Why Is It Important to teach Greek Mythology?
This section is primarily for those of you who aren’t English teachers, though there is some difference of opinion on this subject, even among English teachers.
I’m a big believer in avoiding what Will Herberg referred to as a “cut flower culture.” That’s true, not just in the spiritual sense in which Herberg meant it. It’s also true in the sense of general knowledge. If we don’t understand the roots of our culture, we don’t really understand our culture.
In Western civilizations, the Bible is the most influential literature hands-down. I’ll talk more about that in a subsequent blog post, but I will mention quickly that I don’t intend that as a religious statement. One can have the cultural literacy that the Bible provides without being an adherent of a biblically based religion. (As I used to say to my students, you can read Moby Dick without having to believe that there was a great white whale that matched the title beast’s description.)
Though the Bible in indisputably the single most influential body of literature in the West, Graeco-Roman literature is just as securely number two. Our own literature, film visual arts, music, law, philosophy, and even architecture are all indebted to the Greeks and Romans.
From the moment that the United States declared its independence, it tried to establish its own cultural identity. While not rejecting its English heritage, it turned to Greece and Rome, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, for political inspiration. Democracy comes originally from a Greek word, just as republic comes from a Latin one and evokes the Roman Republic. We also borrowed Senate from the Romans, among other things.
Shakespeare is a good example of a writer strongly influenced by the Graeco-Roman heritage. Two of his favorite works were Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives. (If you’re interested in details, Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: a Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare provides a very thorough treatment of Shakespeare’s use of the classical heritage. I can’t at the moment find any commentaries more narrowly focused on sources that aren’t very expensive.) The story of Pyramus and Thisbe crops up twice in his work, once as the distant ancestor of the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and once directly, in Midsummer Night’s Dream. His Roman history plays are naturally based on Plutarch. His longer poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece , are similarly classically inspired. Some of his early comedies seem based on Roman models. His tragedies, much like those of his contemporaries, owe something to the tragedies of Seneca. Even in plays like The Tempest, that are less obviously connected, still show Graeco-Roman touches. For instance, Bate notes the similarities between the way Prospero’s magic is described and the way Medea’s dark arts are portrayed in Ovid.
Nor is Shakespeare the only author inspired by the Graeco-Roman tradition. Even a very partial list seems overwhelming: Chaucer, Dante, Ariosto, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Pope, Shaw, Joyce, Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, John Updike, and too many others to list here. I should mention that the influence continues even today. Consider Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example.
My more pragmatic students used to say, “So what?” The specific answer in an English classroom would be that it’s hard to understand classically inspired literature without some knowledge of that heritage. The same thing is true in college. A survey by the Society of Biblical Literature, which naturally focused on the importance of biblical literacy, did ask one question about Greek and Roman literature, and the professors surveyed agreed that knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology gave students a clear academic advantage. Since students typically need to take at least a few English classes to satisfy breadth requirements, even the most narrowly grade-oriented students would have to agree that a certain amount of classical knowledge would be helpful in college.
Unfortunately, teaching Greek and Roman literature, mythology in particular, does raise some problems.
What Are the Problems of Teaching Greek Mythology?
First, despite how much the ancient Greeks and Romans contributed to our own society, the cultural gap between the two sometimes seems overwhelming. As with most ancient societies, women were generally considered a form of property, slavery was accepted without question, violence was a much more popular solution to problems–and the list goes on. It’s hard not to be offended or disturbed by at least some of it. On the other hand, denaturing it too far to make it more palatable to contemporary high school students takes away some of its educational value. Also, students need to be able to understand other cultures, even when they don’t agree with the values of those cultures. Finding the right balance is tough, though.
Second, because the mythology comes to us through the writings of dozens of authors over a span of centuries, the stories are often inconsistent. One can often find contradictions even within the same author’s work. (Hesiod describes Cronus as imprisoned in Tartarus in one work but says that he is ruling Elysium in another.) It is this incoherence that frustrates students who can lead the hurdle of cultural difference to appreciate science fiction and fantasy. That’s because a modern novel, TV show or movie in one of those genres will have a consistency mythology lacks.
Real people and believable literary characters act somewhat predictably. If their attitudes and actions change, they do so ways that seem motivated by changing circumstances. In the case of literary characters, that’s why readers can relate to them. That’s also why it’s hard for teenagers to relate to characters who don’t stay consistent from story to story. Is Heracles a great hero, a well-meaning oaf, or a murdering sociopath? Is Aphrodite the gentle patroness of love who takes pity on Pygmalion by bringing the statue he has fallen in love with to life, the harsh punisher who gets Hippolytus falsely accused of rape so that his own father will kill him, or the nightmare prospective mother-in-law in the Cupid and Psyche story? Is Lycomedes the paranoid who murders Theseus on the off-chance that the hero might one day take his throne or the easily duped father who somehow accepts Achilles having sex with one of his daughters after being given sanctuary in his home? Sometimes logical reasons can be found for these apparent contradictions, but often they can’t be reconciled. They simply are. Sure, some of the variants can be tossed out, but too much sculpting of the material will remove some of its value in the same way that too much cultural adaptation will. Again, it’s tough to find a good balance.
