HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW,
The Poet Alike Of The Many And Of The Few,
This Attempt To Popularize
And Extend The Enjoyment Of Elegant Literature,
Is Respectfully Inscribed.
The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct. The so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men. They belong now not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste. There they still hold 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 pass into oblivion.
We propose to tell the stories relating to them which have come down to us from the ancients, and which are alluded to by modern poets, essayists, and orators. Our readers may thus at the same time be entertained by the most charming fictions which fancy has ever created, and put in possession of information indispensable to every one who would read with intelligence the elegant literature of his own day.
- Introduction, The Age of Fables
Bulfinch's Mythology refers to a trilogy of books written by Thomas Bulfinch which retell mythological tales from dozens of cultures in accessible English. Today, the three books are always published together and are referred to collectively as Bulfinch's Mythology.
Thomas Bulfinch was born in Newton, MA in 1796 to Charles and Hannah Bulfinch, the sixth of eleven children. The family's home was in Boston, where his father was a very successful architect. Unfortunately, early in Thomas's life, his father lost the family fortune in a failed building scheme, and thereafter the family lived in relative poverty. Fortunately, Charles was able to make the best of the family name and contacts for his son and thus Thomas received a stellar private education, graduating from Harvard University in 1814 at age 19.
After college, Thomas briefly taught at a private school, then embarked on a long and winding road through a tumultuous business career which would eventually land him, in 1837, at a clerk's desk at the Merchants' Bank in Boston, where he would remain for the rest of his employed life.
Thomas found that the clerk's job gave him a great deal of spare time to follow his other interests, and he threw himself into his hobby of literature with gusto. He became the secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History and became very interested in mythologies of various cultures.
As this interest grew, at the same time a general feeling arose in Thomas Bulfinch that he should use what resources and gifts he had for the betterment of society. His first attempt at this, 1853s Hebrew Lyrical History, was an attempt to rewrite the Psalms in the order and context of Jewish history, thus making them more accessible to the general public.
It wasn't a surprise that the two interests would combine together; Bulfinch published the first volume of his mythologies, The Age of Fable, in 1855 as an attempt to re-tell the classic Greek and Roman mythologies in such a way as to be accessible to the layperson. The volume was such a rousing success (indeed, it became the reference for Greek and Roman mythology until supplanted by Edith Hamilton's Mythology in recent years) that it was followed by two additional volumes on myths and legends of other cultures; 1858's The Age of Chivalry and 1863's Legends of Charlemagne.
When you pick up a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology, you hold in your hands perhaps the most complete anthology of Western mythology ever produced. What follows is a brief summary of what's contained in the mythology.
The Age of Fable (or Stories of Gods and Heroes)
The first part of Bulfinch covers Greek and Roman mythology in great detail, which take up 70 percent of the volume. The stories are organized in such a fashion as to tell the stories in as linear a method as possible. The book provides a rough compression of the Aeneid, the Iliad, and the Odyssey during this portion.
The remainder of this part is a very quick overview of other ancient mythologies (Egyptian, Indian, etc.) with two long chapters on Norse mythology and sections on Prester John and Beowulf.
The Age of Chivalry (or Legends of King Arthur)
As with the first book, most of the volume is taken up with one central mythology; this time around, it is King Arthur and his knights. He clearly uses Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as a primary source, mostly following that narrative with additional details added later on.
The rest of the book focuses on other English legends, such as Robin Hood, Chevy Chase, and Otterbourne.
Legends of Charlemagne (or Romance of the Middle Ages)
This volume is the most interesting, in my opinion, and also the less linear. It's a collection of stories from the Middle Ages, most of which aren't as widely known today as the stories from the first two volumes; there's also a good deal of cultural diversity, with Danish, African, Romany, and Spanish myths (among others) filling the volume. When reading it for the first time, I came to enjoy this volume the most.
Despite the many qualities of Bulfinch's Mythology, there are a handful of flaws that keep Bulfinch from being the sole standard for mythological reference.
First, there is little to no coverage of Eastern mythology. Part of this is due to the lack of availability of source materials on the subject in the West at the time, but the fact that Bulfinch was educated in and familiar with the Western classics means that he, intentionally or not, chose to focus on them with a much brighter light than other mythologies.
Second, the events of most mythologies are toned down as compared to the original mythology. The most glaring examples include the fact that Cronus was merely deposed rather than the original mythology in which his genitalia were removed by a scythe, and that Zeus's womanizing was significantly toned down. We have the source materials to vouch for this, and later coverage of Western mythology rights some of these wrongs.
Third, the writing is sort of dry; Bulfinch seemed to try too hard to make sure that all of the facts were there rather than imbuing the narratives with lots of life. That's not to say they're not interesting by any means, they are quite enjoyable; it just means that if you're expecting Stephen King-like narration, you might be disappointed.
Despite these criticisms, Bulfinch's Mythology is still an essential piece of literature and probably suitable for being a single-volume mythological reference.
You can stop by your local bookseller and take a peek in the classical studies section; there, you're likely to find several different editions of Bulfinch's Mythology. It is very widely available, with hundreds of editions over the years and dozens in print.
However, if you're looking to pinch a few pennies, you can't go wrong with http://www.bulfinch.org/, a website devoted to presenting Bulfinch's Mythology and supporting writings on the web.
As for me, I used Bulfinch's Mythology as an earlier portion of the process of re-educating myself, and I came to find it to be an invaluable resource over the years. If you have need of a basic mythological reference, you can't go wrong with Bulfinch's Mythology.