There’s a bewildering array of books out there on Greek mythology, especially at the beginner level. Which ones are most deserving of your hard-earned money? This list (last updated in January of 2017) was written with the intention of helping you make that decision.
Different people find Greek mythology to be meaningful for different reasons. For some, the wondrous tales and their larger-than-life characters make for great literature. For others, the value of the Greek myths and the religion of which they were a part lies in their importance for understanding the history of Western civilization and thought. Still others might be interested in the subject for spiritual or scholarly reasons. But whatever it is that draws you to Greek mythology, you’ll probably find at least a book or two on this list that fits what you’re looking for.
The order of the books in this list runs roughly from the most newbie-friendly to the most advanced. The lower-numbered books aren’t necessarily better than the higher-numbered ones, but the lower-numbered ones are more accessible.
If you find this list to be helpful enough that you decide to buy one or more of the books listed here, the best way you can say “thank you” is to buy whatever you decide to buy through the Amazon.com links provided at the end of each book’s description. When you do, I automatically get a small commission on your purchase with no extra cost or hassle for you whatsoever.
1. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
Ever since its original publication in 1942, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology has been widely seen as the quintessential introduction to Greek mythology for adults, even as countless other introductions to the topic have come and gone. Yes, it’s stood the test of time that well.
Hamilton masterfully retells all of the major myths of the Greeks, and gives overviews of all of their main deities and heroes. Her prose is clear and lucid, yet poetic and evocative – an ideal style for both the head and the heart. The book assumes no prior knowledge of the topic whatsoever, making it perfectly suited to the total beginner.
As an added bonus, Mythology includes a brief treatment of Norse mythology at the end.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive introduction to Greek mythology that reads like great literature, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is the book I’d recommend. Click here to view or buy Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 26% from its list price.
2. The Complete World of Greek Mythology by Richard Buxton
Another deservedly popular and impeccably newbie-friendly introduction to the topic that you might want to consider is Richard Buxton’s The Complete World of Greek Mythology. Buxton’s book covers much of the same ground as Hamilton’s, but is written in a less literary style and has more of an emphasis on the historical and geographical contexts within which the myths were told. For example, Buxton will teach you much more about the wider religion and society of which Greek mythology was a part, the roles that particular features of the Greeks’ landscape played in their ancient myths, and how subsequent centuries have used and re-imagined Greek mythology.
But perhaps the biggest draw of The Complete World of Greek Mythology for most people will be its 330 illustrations, including 139 in color, which adorn practically every page of the book. These pictures range from artifacts from ancient Greece to photos of Greek landscapes to classic paintings of scenes from Greek mythology.
Bottom line: you can’t go wrong with either Hamilton or Buxton – or both, if you find both of their approaches appealing. Click here to view or buy The Complete World of Greek Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 47% from its list price.
3. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
If you’re looking for a great book on Greek mythology for kids, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is easily the best one out there. It’s written in a style so simple and clear that children should have no problem understanding it, but the language is also very colorful and evocative. It entertains as it informs.
The book is as comprehensive as you could wish for in a book of this sort, and gives accounts of the personalities of the gods and most of the heroes, as well as retellings of most of the major myths themselves. Along the way, countless lavish illustrations help to bring the stories and characters to life. This book is sure to kindle your child’s imagination and take him or her on a journey to an enchanting world filled with extraordinary beings who do epic deeds, but who are cast as being surprisingly relatable for a child.
Much like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was originally published decades ago – in 1962, in fact – but has yet to be surpassed to this day. It’s that good. Click here to view or buy D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 30% from its list price.
4. The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Back to the books for adults.
Who could consider themselves to be knowledgeable about Greek mythology without a familiarity with Homer’s masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey? Even if you’ve read the summaries in introductory works on the topic, there’s no substitute for reading the original epic poems (in English translation, of course, unless you can read Homeric Greek).
The experience of reading Homer’s works is just as valuable as the knowledge of Greek mythology you’ll glean from them. Homer is regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time for good reasons; his verse is poignantly beautiful without being flowery or effusive, his signature rapid pacing makes for an action-packed read, and the stories he tells feature many of the most paradigmatic characters and scenes in all of world literature.
The Iliad tells the story of the conquest of the city of Troy by a Greek army led by the likes of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus. The fight is ultimately over Helen, a daughter of Zeus and one of the most beautiful women to ever walk the earth, who is abducted by one of the Trojans. The plot is tugged one way and then another by the characters’ complex psyches, twists of fate, and divine interventions. Click here to view or buy the Iliad at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 32% from its list price.
