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  • Written by Thomas Bulfinch
    Foreword by Alberto Manguel
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On Sale: February 11, 1999
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-679-64001-1
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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For almost a century and a half, Bulfinch's Mythology has been the text by which the great tales of the gods and goddesses, Greek and Roman antiquity; Scandinavian, Celtic, and Oriental fables and myths; and the age of chivalry have been known.
        The stories are divided into three sections: The Age of Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes (first published in 1855); The Age of Chivalry (1858), which contains King Arthur and His Knights, The Mabinogeon, and The Knights of English History; and Legends of Charlemagne or Romance of the Middle Ages (1863). For the Greek myths, Bulfinch drew on Ovid and Virgil, and for the sagas of the north, from Mallet's Northern Antiquities. He provides lively versions of the myths of Zeus and Hera, Venus and Adonis, Daphne and Apollo, and their cohorts on Mount Olympus; the love story of Pygmalion and Galatea; the legends of the Trojan War and the epic wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas; the joys of Valhalla and the furies of Thor; and the tales of Beowulf and Robin Hood.
The tales are eminently readable. As Bulfinch wrote, "Without a knowledge of mythology much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood and appreciated. . . . Our book is an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement."

Thomas Bulfinch, in his day job, was a clerk in the Merchant's Bank of Boston, an undemanding position that afforded him ample leisure time in which to pursue his other interests. In addition to serving as secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History, he thoroughly researched the myths and legends and copiously cross-referenced them with literature and art. As such, the myths are an indispensable guide to the cultural values of the nineteenth century; however, it is the vigor of the stories themselves that returns generation after generation to Bulfinch.


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.

In order to understand these stories, it will be necessary to acquaint ourselves with the ideas of the structure of the universe which prevailed among the Greeks--the people from whom the Romans, and other nations through them, received their science and religion.

The Greeks believed the earth to be flat and circular, their own country occupying the middle of it, the central point being either Mount Olympus, the abode of the gods, or Delphi, so famous for its oracle.

The circular disk of the earth was crossed from west to east and divided into two equal parts by the Sea, as they called the Mediterranean, and its continuation the Euxine, the only seas with which they were acquainted.

Around the earth flowed the River Ocean, its course being from south to north on the western side of the earth, and in a contrary direction on the eastern side. It flowed in a steady, equable current, unvexed by storm or tempest. The sea, and all the rivers on earth, received their waters from it.

The northern portion of the earth was supposed to be inhabited by a happy race named the Hyperboreans, dwelling in everlasting bliss and spring beyond the lofty mountains whose caverns were supposed to send forth the piercing blasts of the north wind, which chilled the people of Hellas (Greece). Their country was inaccessible by land or sea. They lived exempt from disease or old age, from toils and warfare. Moore has given us the "Song of a Hyperborean," beginning

"I come from a land in the sun-bright deep,

Where golden gardens glow,

Where the winds of the north, becalmed in sleep,

Their conch shells never blow."

On the south side of the earth, close to the stream of Ocean, dwelt a people happy and virtuous as the Hyperboreans. They were named the Æthiopians. The gods favoured them so highly that they were wont to leave at times their Olympian abodes and go to share their sacrifices and banquets.

On the western margin of the earth, by the stream of Ocean, lay a happy place named the Elysian Plain, whither mortals favoured by the gods were transported without tasting of death, to enjoy an immortality of bliss. This happy region was also called the "Fortunate Fields," and the "Isles of the Blessed."

We thus see that the Greeks of the early ages knew little of any real people except those to the east and south of their own country, or near the coast of the Mediterranean. Their imagination meantime peopled the western portion of this sea with giants, monsters, and enchantresses; while they placed around the disk of the earth, which they probably regarded as of no great width, nations enjoying the peculiar favour of the gods, and blessed with happiness and longevity.

