An overview, dry as the dust of the Parthenon, of the major streams of ancient European mythmaking and of modern scholarship thereon.
Leeming (English, Comp. Lit./Univ. of Conn., Storrs; Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism, 1999, etc.) is working on fertile ground here; who could fail to be fascinated, for instance, by stories of magical men who turn themselves into maggots to infest sacred cows, of giant oak trees that block out the sun, of screeching harridans whose scary hovels rest on stilts made of chicken bones? Yet, darting from one mythic tradition—Slavic, Hellenic, Celtic—to another, Leeming spends little time retelling such stories, instead offering schematic summaries of such grand tales as the Tain, the Mabinogion, and the Prose Edda, buttressed by snippets of history—a couple of pages on archaic Greece here, a paragraph on the arrival of Christianity to Ireland there. His forays into the scholarship on, say, proto-Indo-European society are similarly cursory, and they overlook the considerable controversies that have developed around such matters as the Dumezilian elaboration of that society into “tripartite functions” headed by priests and warriors (a reconstruction that, some have charged, reflects the late Georges Dumezil’s devotion to fascism more than the historical record). Leeming peppers his slender narrative with provocative remarks that bear further discussion, as when he links Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand,” a metaphysical construct through and through, to “the old Judeo-Christian mythology,” adding that the modern marketplace is itself something of a mythological being. One imagines that this will be most useful for students in courses on comparative mythology. General readers certainly won’t find it a gripping read; they’ll do better to turn to The Golden Bough, whose doubtful scholarship is at least offset by good storytelling.
More sophisticated than the typical gods-for-clods survey, but far less interesting.