Greek Myth is one of the standbys of Classics general-education courses at colleges and universities across the United States. These courses often have high enrollments and are populated by students with little prior knowledge about the ancient Mediterranean world who are taking the course to fulfill a degree requirement. They may take Myth because of a lifelong interest in the stories (or because they’ve read the Percy Jackson series), they may be inspired to major in Classics by the course, or they may never read or think about Graeco-Roman culture after the term ends.
A common way of teaching the Myth survey course is like a panorama, a wide-angle shot that tries to fit in as much content as possible from a high-altitude perspective. I took a different approach in my fall 2013 Greek Myth course at Wake Forest University — a closeup, zooming in on one specific ancient myth-cycle in elaborate detail. Rather than try to cover Graeco-Roman mythology from Chaos to Romulus, encountering tidbits of art and literature from Homer to Ovid, my course focused on just one mythic figure, and students studied every major visual and textual treatment of that figure that survives from the ancient world.
The myth-cycle I selected was Herakles/Hercules.
There’s a substantial body of literature and art about him, there’s a recent monograph on him by Emma Stafford, and the ancient texts involving Herakles in a substantial way don’t overlap significantly with my department’s Epic, Tragedy, or Comedy courses. He’s also a most familiar mythic figure, not least because of the 1997 Disney Hercules movie, which was a useful straw man for many aspects of the Graeco-Roman cycle. Besides the obvious targets for reading and discussion — the Farnese Hercules, Alexander’s and others’ coinage, rituals and dedications to Herakles, Sophocles’ Trachiniae and Philoctetes, Euripides’ Herakles and Alcestis and Children of Herakles, Apollonius’ Argonautica, the Roman Cacus stories — my class read an eclectic mix of literary treatments of the hero, including Arrian, Eratosthenes, Babrius, Herodorus, Palaephatus, Lucian, Dio Chrysostom, Julian, Boethius, and Boccaccio. We discussed visual representations of Herakles from Greek vase painting to Ghanaian movie posters, from ancient statuary to modern advertisements. The students themselves made arts-and-crafts metopes for a “Demon Deacon Herakleion,” a shrine to Herakles named in honor of our school’s mascot, one metope per labor, including the Stymphalian Birds reimagined as fighter planes harassing King Kong, the Hydra presented as the many demands of college-student life, and the Garden of the Hesperides syncretized with the Garden of Eden.
The “zoom” approach — which I was inspired to pursue after reading José Bowen’s description (in his provocatively titled pedagogy book) of his opera survey course devoted entirely to the study of a single Wagner opera — was generally well-received by the students in the course and offered a few pedagogical advantages. By limiting the breadth of coverage, we were able to dive deep into the rich world of representations of myth. Instead of learning about the Trojan War cycle at the same time as the conventions of Homeric epic before rushing on to the House of Atreus and the genre of tragedy, we examined the same set of stories through the lenses of different periods and genres. The Herakles of tragedy is profoundly different from the Herakles of Apollonius’ Argonautica, and different again from that of Xenophon, or Theocritus, or the Augustan poets, or imperial orators.
Since the baseline knowledge about Herakles/Hercules was acquired early on and constantly reinforced, students were more engaged and more sophisticated in their discussions and analyses of the texts, and could more confidently tackle novel theoretical and interpretive approaches to the familiar subject matter. The work of the course, in other words, became not about memorizing a dizzying array of facts but about starting from a common core of facts to explore a variety of ways of understanding and using myth. At the same time, I designed in-class and at-home assignments to promote transfer — to show students how the knowledge and skills they’d acquired in their study of Herakles could benefit them not only in self-directed learning about other myths but also in their other coursework and in their own lives.
Students themselves reported satisfaction with the “zoom” approach, stating on evaluations that, for example, the single-topic focus “made the class more interesting,” “really allowed us to learn more than just getting a broad understanding,” and was “probably better than if the course was a whole summation of Greek myth.” Another student wrote that “it was extremely beneficial to focus on one character, thus enabling us to have a greater understanding of Greek myth as a whole.” Some students, however, felt that the class ended up being too one-note: the “single topic began to drag towards the end,” and “at times it seemed a tad repetitive,” for instance, while one student reported getting “burned out on Herakles.”
There’s not a right or wrong way to do it: rather, in the image of Dr. Tona Hangen (cited here), it’s a choice between “wading” and “diving,” between broad but comparatively shallow and deep but comparatively narrow. The “dive” or “zoom” method can be applied to other civilization courses, too — Carleton College introduces gen-ed students to Rome through close study of the year 69 CE (conference-paper abstract), while a tragedy survey could devote the entire semester to the Oresteia — or one unit of a panoramic survey could dive into a particular topic, like the 403 BCE Athens scenario of Reacting to the Past or a Women in Antiquity unit delving extensively into the Augustan household. It ultimately comes down to instructor preference, and to a judgment about what will foster student learning most effectively. (Toward that end, I will happily share my Myth syllabus with anyone who asks.) Though my students may not know much about Perseus or Aeneas or Hesiod’s Theogony, they have the tools and experience to teach themselves about any myth that interests them. And their efforts in class, to say the least, were Herculean.