Mythology For Dummies

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Overview

Every culture and time has its myths. You might say that myths help us to understand people, since just like people they can be inspirational and beautiful, as well as cruel and violent. The main players in mythology are the original drama kings and queens — they hang themselves in shame, poke out their own eyes, rule cities, and marry their relatives — and the fun doesn’t stop there! If you want all the scoop on gods and goddesses, fates and furies, monsters and heroes from around the world, Mythology for ...

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Overview

Every culture and time has its myths. You might say that myths help us to understand people, since just like people they can be inspirational and beautiful, as well as cruel and violent. The main players in mythology are the original drama kings and queens — they hang themselves in shame, poke out their own eyes, rule cities, and marry their relatives — and the fun doesn’t stop there! If you want all the scoop on gods and goddesses, fates and furies, monsters and heroes from around the world, Mythology for Dummies is the Who’s Who of mythological figures that you can’t do without.

It’s no secret that mythology can be confusing for anyone. From cultural hero Johnny Appleseed, to manly Odysseus, to femme fatale Aphrodite, and those pesky Cyclops running amuck on that faraway island, Mythology for Dummies covers all the bases, including information on:

  • Greek mythology
  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
  • Roman mythology
  • Virgil’s Aeneid
  • Beowulf
  • Non-European mythology

Also, this book will get you up to speed on the heavy stuff—like how mythology intersects with our lives, and explores the meaning of existence. Organized into chapters on specific topics, it breaks down the common types of myths and mythological figures, and offers plain-English explanations of how myths have appeared in cultures throughout the ages. You’ll find what you need to know on these topics and many more:

  • What makes myths different from legends and fairy tales
  • Greek creation myths and those really ancient Greek Gods
  • The Olympian Gods (taller, younger, and better looking than you)
  • The Greek goddesses (the fairest and the meanest of them all)
  • Heroes — made, born, and re-born
  • Mythological places from Elysium Fields, to Atlantis, and Xanadu
  • Roman religion — how it was begged, borrowed, and stolen
You’ll also enjoy helpful features like charts comparing major figures, and a tear-out tip-sheet with a timeline of world civilizations. Whether you want to dabble in the wonders of mythology or get serious, Mythology for Dummies will demystify the subject, and show you how important myths can be to a culture. You’ll never say, “It’s only a myth” again!
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780764554322
  • Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Series: For Dummies Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 557,221
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. Christopher W. Blackwell is Assistant Professor of Greek, Department of Classics, Furman University.
Amy Hackney Blackwell is a freelance author who has an MA in history.

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Read an Excerpt

Mythology For Dummies


By Christopher W. Blackwell Amy Hackney Blackwell

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7645-5432-8


Chapter One

The Truth About Myths

In This Chapter

* Seeing what makes a myth

* Examining common mythical themes and ideas about them

* Introducing common mythical characters

* Looking at famous American myths

First things first. Before you read any more of this book, we want you to know this: We take myths very seriously.

Now, we're not saying that myths aren't funny - many myths are really funny, and they're supposed to be. Neither are we saying that our entire discussion of myths will be serious, because it won't. This book is supposed to be engaging and entertaining, so we plan to have fun talking about mythology with the hope that you have fun reading about mythology.

But when we say that something is a myth, we're not saying that it's false or wrong. In other words, we don't think that science and history belong on the one correct side and mythology belongs on the other. (We don't have anything against science and history. They teach the world a great deal, and we profit from them every day; we just don't think people should elevate them above myths simply because they seem more verifiable.)

When we were growing up, we were taught that people used myths to explain the world before science became an established field. The assumption was that once people became rational, they didn't need myths. We know better now.

Mythology is a way of understanding the world, and it is just as important and just as "true" as the scientific or historical ways. In fact, science, history, and other logical ways of thinking simply fail to describe some very important things - things that we think are true. But myths can do the job.

Chris's father was lucky enough to have known Paul Tillich, a Christian thinker who fled from Nazi Germany and ended up at Harvard University. Tillich, who really knew a thing or two about what is important, used to say: "Never say something is only a myth. Say, rather, it is nothing less than a myth."

That's what we think - that myths are important and worth taking seriously. And anything worth taking seriously should be fun to think about as well. So, here we go....

