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Bulfinch's Mythology

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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."

862 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1855

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About the author

Thomas Bulfinch

239 books88 followers
Thomas Bulfinch was an American writer born in Newton, Massachusetts, best known for the book Bulfinch's Mythology.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 314 reviews
Profile Image for Trish.
1,877 reviews3,383 followers
August 7, 2016
Let's take a moment to not only acknowledge this work itself but also its very own history and author.

Thomas Bulfinch (1769 - 1867) was the son of Charles Bulfinch who was the first American architect (meaning the first man to be born on American soil to ever make architecture his profession), Commissioner of Public Building, and who built amongst others the United States Capitol rotunda, the Massachusetts State House, the University Hall at Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Thomas Bulfinch came from a well-educated albeit modest merchant family (why modest when the father built all the aforementioned things, I have no explanation). He studied at Harvard where he got the Bachelor degree in 1814, then lectured at the Boston Latin School for a while. After that he worked as a warehouse assistant since trading was a family tradition. After failing at being self-employed, he worked at the Merchants' Bank of Boston starting 1836.
In his spare time (late at night that is) he wrote. Eight books in total (a collection of Psalms and a schoolbook about William Shakespeare amongst others).

Back then, European legends and myths were relatively unknown. That really surprised me and it's funny, considering all Americans were Europeans actually; I would have thought the legends had survived longer before being forgotten. Around the time this book was published there was already a hype regarding ancient civilizations in Europe and the "friendly competition" between the continents made me expect Americans to be just as interested in history/mythology. Anyway, foreign languages or world literature were not taught at most American schools.
Bulfinch however had comprehensive knowledge of European legends and myths both from his family and his studies so he started his renarration for which he kept closest to Ovid and Vergil in case of the classical myths and to Paul Henri Mallet (an Italian professor) for the Norse myths.

His works were met with broad reception but it wasn't until the posthumous publication of the compilation of all three books (The Age of Fable / Stories of Gods and Heroes 1855, The Age of Chivalry / Legends of King Arthur 1858, Legends of Charlemagne / Romance of the Middle Ages 1863) by Edward Everett Hale that Thomas Bulfinch and the title Bulfinch's Mythology became famous.
Nowadays it is regarded as the most popular work on antique mythology in the English language, comparable to Gustav Schwab's Sagen des Klassischen Altertums. This means that this book has been in print for over 160 years!

Frequent criticism that some voice is that Bulfinch's Mythology was published for "genteel" Americans, which is probably why it presents the myths in their literary versions, without "unnecessary" violence, sex, psychology or ethnographic information (which, if we're honest, is exactly what the myths are about to begin with). I agree with the critics.
By the way, the book was published just as the first studies (publications that anyone could buy and read) of mythography were appearing in Germany, connection all sorts of ancient civilisations and making for an interesting study of human history in general (an interesting side note, I think, since there does not seem to have been any form of consultation, it seems to have happened naturally).
Though Edith Hamilton's works on mythology have since superseded Bulfinch's versions of the myths, Bulfinch's are still being taught in many American schools and there even was an illustrated edition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 (no idea if it's still there, on display or in the archive).

Anyway, as many of you know, I have always been a fan of history and mythology and yes, I own the aforementioned Gustav Schwab's Sagen des Klassischen Altertums together with many other books on legends and myths from around the world (except Asia). Ancient Egypt is my forte, but I also very much like myths from Ancient Greece thus knowing quite a lot about them. The ones from Ancient Rome and Norse mythology are a bit less well-known to me and apart from the usual story elements about King Arthur, I know very little from that area (let alone the Middle Ages unless we're talking fairytales). So this book was supposed to broaden my knowledge.

Not long ago I was asked if I had read Bulfinch's versions too and to my shame had to admit that I hadn't. The edition I bought is not only luxuriously leatherbound but also wonderfully illustrated to give the myths the flair they deserve. Moreover, the book has a good structure. It makes looking up details quick and easy and I understand why this has been used in classrooms.

The Age of Fable not only includes Greek and Roman mythology, but also mentions Eastern mythology (albeit very briefly), Norse mythology, and the Druids.

