(Reference Books You’ve Gotta Know About!)
The Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology: Heroes, heroines, gods, and goddesses from around the world
By Philip WilkinsonDK Publishing
Originally, I found this book at the library one day, and with five million pressing things I had to get done, of course I checked it out and started to thumb through it. That was a mistake, because I found myself absolutely, positively, wholeheartedly charmed by this book. I thumbed through it, loved the illustrations (it has PICTURES! Really cool PICTURES!), which is really handy if you want to get an idea of how vastly different cultures have similar themes and parallel cultural idioms that come out in art. (It’s one thing to read about similarities, but of course the point is brought home with more force and clarity if you can see it.)
Anyway, after the checkout period was finished, I took the book back to the library, vowing that I would find that book and buy it. I would! I would!
I did! I did! (But you had probably already figured that out. Why else would I mention it? It’s foreshadowing at its most basic.) This is a book that the back-cover blurb touts as “an indispensable family reference that explains who’s who in myth and legend,” and it does so well. The introduction briefly explains creation myths (worthy of entire tomes in itself, as any anthropologist will tell you), gods and goddesses, mythical monsters, and tricksters in their many forms all over the world.
That’s right, it’s not just about European myths and legends; it touches on myths and legends from all over the world, and way back, even. This book starts out with Western Asia, and the myths of Mesopotamia; it delves into ancient Egypt, something most people are more familiar with, but it never hurts to refresh our memories and clarify the mythos we only vaguely remember. India, where much of the Asian myths and legends began, gets its fair share of pages, and if you’re unfamiliar with Indian mythology, this is a good place to start AND a treat to boot. China and Japan, which were both influenced by Indian myths (as in, taking them and reforming them to fittheir own cultures), are covered as well.
The classical world of the Greeks and then the Romans are next, and these are the stories that most of us are truly familiar with. After the classics come the Norse myths, the Finnish myths (which are unique), and the Slavic myths. After those comes in its own section the richly textured story of King Arthur, which perhaps has influenced the Western world beyond all others, and thus deserves its own look.
And we’re not done yet. The Americas come next, and these myths are portioned into those of the Inuit, the Eastern North Americans, the Great Plains, West Coast, Southwest, and farther on south, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Incans. This book rounds out the world of mythology with African myths, Australasian myths, and Oceanian myths.
Looking through these pages reminds us that there are universal themes. These are themes of humanity, and they are themes that we as writers should be aware of in all their different incarnations. We write stories about people — and people have had their own stories for thousands of years.
Copyright 2006 EMS Flynn