Mini Literature Review – Teaching Classical Mythology

Centauromachy
Centauromachy
Centauromachy, tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BC. Staatliche Antikensammlungen PD Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol.

This blog is about tangents, off-topic digressions, so it shouldn’t surprise me that once again, I can’t remember what I was looking for on that Büyük Menderes River (aka Μαίανδρος) that we know as JSTOR. While navigating its shoals, I discovered a few articles on teaching Classical Mythology classes at the university level in the United States with some common themes: the need for justification, the need for relevance, and the lack of preparation in junior and senior high school. Popular offerings, Classical mythology courses seem to serve as vast pools from which observant centaurs can find and steer potential ancient language heroes.

1.

  • “Myth and the Classical Tradition,” by Gregory A. Staley.The Classical World, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 206-209.

A course in classical myth is, to use Whitman’s terms, an account of “migrating Muses,” of the constant retelling and reinterpretation by each new era of stories handed down from Greece and beyond (even the Greeks created their myths in part from inherited tales)

Staley focuses on how different the US is from Europe, which is steeped in the Classical tradition. Lacking monuments and remains of Greco-Roman dominance, the cultural references are harder to grasp. With the puritanical background of the US, the myths themselves are problematic:

“[T]he less we know of this subject, the better; for what is the history of the ancient fables but an agreeable description of frauds-rapes-and murders, which, while they please the imagination, shock the moral faculty?”

America has transformed the myths to Americanize them. Thus, instead of Odysseus sojourning with seductive beings on various islands, we have Rip Van Winkle guiltlessly sleeping away his twenty years. Pulling people to California, the Gold Rush conjured images of Jason and the Argonauts, with Charles Bullfinch stepping in to fill a need, by writing a book on myth for America.

That’s what I get out of the article, although there is a point he is making about what he perceives as undue focus on theories of myth and lack of interest in demonstrating the pleasure that can be derived from reading them, at least I think that’s what he is saying. Feel free to enlighten me further.

2.

  • “The Role of Myth Courses on College Campuses,” by Kenneth F. Kitchell, Jr.The Classical World, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 187-192.

It is commonly quoted that Latin enrollments dropped almost 80 percent between 1962 and 1976, but it is less commonly pointed out that this severe decline had an enormous impact on the kind of classical studies entering college students were prepared to study….[E]nrollments have flourished and the “classical studies” model for a minor and a major is to be found in most thriving classics departments today…. “Anemic and bandaged, but still breathing, Homer limped into the 1980s, leaning heavily upon the goodwill of dedicated teachers, translators, and ‘popularizers,’ who were struggling to save their programs.”

Kitchell looks at the tendency to justify the study of Latin and notes that there is much less of such pragmatism when looking at myth classes. Not only do they help fund advance language classes, but they enable students to appreciate allusions in English literary classics and the Bible that earlier generations with higher Latin enrollments knew. Without the Latin, most college freshmen entered without the background.

How teachers teach this background-to-literature needs examination since the teachers are generally classicists rather than myth theory specialist teachers. More work needs to be devoted to developing curricula for the very popular courses that help young people achieve cultural literacy.

3.

  • “Popular Culture and Classical Mythology,” by David Frauenfelder.The Classical World, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 210-213.

The job of the mythology teacher is to teach the American student to “own the material-that is, to believe that what they are studying does matter, is worth their attention, beyond good grades.” That it is not just childish stories, on the one hand; incomprehensible and alien, on the other. Movies are the obvious place to make the myths relevant. Frauenfelder recommends showing students how to think of the myths in terms of movies that aren’t too cartoony or artsy.The following make excellent pairs for comparison:

  • Soap operas – Any family story, especially from Greek tragedy
    Professional sports – Iliad
  • SurvivorPhiloctetes
  • Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? – Heracles’ journey
  • Sixth Sense (1999) – Underworld journeys: Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas
  • The Matrix (1999) – Myth of Er
  • Titanic (1997) – Ariadne or other broken romance stories
  • Star Wars (1977) – Aeneid. Pair with Independence Day (1996).
  • Thelma and Louise (1991)- Odyssey. Good to pair with Rain Man (1988).
  • Top Gun (1986) – Iliad. Good to pair with Platoon (1986).
  • Fatal Attraction (1987) – Agamemnon, Medea
  • Vertigo (1958) – Oedipus. Fate and free will meets modern psychological
    cinema.

4.

  • “Using Visual Arts in Teaching Mythology,” by Ann Thomas Wilkins.The Classical World, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 198-201.

Wilkins argues that using images of myths, especially ones not well-documented in literature, like the centauromachy, but without going into detail into the fields of architecture or art history will allow students to understand the social context: the battle between civilized and uncivilized, its propaganda value, and the mythological story.

Centauromachy
Battle of Centaurs and Lapiths, by Piero di Cosimo (notice the female centaur with a male centaur in the foreground). Piero di Cosimo – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202.

5.

  • “Troubling the Familiar into New Life: Some Thoughts on Teaching Mythology,” by David H. Porter. The Classical World, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Summer, 2006), pp. 434-438.

Although I was not aware of it, the previous articles were part of a special Classical World issue on teaching the Classics. Porter’s article is from the following year and addresses what he sees as missing from the set. He says the articles neglected to address how to engage active student response. At the start of the term, he asked the students to define myth in their notebooks and then expand on it as they learned. (As an aside, I should admit that my already strong interest in myth was fortified by a similar approach taken during my first college class.) The different backgrounds/majors of the students will affect how they develop their final essays. Another approach was to have the students write their own versions of the myths.

“In confronting their chosen myths, students became obsessed with them, got inside them, and eventually saw them in ways that were new, their own. Moreover, the process clearly worked in the other direction as well-the myths got inside the students, made them see themselves anew, sometimes in profound ways.”

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