The Age of Chivalry begins with the legend of King Arthur and his knights, leads into Mabinogen (early British prose), and concludes with Beowulf and Robin Hood (very much shortened, unfortunately).

Last but not least, The Legends of Charlemagne discusses the paladins of Charlemagne.

I was a little apprehensive when I heard that Bulfinch had not always kept to the original texts (Greek for example) in order to make the stories suitable for a certain audience and although Bulfinch's writing style is very amiable, that was unfortunately really problematic even when taking this book's age into account.
One rather prominent myth that did not even make it into this book is the Philomela-Procne-Tereus legend that has references to rape, imprisonment, and the cutting out of tongues (not to mention that Procne at one point boils her son and serves him to his father as dinner). The Greek creation myths are missing completely (probably because they were extremely bloody). Another, that made it into the book (he really couldn't have left it out), but was severely "toned down" was Hercules' - not even the 12 labours are listed, which astonished me.
It does explain why Bulfinch's work, at some point, was replaced by the much more detailed work of Edith Hamilton (I will check her work out soon).

However, thanks to this book I finally at least brushed up on my Eastern myths, which I had wanted to do for a long time (although I am now questioning how much I'm missing because of cuts). Too bad the section on Norse mythology was relatively small too, especially compared to the Greek myths, but one could take into account that there are no written records from Vikings for example and all we do know comes almost exclusively from Christian monks and the likes. And even if there had been more source material, Bulfinch would have had to make considerable cuts there too since Norse mythology is quite violent.

The Arthurian legend is pretty well done while some British tales are so incredibly shortened that it hurts (Robin Hood). Then we move on to what I can only describe as the worst section of the book. Don't get me wrong: it must have taken a lot of research too but the execution is just ... I don't even have words for it.
It says a lot when what you learn of history from a superbly researched time-travel book is more (in any sense of the word) than what you learn from a supposed encyclopedia. One thing that I always thought and that the author of the aforementioned time-travel books used in a description as well, is the fact that during combat (war) there is no chivalry: whoever fights just wants to survive and will do anything to accomplish that. It's natural and we shouldn't be ashamed to admit it. Mr. Bulfinch however seems to have been convinced that the good kights fighting for Christianity were the proverbial Knights in Shining Armour who can do no wrong and have God's blessing for everything. Complete bullocks of course, which made reading about the Crusades tedious and left a bitter taste in my mouth. Imagine some dirty, stinking, brutal, raping, thieving bunch of men who just want the spoils of war being elevated to near saints, thus easily getting away with everything. Interestingly enough, the brutality of the Crusades seems to have been fine (probably because "the right people" were at the receiving end) while the brutality of some ancient tales had been deemed "unnecessary violence". Nope. Thanks, but no thanks.

What I liked very much was the constant mention of myths influencing our culture, then and now. Puns, analogies, metaphors, art ... going back to these old tales, connecting us with such a distant past. Classic as much as modern art is very often influenced by mythological themes without us realising it in many cases and Mr. Bulfinch is educating his readers to see the connection.

To conclude, this is not a bad work and definitely a good way to start on the subject of mythology. One can tell by the writing style and even by the things he left out / changed that the book was written by a man who was very educated and had a lot of passion for the subject (if only he hadn't been such a stout Christian *sigh*). I do recommend it to anyone interested in legends and myths but only as an introduction or addendum. It does help to make you see literary and cultural references that we owe to certain myths, especially from Ancient Greece. That must have taken a lot of research, which is especially noteworthy since Bulfinch wrote this in his spare time!

As for my illustrated edition, it is simply gorgeous (as you can see through the pictures I've included in this review) which made up for some of the things that were missing. Not as great as I thought it would be, but I'm glad to add it to my collection nevertheless.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,283 followers
September 28, 2010
Have problems distinguishing Perseus from Theseus? Can't tell a Titan from an Olympian? Do those mythology questions on Jeopardy leave you stumped? Could mythology be your Achilles heel?

