Thursday, February 21, 2008

BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY by Thomas Bulfinch

The Book: Thomas Bulfinch, BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY: The Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry, Legends of Charlemagne. The Modern Library, no publication date. Missing dust jacket; book is split at front cover, pages are age-browned.
First read: 1976 (best guess)
Owned since: 1998 (I think)

Mom gave Dad this book as a birthday present, I think, sometime in the mid-1970s. I hope that Dad got a chance to read it and I also hope that I have only owned it since we cleared out the Meredith Road house, but I'm afraid I might have swiped it a long time ago. I don't really remember a time before I'd read at least part of this book, and I don't remember not having it on my shelf.

If you have this book, the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare on your shelf, you have pretty much every plot known to humanity. "The Age of Fable" covers the Greek and Roman myths, the Odyssey, Iliad and Aeneid, and a basic overview of Egyptian mythology, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Scandinavian myths, and druidism. "The Age of Chivalry" retells the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, the legends of the founding of Britain, and the stories of Robin Hood. "Legends of Charlemagne" include stories of the Crusades, and is required reading for anyone who found The Da Vinci Code original or historically accurate.

The myths stay with us, because we use them to explain the world to ourselves and each other. If you're watching this season of "The Wire," you saw State Senator Clay Davis mangle the author, title and moral of "Prometheus Unbound" in this week's episode. Clay Davis (one of the greatest TV characters ever) missed the point spectacularly by explaining to the media that the moral of Prometheus's story was that "no good deed goes unpunished."

Prometheus's story is, in fact, the first one in this book. Prometheus, a Titan, created man in the image of the Gods, and made him stand upright to set him apart from other animals. But he needed to give man something else to make him superior to other species, so he asked Athena (Minerva) for help, and they took fire from the sun as a gift for humans. In one version of the story that follows, Zeus (Jupiter) punished Prometheus and Man by giving them Woman, in the shape of the trouble-making Pandora. In another version of the story, Pandora was a sincere gift, and her box of troubles was actually a box of blessings, with hope at the bottom.

The Pandora legend has always had particular resonance for me, and although Bulfinch prefers the version in which the box is full of blessings, I see no reason that hope wouldn't be right in there with man's other failings and temptations. Hope can get us into trouble even faster than greed or envy or lust; hope's been responsible for more of my bad decisions than I care to think about.

At the same time, hope is our salvation and our obligation, and Hope has always been one of my own greatest blessings. A couple of this blog's readers will know exactly what I mean by that...

4 comments:

Larry said...

WHAT??? The Da Vinci Code was NOT original, or historically accurate... DANG IT!

I love mythology, because it teaches us that the human condition was no different back when than it is now. I truly believe that as a race we continuously evolve. We learn, we adapt, we advance, but we still love, hate, betray, feel hurt, joy... Our humanity is the core of our existence whether we lived in the stone age, or are part of the iPod generation.

JIM LAMB said...

Bullfinch has been around for a long time. I read when I was in High School along with a lot of those other stories. For a kid from the Bronx I was a little strange even then.

I'm glad that copy is still around.
That was an attempt to settle an arguement that we often had over who had the stories correct.

Bullfinch also has the Cretan version of the Olympic myth, the story of the "Dead" Zeus, where it is Zeus and not Demeter who goes to the underworld in the Fall and returns each Spring. Sounds a lot like the Easter story.

Anonymous said...

And congratulations on having Hope.

CFK

AnswerGirl said...

A couple of Christmases ago I gave her a sweater with peacock plumes on the shoulders, just so she could be the thing with feathers.