J.F. Bierlein,
Parallel Myths
(Ballantine, 1994)

My fascination with mythology started early, around fourth grade, I think. After reading the only collection of myths (Edith Hamilton's Mythology) my elementary school library possessed, I pestered my librarian so much that she actually went out and bought books about other gods and goddesses. I eventually discovered Joseph Campbell and, since then, he has been the standard by which I compare all research on the topic of mythology.

J.F. Bierlein's treatment of the topic encompasses scholarship by the "masters" of the field -- Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Robert Graves, Mircea Eliade and Claude Levi-Strauss, to name the most prominent -- in order to present a fairly comprehensive introduction to mythology. Bierlein opens his book by dismissing some commonly held beliefs about the meaning of the word "myth" (thus providing a great example of the current definition supported by the media) and establishes some general statements about the term. Bierlein then examines the relationship between myth and language, time, history, civics and morality. He provides examples of the infusion and evolution of mythic figures and terms in our everyday lives, thereby emphasizing the importance of myth to the human experience.

Parallel Myths does just what its title claims to do: it gathers myths from numerous cultures and groups them according to dominant themes. Bierlein delves into his comparisons by first introducing us to the "cast of characters" -- the major gods and goddesses of Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian and Indian mythologies, as well as deities from Native Americans, the Chinese and various African and Oceanic cultures. The myths are divided into content-based groupings, such as creation myths, flood myths, hero myths and destruction myths. Bierlein's study includes many lesser-known myths and is designed to illustrate the common elements found in them.

"The Modern Readings of Myth" is, in my opinion, the most valuable section of the book. Bierlein draws on passages by noted mythology scholars to reinforce his claim that mythology plays an essential role in our current societies. Bierlein also examines the demytholization of the Judeo-Christian culture and the "religious" myths.

Parallel Myths is an informative, well-written, and easily accessible tool for anyone interested in exploring the status of "myth" in modern society. It offers a valuable comparison of myths and deities and a thoughtful consideration of the ways in which myth can enrich our daily lives.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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