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Don't Know Much About Mythology

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars 64 reviews
94 of 102 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An informative, concise, and delightful introduction to mythic literature 6 Dec. 2005
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
HarperCollins's Don't Know Much About series is the slightly more attractive younger sibling of Alpha Book's Idiot's Guide series. If Alpha's famous orange-and-white dressed reference books have spawned a whole new generation of readers whose quest for a maximum amount of facts are sated by prose any "idiot" could read, the Don't Know Much About series offers the same promise with a bit more elegance and charm. The text for DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY is provided by Kenneth C. Davis, a journalist and National Public Radio commentator whose encyclopedic knowledge of world history and culture enables him to construct prose that is as breezy as it is informative, as witty as it is delightful. He has an impressive ability to synthesize great quantities of texts and facts into a concise and coherent digest that, well, just about any idiot can read.

Organized into nine chapters that explore first the earliest civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, then the later civilizations of Greece, Northern Europe, the Far East and the African continent, and finally the Americas, DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY follows the same sequence that countless mythology texts have used before. And like those texts, the bulk of Davis's book is comprised of well-written prose paraphrases of ancient literatures. In terms of form and function, it doesn't break any new ground; instead, it offers another alternative to speedy referencing.

Bracketing each chapter are lists that frame important events in a sequential time table called "Mythic Milestones." When read side by side, they constitute a concise timeline of world history. Of perhaps more pedagogical interest are a series of "key questions" that introduce each new section. While I personally found such canned questions inane, others might refer young readers to them as a way of guiding their experience with the material.

If there is little doubt of this book's usefulness --- you may want, for example, to spot-check a classical reference as you work your way through Pope's DUNCIAD --- I wonder about the sheer volume of books about mythology on the market these days. Whereas Davis's crystal-clear prose is proof of his years of reading primary texts in the field, the average reader of his text may never go any further than here. Naturally, Davis is aware of the importance of the original sources in the myths he retells. This is why so many of his summaries are accompanied by brief passages from primary source material. This, however, is not enough, nor is it the concern of the Don't Know Much About series.

As a teacher of comparative mythology at the college level, I am aware that students would benefit from reading Davis's summaries as a prelude to reading the original epics, hymns, chants, prayers, and folktales from which such stories come. But how many are reading about the myths beyond this point? How many, for example, have accessed a respectable verse translation of THE ILIAD in order to capture the pitch, as well as the plot, of Homer's epic tale?

If Davis's DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY fails to correct a growing trend towards summary and paraphrase, at least it does what countless other texts do well: it offers a starting point for further research and a lifelong love affair with the great mythic literatures of the world. The question is, how many are game?

--- Reviewed by Tony Leuzzi
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible Overview of Mythology 14 May 2006
By J. J. Kwashnak - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Davis' "Don't Know Much About" series has always been marked by the author's conversational and breezy style as opposed to more dry, pedantic treatment of the subjects. That tone is continued here in his view of world mythology. Instead of aiming at being a comprehensive overview of the subject, he chooses to highlight the "you should know" topics - much like a Cliff Notes for a whole course. Often times the word Mythology only brings up images of Greek and Roman gods in people's minds. What Davis does well is to bring us back into the other myths of the ancient world - from Egypt and Mesopotamia, showing how these myths intermingled with other cultures and influenced, among other things, possibly several stories in the Bible. Davis continues around the world highlighting the stories of the Celts, the Norse, Indians, Chinese and Japanese. He comes up a bit short in his discussion of Sub-Saharan Africa and Native American mythology mainly because it is such a diverse topic involving not one dominant culture, but rather hundreds of individual cultures, each with their own views of the world. So while I would applaud him for including recognition of these areas, Davis set himself up with a task far beyond his current project that may leave the reader unsatisfied in these areas. Overall a good book to get a quick overview and introduction to names, stories and history of various cultures and how stories that are still familiar today came into being.
44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview, . . but don't treat too seriously 28 Feb. 2006
By L. D. Gasman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
For anyone looking for a quick and easy way to learn about world myths, I doubt that there is a better source. It's well written and very comprehensive, although occasionally a little repetititve.


