The best books on classical mythology and folklore

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up loving fairytales and still do. In college, my love for folktales grew into a passion for mythology. I pursued these interests at the University of California, Berkeley, received my PhD, and became a classicist and folklorist with a special interest in traditional stories. This interest was the foundation for several books, including Ariadne’s Thread: A Guide to International Stories Found in Classical Literature and Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans. My work in traditional stories led me to explore the neighboring topic of popular literature, which resulted in my Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature.  


I wrote...

The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths

By William Hansen,

Book cover of The Book of Greek and Roman Folktales, Legends, and Myths

What is my book about?

Captured centaurs and satyrs, talking animals, people who suddenly change sex, men who give birth, the temporarily delusional and the permanently thickwitted, delicate Sybarites, incompetent seers, a woman who remembers her past lives, a man who cannot laugh—these are just some of the colorful characters who feature in the unforgettable stories that ancient Greeks and Romans told in their daily lives. 

The ancients created an incredibly rich body of popular oral stories that include mythological narratives but also range well beyond them—from heroic legends, fairytales, and fables to ghost stories, urban legends, and jokes. Featuring nearly four hundred stories in authoritative and readable translations, this book is the first to offer a representative selection of the entire range of traditional classical storytelling.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Odyssey

William Hansen Why did I love this book?

Because it is a great read, Homer’s novel-like Odyssey is one of the best-loved books from antiquity. Moreover, it illustrates Greek mythology in action. 

Homer’s epic tells of the difficult return of the hero Odysseus from distant Troy to his island-home of Ithaca following the Trojan War, as he seeks to be reunited with his wife Penelope. In the course of his travels, he is aided by the goddess Athena, who is his divine champion, but obstructed by the wrathful sea-god Poseidon, his persecutor. 

Among other obstacles are bizarre and memorable characters such as the one-eyed, cannibalistic Cyclops, the treacherous Scylla and Charybdis, the alluring witch Circe, and the erotic nymph Calypso. This translation by Robert Fagles is one of the best.

By Homer, Robert Fagles (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Odyssey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Homer's best-loved and most accessible poem, recounting the great wandering of Odysseus during his ten-year voyage back home to Ithaca, after the Trojan War. A superb new verse translation, now published in trade paperback, before the standard Penguin Classic B format.


Book cover of Metamorphoses

William Hansen Why did I love this book?

The Metamorphoses, or Transformations, by the Roman poet Ovid is one of the most-read books of ancient literature because of its hundreds of wonderful stories as well as the charm of its witty and ironic author.

Since the stories he relates are all myths and legends, the Metamorphoses amounts to a virtual handbook of classical mythology. The theme of supernatural transformation runs through them all, portraying a world forever in flux, as someone or something is marvelously and surprisingly changed in some large or small way.

I like the vibrant new translation by Stephanie McCarter.

By Ovid, Stephanie McCarter (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Metamorphoses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bold, transformative new translation of Ovid's classic

Ovid's epic poem has, with its timeless stories, inspired and influenced generations of writers and artists, from Shakespeare and Chaucer to Picasso and Ted Hughes. The events it describes - the flight of Icarus, the music of Orpheus, Perseus' rescue of Andromeda, the fall of Troy - speak toward the essence of human experience: of power, of fate and, most fundamentally, of transformation.

Stephanie McCarter's new rendering, the first female translation in over sixty years, places its emphasis on the sexual violence at the heart of the poem - nearly fifty of…


Book cover of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

William Hansen Why did I love this book?

In this fascinating book, which combines flowing prose, a lively and engaging presentation, and wonderful illustrations, Adrienne Mayor brings the reader into the excitement of discovering the historical truth about the mysterious Amazons of Greek mythology. 

Mayor demonstrates that the Amazon traditions derive from the undeniable fact that nomadic, armed horsewomen existed on the fringes of the ancient Greek world. The author, who describes herself as a classical folklorist, is the first to examine the intriguing evidence systematically and in detail.

By Adrienne Mayor,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Amazons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Amazons--fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world--were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons. But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have…


Book cover of Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour

William Hansen Why did I love this book?

The ancient Greeks were not only good at making serious art such as epics and tragedies, they were also good at making fun of them in literature and art.

In the realm of art, the most abundant source of humor is painted vases, which were manufactured mostly for the use of men at symposia, or drinking parties.

Greek mythology was a favorite subject of the vase painters, and Mitchell’s richly-illustrated study of humorous vases provides a fun and unusual window into ancient burlesque treatments of Greek myths and legends.  

By Alexandre G. Mitchell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is a comprehensive study of visual humour in ancient Greece, with special emphasis on works created in Athens and Boeotia. Alexandre G. Mitchell brings an interdisciplinary approach to this topic, combining theories and methods of art history, archaeology and classics with the anthropology of humour, and thereby establishing new ways of looking at art and visual humour in particular. Understanding what visual humour was to the ancients and how it functioned as a tool of social cohesion is only one facet of this study. Mitchell also focuses on the social truths that his study of humour unveils: democracy…


Book cover of Indo-European Poetry and Myth

William Hansen Why did I love this book?

This book is for lovers of mythology who want the big picture. 

The Greeks descended from speakers of a now-vanished, prehistoric language known as Proto-Indo-European. Accordingly, they share a linguistic and cultural heritage with other speakers of Indo-European languages, which include speakers of Italic languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Romance languages, Iranian languages, and others. 

With astonishing learning and an almost unparalleled command of ancient and modern languages, the late Martin West identifies elements that the Greeks inherited from their Indo-European ancestors and carried with them when they entered Europe, including Father Sky, Mother Earth, the Sun god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder god, and nymphs; particular myths and legends; certain conceptions of the world, death, and fate; and much more.  

By M. L. West,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Indo-European Poetry and Myth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by
Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the…


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By Owen W. Knight,

Book cover of Conditions are Different After Dark

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

In 1662, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. Awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.

Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They discover their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected? They fear their choice of new home is no coincidence. Unexplained events hint at threats or warnings to leave. They become convinced the village remains cursed despite their friends’ denials. Who can they trust, and who are potential enemies?

Conditions are Different After Dark

By Owen W. Knight,

What is this book about?

In 1660, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. While awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.
Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They learn that their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected?
Faith and James fear that their choice of a new home is…


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