How to Spot a Myth a Mile Away

A myth is a story. The Greek word "mythos" means "story." That's the basic concept. But, of course, not just any old story can be a myth. Amy (one of the authors of this book) was served a whole pig's head for dinner in Thailand - this is a good story and one worth telling, but it isn't a myth. Chris (the other author of this book) once got shot at by some lunatics in the woods - another good story, but not up to the standards of mythology. You may know a myth when you see it, but you still need some kind of definition before you can get down to the business of fully appreciating myths.

Experts love to argue about difficult, hard-to-define subjects, and mythology has been a popular topic for argument for the last two centuries. Scholars argue about what is a "true" myth as opposed to some other kind. They insist, however, that no one confuse myths with other similar types of stories, such as legends, sagas, and folktales.

Specifics of mythological proportions

So what's special about a myth? Well, myths are stories about gods and goddesses and supernatural entities and human relationships with them. This definition can expand to include stories that explain universal truths or values and stories that help groups of people (such as Americans) identify themselves and define their values. Myths help validate the social order, such as hereditary kingships or social class structures. They also can provide a "history" of a kingdom that makes it seem inevitable.

Because myths are about humans and the gods, then they're also always about religion. Every myth in this book was or still is part of a religion that people practiced seriously.

The word "myth" has come to mean "untrue" in some contexts; people say something is "just a myth" if no factual basis exists for it. But myths do have their own truths. They provide people with a view of the world and a set of values that can be as important as any scientifically verifiable fact. (For some examples, see Chapter 3.)

Legends

Legends are similar to the myth, but they're based on history. It doesn't have to have much of a historical basis - lots of legends hardly jibe with the historical versions at all. A legend or saga, however, does have to include something that may actually have happened. For example, the story of King Arthur is a legend because there (probably) was an actual man who served as the basis for the King Arthur we know of today.

Folktales

A folktale is a traditional tale that is primarily a form of entertainment or in some cases is used to instruct. Folktales involve adventures and heroes and magical happenings, but they don't usually try to explain human relationships with the divine.

Most stories known as myths have elements of legend or folktale in them and vice versa. These terms are useful in helping decide what is a myth and what isn't, but you shouldn't get too hung up on them.

Fairy tales look like myths and folktales, but they're a little different. Fairy tales came out of the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century, when people such as the Brothers Grimm collected stories from local people and wrote them up in romanticized versions. The Grimm fairy tales, however, are nothing like the sanitized, modern ones - the original versions are full of blood and brutality.

Which Came First, the People or the Myths?

People haven't always had access to big books of Greek mythology or world mythology to refer to for mythological information. But these myths nevertheless have moved down through the ages through the spoken word and through art. After writing was invented, people preserved the myths on paper. What could be more interesting - for authors in antiquity or even yesterday - than writing stories from myths?

The oral tradition

Myths are stories, and stories get told. Stories that are passed down from one generation to the next are stories told in the oral tradition.

In places and times where people don't use written language, oral tradition is one of only two ways of preserving knowledge from one generation to the next (the other is art, which we talk about in a minute).

In cultures with oral traditions, people tend to have better memories. In cultures that write down their material, people don't need particularly good memories because they have books, self-stick notes, and other ways of reminding themselves of things that they otherwise might forget. Societies with oral traditions often turn stories into poems or songs, which are easier to remember and to repeat word for word.

This is the most traditional way for myths to start, to spread, and to develop. Because each generation that tells a myth has its own unique needs and its own unique experiences, myths tend to evolve over time and tend to exist in different versions.

One modern equivalent to the oral tradition is the material that passes from person to person by e-mail. Stories can spread across the world from computer user to computer user, changing slightly all the while. Some of these tales may become the myths of the twenty-first century.

Archaeological evidence

People who don't read or write can tell stories, and they can make art. Art is another way that myths can survive from generation to generation, even if they aren't written down.

Art can survive long after the people who made it have died, enabling archaeologists to uncover, restore, and interpret it. Art that helps preserve myths doesn't have to be fancy or sophisticated art. Ordinary household objects often feature decorations that can tell modern archaeologists a lot about a society.

