Book Review: Comparative Mythology

AT LONG LAST!  My final essay!

The Dedicant Path recommends that the first of the three book reviews be of the Indo-European studies, in order to provide Dedicants with an overview of the various “I-E” cultures.  However, I felt that I came into the Dedicant work with a good grasp of most of the cultures and so did not need the help of a book to select a hearth culture.  Instead, I saw this book as the primary gateway to the works of Georges Dumézil upon which so much of ADF’s core foundations are built, and as a result I wanted to leave it until near the end of my DP studies when I hoped to have a better grasp of these foundations and could formulate some questions to explore through the reading. In particular I have long had concerns about a proto-I.E. religion being the foundation for ADF’s exclusive Indo-European focus.   However, all of this has very little to do with the purpose of a simple book review except by way of explanation for my decision to leave it until last.

So let us dive in.  First and foremost, Comparative Mythology is an extremely dense tome.   From almost the first page I wished that I was able to read it on my Kindle with its auto-dictionary-lookup function, for the text is replete with the kinds of words that are so obscure that they can only exist in a written language where dictionaries exist.  I did keep my Kindle with its Oxford English Dictionary nearby and used it heavily; for those not steeped in arcane scholastic terminology, access to a dictionary is vital to getting through this book.  Fortunately, the relative inaccessibility of the language is off set by Professor Puhvel’s abundant dry wit.  Whether he is talking about Bres “becoming a governmental advisor in matters of agriculture” (p. 178), or playing on words (“India eschewed eschatology”) (p. 182), believe it or not, this is a funny book.

Nonetheless, while the humour makes for a more enjoyable read it does not make for a quicker read, and the density of both the language and the scholarship require periods of uninterrupted quiet reading to make headway through it.   This is not a book that you can pick up and read a few pages then put down again.  As a result, I was at Comparative Mythology for nearly six months.

The book is divided into three broad sections.  The first and shortest section was actually, for me, the most interesting and valuable.  Here, Puhvel provides an entertaining overview of the foibles entrenched in the study of myth and the harmful penchant for early mythologists to first come up with a theory and then to find myths which support their theory.  He then proceeds to discuss diffusion, the tendency of mythic stories to travel and morph from one culture to another, and the difficulty that it presents to modern comparative mythology, using creation stories as an example.  Finally he presents an overview of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian history.

The second, and by far the largest section, sees Professor Puhvel taking us on a whirlwind tour of the various Indo-European cultural myths.  I have to admit that the chapters on Vedic and Epic India fly right over my head.  My limited knowledge of Hindu, mostly gleaned from some books that the Hare Krishnas gave me back in the 80s and more recently the Xena episode “The Way”, provided me no preparation for following the detailed mythological accounts.  The Iranian chapters I found easier to absorb, but not by much.  One of the concepts which I found most interesting in these chapters was the idea that there were separate Gods and Goddesses for the three different societal classes.   The remaining chapters in this section cover off the bulk of the Indo-European cultures; Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic.   Most of the chapters are structured as overview of the respective pantheons, with scattered attempts at describing linkages to other cultures.

The final section of the book describes a handful of themes that repeat throughout Indo-European myth.  While somewhat interesting from the perspective of comparative mythology, which is what the book is actually about of course, I found this section of little overall interest from a religious perspective with the possible exception of the chapter titled ‘Fire in Water’.  The tome ends finally with a whimper rather than a bang, having no actual conclusion to speak of.

Overall, I found the book at times compelling, challenging, and entertaining.  Puhval shed much light on topics which I had not had a good chance to explore, such as the Olympian versus Cthonic dichotomy in Greek mythology, as well as how the classic three classes of proto-Indo-European society is reflected in the cosmology.  It has also given me much more food for thought related to the relative importance of cultural diffusion as opposed to heritage.  I hope to explore this more as my studies progress.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Comparative Mythology

  1. Hurray! Good for you. That book is intense. I started that monster and caved fairly quickly. It’s on my to-read list still, though, once I have a better handle on the base material.

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