5. The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Homer’s second major epic poem, the Odyssey, picks up where the plot of the Iliad leaves off. Troy has been conquered, but for Odysseus, one of the heroes of the victorious army, many battles still loom ahead before he can return home to the arms of his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus. Over the course of twenty years, Odysseus must undergo captivity at the hands of a nymph, the curse of the god Poseidon, a fight with a cyclops, malevolent drugs and spells, the now-proverbial Scylla and Charybdis, and many other trials and tribulations before he can at last set foot again in his home city of Ithaca.
Meanwhile, Penelope and Telemachus must fend off many dozens of suitors, who want to gain Penelope’s hand and, with it, access to Odysseus’s great wealth.
As with the Iliad, the best translation of the Odyssey for most people will be that of Robert Fagles, who makes both of these Greek masterpieces read like masterpieces in English. Click here to view or buy the Odyssey at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 41% from its list price.
6. Theogony by Hesiod, translated by M.L. West
Another primary source that every Greek mythology enthusiast owes it to himself or herself to read is Hesiod’s Theogony.
Theogony is a prose work from the late eighth century BCE that provides a remarkably systematic account of the origins of the first gods. (“Theogony” means the genesis of gods.) It’s one of the main sources we have on ancient Greek creation narratives, and its clear, point-by-point structure has made it a favorite source for modern retellings.
M.L. West’s translation is probably the best one out there – easy to understand, but full of poetic richness and nuance. This edition also includes Hesiod’s Works and Days, a collection of advice for farmers on how to live a good life. Click here to view or buy Theogony at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 13% from its list price.
7. The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus, translated by Robin Hard
The Library of Greek Mythology (a.k.a. the Bibliotheca) is the only work that survives from classical antiquity that attempts to provide a comprehensive account of all – or at least large parts – of Greek mythology. As such, it’s long been one of the main ancient sources that scholars have used to piece together Greek mythology.
The material in The Library of Greek Mythology covers the birth of the gods and the creation of the world, the later exploits of the gods, and the mighty deeds of heroes like Hercules, Jason, Perseus, Theseus, and the men and women of the Trojan War.
Robin Hard’s translation is modern and accessible, and makes for pleasurable reading. Click here to view or buy The Library of Greek Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 36% from its list price.
8. Greek Religion by Walter Burkert
If you’re interested in going beyond the mythology and learning more about the ancient religion to which Greek mythology belonged, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion is probably the best single book out there on the topic.
Whereas a few of the other books on this list contain some basic remarks about the Greek gods and other aspects of Greek religion that pertain directly to the myths, Burkert goes much further. Greek Religion offers a comprehensive account of the ancient Greeks’ sanctuaries, rituals, deities, theology (both explicit and implicit), ideal of heroism, views on death and the afterlife, and more. The last two sections focus on later developments in Greek religion, such as the “mystery” cults and the beginnings of the philosophical tradition.
Throughout the book, Burkert provides an ideal synthesis of factual detail and abstract, conceptual interpretation. Click here to view or buy Greek Religion at Amazon.com.
9. The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Pierre Grimal
I imagine that most of you who are reading this have read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Remember how his works typically come with glossaries so that you don’t become too bewildered by the sheer profusion of proper nouns – the names of characters, places, etc.?
Well, Greek mythology contains a similar abundance of such “key terms.” Therefore, when reading any book on the topic, it’s extremely helpful to have a guide to those “key terms” handy.
Pierre Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (reprinted by Penguin Books as The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology) is the best such guide available today. It covers virtually every proper noun you’ll encounter when reading about Greek mythology. Each alphabetical entry contains a description of the character, place, concept, or other “key term” that’s thorough but makes sure that the main points don’t get lost amongst the details. Click here to view or buy The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 30% from its list price.
10. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths by Lawrence J. Hatab
Those of you who have particularly intellectual interests will likely find Lawrence Hatab’s Myth and Philosophy to be engrossing and illuminating, just as I have.
Hatab first offers an overview of early Greek myth and religion from a philosophical standpoint – including what myth is, what its latent or implicit theory of knowledge is, its relationship with the political system and view of the self that prevailed in early Greece, and other such themes. The philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger often help to frame these discussions.
The book then considers the historical transformation from myth to philosophy in ancient Greece, and the roles that the above themes and others played in that transformation. Along the way, Hatab points out ways in which earlier Greek myth and religion provided raw concepts that later philosophy would take up and transform, and ways in which elements of myth remained in Greek philosophy (such as Plato’s view that an inner, intuitive “spark” was the root of all reason).
Myth and Philosophy is probably one of my personal favorite books, and is indispensable reading for anyone interested in both philosophy and myth. Click here to view or buy Myth and Philosophy at Amazon.com, where it’s discounted 15% from its list price.
If you’ve found this list to be helpful, you might also be interested in these other guides of mine: