Old Norse-speaking poets have left us countless valuable clues regarding their religious perspective, but the collection of poems known today as the “Poetic Edda” or “Elder Edda” contains the most mythologically rich and thorough of these. Two of these poems, Völuspá(“The Insight of the Seeress”) and Grímnismál (“The Song of the Hooded One”) are the closest things we have to systematic accounts of the pre-Christian Norse cosmology and mythology.
Among the prose Old Norse sources, the Prose Edda, or simply the “Edda,” contains the greatest quantity of information concerning our topic. This treatise on Norse poetics was written in the thirteenth century by the Icelandic scholar and politician Snorri Sturluson, long after Christianity had become the official religion of Iceland and the old perception of the world and its attendant practices had long been fading into ever more distant memory. The etymology and meaning of the title “Edda” have puzzled scholars, and none of the explanations offered so far have gained any particularly widespread acceptance.
Even though their definition of “history,” or at least what constitutes a reliable piece of historical information, might diverge considerably from our present understanding, the Icelanders of the Middle Ages have left us with numerous historical texts that add mightily to our knowledge of pre-Christian Norse religious traditions. While many of these, such as the priest Ari Thorgilsson’s Íslendingabók (“Book of Icelanders”) and the anonymous Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), don’t fit into the saga genre, the majority of these historical works are Icelandic sagas.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of spells which enable the soul of the deceased to navigate the afterlife. The famous title was given the work by western scholars; the actual title would translate as The Book of Coming Forth by Day or Spells for Going Forth by Day and a more apt translation to English would be The Egyptian Book of Life. Although the work is often referred to as “the Ancient Egyptian Bible” it is no such thing although the two works share the similarity of being ancient compilations of texts written at different times eventually gathered together in book form. The Book of the Dead was never codified and no two copies of the work are exactly the same. They were created specifically for each individual who could afford to purchase one as a kind of manual to help them after death.
The Book of Gates (sometimes also known as the “Book of Pylons”) is an ancient Egyptian religious text dating from the New Kingdom describing the journey of a deceased soul though the underworld with reference to the journey of the sun god Ra during the hours of the night. In order to pass safely through each gate the deceased must name the guardians correctly. This tradition dates back to the Book of the Two Ways(part of the Coffin Texts), which recorded seven gates each with three guardians. Although other netherworld books refer to the existence of gates in the underworld, they are nowhere depicted in such detail as the Book of Gates.
Primary Classical Texts
The oldest epic tale in the world was written 1500 years before Homer wrote the Illiad. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” tells of the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the hero king of Uruk, and his adventures. This epic story was discovered in the ruins of the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. Written in cuneiform on 12 clay tablets, this Akkadian version dates from around 1300 to 1000 B.C.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” was one of the most beloved stories of Mesopotamia. According to the tale, Gilgamesh is a handsome, athletic young king of Uruk city. His mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father the priest-king Lugalbanda, making Gilgamesh semi-divine. Gilgamesh is rambunctious and energetic, but also cruel and arrogant. He challenges all other young men to physical contests and combat. He also proclaims his right to have sexual intercourse with all new brides. Gilgamesh’s behavior upsets Uruk’s citizens and they cry out to the great god of heaven Anu for help with their young king.
- ”Lysistrata” – Aristophanes
Lysistrata is a comedy by Aristophanes. Originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BCE, it is a comic account of a woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by denying all the men of the land any sex, which was the only thing they truly and deeply desired. Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace—a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes.
- ”The Poetics” – Aristotle
The Poetics (circa 335 BC) is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory in the West. This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se (given that not one poem exists in the treatise) or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements. In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls “poetry” (a term which in Greek literally means “making” and in this context includes verse drama – comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play – as well as lyric poetry and epic poetry).
- “Meditations” – Marcus Aurelius
Meditations is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy.
- ”Medea” – Euripides
Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BC. The plot centers on the actions of Medea, a former princess of the “barbarian” kingdom of Colchis, and the wife of Jason; she finds her position in the Greek world threatened as Jason leaves her for a Greek princess of Corinth. Medea takes vengeance on Jason by murdering Jason’s new wife as well as her own children, after which she escapes to Athens to start a new life.
- “Hippolytus” – Euripides
Hippolytus is an Ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, based on the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. The play was first produced for the City Dionysia of Athens in 428 BC and won first prize as part of a trilogy.
- ”The Histories” – Herodotus
The Histories of Herodotus is considered the founding work of history in Western literature. Written in 440 BC in the Ionic dialect of classical Greek, The Histories serves as a record of the ancient traditions, politics, geography, and clashes of various cultures that were known in Western Asia, Northern Africa and Greece at that time. Although not a fully impartial record, it remains one of the West’s most important sources regarding these affairs. Moreover, it established the genre and study of history in the Western world
- “The Iliad” – Homer
The Illiad is an ancient Greek epic poem in dactylic hexameter, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy (Ilium) by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles.