If your knowledge of Greek mythology is derived primarily from Saturday morning cartoons, then maybe it's time for a refresher course. Yes, I know - life is busy, and you have philosophical objections to the dominance accorded the Greeks where mythology is concerned. Too bad. That argument may be theoretically sound, but it's completely irrelevant in practice. Greek mythology is so embedded in every aspect of our culture that ignorance dooms one an impoverished intellectual life. Fortunately, the converse is also true - greater familiarity with the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks will enrich your intellectual life generally and your reading experience in particular. So learning more is an investment with a big payoff. But where to begin?

Over the past few weeks I've been reading several different books about Greek mythology, partly to get a sense of the degree of consistency across the various versions, also to see if any stood out as clearly superior. This is one of several linked reviews, which I hope may be useful to anyone looking for a decent, accessible book about Greek mythology. I've tried to evaluate each book separately on its own merits, as well as give my opinion of how well it stacked up against the others. The comparative ranking is obviously highly subjective. It's based on an evaluation of three main characteristics: (i) readability/accessibility, (ii) accuracy/credibility, and (iii) scope/breadth of coverage. I should note upfront that "accuracy" is an elusive concept in this context - there are multiple variations of many legends, with no obvious criterion for designating a single, canonical "correct" version. However, some authors were noticeably better about referencing appropriate source materials and acknowledging alternative variants, so I factored this into my assessment of overall credibility.

I thought it would be useful to consider some specific examples, to base the comparison on a concrete foundation, rather than waffle in abstract generalities. So I looked in detail at the way each of the books on the list presented the following stories:

* the life and exploits of Hercules (Herakles to the Greeks)
* the sad fate of the sisters Procne and Philomela

I chose the first of these to see whether or not a given book would do justice to the entire life of Hercules, by providing the backstory for the 12 Labors, as well as the various other exploits, from his singularly complicated birth to his equally complicated death. The story of Philomela and Procne is one I've always liked since stumbling across the word philomelian (like, or pertaining to, the nightingale) and tracking down its etymology. It derives from Philomela, a princess of Athens who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus. He cut out her tongue to silence her; the gods transformed her into a nightingale, so that she could sing beautifully for ever*.

Here is the list of books included in my overall evaluation:
Bulfinch's Mythology (Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2004)
Mythology by Edith Hamilton (originally published in 1942; Back Bay Books edition of 1998)
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves (Penguin Books combined edition, 1992)
Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece by Gustav Schwab (Pantheon Books, copyright 1946)
Don't Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis (Harper Collins, 2005)
Myths of the Ancient Greeks by Richard P. Martin (New American Library, 2003)

Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) was a Boston bank clerk, best known for the three constituent volumes that make up Bulfinch's Mythology

1. The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855)
2. The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur (1858)
3. Legends of Charlemagne, or Romance of the Middle Ages (1863)

This review considers only the first of the three volumes. Although it was popular in its day, it was by far the worst of the six books on my list, so my review here is relatively short. Bulfinch's primary sources for the classical myths were Ovid and Virgil; he stated his goal as follows:

Our work is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.

That reference to "polite conversation" turns out to be important - by today's standards, Bulfinch's work suffers from a crippling defect - all of the stories have been savagely bowdlerized to avoid any possible offence to the 19th century sensibilities of genteel Americans. In some cases, the legend is presented in cleaned-up form (no sex, no violence); many of the fundamental myths just don't make it in at all (for instance, all that violent stuff of the Greek creation myths).

This explains the absence of any reference to my second test case - the Philomela-Procne-Tereus legend, whose references to rape, imprisonment, and the cutting out of tongues were obviously too disturbing for Bulfinch's target audience. (Not to mention the part where the vengeful Procne boils her son and serves him to Tereus in a casserole).

Bulfinch's version of Hercules's story does little to redeem him. His treatment, which is dispatched in a mere 5 pages, is risibly perfunctory, to the point of failing to list all 12 Labors. If Bulfinch were your only guide, you'd never find out about the Cerynean hind, the Erymanthian boar, the Stymphalian birds, the Cretan bull, or the mares of Diomedes.

Bulfinch's desire to make Greek mythology palatable to the genteel Americans of mid-19th century Boston results in a book that may have interesting to his target readership, but is now little more than a historical curiosity.

