Image of Thomas Bulfinch


Lifetime: 1796 - 1867 Passed: ≈ 157 years ago


Banker, Writer


United States

Thomas Bulfinch

Thomas Bulfinch was an American writer born in Newton, Massachusetts, best known for the book Bulfinch's Mythology.

Bulfinch belonged to a well-educated merchant family of modest means. His father was Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Massachusetts State House in Boston and parts of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy. Bulfinch supported himself through his position at the Merchants' Bank of Boston.

Although he also reorganized the biblical book of Psalms to illustrate the history of the Hebrews, Bulfinch is best known as the author of Bulfinch's Mythology, an 1881 compilation of his three previous works:

  • The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855)
  • The Age of Chivalry, or Legends of King Arthur (1858)
  • Legends of Charlemagne, or Romance of the Middle Ages (1863)

Bulfinch's Mythology is a classic work of popularized mythology, the standard for over a century and still in print 160 years after the first work, Age of Fable, was published in 1855. The compilation, assembled posthumously by Edward Everett Hale, includes various stories belonging to the mythological traditions known as the Matter of Rome, the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France, respectively. Bulfinch wrote in his preface:

"Our work is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation."

The original volume was dedicated to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Bulfinch described it on the title page as an "attempt to popularize mythology and extend the enjoyment of elegant literature". In his preface he outlined his purpose, which was

"an attempt to solve this problem, by telling the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so that when the reader finds them referred to he may not be at a loss to recognize the reference. Thus we hope to teach mythology not as a study, but as a relaxation from study; to give our work the charm of a story-book, yet by means of it to impart a knowledge of an important branch of education. The index at the end will adapt it to the purposes of a reference, and make it a Classical Dictionary for the parlor."

His obituary noted that the contents were "expurgated of all that would be offensive".

The versions Bulfinch gives for the classical myths are those in Ovid and Virgil. His Norse myths are abridged from a work by Paul Henri Mallet (1730–1807), a professor at Geneva, translated by Bishop Thomas Percy as Northern Antiquities (London, 1770, often reprinted).

The Bulfinch version of myth, published for genteel Americans just as the first studies of mythography were appearing in Germany, presents the myths in their literary versions, without unnecessary violence, sex, psychology or ethnographic information. Bulfinch's versions of these myths are still being taught in many American public schools. Marie Sally Cleary, in The Bulfinch Solution: Teaching the Ancient Classics in American Schools (1990), sets the book in the context of "democratizing" classical culture for a wider American antebellum readership.

Bulfinch was the product of Boston Latin School, Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1814.

Though the Bulfinch retellings were largely superseded in American high schools by Edith Hamilton's works on mythology, which were based directly on classical Greek texts, still avoiding archaeology, a "sumptuously illustrated" edition of Bulfinch's Mythology was offered in the Christmas 1979 catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Books by Thomas Bulfinch

Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable Cover image

Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable

Fairy Tale Mythology
Fable Legends

Bulfinch's Mythology is a collection of general audience works by American Latinist and banker Thomas Bulfinch, named after him and published after his death in 1867. The work was a highly successful popularization of Greek mythology for English-spea...

The Legends of Charlemagne Cover image

The Legends of Charlemagne

Empire Myths Legends

This study of Charlemagne is directed at the general literature reading public. Although the author tried to remain true to the legend and mythology surrounding the King of the Franks, renowned for uniting much of Europe, he points out that this is n...

The Age of Chivalry Cover image

The Age of Chivalry

Fiction Fairy Tale
Chivalrous Myths Legends

Thomas Bulfinch explains the his work is "an attempt to tell the stories of mythology in such a manner as to make them a source of amusement. We have endeavored to tell them correctly, according to the ancient authorities, so that when the reader fin...