Book Review: Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

4 out of 5 Stars

588147Sometimes you just have to go back to the classics, which was the case with Bulfinch’s Mythology. Originally written and published by Thomas Bulfinch in 1863, this novel has been toted as one of the most comprehensive texts on Greek, Roman, and other mythologies. Since I love including bits and pieces from world mythologies in my writing, I figured it was about time to go to the source.

The Background

For almost a century and a half, Bulfinch’s Mythology has been the text by which the great tales of the gods and goddesses, Greek and Roman antiquity; Scandinavian, Celtic, and Oriental fables and myths; and the age of chivalry have been known.
The stories are divided into three sections: The Age of Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes (first published in 1855); The Age of Chivalry (1858), which contains King Arthur and His Knights, The Mabinogeon, and The Knights of English History; and Legends of Charlemagne or Romance of the Middle Ages (1863). For the Greek myths, Bulfinch drew on Ovid and Virgil, and for the sagas of the north, from Mallet’s Northern Antiquities. He provides lively versions of the myths of Zeus and Hera, Venus and Adonis, Daphne and Apollo, and their cohorts on Mount Olympus; the love story of Pygmalion and Galatea; the legends of the Trojan War and the epic wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas; the joys of Valhalla and the furies of Thor; and the tales of Beowulf and Robin Hood.
The tales are eminently readable. As Bulfinch wrote, “Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. . . . Our book is an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement.”

Thomas Bulfinch, in his day job, was a clerk in the Merchant’s Bank of Boston, an undemanding position that afforded him ample leisure time in which to pursue his other interests. In addition to serving as secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History, he thoroughly researched the myths and legends and copiously cross-referenced them with literature and art. As such, the myths are an indispensable guide to the cultural values of the nineteenth century; however, it is the vigor of the stories themselves that returns generation after generation to Bulfinch.

My Thoughts?

Overall, I found Bulfinch’s Mythology to be an excellent resource for information on ancient mythologies and legends. The majority of the book focused on Roman and Greek mythologies, giving a comprehensive look into religion, storytelling, and the pantheon of deities. Bulfinch did a thorough job referencing the works of the Odyssey and other famous literature and art throughout his text, tying the myths and legend together with actual historical events. The myths also included cross-references to other legends within the book itself to give readers context.

Since the book was first published in the late 1800s, some of the writing can be a bit dry and hard to follow at times. The stories are harrowing, filled with war, tragedy, and hope, but the narrator uses such straightforward language that it tends to diminish the excitement. Bulfinch also has the confusing habit of flip-flopping back and forth between the multiple names of deities (Jupiter/Zeus, Mars/Ares, Venus/Aphrodite, etc…), making it somewhat hard to follow along with timelines, family trees, and stories in general.

Beyond the dry language, my biggest complaint about this text was the severe focus on Greek and Roman mythologies. I loved these sections, but I felt much more time could have been spent on other world religions, especially eastern beliefs. Small sections were dedicated to the history of Budhism, the Hindu religion, Celtic rituals, and Norse Gods, but these chapters were abbreviated and far from all-inclusive.

Overall I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Although it is lacking in some areas, it is a great resource for anyone looking to learn something about the myths and legends of our world.

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