Reviewed by Annabel.
As picture books for grown ups go, Mythology is the business. Now available in soft covers, this nine inches square book yields glorious pictorial spreads from the very moment you open the cover to see a German woodcut from the late 1800s of a seer looking towards Asgard.
Turn over the page and we have Tiepolo’s painting of the Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy from 1760. Move on a couple of pages and we have a 13th century manuscript from Cairo of the constellations. You never know what period, location or mythology the next pages will bring. The the book is a treasure house containing over 400 illustrations, all in full colour, within its 350 pages, and the images have been assembled from sources all over the world.
The Introduction is the only extended text in the book. In it, Dell expounds on the meaning of myth, comparing religion with mythology. He says:
Perhaps the distinction between religion and mythology can best be summed up by describing the religion of today as the mythology of tomorrow.
Indeed, the pages contain many elements from living religions, belief systems and folklore followed today, mingling alongside ancient Greek and Roman myth and far beyond. Dell also considers briefly what might become the myths of tomorrow:
Archaeologists two thousand years from now may conclude that one of the most significant myths of the late 20th and early 21st centuries was Star Wars; its characters were immortalised in small figurines, and countless books detailed their exploits. Moreover, they will find evidence of these stories worldwide.
He has a point, for George Lucas was influenced by myths and legends in the creation of his magnum opus, especially hero myths.
He then explains how the book is organised thematically. The same themes crop up in mythology all around the world, and the great value of this survey is the juxtaposition of images from different cultures and times facing one another on the page. The seven sections cover The Supernatural Realm, The Earth, Humankind, Gifts from the Gods, The Animal Kingdom, Symbolic substances, Heroes and Quests, Journeys and Epics.
Each of the sections has an introductory text, and then subsections of different areas within it. Humankind, for instance includes The Creation of Man, Woman, Twins, Sexuality, Sleep and Dreams, and The Heart and Death among its pages, each bringing together examples of art from around the world and a brief text outlining some of the key myths, and introducing some less well known.
One of my favourite parts was that on Animals, which features a particularly rich choice of images and creatures real and fantastical. I was especially drawn to the tiger below – the picture comes from South Korea and pictures a mountain spirit, accompanied by the tiger.
Another animal, which brought back memories of the Japanese TV series from the late 1970s, was Monkey which got its own double-spread in the Quests section. (It’s amazing to remember that this Japanese series was cult viewing back then!)
A helpful appendix gives a brief overview of world mythologies with a family tree of Gods and Godesses etc.for each, and a list for further reading. Then comes the extensive list of illustrations and the index. I do wish the list of illustrations had been a fold-out insert, so that you could easily refer to it while perusing the pages. I can understand that to add that information to all the captions would have cluttered the pages, but I wanted to refer to the list constantly to feel for exactly when and where many of the illustrations came from, and was always in danger of losing my place as I flipped back and forth.
That said, this is a wonderful book to spend hours browsing in and it certainly gave me great pleasure, and a more profound sense of the interrelatedness of world myths alongside many new discoveries. Dare I say it so far before Christmas – this book would be make an ideal present for anyone interested in art and mythology.
Christopher Dell, Mythology: An Illustrated Journey Into Our Imagined Worlds, (Thames & Hudson: London: 2015.) 978-0-500-291511, 352pp., soft back.