October 11th is Myths and Legends Day! Since the A to Z Challenge has a "Mythology and Folklore" category every year, we thought it would be appropriate to make October's post about the storytelling traditions of the world :)
There are more and more books and online sources available for anyone who is interested in myths and legends. However, naturally, not all of them are equally detailed or useful. Whether you are looking to read something educational and entertaining, or hoping to familiarize yourself with other cultures, it is worth making sure your sources are of good quality. Especially because tradition tends to be seen as a free-for-all where people make up random stuff and try to pass it off as "ancient and authentic".
So, here are some things you might want to consider, when choosing books (or sites) to read about mythology:
1. If it is a currently existing culture with a living mythology - is the author of that culture?
Obviously, an outsider can also be an excellent researcher an expert. But it is worth seeing if there are any sources on a myth from within its native culture. For deeper knowledge and understanding, and also to support the actual community you are learning about.
2. Does the book cite primary sources?
Primary sources are either written documents from the historical era of the myths (e.g. ancient Greek and Roman authors), or tradition bearers who were interviewed and recorded. The closer you get to actual, first-hand accounts of traditional stories, the less likely they were censored, misunderstood, or deliberately altered.
3. Does the book cite sources at all?
There is nothing wrong with reading about myths just for entertainment. But personally I love books that go a little deeper than that, and actually tell me where they got the stories, and how the collection came to be. You can tell a lot from these. I once saw a folktale collection that put "I read this in a tourist brochure" among its citations... I didn't buy that book.
4. When was the book published?
Folklore and anthropology as academic fields also have their own history. Older books tend to reflect the ideologies popular at the time of their writing, and many of them decidedly did not age well. Look for terms in the book such as "primitive peoples", "superstitions", "barbaric", racial slurs, or anything that calls a group of people "simple" or "childish." If you encounter them, be vary of what they claim are "authentic" stories. Especially in the Victorian era, collectors liked to censor out "unsavory" parts.
5. Was the book written by missionaries or colonial officers?
Goes without saying, proceed with extreme caution when colonizers make claims about indigenous cultures.
6. What is the relationship of the myths to the majority culture of the country?
There are quite a few examples when a majority culture has political and ideological reasons to distort the myths and legends of minorities. If you have ever read a Soviet collection of Siberian myths, you'll notice they talk about "lying shamans that leech on the working people" suspiciously often. Or take up some Chinese collections of minority legends, and you'll see many stories ending with the glorious arrival of "the red sun." Be wary, and refer back to point 1 on this list.
7. Does the book name tradition bearers and tell us about them?
If it was not written by members of a certain culture, it is a good sign if the book pays respect to them, and the tradition bearers that carry on the myths. At least, it is great to know their names and a little about their lives; photos and sound files are even better. If the book names ways to support said community actively (or shares profits with them), that is a huge plus too.
8. Does the book acknowledge that myths and legends have many versions?
Mythology is never constant or stable. Be wary of books that claim "original" or "real" versions of stories.
I hope you find this list useful and interesting. Happy reading, and we hope to see many of you in the Mythology and Folklore category of the Challenge next year!