this is no scholarly work. First many of the quotes are from other popular secondary sources, such as Thomas Cahill's books. Also, wherever possible the author tries to be politically correct. This descends to the point of self-parody where he is disussing native americans. I seem to remember this tendency was also there in his civil war book and it's stopped me ever reading his "Don't know much about history."
47 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Works as a Good Intro and Quick Reference to Mythology 15 Dec. 2005
By BCP - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I liked how Davis introduces each civilization's mythology with basic history and possible connections to the gods they have. He also provides a quick "Who's Who" of the various pantheons of gods. Unfortunately, that's about as far as it goes.

In his first chapter, Davis makes a distinction between mythology and myth. I didn't realize how true he would hold to the title of the book. This is a book about various mythologies (the study of myths) as opposed to actual myths (the stories of gods and men). As such it does a decent job. If you're expecting a book containing popular myths from each culture, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a book to introduce you to the major players in each culture's myths so that you can look smart and know who Ra really is when watching Stargate or who Homer Simpson is talking about when he makes fun of "the many arms of Vishnu," then this is the book for you.

One pet peeve though. He tries really hard to remain "religiously tolerant", which to me means "all religions are myth." He relates ancient myths to our modern times, in particular to various Judeo-Christian beliefs. He's largely successful and knowing his reader base, tries to respect Jewish and Christian beliefs, but there were times where I felt he just wanted to call Judeo-Christian beliefs myths. Because of this, I'm hesitant to read his Don't Know Much about the Bible book. He also has no problems including Hindu, Confucian, Tao, and tribal "myths," despite their common modern practice. As an added insult, he has no problem laying on the guilt of Christian interference in either altering ancient myths or completely destroying tribal religions, but he has few problems with the Aryan influence on the Greeks and Indians.

The first half of the book (Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Greeks) were very good but felt rushed for the remaining cultures. Part of this is the shear number of tribes and gods involved, as well as the repitition that comes from many similar and shared gods. So I felt cheated especially with the American and eastern myths. Though, like I said before, this is a quick overview. And in that regard, he succeeded in teaching me a little about everything, but more importantly, piqueing my curiosity and making me want to read his sources. So when I do start reading up on ancient myths, I'll probably have Davis's book right there to help me decipher all those gods and myths.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exactly what it claims to be--and a little more... 27 Jun. 2009
By Mark Nadja - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
***Author Kenneth Davis does a good job tackling an enormous subject--world mythology--in this concise, comprehensive, and generally entertaining book.

***Most books of this kind are basically dictionaries of mythology, offering brief "definitions" of the various gods, goddesses, heroes, and monsters: who they are, what they did, and what mythos they belong to. Davis attempts something more than that sort of dry recitation of names and functions, by setting the myths and mythologies he discusses into a larger narrative of mankind's age-old and ongoing need for psychological security. Myths seek to explain--if only through stories--our place in an otherwise inexplicable universe.

***Davis organizes this survey by geographical area and the mythology of the people who inhabited it. He draws attention to parallel elements in the mythologies of people connected by circumstance--and those so far removed from each other that one can't help but wonder at the remarkable consistency of mythology everywhere it's found.

***Although this is not a book about history, Davis provides just enough of it to illuminate how particular myths may have originated and why they were perpetuated over centuries and between cultures.

***Davis attempts--and largely succeeds--to lighten the potentially leaden material here with humor and topical references; after all, part of the stated "mission" of the *Don't Know Much* series is to make accessible and interesting stuff we were supposed to have learned back in school but didn't because our teachers bored us stupid. Like a favorite professor who occasionally misses, intentionally or not, with some real groaners, the jokey references are usually a welcome and enlivening relief, as are the typographical breaks and provocative headlines that vary the pace of the text and keep the eyes from glazing over.

***Not as learned an effort as anything by Joseph Campbell, but not as stripped and dumbed-down as an Idiot's or Dummies Guide, *Don't Know Much About Mythology* is a lively and intelligent primer and a compact refresher course even for someone who does know a little more than "not much" about the subject.
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