Category Archives: comparative mythology

The Power Of Myth * Joseph Campbell / Bill Moyers (1988)

The Power Of MythI bought this book when I was ‘in between literature’. It is not really a book by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), but rather the written result of a series of interviews by his former student Bill Moyers that were broadcasted on TV. My Dutch translation has a title translating as “myths and consciousness”, I think the original title fits the content a lot better. Campbell might have had ideas that I do not agree with, but as the introduction to this book says:

He was, of course, criticized for dwelling on the psychological interpretation of myth, for seeming to confine the contemporary role of myth to either an ideological or therapeutic function. I am not competent to enter that debate, and leave it for others to wage. He never seemed bothered by the controversy. He just kept on seeing, opening to others a new way of seeing.

And Campbell doing what he thought he ought to be doing can easily inspire both people who follow his ideas as those who do not (entirely). And inspire is exactly what this book does. Campbell may have been a scholar, a writer of books, a teacher at universities, but this man lived myth. Already in the first minutes of the first interview, he says: read more

Primordial Traditions Compendium 2009 * Gwendolyn Toynton (ed.) (2009)

Primordial Traditions Compendium 2009Primordial Traditions is a periodical that I did not know. They have collected their best articles from 2005 to 2009, most of which are by the hand of editor Gwendolyn Toynton. As the title suggests, this publication takes a Traditionalistic starting point and since “the term Primordial Tradition is utilized to describe a system of spiritual thought and metaphysical truths that overarches all the other religions and esoteric traditions of humanity” this book covers a wide variety of subjects, going from Hinduism and Buddhism, to Mithraism and Islam to “paganism” and of course Traditionalism. The editor does not seem to have exactly my idea of this “primordial tradition” when she says that: “Both the idea of the Primordial Tradition and the philosophia perennis attempt to establish common factors amongst different traditions, with the goal of producing a superior gnosis or level of wisdom than that which would have been obtained by the study of a single religion.” This sounds like that the primordial tradition can be created/obtained by cross-studying myth and religion while in my idea it stems from the Divine Source and is thus, per se, not ‘obtainable’. Some articles do not really seem Traditionalistic to me, Toynton seems to have a preference for far Eastern religion about which she writes articles about uncommon subjects. This is interesting in itself, but these peculiarities are, in my opinion, not seen in other cultures, so where is the Traditionalism? Also none of the articles is really good, most of them are interesting in subject and sometimes in angle of approach, but besides a few nice hints to think over or look for, I find this book more entertaining than studious. Several articles, moreover, contain ideas and statements that I disagree with and also there is an Evolian (stress on the second function) approach that I do not share. Inspite of all my critique, the Primordial Traditions Compendium is a nice read for people with an interest in comparitive myth and religion and people with an interest in far Eastern (especialy Tantric) traditions.
2009 Twin Serpents ltd. isbn 1905524323

Comparative Mythology * Jaan Puhvel (1987)

Comparative Mythology

If I am not mistaken, Jaan Puhvel was born in Estonia in 1932 and he was a student of Georges Dumézil (in Upsala) and follows his path in comparitive mythology. By now living and teaching in America for many years, Puhvel displays an amazing ability to play with the English language, making this book a fun read at times. Puhvel wanted to write a basic book about comparitive mythology (“mythology” in his usuage means “the study of myth”). Puhvel starts with describing the Indo-European “traditions” (Vedic India, Epic India, Ancient Iran, Epic Iran, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Celtic Myth, Germanic Myth and Baltic and Slavic myth). However Puhvel does not really say much new (but some new findings are enclosed) this book is nicely short, clear and the writer immediately starts with cross-referencing. He grantly displays his 30 years of experience with elaborate sentences which seem to smoothly flow from his pen with humour and wordplay. After this part follow five “themes” (God and warrior, king and virgin, horse and ruler, fire in water and twin and brother) which are not as thematically as I hoped, more again retelling of parts of different myths, but again with some nice theories. Inspite of being a student of Dumézil, Puhvel does not necessarily follow the firsts conclusions. On page 200 he writes: “Yet this is still mainly schematic and typological. The Indic god with whom Odin has most in common is not Varuna but Rudra-Siva.” which point is -of course- elucidated. A goal of this book is to put the Greek mythology back to the place where it belongs:

Greece is a special case for the comparative mythologist. Being somehow the central reference point for mythology at large, Greek myth tends to carry disproportionate weight in any comparison. […] For the purposes of this book, however, Greek myth must be stripped of its unfair advantage and placed squarely into the frame of our study.