* In Ovid's Metamorphoses Philomela's defiant speech is rendered as:
"Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it.
Given the chance, I will go where the people are,
Tell everybody; if you shut me here,
I will move the very woods and rocks to pity.
The air of Heaven will hear, and any God,
If there is any God in Heaven, will hear me."
The myth of Philomela is also referenced in Eliot's The Waste Land:
"Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
'Jug Jug' to dirty ears."
from Section II, "A Game of Chess", and later, in Section III, "The Fire Sermon":
"Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd.
Tereu "
An alternative version of the story has Philomela transformed to a swallow (lacking a song), with her sister Procne undergoing the change to a nightingale. Husband/rapist Tereus is changed into a hoopoe (or a hawk).
Profile Image for Christy Hall.
255 reviews54 followers
March 7, 2021
Bullfinch is supposed to be the ultimate expert on Greek/Roman mythology. It’s true, he knows his stuff. Sadly, there are times he fails to include all the details and it doesn’t set up the context of the myth. There are other times that he selects a particular version of a myth that doesn’t feel like the standard one we have all heard. It was fine and there were some really good sections. The illustrated version does include some amazing works of art.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,911 followers
February 9, 2017
If anyone thinks this is a completely comprehensive look at the mythos of the Greeks, the Norse, the Celtic, the Arthurian, the Crusades, or the Middle Ages, then you're part-way correct. It is pretty comprehensive. At least by my eye. But it's more comprehensive for the Greeks, the Arthurian legends, and the time of Charlemagne than anything else.

In fact, other than the quick and dirty tellings of the the Greek gods and heroes, with christian sensibilities intact and morals gently glossing over the good stuff, the rest of the book is pretty much knights, knights, knights, knights, knights, knights, and a few more knights for good measure.

Do you like chivalry? MUST LOVE CHIVALRY.

Don't get me wrong, I've read my fair share of all the Arthurian stuff and I can't find fault with what I've read here. It matches what I've read in Mallory and other sources. The Crusades, though, well I only knew a couple of tales so this was pretty interesting, assuming that I didn't get bored out of my skull by all the grand head-bashings and the fighting of the Saracens or their own allies. Honestly, I read all of this knight stuff because I've already read a lot of this knight stuff and so I can fill out what I already know, but reading this is like taking a crash course in learning yet more about a sub-genre that I never really *cared* for to begin with, except in how it informed and influenced all the greats that I *did* care for.

You know, like seeing how GRRM cribbed this or how Tolkien cribbed that.

Still. I did read all the volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume I, so it *is* very interesting to see the crusades from the bright and shiny PoV all turned into myth instead of the grand mistake that we all know and ... um... is love too ironic a term? Will people get that I'm being completely sarcastic? Ahem. Maybe.

Still, when it came down to the parts that I was most interested in, such as the Greeks and the Norse and the Celtic, I was rather disappointed that they didn't get so much embellishment and detailed time in the page. I'll probably have to go somewhere else for the Nordic and the Celtic stuff, because it just felt like it was kinda... fast. Glossed. Big Bullet Points. They certainly didn't get much love in comparison to all the knight-shit. I mean... the grand romantic chivalry that all the men and women still swoon to.

This was a huge book, btw. Did you know that the Glossary was almost a few hundred pages? Yup. Impressive, right? Total disclosure: I skipped that. If I want to later look up a name, I'll hit up wikipedia.

Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews135 followers
July 7, 2019
Myths and legends from around the world.

The stories of gods and heros from Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Near East, the Far East, Scandinavia and Britain.
King Arthur and his knights.
The Mabinogeon.
Legends of Charlemagne.

I mostly use this book for research when I am reading another book which mentions a little known god or a heroic action set in the distant past.


Profile Image for Rozzer.
83 reviews60 followers
July 24, 2012
Damn. Bulfinch's Mythology. About as classic as you can get. The early Victorian (hence highly bowdlerized and edited) version of classical Greek and Roman ideas about their then gods and goddesses. I'm sure you'll expect an erudite and telling critique of this all too proper version of stories that in the beginning (and for a very good while thereafter) were about as improper as improper could be. Well, the worse for you, friend.