During the several years that I taught a freshman honors English class in which mythology was an important component, I spent quite a bit of time searching for a good mythology book. At the time, we were using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It’s unquestionably a classic, and adult mythology enthusiasts still love it, but it was never intended for teenagers, and a lot of contemporary teenagers have trouble with it.
Replacing it, however, was easier said than done. I searched for years, and the books I could find fell into three categories. First were the adaptation intended for children. As a young child, I loved D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, and I’d still recommend it to someone looking for a book for young readers, but it’s a little too young for high school.
The second group were the works intended for scholarly use, such as The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology and the more literary but still scholarly Greek Myths by Robert Graves. Both are too long and too complex for high school and are not well-adapted to a teenage audience, though either would be great for comprehensive adult study.
The third group are books for the general reader that primarily address one myth or connected group of myths. Any of those might work for high school, but none of them has a wide enough range to cover even the same ground that Edith Hamilton does.
I even offered my students extra credit to anyone who could find a mythology book that met my criteria. No one ever could, though.
After I retired, I learned that the teachers who followed me in freshman honors were having the same problems with mythology I had experienced. I still hadn’t found a workable alternative, so, in collaboration with my former colleagues, I decided on a radical experiment: I would write my own mythology book.
Shameless Plug for My Book
My book, A Dream Come True: An Entertaining Way for Students To Learn Greek Mythology, adopts a different approach than a typical mythology text, in part because of its hybrid nature. The myths are wrapped in a young adult urban fantasy frame story. The basic premise is that some high school students cramming for a mythology fall asleep, and when they wake up, they find themselves in the world of Greek mythology. At first, they have no idea how to get back to the real world. Even worse, one of them gets on Hera’s bad side, ends up becoming a dog and then vanishing before Hera can undo what she has done. Complicating matters still further is that the remaining students unwittingly become entangled in a plot by god or gods unknown to disrupt the order of Olympus.
They cling to the idea that they are just dreaming–but what about the old superstition that if you die in a dream, you die in real life? And what happens if they can’t find their missing friend? Saving him and escaping require them to unravel the mystery of who the secret rebel among the gods really is. In the process of looking for clues, the students have to travel throughout ancient Greece (both real and mythical) and examine each myth (often told by one or more of the characters in the myth).
What benefits does this approach provide?
High school students seem to react better to the novel format than a series of short tales. They’re just more used to it. It’s also worth noting that the frame story itself is an ancient technique, the oldest surviving example of which is Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
- By having the student characters raise the same questions that students used to have in class, the book addresses potential points of confusion as they arise. It also enables the student characters to frame the stories in terms of modern values. Thus, though individual stories may not agree with a reader’s moral sense, the book as a whole provides more comfortable and familiar messages without whitewashing the original material. It also offers opportunities for philosophical discussion and debate among the characters. That leaves room to show some differences–ancient Greek society was not monolithic. It also leaves room for modern differences of opinion. Every single issue raised by the myths is not one we’d all answer in the same way, and I didn’t want the book to be overly preachy or to push too hard in one direction on controversial issues. At the same time, it does provide some opportunities to include character education in the study of mythology.
- Fleshing out the mythological characters as if they were real people, in particular providing them with consistent personas, makes it easier for students to relate to them. How did I do that without denaturing the material? Naturally, I had to pick a version of each story, and usually I picked the ones that could most easily fit together. However, I preserved major variations by having the characters discuss them as rumors or as deliberate propaganda by their enemies. By the way, there’s a good argument, made by Graves among others, that some of the stories were intended as political propaganda originally. For example, the more savage stories about Heracles may come from the time after the Dorian invasion. At that point the other Greek peoples had every reason to try to discredit Heracles because the Dorian leaders claimed descent from him. It’s easy to see in other cases how one Greek city would try to build up its own hero while a rival city might try to tear him down. The same thing may be true of the gods, whose major centers of worship were often in conflict with each other.
- The presence of the student characters makes it easier to make the text interdisciplinary. I’ve already mentioned character education, but you’ll also find bits of history, psychology, art and architecture as well.
I think the book strikes the right balance between preserving the integrity of the original material and adapting it to a modern high school audience. Whenever possible, I resolved conflicts (and potentially inappropriate material) using an approach found in the works of at least one ancient writer. Points where I had to go beyond the literature are clearly identified, often in the text itself, always in an appendix.
Speaking of appendices, there are several. They are intended to meet the needs of different students. Some will need help sorting out the complicated family relationships, and for them I provided a wealth of genealogies. Some will be content with the text alone, but others may want further resources, and for them I provided an extensive annotated list. I also provided the ancient sources for the material in each chapter. (Students need plenty of reinforcement in citing sources, but extensive in-text source citations are distracting to some high school readers.) For the benefit of teachers who want to be sure students also know the Roman names, I’ve included an appendix for those as well.
Results of the Book’s First Use
The two teachers using the book in their freshman honors English classes both reported higher levels of engagement and better test results than with the book they had been using previously. I came in as a guest speaker when they were prepping for the test and noticed more enthusiasm for the subject matter than I had seen when I taught the class. That’s not to say that every single student was thrilled by the book, but it does seem to work better than some alternatives.