23 April 2021

THE OBJECT IS THE SUBJECT

Theresa Bane. Encyclopedia of Mythological Objects. McFarland, 2020.


This book, as the rather overused cliché puts it, does “what it says on the tin”. It is the latest in a series of serviceable reference volumes from Ms Bane on topics such as ‘Demons’, ‘Beast and Monsters’ and ‘Giants and Humanoids, amongst others. This volume looks solely at the inanimate features of mythology, the weapons, treasures, buildings, vehicles and magical garments that form the furniture to the world of myth, rather than the gods, entities and creatures that inhabit it.
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I say ‘inanimate’ but many of them, though made of stone or metal, show signs of life and agency, and in some cases considerable moral judgement. The benevolent swords of Masamune would only take life with discretion, unlike the amoral swords of a rival swordsmith, Muramasa, whose creations would kill indiscriminately, and drive their owners to suicide and murder.

It seems inevitable that the largest proportion of objects described here are weapons of some sort or another, as the majority of the world mythologies seem to involve a great deal of swordplay, and generally hitting people over the head with magical clubs.

The Encyclopaedia of Mythological Objects tries to be as inclusive as possible, and although most of the entries cover objects from the more familiar (to western readers) mythologies of the Mediterranean, the stories of the Celts and the supernatural objects of the Northern traditions, anyone seeking information about objects in the myths and traditions of Africa, Asia and America - pre- and post-Columbian – and Oceana, will find much in here to guide them.

Sources for the individual entries are provided in a substantial bibliography, and usefully there is a separate index, in addition to the main alphabetical listing, to identify individual topics mentioned in the main entries. 

There is no doubt that this is an interesting book, and just dipping into the entries reveals a wealth of abstruse but fascinating lore – the Chinese Umbrella of Chaos, for instance, or the classical Greek Chair of Forgetfulness, (which I think I may be sitting in at the moment). But it raises the question of just how useful a book like this is in the age of the Internet, when any number of sources on any number of topics, can be accessed at the click of a search icon. Especially when, as is the case here, this slimmish volume, 172 pages not counting bibliography and index, is retailing at around the £35 mark.

This is a convenient reference tool, but I feel I cannot recommend it for the general student of the topics treated within, mainly on the grounds of price, but it would be a useful addition to a college or society library. – John Rimmer

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