A very long time ago, when I and my now long-time spouse were young and frisky, we paid a vacation visit (from New York) to my then living parents in their then short-term abode somewhat north of Miami Beach. And accordingly wandered up and down the miles and miles of Collins Avenue prying out whatever fun could be obtained from ancient Jewish delicatessens, migratory fun-fairs and insanely degenerated old hotels. As usual, I made sure at all times to be amply provided with literary fodder to keep me occupied in idle moments.

In some God-forsaken jumble store I found a fifty-cent paperback edition of this wonderful book and went and bought it. Proceeding thereafter to determine that the book was so badly made that each of the pages insisted on falling out as soon as it was read, and then discovering the pleasure of throwing away each successive page on the street as we walked along.

After spending more time and money than we should have at a local bar decorated in highly contrasted black and white, we consumed take-out mashed potatoes and gravy sitting on a curb, absorbing fly-away pages and potatoes and gravy simultaneously. She wore an incredibly exciting hot orange dress made by herself with a sewing machine I had given her for Christmas. The potatoes and pages were consumed to the last milligram.

And we held each other up using the most basic physical principles of mutual support while proceeding in a very circuitous manner to wander our way back to my parents' temporary residence (they finally settled in Boca Raton, though both now dead). God, she was hot. She's now 74 and sitting next to me as I write. And myself accordingly, of course.

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume
labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti
Profile Image for BAM the enigma.
1,812 reviews361 followers
September 7, 2016
I feel like I really accomplished something having read Bulfinch. This particular book collected fables, chivalry, and Charlemagne. I set out expecting Fable to be my favorite section as I have been a devotee of Greek mythology since grade school, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading the exploits of Charlemagne's Knights. The tales of King Arthur's court were a bit much to wade through, lots of Welsh. Sadly the movie Excalibur will always influence my ideas of that period.
Profile Image for MasterSal.
1,962 reviews13 followers
October 5, 2018
This is less a book but a compendium of tales. I loved it since it had all the tales from all over the world. But the writing is a it dry and the book is huge so be prepared. The edition I had was very dense as well so that made is slower to get through. Still a classic and I love going back and skimming through tales I forgot I about.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,995 reviews1,104 followers
November 4, 2020
Having heard about 'Bulfinch's Mythology' since childhood I finally broke down, purchased the cheap Modern Library edition containing all three volumes at a local mall and read the thing. Unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a disappointment, Bulfinch not being a scholar and his versions of the stories being mostly 19th century reworkings of particular texts popular in his time. For someone interested only in understanding some of the major Western myths, epics and legends well enough to catch references to them in more modern literature, Bulfinch may be sufficient. For anyone interested in the actual beliefs of the cultures from which these tales originated, Bulfinch will be misleading.
Profile Image for Timothy Boyd.
6,501 reviews32 followers
August 17, 2015
I know it's huge but this is an excellent reference book. All you need to know for the basics in most mythologies. Very recommended
Profile Image for Kristin.
213 reviews
December 28, 2008
I have mixed feelings on this book. I bought it to read because I heard it was a good resource to get caught up on Greek myths before my Literature GRE and I read a bit more than half of the book before giving up on it (p. 468). While I really liked the excerpts from literature used when explaining the various gods and goddesses and other mythological characters, I did not like the structure of the book. It was in no sort of coherent order. I also did not like the comment by the author at the beginning where he said that he was a Christian and that some myths were vulgar to him and so he would be skipping over those parts. What is he talking about? First of all, everyone likes the sensational and so to remove them is ridiculous and takes all the fun out of pre-Christian myths. Secondly, how dare he impose his ridiculous moral code on all of us. Since this book is from the mid-nineteenth century and the only one of its kind, as far as I know, I've chosen to overlook that, at least as far as my rating is concerned, though I don't think anything will compel me to go back and finish reading, which is a shame as I was looking forward to examining the Robin Hood myths to come.
Profile Image for Ghost of the Library.
338 reviews64 followers
April 7, 2018
once upon a time...oh no wait, thats Disney...

