The world of myths is a treasure trove of the human imagination. Full of memories, fossils and relics, its riches include everything from sacred, supernatural signs to the ordinary, exotic and bizarre. Here is a world peopled by extraordinary beings, real and imaginary animals, and many a weird object too. It is a world of strange, enticing stories with great power over countless cultures. Mythical narratives across the world tell us stories of origin, whether of the cosmos, animals, plants, or gender differences. They record heroic exploits and dramatise the recurring battles between good and evil linked to great rewards and dire punishments,tracing for us the infinite possibilities of human destiny.
All cultures have their own myths, and ours is no exception. Yet the comparative study of myths is less concerned with the world of today than with that of an imaginary past. Diverse theories try to explain the function of myths in different societies, all connected with ancient traditions. The voluminous scholarship on, and the popular interest in mythologies belong to what has been named the growing "memory industry", which itself deserves further study and critical analysis.
Such critical meta-discourse does not concern this handy reference work, which provides only a brief foreword written for the 20th rather than the 21st century, as this is a re-publication of a work first conceived in 1995. The best-known scholars on myth may just find a mention, but no explanation is given of their selection criteria from the pool of myths known today. The dictionary provides a fair cross-selection of mythical themes, characters and plots at a simple descriptive level. It includes a host of information from afterlife to flood myths, sacred mountains and mother earth to tricksters, the Vedas and the avatars of Vishnu. Its appeal is greatly enhanced through orange and black line drawings, highlighted "feature panels" with detailed information on more than 30 topics, and also its compact bibliography listing work on myths, followed by several titles on each of 19 regions of the world. There is an index of themes, which groups cognate entries together for easy cross-reference.
Buddhism is the only religion to have its own entry, and quite a few Hindu terms are included. Greek and Roman mythical themes predominate. Celtic, Slav and Germanic myths are described, as are African, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Oceanic ones. Some omissions are puzzling. Having just returned from China, I was disappointed not to find the phoenix included. Nor does the dragon entry make any mention of the imperial Chinese dragon, even though a Chinese illustration is used for the dragon, simply described as "bringer of rain in early Chinese myth". What would the emperors have made of that?
Ursula King is professor of theology and religious studies, University of Bristol.
Dictionary of World Myth
Author - Roy Willis
ISBN - 1 900131 24 2
Publisher - Duncan Baird
Price - £9.99
Pages - 240