Review: Eyewitness Mythology

First published in 1999 and updated last year, DK’s Eyewitness Mythology is but one of a number of Eyewitness books for children/youth about literature, animals, weather and other natural phenomena, historical events and aspects of science. I am not in their target audience but I am interested in how myths and the people they belong to are described and written about. Thus, for under $3 at ALDI what was I to do?

Myth’s flotsam

This slim soft cover volume is busily illustrated throughout with photographs of artifacts, masks, statues and paintings. Some are attributed. Entire myths and details are sacrificed for more images and the images are collated under themes, rather than peoples, regions or stories. Some pictures look like 19th century engravings of their subjects, especially images related to Norse deities (complete with non-traditional winged helmets).

The quest to link unrelated quest stories: a picture.

No matter the image, all float in white space, devoid of their context. Readers are presented with the photographs of traditional masks, but not images of people wearing them. It’s as if the ‘things’ of a culture belong to no one, and thus can seem to belong to everyone. Thus a cartoon Sinbad sits alongside a traditional depiction of the Rainbow Snake (without its background) above the painting of the Holy Grail by Edward Burne-Jones in order to present the notion of quests. The book divides myths into themes: war, children, weapons.

There were however mentions of people. But while the Dogon People and the Iroquois People were identified, the many and varied First Nations of the continent of Australia were designated under the homogenised term ‘Aborigines.’ This is archaic at best, especially when it doesn’t take much to ascertain names like Pitjantjatjara or Yolngu.

There are other thoughts about this text. It mainly seems to be a promotional tool for museums. This is positive, I suppose. If you’ve been following me a while, you’ll know I’ve long been a fan of museums, but I am conscious of how these institutions are the repositories of colonialism. Too often the things that make these venues attractive only exist because of theft. For example, take Greece lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles, which weren’t Lord Elgin’s to begin with, but the Parthenon’s. Ethiopia is in talks with the Victoria and Albert Museum regarding the return of the looted Maqdala artifacts. All this is in the forefront given the recent Commonwealth Games. There’s no commonwealth without empire and there was no empire without taking the resources of others for the use, in this case, of Britain.

So what of this book? If it stimulates curiosity about the world, this book can’t hurt. But the book, like its illustrations, needs context or background to anchor it. Perhaps an acknowledgement that it doesn’t exist outside of all cultures, but is a result of one culture looking at the myths from a range of cultures to showcase their similarities could do it.

I realise pursuing any myth solely for its likeness to another may demonstrate a failure to appreciate the unique vitality of individual myths, and their importance within the cultures they come from. Being able to identify ‘fall myths’ from around the world is fine, but not when observing similarities and patterns is the be all and end all. As a student I was guilty of this. I hunted patterns in myths and literature across different times and cultures to unify them in a meaning for myself. All the while, I ignored their telling details, the peoples who were their tellers and custodians, as well as the context of their promulgation. As a writer, I am still guilty. I tear myths apart to piece them together again for the purposes of characters and situations I invent.

Thus, my conclusion is readers can benefit from more understanding, and perhaps books like this can help. My lesson from this title is to really see how reconciling aspects of myths under themes imposes a narrow and artificial filter. I suspect it is better to learn each myth whole, and to hear them told in place, by their custodians.

Here is a good place to start.

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