The Dawn, the Sun, and the Moon were supposed to rise out of the Ocean, on the eastern side, and to drive through the air, giving light to gods and men. The stars, also, except those forming the Wain or Bear, and others near them, rose out of and sank into the stream of Ocean. There the sun-god embarked in a winged boat, which conveyed him round by the northern part of the earth, back to his place of rising in the east. Milton alludes to this in his "Comus":

"Now the gilded car of day

His golden axle doth allay

In the steep Atlantic stream,

And the slope Sun his upward beam

Shoots against the dusky pole,

Facing towards the other goal

Of his chamber in the east."

The abode of the gods was on the summit of Mount Olympus, in Thessaly. A gate of clouds, kept by the goddesses named the Seasons, opened to permit the passage of the Celestials to earth, and to receive them on their return. The gods had their separate dwellings; but all, when summoned, repaired to the palace of Jupiter, as did also those deities whose usual abode was the earth, the waters, or the under-world. It was also in the great hall of the palace of the Olympian king that the gods feasted each day on ambrosia and nectar, their food and drink, the latter being handed round by the lovely goddess Hebe. Here they conversed of the affairs of heaven and earth; and as they quaffed their nectar, Apollo, the god of music, delighted them with the tones of his lyre, to which the Muses sang in responsive strains. When the sun was set, the gods retired to sleep in their respective dwellings.
Thomas Bulfinch|Alberto Manguel

About Thomas Bulfinch

Thomas Bulfinch - Bulfinch's Mythology

Thomas Bulfinch was born on July 15, 1796, in Newton, Massachusetts. He was descended from a distinguished New England family; his grandfather was a well-known surgeon, and his father, Charles Bulfinch, was one of the foremost architects of his day, responsible for many Boston monuments, including the State House on Beacon Hill, as well as being an important public official and city planner. Thomas, who was one of eleven children, pursued a more sheltered career. He received the education of a member of the Boston elite--Boston Latin, Phillips Exeter, Harvard (where his classmates included the historian William Prescott)--but after he graduated in 1814 his life showed little sense of strong direction. He taught briefly at Boston Latin, assisted at a store owned by his elder brother, and worked desultorily and without much success in a number of different businesses in Washington, D.C., and Boston.

In 1837 Bulfinch began working as a clerk in the Merchant's Bank of Boston; he stayed on in that capacity until his death. The position was not a demanding one, and Bulfinch evidently had ample leisure time in which to pursue his other interests. He was secretary of the Boston Society of Natural History for a number of years, and published books reflecting the range of his interests, including Hebrew Lyrical Poetry (1853); The Boy Inventor (1860), a tribute to a precocious student of his who died young; Shakespeare Adapted for Reading Classes (1865); and Oregon and Eldorado (1866), an account of an expedition to the Pacific Northwest his father had been involved in planning. The only works of his which have retained their readership are the three volumes--The Age of Fable (1855), The Age of Chivalry (1858), and Legends of Charlemagne (1863)--eventually reprinted under the title Bulfinch's Mythology.

The thoroughness with which Bulfinch combed through his sources made his mythological books standard reference works for a long time, while the skill with which he wove the separate versions into coherent tales endeared them to a wide audience. They continue to be read for the vigor of their storytelling even when superseded by twentieth-century approaches. Bulfinch was concerned not only with recapitulating the ancient myths and legends but also with demonstrating their relationship to literature and art, and his copious cross-references to poetry and painting make his Mythology an indispensable guide to the cultural values of the nineteenth century. "Without a knowledge of mythology," he wrote, "much of the elegant literature of our own language cannot be understood or appreciated." He added: "We trust our young readers will find it a source of entertainment," and his trust seems to have been justified, judging from the many generations who have found his books an enthralling and loving introduction to the worlds of classical and medieval myth and legend.

About Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel - Bulfinch's Mythology

Photo © Simo Neri

Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor, Alberto Manguel is the bestselling author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading. He was born in Buenos Aires, moved to Canada in 1982 and now lives in France, where he was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.

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