The best books on mythology

The Books I Picked & Why

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

By Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Why this book?

Campbell’s work on the phenomenon of mythology came to prominence in the late 1970s when George Lucas named this book as an influence on the story of Star Wars (known today as Episode Four: A New Hope). While the field has advanced since the book was first published in 1949 and there has been some backlash in response to Campbell’s sudden Star Wars popularity, there is still a lot here that is interesting, especially the idea that some story structures have a cross-cultural appeal because they speak to a part of the human mind that is common to all of us.


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Myth: A Biography of Belief

By David Leeming

Myth: A Biography of Belief

Why this book?

This short book takes a deep dive into the nature of mythology and its relationship to the human mind. As well as the mythologies of past civilizations, Leeming examines modern-day myths and cultural beliefs and shows how myths are living and evolving things that serve a human need to understand the universe. If you have ever wondered what makes a myth a myth, or why everyone seems to have them, this book has some interesting answers.


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The History of the Kings of Britain

By Geoffrey of Monmouth, Lewis Thorpe

The History of the Kings of Britain

Why this book?

In the history of almost every culture, there comes a point where the tales of gods and heroes begin to fade into recorded mortal history. In Greek mythology, Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad is that point. In British history, Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts the transition without consciously meaning to do so. Written in the 12th century before there was a difference between myth and history, this book interweaves the two as it tries to tell the early history of the British Isles. It is also notable as an early source on King Arthur and Merlin.


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The Quest of the Holy Grail

By Pauline M. Matarasso, Unknown

The Quest of the Holy Grail

Why this book?

This is an early example of mythology being used for a deliberate purpose: in this case, the promotion of Christian chivalric virtue. Full of dreamlike images and allegories, it also had a great influence on early fantasy writing, even if those creating early fantasy tales had never read it. And then, of course, there’s Monty Python.


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Holy Blood, Holy Grail

By Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent

Holy Blood, Holy Grail

Why this book?

This book is a near-perfect example of how an ancient myth can spawn a modern urban myth or conspiracy theory. Best known today for having inspired Dan Brown’s blockbuster The da Vinci Code – so much so that the authors unsuccessfully sued Brown’s publisher for plagiarism – this book weaves together fragments of myth and mysticism, strange events from more recent history, and political intrigue to create a fascinating tale about the lost bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalen.


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