Literature

Eventually, of course, people put myths in writing. The poetry of Homer, a great source for Greek mythology, began life as an oral tradition of songs that singers would perform publicly. Those poems ended up as written text for people to read. In the case of Homer, scholars argue endlessly about how the oral material came to be preserved on paper in one specific version.

Mythographers existed even in ancient times. They recorded myths for later generations.

Myths can serve as the inspiration for other kinds of literature. Greek tragedies, written texts intended to be performed as plays, often take their plots from Greek mythology. William Shakespeare used mythological themes for many of his plays, borrowing from the mythology of the Mediterranean world and from northern European myths. For example, A Midsummer Night's Dream is set at the court of the Greek hero Theseus during his marriage to the Amazon queen Hippolyta (read about him in Chapter 7); and Romeo and Juliet is based on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid's Metamorphoses (see Chapter 13 for that).

In more recent times, people have sought out oral traditions to record in writing for the purpose of study. So anthropologists might visit the indigenous people of Brazil or the people who live in the Sea Island community in South Carolina to listen to their stories and write them down. This written documentation helps preserve a culture and can provide insight into how myths evolve.

Looking at the Different Types of Myths

Myths are tricky. Myths from around the world, from long ago and from recent times, often seem similar. Most myths appear to fall into certain categories, regardless of whether different cultures had much to do with each other. Why? What's up with that?

Comparative Mythology 101

Any time that scholars find several factors that appear to follow a pattern, they try to find the rules that govern the pattern. During the twentieth century, several scholars tried to explain what myths were all about and answer the age-old question: What is the purpose of all these stories? Because that truly is an unanswerable question, they devised several different theories, which gradually were incorporated into the fields of psychology, comparative literature, and anthropology.

Here's a quick summary of some of the more important theories about myths:

  •   Myths define social customs and beliefs.
  •   Myths are the same as ritual.
  •   Myths are allegories, similar to parables in the Christian Bible.
  •   Myths explain natural phenomena.
  •   Myths explain psychological phenomenon such as love, sex, and anger toward one's parents. (Sigmund Freud bought into this theory.)
  •   Myths contain archetypes that reveal the collective unconscious of the human race. (Carl Jung bought into this theory.)
  •   Myths are a way of communicating and helping people work together, or they're a way for people to talk about things that cause anxiety. (The theory of "structuralism," which was first observed by Claude Levi-Strauss, falls into this category.)

Not too much thought is needed to figure out that not one of these approaches explains each and every myth. But, taken together, they can make thinking about myths more fun. (We tend to find the symbolic/allegorical theory of myths to be most satisfactory, mainly because it covers almost all of the others, without being too narrow.)

Major types of myths

One reason so many scholars have tried pinning down the definition of myths is that myths can be similar across cultures, even in distant cultures. For example, Greece and Japan have stories about men who visit the underworld to retrieve their dead wives. The coincidence is freaky, as if some universal knowledge resides in human memory from the days when all people lived in caves.

Anyway, some stories frequently recur in all cultures. Here are a few of them:

  •   Creation myths: Everybody wants to know where the world and its creatures came from. Generally the world emerges from primordial darkness, often in the shape of an egg, through the work of a creator deity.
  •   Cosmogeny: Many myths describe the way the world, the heavens, the sea, and the underworld are put together and how the sun and moon travel around them.
  •   The origin of humanity: Humans had to come from somewhere, and many mythologies describe their origin. They're often the pet creation of a deity dabbling in mud.
  •   Flood stories: Many mythologies have a story about gods who were unhappy with their first version of humans and destroyed the world with floods to get a clean start. Usually one man and one woman survive.
  •   The introduction of disease and death: Myths often describe the first humans as living in a paradise that is marred when someone introduces unhappiness. The Greek story of Pandora's box is one of the best-known myths.
  •   Afterlife: Many people think that the soul continues to exist after the body dies; myths explain what happens to the soul.
  •   The presence of supernatural beings: Every body of mythology features deities and other supernatural entities. Individual deities often are in charge of particular aspects of the world or human life. Some supernatural beings are good, and some are evil; humans and the good gods fight the evil ones.
  •   The end of the world: Although the world has already ended at least once in most mythologies (usually through a great flood), some myths also have a plan for how it will end in the future.
  •   The dawn of civilization: Humans had to learn to live like people, not animals, and often the gods helped them. A common story tells of the theft of fire by a deity who brings it to humans.
  •   Foundation myths: People who founded empires like to believe that historical reasons help to explain why it was inevitable that they vanquished their enemies and built a city in a certain place. A myth can help explain these reasons.

