"The intelligible forms of ancient poets,
The fair humanities of old religion,
The Power, the Beauty, and the Majesty
That had their haunts in dale or piny mountain,
Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,
Or chasms and watery depths; all these have vanished;
They live no longer in the faith of reason;
But still the heart doth need a language; still
Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;
Spirits or gods that used to share this earth
With man as with their friend; and at this day
'Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,
And Venus who brings every thing that's fair."
At the end of his Author's Preface for "Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable," Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) quotes from Coleridge's "The Piccolomini" to represent the connection between mythology and literature. An accountant at the Boston Merchants' Bank, Bulfinch had been educated at Harvard and was a teacher early in his career. Seeing a need for something more than a formal translation of the myths and legends of antiquity, Bulfinch decided to popularize classical literature for all of us who did not know how to read Ancient Greek and Latin. Throughout his business career he collected hundreds of myths and legends, not only of the pagan era of Greek and Roman gods, but also Oriental deities, and Norse sagas. "The Age of Fable" was first published in 1855, and created the identification of the name of Bulfinch with that of mythology for the general population. For the last half of the 19th-century and the first part of the 20th, the volume was as much an American classic as "The Last of the Mohicans," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Uncle Remus," "Tom Sawyer," and "Huckleberry Finn."
When Bulfinch told these ancient tales the archeological study of Greece had not really begun (Troy was still considered a mythical location) and historians had yet to formulate any acceptable explanations for how these myths originated. Bulfinch was interested in telling these stories simply and for their own sakes, without being caught up in the Dead Language issues of the poems he excerpts (except to the extent that he uses the Latin versions of the names of the gods and goddesses rather than the Greek). Nor was he interested in drawing moral lessons from these stories, because Bulfinch's goal was to make the classical references found in the educated poets of his day accessible to the common folk.
The opening chapters deal mostly with the gods and goddesses, starting with the tales of Prometheus and Pandora, and ending with the "Monsters" such as the Sphinx and Pegasus. The next section is devoted to the great heroes, from Jason and Atalanta, to Hercules and Theseus, and then the lesser heroes such as Orpheus and orion. We then get to the epic poems of antiquity with chapters on the Trojan war, the adventures of Ulysses, and the adventures of Aeneas. The final section of "The Age of Fable" covers a lot of ground, including Egyptian deities, the Oracles, Poets of Mythology, Eastern Mythology, Hindu Mythology, and Norse Mythology, including Beowulf. I was weaned on Edith Hamilton's "Mythology," but I still appreciate Bulfinch's approach in telling pretty much the same stories in a more straightforward manner. More importantly, these stories have really become literature in their own right, and can be read for that enjoyment rather than for scholarly knowledge. This edition has the additional virtue of being illustrated by some of the world's greatest paintings, which is perfect because mythology has been the subject of so many great works of art from "The Birth of Venus" on down the list.