Mythologies

Greek and Egyptian Mythologies
Roman and European Mythologies
Asian Mythologies
American, African, and Old European Mythologies

Yves Bonnefoy (editor)

translated from the French by Wendy Doniger
The University of Chicago Press 1992
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
In the French original Mythologies was laid out as a dictionary, with entries in alphabetical order, but the English translation is organised by geographical area (and thematically within each area). Even with this arrangement, Mythologies is a work to browse rather than to read in large portions. Despite more systematic plans, I ended up reading articles scattered through all four volumes, perhaps a third of the work altogether. I have found some real gems, a few extremely tedious and impenetrable pieces, and a large body of interesting and informative material, much of which was completely new to me (or which presented novel perspectives on familiar topics).

The articles in Mythologies take a wide variety of forms. Some are short, often a single paragraph, and narrowly focused, much like those in a dictionary (entries on the Gorgons and on Ritona, for example). Some are extended expositions on broad themes such as one might find in an encyclopedia (a thirteen page account of Zoroastrianism and a ten page survey of Finno-Ugric mythology were among my favourites). As well as such straightforwardly descriptive articles, there are also more involved ones. A long (but solitary) article on Oceanic religion and mythology covers in some detail the history of European study of the subject and the way in which observers' prejudices have distorted their reconstructions. The contributors to Mythologies draw on sociology, on history — "the religious policies of Augustus" — on linguistics, on literary criticism — "myth in twentieth-century English literature" —, and on other disciplines; there are no narrow disciplinary constraints.

Many of the articles tackle broad methodological or theoretical issues, often using their ostensible subject simply as a starting point. While there is no attempt to fit everything into one theoretical framework and individual articles take a wide variety of approaches, if you hate structuralism and have no time for Lévi-Strauss or Dumézil then a number of the articles will be unpalatable. The vast majority of the contributors to Mythologies are, after all, French! Most of the articles are comprehensible without any theoretical knowledge (though a few had me reaching for the dictionary quite regularly), but many assume familiarity with the background to their subject: the article on Loki, for example, doesn't recount his deeds and describe his characteristic features, but rather evaluates his significance within the overall structure of Norse mythology.

The coverage of Mythologies is very uneven: there is nothing at all on Hebrew, Islamic, or Mesopotamian mythology; just a dozen pages on North American mythology; and Australia gets only a brief mention in the article on Oceania. More than half the work is devoted to Indo-European mythology (this has its positive side, with such relatively obscure areas such as Georgian and Ossetic mythology receiving treatment). An unexpected find was the section on "European Mythology", which also goes by the more descriptive title of "Western Civilization in the Christian Era". This includes articles on subjects ranging from King Arthur to myths about Napoleon and the use of mythology in contemporary science fiction.

One consequence of this unevenness is that Mythologies is not suitable as a reference of last resort. A more serious problem here is the lack of a cross-volume index, but perhaps serious scholars are expected to buy the two volume hardback edition (of which the four volume paperback set is a slight abridgement), which presumably has a unified index. All the articles do have full references, however. If you need to find a particular fact or a retelling of a particular myth, then you should probably look elsewhere; if you want to broaden your understanding of mythology, on the other hand, or just to explore, then there's plenty for you here!

Despite the large format, the attractive covers and the plentiful black and white halftones, the Mythologies books are not introductory works suitable for novices; anyone with only a shallow background in mythology is likely to find them intimidating. For academic specialists and students of mythology and religious studies Mythologies will be a valuable source of ideas and information. Individual volumes would be enjoyed by non-specialists with an established interest in particular mythologies.

February 1996

External links:
Greek and Egyptian Mythologies
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Roman and European Mythologies
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Asian Mythologies
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
American, African, and Old European Mythologies
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- more French literature
- more mythology
- books published by The University of Chicago Press
%T Greek and Egyptian Mythologies
%Y Mythologies
%E Bonnefoy, Yves
%M French
%F Doniger, Wendy
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1992 [1981]
%O paperback, b&w halftones, references, index
%G ISBN 0226064549
%P xxi,272pp

%T Roman and European Mythologies
%Y Mythologies
%E Bonnefoy, Yves
%M French
%F Doniger, Wendy
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1992 [1981]
%O paperback, b&w halftones, references, index
%G ISBN 0226064557
%P xxi,319pp

%T Asian Mythologies
%Y Mythologies
%E Bonnefoy, Yves
%M French
%F Doniger, Wendy
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1992 [1981]
%O paperback, b&w halftones, references, index
%G ISBN 0226064565
%P xxi,374pp

%T American, African, and Old European Mythologies
%Y Mythologies
%E Bonnefoy, Yves
%M French
%F Doniger, Wendy
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1992 [1981]
%O paperback, b&w halftones, references, index
%G ISBN 0226064573
%P xxi,274pp