One reason that myths recur is that people have always moved around and talked with one another, even in the days before they started writing things down. People carried myths to one another just as they brought trade goods and disease. For example, many North American Indians have flood stories as part of their mythologies. Some of the first Europeans they encountered were Christian missionaries, who told them Christian stories, including, no doubt, the biblical story of Noah and the flood.

Continues...


Excerpted from Mythology For Dummies by Christopher W. Blackwell Amy Hackney Blackwell Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction.

Part I: Mythology and the Cradle of Civilization.

Chapter 1: The Truth About Myths.

Chapter 2: That's Our Story and We're Sticking to It: The Legacy.

Part II: It Started Here, Folks: Greek Mythology.

Chapter 3: Greek Creation Myths and Really Ancient Greek Gods.

Chapter 4: Taller, Younger, and Better Looking Than You: The Olympian Gods.

Chapter 5: The Fairest and Meanest of Them All: The Greek Goddesses.

Chapter 6: So Fine and Half Divine: Heroes.

Chapter 7: The Iliad, the End of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey

Chapter 8: Greek Tragedy: The Days of Their Lives.

Part III: The Cultural Spoils of an Empire: Roman Mythology.

Chapter 9: Will the Real Roman Mythology Please Stand Up?

Chapter 10: Begged, Borrowed, and Stolen: Roman Religion.

Chapter 11: Virgil's Aeneid and The Founding of Rome.

Chapter 12: Don't Go Changin': Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Part IV: One Big Family Feud: Northern European Mythology.

Chapter 13: Snow, Ice, and Not Very Nice: Norse Deities.

Chapter 14: Dragonslayers: The Big Northern European Sagas.

Chapter 15: A Seat at the Round Table: King Arthur and His Court.

Part V: Some Sunblock, a Sacrifice, a Monster, and Thou: Non-European Mythology.

Chapter 16: Floods, Mud, and Gods: Mesopotamian and Hebrew Mythology.

Chapter 17: Three Cheers for Egypt: Ra, Ra, Ra!

Chapter 18: Land of a Thousand Gods: India.

Chapter 19: China: Tao . . . Wow!

Chapter 20: Japan: Myths from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Chapter 21: Latin America: It'll Tear Your Heart Out.

Chapter 22: Coyotes, Thunderbirds, and Bears, Oh My: North American Indian Myths.

Part VI: The Part of Tens.

Chapter 23: Ten Mythological Monsters.

Chapter 24: Ten Mythological Places.

Index.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2002

    Fascinating Look at Mythology

    One thing that struck me the most reading through this book is how the author describes not only the various deities of different cultures, but also the societies that "developed" them. Another thing was the similarites between cultures about certain myths, such as creation. It seems the tone of the stories and the various deities depended on the cultures themselves. Some cultures, like Greece and Rome and Egypt told stories that tended to be on the "lighter" side, whereas the Northern European countires had myths that told of "epic battles." I also enjoyed reading about and remembering the ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies I remember studying as a junior high school student long ago. The book explains the deities of numerous cultures including Greek, Roman, Norse, Chinese, Indian, North and South America. In some cases, a culture had so many different deities, it's impossible to name them all, but still the author does a wonderful job in explaining the major ones. Anyone wanting to take a quick "look back" at myths they studied in school or those with an interest in learning more about world mythology will enjoy this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2004

    Don't know a lot of mythology? Just want to buff up on it? This is your book then!

    This book is the ONLY mythology for anyone, not just dummies. it gives excellent refrences, describes each god giving their roman/greek name as well. A WONDERFUL READ!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2013

    little to offer

    For anyone who has read any mythology at all, this book is so general that it has little to offer. Don't bother if you're looking for anything specific. However, if you're looking for a very generalized overview of mythologies from around the world, then this is your book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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