It is very true that virtually all Westerners have been taught about Greek (and Roman) mythology at school, but not or hardly about other mythologies and that Greek mythology is the starting point of scholars in the field. Hopefully Puhvel’s voice will change the tide.
To close off I want to give another quote so that you get an idea of the tone of this book: read more

Archaic Roman Religion * Georges Dumézil (1970)

La Religion romaine archaͯque suivi d’un appendice sur la religion des Estrusques 1966
Archaic Roman ReligionHere we have a more massive investigation of Dumézil. 700 Pages about the religion of the Romans. I have no particular interest in the Roman religion, but of course the writer makes cross-references to other Indo-European religions and being so obviously Indo-European, the “archaic Roman religion” sheds a new light on some aspects of other Indo-European religions, which is always nice. Having used 700 pages, this book is detailed and scholarly even for a Dumézil title. There are large parts which I read through more quickly than other passages, especially the second book which is almost entirely about the history of the Roman religion. As you will notice when you read the “quotes” “category”, you will find quite a few from this book, so it is an interesting read nonetheless; as with every Dumézil title of course! It seems that this book is still in print by the way, unlike other English translations of this French writer.
Read quotes from this and other books by Dumézil here.
1970 the university of chicago press * isbn 0226169685

The Hero With A Thousand Faces * Joseph Campbell (1972)

A Hero With A Thousand Faces

The modern intellectual will without hesitation admit that the symbology of mythology has a psychological meaning. Especially since the work of psychoanalysists there can be little doubt that myths are of the same breed as dreams and that dreams are the driving force of the psyche.

I did not really plan on reading this book, but I ran into second hand and also I was a little curious about this often-mentioned writer. Campbell has an approach that is not mine. As you can read in the opening quote, he finds modern psychology to be a good starting point to explain mythology and on many occassions, Campbell goes even so far to compare myths with dreams. Especially in the beginning of the book, this view comes around the corner irritatingly often, but this becomes less furtheron. As a matter of fact, Campbell differentiates his ideas a little. However I do not agree with the approach, I still find the book recommendable. Somewhat thematically Campbell displays a massive amount of myths, fables and folklore, making comparisons and giving interpretations. I noticed some sloppy mistakes in the Norse parts, so I cannot guarantee that the writer is 100% accurate in his retellings, but A Hero With A Thousand Faces is a very nice read. read more

From Myth To Fiction * Georges Dumézil (1973)

From Myth To Fiction

du mythe au roman: la saga de Hadingus et autres essais (1970)

The English subtitle of this book is The Saga Of Hadingus, but as you can see, the original title says “the sage of Hadingus and other essays” and indeed, half of the book are appendices in the form of essays with other subjects. At least we have a title of Dumézil that is still available new, but it is pretty expensive and contrary to other titles by our French writer, the second hand versions are not that expensive (probably because it is still in print). From Myth To Fiction is another book by Dumézil entirely dedicated to Germanic mythology and it sure is a magnificent book. The idea behind this book is that Saxo Grammaticus used myths to create semi-historical stories about (Viking) heroes in his Gesta Danorum (“Deeds Of The Danes”). Dumézil gives a nice overview of the theories around the subject that had been posed until his time and in most cases invalidates them and gives his own ideas. Hadingus is described as a person who ‘started as a Vane’ (modelled after Njördr) to become an Ase, an “Odinic hero” even. Many details from the story given by Saxo are compared to mythology and many parts of the myths are (first) described and explained in depth (such as Thor’s duel with Hrungir or the story of Freyr wooing the giantess Gerdr). All this gives a very nice (new) look on some parts of Nordic myths. As mentioned, the second half of the book contains seven appendices, in the form of six essays and one part of the Gesta Danorum (v-viii) in Latin. These essays are (of course) relatively short and the writer comes to his point more quickly and often simply sums up his arguments; the essays can maybe be called “more scholarly”. I find that appealing and these texts are good for when I have to look up something quickly. The essays are about “Hanging and Drowning”, “Gram” (another figure from the Gesta, “Balderus and Hotherus” (a great text in which Dumézil compares the Baldr/Hødr story from the Eddas with the completely different version of Saxo and comes to very different conclusions than most scholars), “Horwendillus” (again a figure from the Gesta and one that can be found in a variety of other texts), Frotho III and Njördr. In the essays Dumézil also refers to folklore of a variety of countries which is the first time (I think) that I saw him do that.
All in all another great title and I will continue my hunt for Dumézil in English.
Read quotes of Dumézil here.
1973 university of chicago press * isbn 0226169723

