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Mythic Passages - the magazine of imagination

William Doty

World Mythologies

by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.

Planning a new seminar on Mythologies of the World for Spring 06-07, I did Subject and Title hits — "World Mythology" and "Mythology, World" — on our library bibliographic software, and got five for the first, each of which had the term in its actual title. And zero for the second. While "World Mythology" is a common category for mythologists, the LCC classification is lacking entirely — I had to do a Subject search for "Mythology" to find the information I needed, and then slowly page down through 316 hits. As I recall, Books in Print does use the "World Mythology" category for its extensive coverage.

But I suppose the category would be foreign to many people for whom "Mythology" has connotations only of "Western" or "Classical." University-level courses usually show some sensitivity toward "Eastern" or "Asian," sometimes "African" or "Native American." But even major textbooks for such a market have a strong bias (in the number of topics and texts) toward the West or Classical.

Myth & Knowing book cover One of the most recent volumes I've studied recently (Scott Leonard and Michael McClure. 2004. Myth and Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology) is a damned fine introduction to the study of mythology, and then in its various sections (creation myths, the female divine, the male divine, trickster myths, and sacred places), each introduction is superb-both to each section and to each selection. Some of the breadth of coverage can be spotted in the last category, where Zuni, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish, Vietnamese, and Australian examples appear. I highly recommend this volume, although it seems outrageously priced for a 412 pp. paperback: list is $46.56; on the other hand online sellers have it available for as low as $22.50.

A couple of "coffee table" volumes, both fully illustrated, may be useful. C. Scott Littleton, gen. ed. 2002. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling, is good on materials about the cultures, and retells many texts — although without indication of sources. 688 pp., with good, if brief list of recommended readings. William G. Doty, gen. ed. 2002. World Mythology (US title, British was The Times World Mythology, can be recommended for its authors' attempt to write fresh accounts based on anthropological and close historical detail, all state of the art today. The very clear maps were specially created for this volume, which also features a useful Glossary, an area-divided Pantheon of the Gods and Bibliography. The problem here is that the US ed. was apparently discontinued by Barnes & Noble — the publisher — about two years after publication, but readily available from online booksellers.

Roy Willis, gen. ed. 1993. World Mythology, probably fits the same category, but I find the "about" entries excellent and the re-told (and never given citation) myths. Illustrations are fewer than in the two just listed, and the maps seem strangely difficult to comprehend because of their design.

A masterful guide to texts and materials about them is Ron Smith.1981. Mythologies of the World: A Guide to Sources. I have long hoped to see an updating of this volume, but it still serves up bibliographic caviar for such topics as Hittite or Canaanite or Biblical mythologies, South and East Asian, European, African, American Indian, and Oceanic mythologies. Thomas J. Sienkewicz. 1996. World Mythology: An Annotated Guide to Collections and Anthologies, is also a goldmine (oh, sorry: soupçon of caviar!)

As a scholar who has spent most of his career studying how to interpret texts — in as pristine a condition and the original languages as much as possible — it may seem surprising that my recommendation for those sources is Donna Rosenberg. 1994-2nd ed. World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics. The range of materials is just astonishing (in just over 600 pp.): Brahma, Yomi, Demeter, Guenevere, Marduk, the Ramayana, Ymir, to give a few examples. Even resumes of sections of Iliad, Odyssey, the Aeneid and Gilgamesh. Her "retelling of each myth retains the principle plot, characterization, style, and cultural values of the original" (xiii). When I gave the Superintendent's Lecture at West Point several years ago, the English department said that Rosenberg's work was extremely well-received by faculty and plebes alike.

In the first "Bibliographic Pages" for Mythosphere (I/1.1997: 109-10), I annotated five collections of World Myths, only two authors from which appear here.

Iíll conclude with mention of David Leeming. 2005. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. This is pretty pricey ($65., cloth), but probably available in school libraries. My review of this gem is forthcoming in Parabola. The depth of coverage is enormous, from Gnostic to Slavic to Melanesian, from Plato to the New [scientific] Mythology, from Origin Myths to Hebrew Mythology. A very important reference work, indeed.

And for now I will stop, having decided to write next a bit about Thematic organization of mythological themes across the world; but let me throw out a recent reference work that is useful for quick unpackings, Lorena Stookey. 2004. Thematic Guide to World Mythology. No citations and only a few "Additional Readings" listed.

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