Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism

Oxford University Press  2004

Dov Noy, professor of folklore at Hebrew University and founder of the Israel Folktale Archives, put Jewish folktales on the world folklore map by linking them to Stith Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature in his dissertation on Talmudic- Midrashic literature. Now, Howard Schwartz, the major Jewish anthologist and professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has put Jewish mythology on the world mythology map with his amazing book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Here the Jewish mythical tradition, often controversial or even denied, is truly acknowledged in an anthology to celebrate.

Schwartz defines the term “myth” as “a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors, and heroes.” This is a singularly significant gathering of nearly 700 key Jewish myths drawn from the Bible, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud and Midrash, the kabbalistic literature, medieval folklore, Hasidic texts, and oral lore collected in the modern era.

The anthology is divided into ten books, which represent the ten categories of Jewish mythology: Myths of God, Myths of Creation, Myths of Heaven, Myths of Hell, Myths of the Holy Word, Myths of the Holy Time, Myths of the Holy People, Myths of the Holy Land, Myths of Exile, and Myths of the Messiah. To delve into these myths is a journey of epic proportions. It is a wandering and a search for meaning amidst myriad facets of interpretation, all of which are explored brilliantly in this book. 

Our guide, Howard Schwartz, a talented and skilled folklorist, scholar and storyteller, has selected the mythic texts from hundreds of sources, sacred and secular, and accompanied them with informative commentaries, as well as an extensive introduction. For those who are interested in the scholarship of the myths, there are sources and comprehensive notes. But for those interested primarily in Jewish myths—and what myths there are in our tradition—this book will serve as a mother lode! 

Howard Schwartz writes with a riveting, imaginative literary sensibility and a storyteller’s gift of narrative. Because the myths are in a different type-face, the reader can choose to read only the myths. However, the scholarly commentaries add many dimensions to this fascinating, beautifully written book.

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