10 Books About Mythology For Readers Who Want To Dive Into Ancient Myths
It's a good time to be a mythology nerd. The Norse gods Thor and Loki are major Hollywood hunks, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is coming to television, and it seems like it's far more socially acceptable to talk about Minotaurs and dragons than ever before. But if you're sick of seeing mythologically inaccurate gods and monsters on the big screen (I'm looking at you, Gods of Egypt), it never hurts to get back to basics and do some reading. So here are a few books about mythology to get you started.
Now, of course, most fans of the mythic and legendary enjoy their fair share of fantasy novels. Nearly every book about elves and witches has some basis in myth. But the mythology nerd is a particular specimen: it's not just about fantasy. Mythology nerds are interested in history, too, and theology, and the domestic spats between Zeus and Hera. They don't just get excited about wizard battles, they get excited about comparative religion and archaeology. Sure, Westeros or Hogwarts might take the edge off, but regular fantasy just doesn't cut it.
So if you (like me) are a nerd of mythic proportions, then you might enjoy some of these books, both fiction and fact, that delve into ancient myths from all over the world:
1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Let's start with the obvious. If you're a dork for mythology and you haven't read American Gods yet, it's time to fix that. Neil Gaiman's writing frequently weaves together ancient myths and modern culture, but American Gods is the most upfront about it. Our hero, Shadow Moon, travels across America, tangling with deities from a number of ancient religions as he finds himself pulled into a strange, divine war that pits old gods against new.
2. The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
I know, I know—if you're a nerd for mythology, you probably know your Greek myths already. You know your Arachnes from your Ariadnes and all that. But Robert Graves gives a definitive overview of Greek mythology, retold for a modern audience with interpretations and illustrations. It'll give you all the ammunition you need to explain how the movie 300 got everything wrong on your next date.
3. The King Must Die by Mary Renault
Mary Renault is the reigning queen of thrilling, homoerotic, historically plausible retellings of Greek myths. The King Must Die gives us the real story of Theseus (or at least, a very possible version of it), and how he slew the "Minotaur." But of course, the truth behind the bull-head monster of Crete is far different from what you might think.
4. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson
There have been several big-budget films about Egyptian mythology recently, and they've been... less than accurate (casting ancient Egyptians with lily white actors, for example). The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt is a much more fascinating, cohesive look at Egyptian mythology, written in modern language. It's perfect for throwing at film executives' heads, too, if you get the chance.
5. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood, in classic Margaret Atwood style, takes the oldest story out there and gives it a twist. Most of us know The Odyssey, and how Odysseus bummed around and made himself ten years late for dinner. But most of us don't know what his wife, Penelope, was really up to during that time. Atwood's version is a playful, disturbing, ultimately brilliant retelling.
6. The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Compared to some of the other ancient cultures, British mythology doesn't have quite so many animal-headed people running around. But they do have King Arthur, Merlin and Lancelot. The Once and Future King is quite possibly the best, most fun, and most touching version of the King Arthur story out there. T. H. White turns Arthurian legend into a novel that rivals any modern fantasy epic.
7. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
If you prefer your mythology with more of a modern YA vibe, then Rick Riordan is the obvious choice. The Lightning Thief is the first book in his Percy Jackson series, which follows a young demigod as he grapples with growing up, being the son of Poseidon, etc. It's a witty update of ancient deities and unspeakable monsters duking it out in the real world.
8. Buddha Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka
If you only read one graphic novel series about ancient Buddhist mythology, let it be this one. Osamu Tezuka is a wildly inventive visual storyteller, and his tale of young Siddhartha is nothing short of stunning. Unsatisfied with his life, Prince Siddhartha runs away from home and travels across India in a quest for enlightenment (but don't worry, there's still plenty of slapstick along with all the philosophy).
9. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers
If you're a world mythology kind of person, intrigued by the psychology behind storytelling, then you need to meet Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth makes ancient mythology relevant to our modern day existence. The Kennedy assassination, the Sumerian goddess Inanna, Han Solo—it's all related, and it's all endlessly fascinating.
10. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
The two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints is historical fiction with mythology threaded through. Each volume tells a different side of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion: in Boxers, a young boy is aided by ancient Chinese gods to defend his homeland. In Saints, a little girl calls on the spirit of Joan of Arc to guide her in protecting her Christian faith. Both sides are complex, and both draw on legends of the past to shape their future.
Images: Walt Disney Pictures