Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories to live," but perhaps we also tell ourselves stories in order to imagine. When life can be all too real—with bills to pay, family to entertain and work to finish—stories can be an escape into a world that isn't ours and probably never will be. And while any engrossing book will do, we'd make a case for the enveloping qualities of mythology, folklore, and legend. Not only can you imagine a different world, but you can also better understand the society surrounding it.
When you're seeking a departure and or an awakening, read these 20 mythology books, from classic Greek titles to Japanese, Russian, Irish, and African stories. Delve into these tales of war, destruction, love, and rebirth, and superstition now.
Here are our picks for the best mythology books.
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson
While we all know at least a few details about ancient Egypt—like pharaohs, Cleopatra, and the pyramids—most of us probably could learn a thing or two about the mythology surrounding the famous civilization. This book describes every deity and provides insight into the reasonings behind shrines and artwork.
Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka
Eye-catching illustrations and a deep understanding of the subject matter make this title. As part one of eight volumes, Buddha, Vol.1 is an engrossing way to learn about the origins of Buddhism, and the principles behind it.
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
This New York Times bestseller delves into the myths, folk stories, and cultural ideologies that surround women, and offers insights on women as a spiritual, grounded, and daring species.
Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
The Irish are famous for storytelling, and this longstanding collection is no different. Stories in Early Irish Myths and Sagas date back from as early as the eighth century, and their lyrical descriptions of battles and love affairs feel just as dramatic and fanciful.
The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster
Manga and anime owe some of their rich storylines and otherworldly creatures to the yōkai of Japanese folklore and legends, and this book will show you why. By describing these many beings with detailed descriptions and illustrations, this book explains an aspect of Japanese culture that may get lost in more modern iterations.
Russian Fairy Tales by Alkesandr Afanasev
Russian fiction is known for an abundance of characters, and its fairy tales follow suit. But as is the case for Anna Karenina and the Idiot, getting to know these characters for their various flaws and attributes is part of the fun. This book bills itself as the most comprehensive take on Russian tales, including more than 175 of them in all.
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends by Margot Edmonds and Ella Clark
More than 100 Native Americans legends from throughout the country are included in this collection, which were meticulously gathered by tribal elders and historians. By painting stories in a colorful, conversational tone, Voices of the Wind aims to give readers a better understanding of America's indigenous population.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adyemi
This buzzed-about young-adult debut, which became a New York Times bestseller in 2018, draws from West African mythology and follows Zélie Adebola as she tries to restore magic to her people, and challenge a monarchy desperate to stifle it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Author Marlon James draws on elements of fantasy and African mythology in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The first book in a trilogy, readers follow Tracker, who is commissioned to use his unique sense of smell to find a missing boy, and encounters unusual characters along the journey.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Author Madeline Miller paints Circe as the protagonist in a retelling of the Odyssey. In the novel, Circe (cast out as a witch) experiences a wider range of emotion than originally told; love and loss, perseverance and resilience. Eventually, she will have to choose between the humans she's found acceptance with, or the gods from which she came from.
The Arabian Nights
Sultana Scheherazade tells her husband King Shahryar a fantastical collection of stories to keep him from acting on his jealousy. These translated stories cover everything from Ali Baba and the forty thieves, to the explorations of Sinbad; tales Scheherazade spins over the course of 1,001 evenings.
Italian Folktales by Italo Galvino
Italian Folktales is a collection of 200 traditional tales selected and retold by one of the country's most celebrated literary figures. "Was there an Italian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm?" wonders the introduction. Maybe, Italian Folktales is it.
Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn
Based on ancient Japanese beliefs and legends, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is a collection of ghost stories full of personified insects, haunted creatures, demons and more. Author Lafcadio Hearn was a scholar in Tokyo on the cusp of the 20th century, and was fascinated by the customs of the country where he spent his remaining years. These tales represent stories Hearn translated from old Japanese texts.
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
With Mules and Men, author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston weaves a trove of African American folklore. Originally published in 1935, Hurston's stories center on black lives in the rural South, complete with its customs, superstitions, oral history, and collected during her return to Eatonville, Florida, Hurston's hometown.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
These aren't your average glittery fairy tales. Instead, Angela Carter takes a number of familiar tales and legends, like "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Beauty and the Beast," and contorts them into darker, more sensual versions.
Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
Page through tale after tale of gods and goddesses, from Greek mythology to legends from Scandinavia to Asia, with Bulfinch's Mythology. It's brimming with thoroughly researched and cross-referenced stories of King Arthur and His Knights, lively versions of Zeus and Hera, Daphne and Apollo, dispatches from the Trojan War, and the stories of Beowulf and Robin Hood.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu journey to the Spring of Youth, collide with the Bull of Heaven, and terminate the monster Humbaba. His most formidable challenge, however, is mortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is at once adventure and meditation.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Author Marion Zimmer Bradley tells the largely untold stories of the women who boosted King Arthur to the throne, only to knock him down. We follow these characters from childhood to their positions in Camelot's court, and get an inside look of how they exerted their power from behind the throne.
Didion J. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction. New York, NY: Everyman's Library; 2006.