The past year I’ve been rediscovering my childhood love for mythology. In school, I was that kid who couldn’t tell the difference between Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera but knew who Hercules was before the Disney movie came out. As you can all imagine, I was super popular.
Back in July, I read Stephen Fry’s book on Greek mythology, which I loved. In September, I reviewed The Gospel of Loki, a novel where the tales of the Norse gods are written from Loki’s point of view. This year I’ve also binge-played Assassins Creed Origins, set in ancient Egypt, and recently Assassin Creed Odyssey, set in ancient Greece, two video games filled with references to Egyptian and Greek mythology.
My opinion about The Gospel of Loki was lukewarm, and I concluded that review by advising people interested in Norse mythology to instead buy one of the many beautifully illustrated non-fictional books available.
A while back, I was at my local bookstore; a tiny hole in the wall that’s been around forever. Imagine my delight when I found two of my favorites books on mythology from childhood, re-released in an updated version. I snatched them up immediately.
Despite their age, the stories in these books are both relevant and relatable; in a time long before Youtube Gurus, Instagram Influencers, and Self-Help books, these stories comprised of myths, fables, and allegories all deal with humanity and the human condition.
We can argue the opposite all we like, but no matter how much time has passed since these stories were first told, human nature has not changed. We still write and read stories centered around the same core ideas, archetypal characters, themes, thoughts, and conflicts; the style may have changed, but the subject matters haven’t.
These two books are part of a larger series commonly referred to as The World Mythology Series. There are thirteen in total, each written by a different author, all originally released in Britain from the late ’70s and into the early ’90s, you can find all listed HERE on Goodreads.
The original idea behind these books was to make these stories accessible for people outside the academic sphere; I love Norse mythology but The Poetic Edda, however beautiful, is a pain to read. The authors are all historians or experts on the subject, but the target audience for these books are primary school and up. However, I think even adults who want a quick overview of the subject would enjoy these.
Because of the intended audience, the stories have been given a PG-rating makeover, which is understandable since the old gods were a pretty amoral lot and didn’t shy away from murder, rape, adultery, bestiality, eating their children, or incest.
These books are not complete retellings of their respective mythology; instead, they’re a collection of the most famous stories, characters, and themes from their respective regions.
In comparison, many other books tell the mythology in chronological order from creation and onwards. That’s great if you’re interested, but when you reach the third generation of gods and there are now five people with the same name it gets tricky to keep track of which adulterous god spawned who; it might all get a bit overwhelming if you only a little curious.
One of my absolute favorite things about these books are the illustrations. The books are filled with black and white line drawings, as well as several, colorful illustrations. It’s not the same artist for every book, but some illustrate several books, for instance, the Greek and Norse books are both illustrated by Giovanni Caselli.
There are several editions and reprints available of each book. Some are paperback, some are hardcover, and some come with dustjackets instead of an illustrated front cover.
They’ve been translated into many languages, besides English and Swedish, I’ve seen French, Italian, Spanish, and Catalan, but I’m sure there are many more. All the translations appear to have regional publishers so if you want to track these books down in your language, your best bet is probably to find out who published them in your country.
As for availability, you probably won’t find these at your local bookstore. These new editions I have are by a Swedish publisher and appear to be a regional reprint.
However, these books seem to be fairly easy and affordable to get a hold of at on-line thrift bookstores, Amazon, and antiquarians (probably libraries as well). Depending on how picky you are when it comes to the condition of used books, I’ve seen copies go for as little as three dollars. For comparison, I paid twenty-five dollars for the new editions, had I ordered them online I could have got them for seventeen dollars.
If you, or maybe your children are interested in or curious about mythology these books serve as a great introduction. Because these are older, mostly used books, their illustrations and overall design are very eighties.
But, despite that, they continue to be read and published in new editions forty years after their original release. It says a lot about the quality and shelf-life of these books; it would be a shame to dismiss their content because they don’t look modern.
These books are filled with outrageous characters, fanciful monsters, and heroes that have and continue to have a monumental impact on our modern day storytelling. Above all, they’re very entertaining stories that continue to be as enjoyable and relevant today as they were when they were first told.
All images displayed are my own, taken by me, using my personal copies of the books mentioned.