If you’ve enjoyed our Pop Mythology series you might want to explore the world of mythology further. So, in no particular order, here’s a list of some of the best books on mythology that don’t just tell you the stories but also give you context about the cultural mindsets they were born in.
Obviously, this list isn’t ‘definitive’ by any means. Not least of all because there are so many cultures to explore than these! What they should act as is a fulcrum that’ll help with the heavy lifting of learning about these cultures.
The Best General Books on Mythology
The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
If you haven’t heard of this book then I’m trembling with jealousy at the fact you get to read it for the first time. The book behind countless stories – including Star Wars – collects a lifetime of studies of myths from around the world into one volume that reads more like a novel than an academic text.
This book is the basis for Campbell’s famous “Hero’s Journey” theory. An inclusive structure that almost any myth – and modern story for that matter – appears to fit into as if all humans, throughout all time, really did have access to some higher plane of mythic thought from which we’ve all drawn our most powerful stories.
The Best Books on Greek Mythology
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
In my opinion, the definitive book of Greek Mythology. Robert Graves was a historian and poet whose book on Greek myth was intended to capture the magical thinking of early religious thought.
Don’t ignore the footnotes, though. In this case they’re as interesting as the main text and will whisk you through the Indus Valley and into the heart of the Ogham alphabet in just ten lines!
Myth: Its Meaning And Functions In Ancient And Other Cultures by G.S. Kirk
It’s a little more academic than some others on this list but reads extremely easily all the same. Have you ever wondered what the difference between myth and folklore is? Well, Kirk will help you dig deep into that conundrum!
I’m cheating a little here because this book doesn’t just touch on Greek myths but it does highlight their strange qualities, especially when it comes to analysing them as cultural artefacts.
Myth and Meaning: Cracking The Code of Culture by Levi Strauss
In this incredibly slim book – there’s fewer than 100 pages in all – you’re taken through the methods of possibly the greatest student of mythology of the 20th century.
In it you’ll explore summaries of how the structure of language affects both the creation and reception of myth, how myths are recycled century after century and so much more!
Mythos by Stephen Fry
Few people wield the English language as adeptly as Stephen Fry. His wordplay has delighted millions for over 40 years and in Mythos that skill is fuelled by his passion for these ancient Greek stories. Read the myths that have had the biggest effects on modern western culture written by a master of the modern word.
The Best Books on Norse Mythology
Gods And Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson
The best thing about this book is that it gives a broad but fascinating view of Norse and Germanic mythology. The convergence of these cultures is rarely analysed but Ellis Davidson not only does that but also plants your feet in an age that eventually gave way to Christianity without fully losing its own colour.
As the cover says, “A mythology is the comment of one particular age or civilisation on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind …” In this book, we are initiated into these mysteries from a north European perspective.
Norse Mythology: A Guide To The Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs by John Lindow
This is probably the one book I reach for every time I have a question about Norse mythology. For the most part it is a dictionary, which makes it easy to find summaries of mythical characters and the rites and rituals associated with them.
However, the introduction is spectacular and it even contains a lengthy analysis of the Norse concept of ‘mythic time’, which is extremely useful when trying to understand how the Norse understood their place in their storied cosmos.
Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolph Simek
If you’re feeling brave and you want to dive into things like the etymology of Old Germanic words, or you want to find specific references to the oldest texts we have of these stories, then there’s no better place to start than with Simek.
It is a dictionary through and through but while it’s not as readable as Lindow, it will give you damn near all the information available about even the most obscure characters, places and stories in Norse Mythology.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Even though academics invariably write myths well, why wouldn’t you want to dive into a collection written by one of the greatest fiction writers of our time?
Norse Mythology: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman
And seeing as we’re huge fans of comics too, there’s a two-volume graphic novel of the same stories written by Gaiman and illustrated by P. Craig Russel, Mike Mignola, Jill Thompson and other greats!
The Best Books on Aztec Mythology
Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide To The Gods, Heroes, Rituals, And Beliefs Of Mexico And Central America by Kay Almere Read and Jason J. Gonzalez.
My copy of this is dog-eared, spine-shattered and scribbled to within an inch of its life. As all favourite books should be!
The grounding it gives you in Mesoamerican culture – both ancient and modern, including the Latin diaspora in the States – is comprehensive but reads like a novel. I simply can’t recommend this book enough!
Mexico: From The Beginning To The Spanish Conquest by Alan Knight
I get it, you’re into myth so why am I giving you a straight-up history book as a recommendation? Well, because Aztec myth and ritual can often seem excessively brutal – and it was – but this book gives you the cultural setting behind the myths that will have you nodding your head empathetically at people being horrifically dismembered.
It’s worth the cover price just for that!
The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend
This book gives an excellent grounding in the geo-political events that led to the creation of the Aztec culture and its chapter on the ‘Aztec Symbolic World’ is like an exercise in mystical thinking.
Most of all, though, the photographs of artefacts in the Third Edition will blow your mind, especially when you tie them in with the information in the rest of the book.
The Best Books on Egyptian Mythology
The Penguin Book of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley
Tyldesley is one of the foremost Egyptologists in the world today and having her write the ‘Penguin Book Of …’ is an excellent choice on the part of the publishers. If you want a panoramic study of Egyptian myths and the archaeological evidence that supports them then you could do a LOT worse than picking up this book!
The Egyptian Myths by Garry J. Shaw
If, on the other hand, what you want is a master storyteller to take your hand and walk you through the reeds and marshes of ancient Egyptian myth and legend then look absolutely no further. Not even the exquisite illustrations will slow you down when reading this page-turner.
Egyptian Mythology by Geraldine Pinch
This surprisingly thin book begins with “What is a myth” and then takes you on a whistle-stop tour of Egyptian dynastic history, concepts of linear and cyclical time in their ancient religious worldview, all before transforming into a comprehensive dictionary of mythical characters, events and stories.
We could go on but there are always new and classic books to read for every ancient culture and we want this to be a list that continues to grow like ivy up a stone brick wall.
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