- “The Odyssey” – Homer
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The Odyssey is fundamental to the modern Western canon; it is the second-oldest extant work of Western literature, while the Iliad is the oldest. Scholars believe the Odyssey was composed near the end of the 8th century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the Greek coastal region of Anatolia.
- “The Metamorphoses” – Ovid
The Metamorphoses is a Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, considered his magnum opus. Comprising 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework. Although meeting the criteria for an epic, the poem defies simple genre classification by its use of varying themes and tones. Ovid took inspiration from the genre of metamorphosis poetry, and some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier treatment of the same myths; however, he diverged significantly from all of his models.
- “The Satyricon” – Petronius
The Satyricon, or Satyricon liber (The Book of Satyrlike Adventures), is a Latin work of fiction believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, though the manuscript tradition identifies the author as Titus Petronius. The Satyricon is an example of Menippean satire, which is different from the formal verse satire of Juvenal or Horace. The work contains a mixture of prose and verse (commonly known as prosimetrum); serious and comic elements; and erotic and decadent passages. As with the Metamorphoses (also called The Golden Ass) of Apuleius, classical scholars often describe it as a “Roman novel”, without necessarily implying continuity with the modern literary form.
- “The Symposium” – Plato
The Symposium is a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It depicts a friendly contest of extemporaneous speeches given by a group of notable men attending a banquet. The men include the philosopher Socrates, the general and political figure Alcibiades, and the comic playwright Aristophanes. The speeches are to be given in praise of Eros, who is the god of love and desire, and the son of Aphrodite. In the Symposium, Eros is recognized both as erotic love, and as a phenomenon that is capable of inspiring courage, valor, great deeds and works, and vanquishing man’s natural fear of death. It is seen as transcending its earthly origins, and attaining spiritual heights. This extraordinary elevation of the concept of love raises a question of whether some of the most extreme extents of meaning might be intended as humor or farce. Eros is almost always translated as “love”, and the English word has its own varieties and ambiguities that provide additional challenges to the effort to understand the Eros of ancient Athens.
- “Republic” – Plato
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 380 BC, concerning justice, the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato’s best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.
In the dialogue, Socrates discusses with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. They consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis, a city-state ruled by a philosopher king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society. The dialog’s setting seems to be during the Peloponnesian War.
- “Greek Lives” – Plutarch
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch’s Lives, is a series of biographies of famous men, arranged in tandem to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings, probably written at the beginning of the second century AD. The surviving Parallel Lives comprises 23 pairs of biographies, each pair consisting of one Greek and one Roman, as well as four unpaired, single lives. It is a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived.
- “Oedipus Rex” – Sophocles
Oedipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus! or Oedipus the King, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed around 429 BC. Originally, to the ancient Greeks, the title was simply Oedipus, as it is referred to by Aristotle in the Poetics. It is thought to have been renamed Oedipus Tyrannus to distinguish it from another of Sophocles’ plays, Oedipus at Colonus. In antiquity, the term “tyrant” referred to a ruler, but it did not necessarily have a negative connotation.
- “Oedipus At Colonus” – Sophocles
Oedipus at Colonus (also Oedipus Coloneus) is one of the three Theban plays of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. It was written shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406 BC and produced by his grandson (also called Sophocles) at the Festival of Dionysus in 401 BC.
In the timeline of the plays, the events of Oedipus at Colonus occur after Oedipus Rex and before Antigone; however, it was the last of Sophocles’ three Theban plays to be written. The play describes the end of Oedipus’ tragic life. Legends differ as to the site of Oedipus’ death; Sophocles set the place at Colonus, a village near Athens and also Sophocles’ own birthplace, where the blinded Oedipus has come with his daughters Antigone and Ismene as suppliants Of the Erinyes and of Theseus, the king of Athens.
- “Antigone” – Sophocles
Antigone is a tragedy by Sophocles written in or before 441 BC. Of the three Theban plays Antigone is the third in order of the events depicted in the plays, but it is the first that was written. The play expands on the Theban legend that predates it, and it picks up where Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes ends.
- “The Aeneid” – Virgil
The Aenid is a Latinepic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It comprises 9,896 lines in dactylic hexameter. The first six of the poem’s twelve books tell the story of Aeneas’s wanderings from Troy to Italy, and the poem’s second half tells of the Trojans’ ultimately victorious war upon the Latins, under whose name Aeneas and his Trojan followers are destined to be subsumed.