Bulfinch's book is a longtime classic, must read, essential blah blah blah on myths and legends that yours truly, as a former English Lit major always somehow managed to avoid..till now that is.
Having grown on bedtimes stories from Greece and Italy the first half of this book was, lets put it this way, old news to me.
He deals first and foremost with Greek and Roman legends, fascinating as always indeed, but of which i knew about 85% sooo, lets skip those guys!
Arturian legends are also here, and old news to me too...even if it was fun to revisit some forgotten details.
Now where i enjoyed myself was when tales from the rest of the world were told. Bulfinch not only collected and told more known tales, lesser known stories to western ears also feature here and make for a wonderful addition and a fun read for anyone remotely interested in world history - eastern mythology, the origin of mythology, norse mythology (my weakness) thats where i had most fun and really enjoyed this.
Make no mistake, this is a classic that should be read by everyone and makes for some great campfire stories...lets not scare the kids at bedtime with Medusa!
My situation was that i grew up with lots of these stories so in total i think i read about a third of the book only, everything else i just literally strolled through the pages to revisit some old friends...which is not a bad thing per se...i do count books as good friends!
Happy Readings
Profile Image for Morgan.
Author 1 book83 followers
March 31, 2019
This was not a fun mythology read. I kind of liked it, but I'm just glad I finished the whole thing. Keep in mind this book was published in the late 1800s and keep in mind this is not about all kinds of mythology. If you have an interest in Greco-Roman (mostly Roman) mythology, King Author, and Charlemagne you might enjoy this, but even I found Bulfinch's writing tedious. It's worth the read, but it's dated compared to some modern mythology books.

At times this book tries to cover other types of mythology, but briefly. Clearly he cared more about Roman and King Author mythology. Maybe he didn't know too much about the other stuff, but to call this "mythology" is kind of misleading. The third part of this book is more history/lore than mythology. Not sure if Charlemagne truly belongs in this book or not.

Besides the fact that this focuses on mythology the only reason I read this was because it was referenced in the comic book Fables with "Bulfinch" Street. Not only that, I can see Fables used some of this books ideas on knights and chivalry...which this book goes into more than mythology in my opinion.

Overall I'm glad I read this, but most of this was a review thanks to college.
Profile Image for Jess.
177 reviews8 followers
May 1, 2020
Reading this aloud once per week took a long time. It’s dense. It wasn’t loved, but it was enjoyable, enlightening, and entertaining.
Profile Image for Gary.
126 reviews116 followers
January 1, 2016
I first read this many, many moons ago, back when the world was young and the gods still walked the Earth. I speak, of course, of the 1980s. Back then, I read it as a kind of primer on mythology. Bulfinch goes to a lot of effort to reference more contemporary (to him) writers ranging from Milton to Eliot, but it wasn't until this reread that I realized this book is meant to be a primer in literature, allusion and symbols rather than simply an overview of Greek mythology. As such, it serves as a general Humanities work more than as a literary, historical or mythology text.

It's scope is ranging enough that Bulfinch can give little more than an overview of any particular author or myth, and he spends most of his time on the mythology rather than the latter-day literature, but make not mistake it is that material this is his target. His text works as a kind of Cliff's Notes to what would now be a "classic" literature course, and in that role it does an admirable job. Despite the emphasis on literature, it is also a good primer on the Greek myths, though there are variations and nuances of that mythology that a relatively brief work like this one can only address sporadically.

Readers already familiar with either the literary figures that Bulfinch describes or Western mythology will find a lot of the text redundant or repetitive, but the charm of the writing and subject matter make it a pleasure to read (or reread) so even the relatively brief treatment of any particular myth or literary reference winds up being more pleasure than anything else.

If it does fall flat it is in the later chapters where the history of Rome and Charlemagne are given attention that isn't as proportionate. That's a relatively minor criticism given the overall theme, and doesn't merit deducting a star from the review.
Profile Image for Stuart.
690 reviews41 followers
April 3, 2015
I've read a lot of mythology and legends in my 30+ years on Earth. I've read D'aulaire's illustrated classics and Edith Hamilton. It doesn't matter if it's Greek, Roman, or even Norse. I find all of it interesting and fascinating. In fact, my wife is the same way. We hope to pass on this love of mythology to our son, so we are buying him mythology books at an early age, so that when he is old enough to appreciate them, they'll be ready and waiting for him. One book we recently added to our collection was Bulfinch's Mythology.

