“Bulfinch’s Mythology” by Thomas Bulfinch, first published in 1881, is a comprehensive compilation of mythological stories from various traditions, including Greek, Roman, and medieval. Bulfinch’s aim was to present these myths in a manner that was both entertaining and educational, making them accessible to a wide audience. The book is divided into three parts: “The Age of Fable,” “The Age of Chivalry,” and “Legends of Charlemagne,” each focusing on different sets of myths and legends. This summary will explore the stories within “The Age of Fable,” which covers classical mythology.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In the beginning, the world was a formless chaos, a disordered mass where earth, sea, and sky were indistinguishable. From this primordial state, a divine force brought order, separating the elements and shaping the earth, sky, and sea into distinct realms. The fiery elements rose to form the heavens, the air took its place above the earth, and the heavier elements sank to become the solid ground and the oceans.

The gods, residing on Mount Olympus, played central roles in the world’s creation and the lives of mortals. Among these deities, Jupiter (Zeus) reigned supreme, having overthrown his father, Saturn (Cronos). Alongside his siblings Neptune (Poseidon) and Pluto (Hades), he divided the dominion of the world: Jupiter ruled the heavens, Neptune the seas, and Pluto the underworld. The gods governed with omnipotent power, maintaining the delicate balance of nature and human fate.

Prometheus, one of the Titans, crafted humanity from clay and endowed them with fire, a gift stolen from the gods. This fire symbolized knowledge and civilization, setting humans apart from other creatures. However, Prometheus’s act incurred Jupiter’s wrath, leading to his punishment: bound to a rock, where an eagle perpetually devoured his liver, which regenerated each night. Despite his suffering, Prometheus endured, embodying the spirit of defiance and sacrifice for the greater good of mankind.

Pandora, the first woman, was created by the gods as a punishment for humanity. Bestowed with gifts from each deity, she was given a jar (often mistranslated as a box) containing all the evils of the world. Driven by curiosity, Pandora opened the jar, unleashing these evils upon mankind, leaving only Hope inside, a solitary comfort amidst the unleashed sorrows. Thus, the world was filled with suffering, but Hope remained as a beacon of resilience and perseverance.

The world experienced several ages, starting with the Golden Age, a time of peace and abundance. In this idyllic era, truth and justice prevailed without the need for laws, and the earth provided for all living beings effortlessly. The Silver Age followed, marked by the introduction of seasons and labor. People had to work the land to survive, and the once eternal spring was no more. Next came the Bronze Age, an era of war and conflict, yet not entirely devoid of virtue. The Iron Age, however, brought the deepest moral decline. Greed, deceit, and violence became rampant, leading to a world where even family ties were marred by mistrust and treachery.

Jupiter, observing the degeneration of humanity, decided to cleanse the earth with a great flood. He summoned the gods to council, announcing his intention to destroy the corrupt race and create a new one, more pious and just. The north wind was chained, and the south wind unleashed torrents of rain. Neptune, god of the sea, added his waters, causing the rivers and oceans to overflow. The deluge swept away all but Deucalion and Pyrrha, a virtuous couple who found refuge on Mount Parnassus. They prayed to the gods for guidance, and the oracle instructed them to cast behind them the bones of their mother. Interpreting this cryptic message, they threw stones over their shoulders, which transformed into a new race of humans, resilient and enduring like the stones themselves.

Apollo, the god of music, poetry, and prophecy, fell in love with Daphne, a nymph devoted to chastity. Fleeing his advances, she prayed to her father, the river god Peneus, who transformed her into a laurel tree to preserve her purity. Apollo, heartbroken, honored her by making the laurel his sacred tree, symbolizing eternal youth and poetic inspiration. He vowed to wear the laurel wreath as a tribute to his unrequited love, ensuring her beauty and legacy would live on forever.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic tale of two lovers in Babylon. Forbidden to marry by their feuding families, they communicated through a crack in the wall separating their homes. Their love grew stronger in secrecy, and they decided to meet at the Tomb of Ninus. Thisbe arrived first but fled when she saw a lioness, dropping her veil in her haste. When Pyramus arrived, he found the bloodied veil and assumed Thisbe had been killed. In his despair, he took his own life. Thisbe returned, found Pyramus dying, and joined him in death. Their blood stained the mulberries red, and their story became a testament to the enduring power of love.

Cephalus and Procris were a devoted couple, but their love was tested by misunderstandings and jealousy. Cephalus, while hunting, would rest and call upon the breeze (Aura) to cool him. Someone overheard and reported to Procris that Cephalus was unfaithful. Distraught, Procris followed him one day and hid in the bushes. When Cephalus heard a rustling, he threw his javelin, thinking it was an animal, but struck and killed Procris. In her dying breath, she forgave him, and Cephalus was left to mourn his beloved, realizing too late the destructive power of doubt and jealousy.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is another poignant tale of love and loss. Orpheus, the greatest musician, fell in love with Eurydice. Tragically, she died from a snake bite. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descended to the underworld, charming Pluto and Persephone with his music. They allowed Eurydice to return with him on the condition that he not look back until they reached the upper world. Overcome with anxiety, Orpheus looked back too soon, and Eurydice was lost to him forever. Orpheus wandered the earth in sorrow, playing mournful tunes until he was eventually torn apart by Maenads, reuniting with Eurydice in death.

These myths weave a rich tapestry of human emotion and divine interaction, illustrating timeless themes of love, sacrifice, and the quest for understanding in a world governed by powerful, often capricious gods.

Main Characters

  • Prometheus: A Titan known for his intelligence and for defying Zeus by giving fire to humanity, symbolizing knowledge and progress.
  • Pandora: The first woman created by the gods, whose curiosity led to the release of all evils into the world.
  • Jupiter (Zeus): The king of the gods, ruler of the heavens, who punished Prometheus and sent the great flood.
  • Apollo: The god of music, poetry, and prophecy, who fell in love with Daphne.
  • Daphne: A nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo.
  • Pyramus and Thisbe: Lovers whose tragic story explains the red color of mulberries.
  • Cephalus and Procris: A couple whose love was marred by jealousy and tragedy.

Themes and Motifs

  • The Conflict between Knowledge and Divine Will: Prometheus’s theft of fire represents humanity’s pursuit of knowledge against divine restrictions.
  • Curiosity and Consequences: Pandora’s story highlights the dangers of curiosity and the inevitability of human suffering.
  • Transformation and Escape: Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree symbolizes escape from unwanted advances and preservation of purity.
  • Tragic Love: The stories of Pyramus and Thisbe, and Cephalus and Procris, underscore the theme of love’s vulnerability to misunderstanding and fate.
  • The Ages of Man: The transition from the Golden Age to the Iron Age reflects the moral and societal decline over time.

Writing Style and Tone

Thomas Bulfinch’s writing style in “Bulfinch’s Mythology” is both engaging and accessible, aiming to educate while entertaining. His narrative approach is straightforward, often interweaving direct references to ancient texts with his own retellings, making complex myths comprehensible to modern readers. Bulfinch employs a tone that is respectful of the ancient sources, yet his language is clear and devoid of the more archaic structures found in the original texts.

Bulfinch’s work is characterized by its didactic purpose, intending to provide readers with a foundational understanding of classical mythology’s role in literature and art. His prose is descriptive yet concise, allowing the myths’ inherent drama and symbolism to take center stage. This balance of clarity and reverence for the source material makes “Bulfinch’s Mythology” a timeless resource for both educational and leisurely reading.

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Categories: Book Summary