- “The History Of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall Of Rome” – Susan Wise Bauer (Also written excellent books on the Medieval World and Renaissance World)
Dozens of maps provide a clear geography of great events, while timelines give the reader an ongoing sense of the passage of years and cultural interconnection. This old-fashioned narrative history employs the methods of “history from beneath”—literature, epic traditions, private letters and accounts—to connect kings and leaders with the lives of those they ruled. The result is an engrossing tapestry of human behavior from which we may draw conclusions about the direction of world events and the causes behind them.
- “SPQR. A History of Ancient Rome” – Mary Beard
In SPQR, an instant classic, Mary Beard examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries. With its nuanced attention to class, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries.
- “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” – Edward Gibbon
The scholarship that went into his Decline and Fall still stands, like a timeless Roman ruin: majestic, elegant and even sublime. An object of awe, Gibbon’s history unfolds its narrative from the height of the Roman empire to the fall of Byzantium. The six volumes (published between 1776 and 1788) fall into three parts: from the age of Trajan to “the subversion of the western empire” in 395 AD; from the reign of Justinian in the east to the second, Germanic empire, under Charlemagne, in the west; and from the revival of this western empire to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In so doing, Gibbon traces the intimate and profound connection of the ancient world to his own, more modern time, linking more or less explicitly the age of the Enlightenment to the age of Rome.
- “The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life” – Bettany Hughes
With great spirit and diligence, Hughes is able to piece together a surprisingly vivid portrait of the hairy, slovenly son of a stonemason and midwife, who spends a lot of time at the gymnasium and holds philosophical discourses at shoe shops. By necessity, the book has a lot of speculation, with phrases like “there is every possibility that he sailed from Piraeus” and “Socrates would certainly have participated in such communal activity.” Academic purists may chafe that Hughes makes such imaginative leaps. But by doing so, she helps us imagine Socrates as a body of flesh rather than a bust of marble.
- ”The Amazons. Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” – Adrienne Mayor
Amazons—fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world—were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons.
But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.
- “The Rise And Fall Of Ancient Egypt” – Toby Wilkinson
Cambridge Egyptologist, offers a comprehensive history of ancient Egypt, from prehistoric climate change to the death of Cleopatra, in 30 B.C. Most modern historians, he argues, have romanticized the grandeur of ancient Egypt, and, as a corrective, he focusses on the brutal subjugation in the Old Kingdom (2575-2125 B.C.) that allowed the Pharaohs to rule as divine authorities for three millennia. So absolute was the monarchy that it wasn’t until the Middle Kingdom (2010-1630 B.C.) that average Egyptians even dared to hope for the promise of an afterlife; they were spurred by the lower-ranking nobility, who had sought the privilege for themselves. While the wealth of detail may be hard for the general reader to absorb, Wilkinson successfully combines decades of scholarship with an accessible and personable narrative.
- “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths” – Edgar Parin d’Aulaire and Ingri Parin d’Aulaire
MY FAVORITE BOOK, AT ONE moment in my childhood, was theD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a big book, with a cover in the bright colors of the sun and lush illustrations inside. Uranus left stars in Gaea’s eyes as they fell in love, Iris ran down a rainbow, trailing her “gown of iridescent drops,” and the gods of Olympus sat arrayed on their thrones, Artemis with her bow, Demeter with Persephone on her lap, Zeus with lightning bolts in hand.
First published in 1962, the Book of Greek Myths is one of the most popular children’s books ever—it’s still a best-seller. It is the most famous of the books by the D’Aulaires, a husband and wife team of European artists who immigrated to America in the 1920s. But it’s also one of their last.
“D’Aulaires Norse Gods and Giants” – Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
The Caldecott medal-winning d’Aulaires once again captivate their young audience with this beautifully illustrated introduction to Norse legends, telling stories of Odin the All-father, Thor the Thunder-god and the theft of his hammer, Loki the mischievous god of the Jotun Race, and Ragnarokk, the destiny of the gods. Children meet Bragi, the god of poetry, and the famous Valkyrie maidens, among other gods, goddesses, heroes, and giants. Illustrations throughout depict the wondrous other world of Norse folklore and its fantastical Northern landscape.
- ”Norse Mythology” – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman putting his own fingerprints on the Norse myths? Cue the hyperventilation of delighted readers. That reaction is genuinely earned in this tight retelling, as Gaiman darts between a Tolkienesque tone in the epic origin stories and his own bright wit in the tales centering on the adventures of Thor, Loki, and Odin. Those new to Norse mythology might be astonished by how bizarre some details are. (For example, the ship made of the fingernails and toenails of the dead might make you wonder how much the Vikings genuinely enjoying sailing.) The doomsday of Ragnarok will cause a jolt of disquiet among those who are used to Hollywood endings, and Thor himself will be a surprise for those who are familiar with Hollywood Thor—but those surprises are often where the fun lies.