Bulfinch's Mythology is a gorgeous leather edition, with the face of Medusa on the cover. The pages have gilded edges and there is a ribbon bookmark to mark your place. The book contains all three of the original titles, "The Age of Fable," "The Age of Chivalry," and "The Legends of Charlemagne." "The Age of Fable" not only includes Greek and Roman mythology, but brief mentions of Eastern mythology, Norse mythology, and the Druids. "The Age of Chivalry" begins with the legend of King Arthur and his knights, leads into Mabinogen (early British prose), and concludes with the likes of Beowulf and Robin Hood. Lastly, "The Legends of Charlemagne" discusses the paladins of Charlemagne.

I skimmed through the parts on mythology and Arthur, as I am very well-versed in those subjects, so for me, the parts on Charlemagne were the best. The legends surrounding him and his paladins were a refreshing read. Were they chock full of history? No, but I didn't expect them to be. They were legends that made for fanciful tales and were a delightful read. The edition of this book was a delight to read and would make a good textbook for the high school classroom or homeschooling parent. So far, I have reviewed two books from the Canterbury Classics and each have been impressive in their quality. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Steve.
537 reviews8 followers
December 24, 2016
It's actually a collection of three books Bullfinch published in the first half of the 19th Century. The Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry, and The Legends of Charlemagne. The Age of Fable is predominantly concerned with retelling the ancient Greek myths (with shorter nods to Norse and other mythologies), all based on poems of the time but spun into condensed prose. Many of the stories were familiar, some were new or different than I knew, but all were told so well by Bullfinch, who had quite the nose for tale-spinning. The Age of Chivalry was primarily stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and this was probably the dullest section of the book. It had moments, but Arthur and Company were so gosh-darn perfect beings that their stories didn't have as much charm to them. However, the Legends of Charlemagne, all completely new to me, were as absorbing as anything. They were like medieval Marvel Comics, with all the stories blending together, with heroes guest-starring across stories in unexpected ways, with magic such as the horn that caused people to dance uncontrollably (and from the description, I envisioned them all dancing like Elaine Benes), or the cup which when handed to an honest man would immediately fill with excellent wine, or the flying horses, or the fountains of love and hate which always seemed to be encountered by the wrong person at the right time. The characters are all seriously flawed, and their adventures were a hoot. How has this stuff not been as hugely influential in Western literature as the material from the first two books?
Profile Image for M.G. Bianco.
Author 1 book113 followers
April 13, 2011
The graphic is misleading, as I did not read all three volumes that make up Bullfinch's Mythology, I only read the Age of Fables--his account of Greek and Roman mythology. The book starts out with the creation account and concludes with an exploration of the realms of the dead as told by Virgil in his account of Aeneas. Between them, are the various hero stories and othes.

Bullfinch's telling of the stories is traditional and thorough. One of the things I most like about it was his quoting of later poetry that alludes to the mythological tales and heroes. His own accounts a retelling, intersparsed with quotations from the original texts.

The book serves as a good introduction to mythology, Greek and Roman. And works, I hope, as a good preliminary read to the actual texts--a future goal of mine. At the very least, it is an enjoyable read and will help you to recognize allusions to mythology that is sure to be found in everything from Shakespeare to X-Men. (As an aside, I noticed that in the film X-men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine's skeleton is reinforced with a substance called adamantine, which word Bullfinch uses in reference to a substance Virgil describes as unbreakable my man or god.)
11 reviews
January 12, 2013
This book seems like a great starting point for people interested in Greek Myths, Charlemange/Chivalry and Norse Myths.

I already knew all the Greek Myths so I skipped through them quickly.

The Charlemange and Chivalry section was interesting. It had historical info on knights and their lives. He also has the legend of King Arthur.

The Norse myths were the most interesting for me. It can be difficult to find good sources on the gods of Asgard. Reading about Thor is always awesome.