The Destiny Of The Warrior * Georges Dumézil (1970)

The Destiny Of A Warrior

heur et malheur de guerrier: aspects mythiques de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Europèens * 1996

Whereas The Destiny Of A King (see elsewhere) deals with “the first function” (religion, law, magic, etc.), this book speaks about the second (martial, warrior, etc.). As usually Dumézil starts with Indian and Iranian mythology where he finds and describes the warrior gods. Also he speaks about “the warrior function and its relations to the other two functions” by which this later work gives a very good idea of Dumézil’s theory of the three functions. The warriors written about at length are Indra, Starcatherus and Heracles, and Dumézil describes their three sins, functions and place in their respective mythologies (Hindu, Germanic and Greek). Also described at length are initiative combats with dummies, “warriors in animal forms” and etymological leads for the warrior gods’ names and their victims.
All in all The Destiny Of The Warrior is again a very interesting work which brings things I already knew (Dumézil is of course used a lot by contemporary writers), but also thought-provoking new ideas. I continue my search for titles of Dumézil in English (this one you will have to buy second hand, like most of them); next up is an entire book about the Thors-warrior Starkadr.
Read quotes of Dumézil here.
1970 university of chicago * isbn 0226169685

Gods Of The Ancient Northmen * Georges Dumézil (1959)

Gods Of The Ancient NorthmenThe irony! Between 1965 and 1971 the American professor Aunar Haugen and his students started to translate Dumézil’s Les Dieux des Germains (1959) because there was hardly any literature of Dumézil available in English. Nowadays you can buy several books by Dumézil in English, but the book that I wanted to read most, is only available second hand. It is even worse, this out-of-print book is so popular that incredible prices are asked for it. I paid close to 40 euros for a 155 page paperback full of mildew, stripes and notes. But as least I fianlly got to read the most interesting work of Dumézil. The English version is a translation of the reworked article about Germanic gods, introduced nicely by Scott Littleton and supplemented with four great articles about Byggvir and Beyla, the Rigsthula, Heimdall and “cosmic bestiary” (mostly the Yggdrasil and its inhabitents). Needless to say that this is a great book with deep insides, comparisons with other mythologies, groundbreaking theories, information about other hypothesis and even when the book is pretty old and I have read my share of Germanic mythology and Dumézil, the writer is able to surprise with some extraordinary insights and ideas. Regardless the price, this book is a must-buy for anyone interested in Teutonic mythology, compartive mythology (German with Dumézil’s often used Indian and Iranian mostly, but also Celtic and other mythologies) and Dumézil’s idea about the tripartite division of the over- and underworld and how he came to his idea that the Germanic world of the gods, ‘dropped half a stage’ in that very tripartite division.
Read quotes of Dumézil here.
1959 * isbn 052035070

The Destiny Of A King * Georges Dumézil (1973)

mythe et épopée, vol 2: types épiques indo-européens: un héros, un sorcier, un roi
Well this is a Dumézil book! Mostly based on the stories of Yayati and Madhavi, Dumézil writes about sacred kings, perpetual virgins and makes a great many cross references between different mythologies. The basis lays in the Indian and Iranian mythologies, but there are chapters about Celtic mythology and especially towards the end, references to Northern European myths. There is no beginning of telling about the writer’s findings in this book, but you can be sure to learn about myths, the tripartite hypothesis, the depths of ancient texts and the meaning of them in daily life. A great work of a great scholar and available in English.
Read quotes of Dumézil here.
1973 the university of chicage press * isbn 0226169758

The Quest: history and meaning in religion * Mircea Eliade (1969/ 1984 midway reprint * isbn 0226203867)

I am a bit disappointed by this book by Eliade. The title would have better been “history and meaning in religionswissenschaft“. The field that Eliade operated in he prefered to give the German term religionswissenschaft. This term he usually gives the (not too good) translation “history of religion” or sometimes (somewhat better) “comperative religion”. The book proves to be a history and investigation of the value of this science and only here and there you will get some religionswissenschaftliche information where the writer takes an example. These are the interesting parts of this book, but they are unfortunately few. In general the book is not uninteresting, because you will get an idea of the theories and important players in the field, but I prefer Eliade’s ‘normal books’.
(14/5/07 -2-)
Read quotes of Eliade here.