Traditional stories pose engaging and sometimes uncomfortable questions—about human nature, about the natural world, about immortality and mortality, about morality and immorality—universal questions that continue to be asked with answers that are continually renegotiated.
We define myth not as an entertaining, unscientific falsehood but as a deeply meaningful tradition about the origins of the cosmos, the powers of the divine, and the legendary deeds of heroes. We call these myths classical in that they belong to a specific, elevated category (classis) of Greek literature, but we continually compare these traditions both to precursors from the Ancient Near East, Egypt and the Levant (e.g. the Hebrew Bible) and to successor traditions from Rome.
We follow the method of our textbook in taking four different approaches—providing historical context in order to demonstrate what myths reveal about Greek culture through the study of religious practices and specific cult sites; analyzing examples of theory that demonstrate the various methods used by scholars in diverse disciplines have used that can both complicate and enrich our interpretations; using comparison to provide a means of understanding Greek myths by setting them next to earlier precedents from the Near East and to later Roman myths; and, finally, examining the reception of classical myths, which continue to resonate in contemporary (primarily Western) art and popular culture.
WARNING: These tales normalize unequal power relations, whereby men seem to naturally dominate women, where masters naturally own slaves, and where fellow citizens naturally deprive foreigners (barbaroi) of their lives and property. The male deities studied in this course may commit rape and assault with impunity, which serves to legitimize the actions of adult, male, free citizens who might wish to do the same. Depictions of sexual and physical violence and dominance prevail in visual media as well. Some argue, with good reason, that the Ancient Greeks (and Romans) are familiar, since they laid the foundations of western civilization, but one can also find in this past shockingly foreign depictions of human sacrifice, bestiality, incest, pederasty, etc. Note, too, that classical artists frequently depict the human form in the nude, and often graphically depict male genitalia.
The core goals of this class are:
- to acquire factual and conceptual knowledge of Greek (and Roman) myths in context, encompassing comparable and diverse civilizations, with particular sensitivity to cultural and social meaning
- to appreciate the study of antiquity with the analytical skills that archaeologists, historians, and philologists use to research, recover, and write about the past
- to develop habits of critical thinking in order to appreciate change and continuity over time, across diverse regions and in contact with diverse cultures
- to become competent and confident in the skills necessary to write about ancient cultures, and
- to become an independent inquirer into the past and a lifelong learner
This course will treat reading and writing as critical thinking processes; we will remove the mystery and emphasize the mechanics of active reading and persuasive writing. You will learn how:
- to read ancient literature critically
- to refute and/or accommodate opposing viewpoints
- to write with clarity, brevity, and specificity
- to avoid logical fallacies
- to collect, synthesize, and access data systematically, and
- to use this data to reinforce an effective argument