There is a story where Thor must complete a challenge for Loki, who is disguised as an evil king. Loki has Thor chug a horn of mead. Thor starts pounding the mead and it is never ending because Loki has magically attached the horn to the ocean. Thor chugs away and the ocean visibly recedes. Thor stops eventually once he realizes it is a trick.

Another great story is when Thor is attempting to wake up a slumbering giant. He used his hammer to smash into the giants head. Which doesnt even leave a dent. The giant gains consciousness and asks if a leaf had fallen on him. Thor then gets enraged and they fight.

All in all this book is great if you want the "best of" those three cultures and mythos. It is a really quick read.
Profile Image for Carson Volk.
59 reviews3 followers
December 15, 2017
When I came across Easton Press publications, I was thrilled. Being a full-time student, I have champagne tastes on a beer budget, as they say. So, of course, I was drooling over the gorgeous leather-bound books with real gold etchings and the highest quality paper I'd ever seen. Then, I saw the beauty of it all: monthly payments. Now, I could easily get myself in trouble here as I tend to splurge far too much, but I practiced restraint and purchased only this beautiful set of myths and fables by the one and only Thomas Bulfinch. This collection is a phenomenal overview of Greek mythology, British lore, and Charlemagne's legendary campaigns. It's highly entertaining and very informative. A great read!
Profile Image for Skallagrimsen.
225 reviews39 followers
October 28, 2022
The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are alive. The divinities of Olympus have thousands of worshipers among living women and men. They belong to the department of theology, as well as to those of literature and taste. They have returned to their place, and will continue to hold it, for they are too closely connected with the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern, to languish forever in the limbo of unbelief.
Profile Image for Andre Piucci.
448 reviews20 followers
January 5, 2016
"The tales, though not to be trusted for their facts, are worthy of all credit as pictures of manners; and it is beginning to be held that the manners and modes of thinking of an age are a more important part of its history than the conflicts of its peoples, generally leading to no result."
Profile Image for Kyle.
325 reviews
January 15, 2018
A very nice collection of myths. I especially enjoyed learning some new ones from the Middle Ages for King Arthur, and the Charlemagne ones. The Greek myths are also nicely explained.

Really, just a nice collection that goes into a little detail and I definitely recommend it to myth fans.
Profile Image for Eric.
Author 11 books4 followers
June 10, 2013
Classic book on mythology.
Profile Image for Amber.
109 reviews
January 6, 2023
"Wow, this book is really helpful and good," I would say if I loved reading censored abridgements of an abridgement of an abridgement that read like a succession of Bible genealogies. I know I'm reading the one volume anthology by Edmund Fuller here, but this seems really abridged, even for an abridgement. Bulfinch favors the Roman names, I'm guessing because his intended audience was Christian, but when was the last time you met someone who called Persephone "Proserpine"? I would be a little scared of someone like that. Christianizing pagan myths is inherently embarrassing when you describe your study as being of extinct religions that "have not one worshiper among living men," and then have to draw oblique comparisons between Prometheus and Jesus, but Bulfinch set himself up for that one!

Treating the Greek and Roman naming conventions as virtually identical naturally leads the reader to thinking their contexts are synonymous as well, and if I'm not mistaken, Romans did differ in their religious practices from the traditional Greek, like absorbing the god or goddess of one regional cult into the cult of this or that one, or favoring one interpretation of a myth over another. The conflation of the two, instead of making things simpler, made me suspect the integrity of these interpretations. It's my impression that a civilization's mythology is the expression of that civilization's values, and the ancient Greeks and Romans, no matter how similar, had very different values.

Of course, that would be outside the scope of this book, but if the aim were to keep things simple for the student reader, why not stick to the Greek names? I also just didn't like the way the Greek and Roman portion was written; I didn't think approaching ancient religions from the standpoint of being deader than dead was effective in bringing the Age of Fable alive, while at the same time trying to mold them to the storytelling conventions of the Bible, ick! I peeked at the chapters for the Legends of Charlemagne and the Age of Chivalry and had the same reaction. Sorry for thinking your book is dated and dry, Mr. Bulfinch, but your Victorian sensibilities offend my modern ones :(
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