyk
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for 10th-Adult
in Vintage Fiction & Literature (Location: VIN-FIC)
Arabian Nights I
Signet Classics
by Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
in Medieval Literature (Location: LIT2-MED)
$9.95
Arabian Nights II
Signet Classics
by Anonymous, Sir Richard Burton (Translator), Jack Zipes (Adapter)
from Signet Classics
Eastern Fairy Tales for 9th-Adult
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$8.95
Atarax the Wolf Tells: Greek Myths
by Adam De Gree
from Classical Historian
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$7.50
Atlanta's Race
by Shirley Climo (reteller), illustrated by Alexander Koshkin
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Aztec and Maya Myths
by Karl Taube
from British Museum Press
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$4.00 (1 in stock)
Beautiful Stories of Life
by Cynthia Rylant
1st edition from HMH Books for Young Readers
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$17.99
Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology
by Thomas Bulfinch
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$6.00
Bulfinch's Medieval Mythology
by Thomas Bulfinch
from Dover Publications
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$10.00
Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Chivalry
by Thomas Bulfinch
from Living Book Press
for 9th-Adult
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Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable
by Thomas Bulfinch
from International Collectors Library
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Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable
by Thomas Bulfinch, illustrated by Stanley William Hayter
from Heritage Press
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Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable
by Thomas Bulfinch
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Bulfinch's Mythology: The Complete Texts
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by Thomas Bulfinch
from Living Book Press
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Castles
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Children of Odin
by Padraic Colum
from Aladdin Paperbacks
Norse Mythology for 3rd-8th grade
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Children of Odin
by Padraic Colum, illustrated by Willy Pogany
from Macmillan
Norse Mythology for 3rd-8th grade
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Companion to World Mythology
by Richard Barber, illustrated by Pauline D. Baynes
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Complete Illustrated Stories of the Brothers Grimm
by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by E.H. Wehnert
Redesigned Edition (1st Edition in this form) from Chancellor Press
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D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths - Memoria Press Package
from Memoria Press
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$62.90
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
by Edgar & Ingri D'Aulaire
from Yearling
Greek Mythology for 4th-8th grade
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$19.99
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths - Audio CD
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Norse Mythology for 3rd-8th grade
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Time-Life Myth & Mankind
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by Lucia Gahlin
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by Jacqueline Morley (reteller), illustrated by Giovanni Caselli
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$4.00 (1 in stock)
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by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Troy Howell
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$10.00 (1 in stock)
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by Mary Pope Osborne
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by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Troy Howell
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Time-Life Myth & Mankind
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by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen, illustrated by Zevi Blum
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$10.99
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by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
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$8.99
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Greek Mythology for 2nd-5th grade
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Time-Life Myth & Mankind
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Everyman's Library
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Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 9th-Adult
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by Homer (translation by Robert Fagles)
from Penguin Putnam
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by Homer (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
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by Homer (translation by Robert Fagles)
from Penguin Putnam
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Signet Classics
by Homer (translation by W.H.D. Rouse), Afterword by Adam Nicolson
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$6.95
Iliad (retold)
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by Thomas Bulfinch, illustrated by Giovanni Caselli
from Macmillan
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Imitation in Writing Series
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2nd edition from Logos School
Writing Curriculum for 4th-9th grade
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Imitation in Writing: Greek Myths
Imitation in Writing Series
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3rd edition from Logos School
Writing Curriculum for 4th-9th grade
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Time-Life Myth & Mankind
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by Olivia Coolidge, illustrated by Ellen Raskin
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Time-Life Myth & Mankind
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$4.00 (1 in stock)
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by Olivia Coolidge & Katharine Pyle, illustrated by Jaclyne Scardova
from Silver Burdett Press
Greek mythology for 4th-6th grade
Myths and Folk Tales Around the World
by Robert R. Potter
from Globe Book Company
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Myths of Greece and Rome
by H. A. Guerber, revised by Dorothy Margaret Stuart
Revised edition, 1960 printing from George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.
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Myths of the Norsemen
Puffin Classics
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Reprint from Puffin Books
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Myths of the Norsemen
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Dover Coloring Books
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$15.95
Odin's Family
by Neil Philip, illustrated by Maryclare Foa
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$9.00 (1 in stock)
Odyssey
by Homer (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
from Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 9th-Adult
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$16.00
Odyssey
Everyman's Library
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Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 9th-Adult
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Odyssey
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Signet Classics
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Everyman's Library
by Homer (translation by Robert Fitzgerald)
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Ancient Literature/Epic Poetry for 9th-Adult
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Odyssey & Guide - 2 book set
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Odyssey (retold)
Puffin Classics
by Geraldine McCaughrean retells Homer
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by Homer, adapted by Gareth Hinds
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Odyssey of Homer
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