Mythology is defined by Merriam-Webster as an “allegorical narrative,” a “body of myths,” and “myths dealing with gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people.” When we think of mythology books for adults, we tend to just think of fantastical stories, epic poetry, and folktales, but most of these stories began their lives as religious narratives or mythologized history. The line between religion and mythology is quite thin. Myths helped create the basis for some religious rituals and practices, and help pass down cultural identity and religious teachings to the future generations of its culture.
Although every corner of the world produced its own folklore and mythology to help explain the world around them, mythologize important historical events or figures, or use as foundational elements of religion, Greek mythology tends to be the only mythology taught in western public schools. I can personally attest to this, and it was true all the way through college. I was an English major, and a Mythology course was required for the degree. I was genuinely excited, because I thought that a college mythology course would cover the mythological tales of a wide array of cultures. I was incorrect: the entire course centered on Greek mythology.
This list of mythology books for adults will take you beyond Greek mythology and provide you with a starting point for delving into Hindu, Indigenous, Japanese, Hawaiian, Egyptian, Norse, and Mesoamerican mythology, along with providing a different perspective on the Greek mythology you may already be familiar with.
Myth = Mithya: Decoding Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik
Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik created an excellent primer on Hindu mythology, complete with tables and charts for Hindu gods and goddesses, and encourages the reader unfamiliar with Hindu mythology to challenge their own ideas of what mythology is based on the western view of myths; to instead view mythology as “subjective truth expressed in stories, symbols, and rituals, that shape all cultures.” This in-depth analysis is also geared toward Hindus who wish to gain a deeper understanding of Hindu custom and tradition.
American Indian Myths and Legends by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes
Native American cultural anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz of the Pueblo tribe and author Richard Erdoes compiled 166 legends spanning across 80 First Nation tribes into this incredible collection of Native American myths and legends. The stories are categorized by theme: human creation, world creation, celestial beings, heroic tales, war, love, trickster tales, animals, the spirit world, and end times.
The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster and Shinonome Kijin
Academic and folklorist Michael Dylan Foster dives deep into over 50 yōkai, Japanese mythology’s spirits and supernatural entities. He puts each yōkai into the context of Japanese culture and history, tracing back to their origins and how they’ve influenced creativity, storytelling, and even tradition. This guide also features original illustrations of each yōkai by artist Shinonome Kijin.
Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
Classicist Natalie Haynes is very aware that the tellers of tales in Greek myth tended to be men, and they had very specific ways of portraying women in these mythological tales. Vengeful. Monstrous. Victims. Haynes looks at these same stories from the lens of the women in them, chronicling the origins of these famous mythical women such as Pandora, Jocasta (Oedipus’s mother), Helen of Troy, Medusa, and more.
The Legends and Myths of Hawaii by King David Kalākaua
This compilation of Hawaiian myths and legends was put together by King David Kalākaua, the last king of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, in 1888; just a few years before his death. In addition to collecting these tales of Hawaiian folklore, legends, and heroes, the king also chronicles the history of his people from ancient times, all the way through European contact and beyond. His immense contribution to the preservation of Hawaiian mythology is also a fantastic historical and culture source.
Author and illustrator Ann Shen compiles a fantastic list of 50 goddesses from mythologies around the world, including Japanese, Chinese, Norse, Welsh, Yoruba, Aztec, Mayan, and more. This collection is categorized by the broad thematic elements found in what each goddess represents: creativity and manifestation, love, power, protection, and reinvention. It’s a great way to gain exposure to many world mythologies through some of their goddesses.
An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube
Academic Mary Ellen Miller and Mesoamericanist Karl Taube put together an in-depth, illustrated dictionary detailing the myths, beliefs, symbols, and main gods of Ancient Mesoamerica, which included the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Maya, Teotihuacanos, Mixtecs, Toltecs, and the Aztecs. The history and religion of each culture is woven in with these important mythological figures and stories across 300 entries .
Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch
Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch pens a fantastic overview of the seven stages of Egypt’s mythical history, putting Egyptian mythology into context with Egypt’s history spanning from 3200 BCE to 400 CE. This guide also provides a high level look at the prevalent themes and concepts found within Egyptian mythology, and how real life events shaped these famous stories and thematic concepts.
Mythology by Edith Hamilton
Historian and classicist Edith Hamilton offers up an extensive A–Z mythology collection of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology that has stood the test of time since its first publication in 1942. Her analysis of “classic” mythology and how Greek and Roman mythology intersects is so extensive and well researched that Hamilton was named an honorary citizen of Athens by King Paul of Greece in 1957.
To dive deeper into nonfiction mythology books for adults, check out these posts: