From Athena to Zeus, Professor Elizabeth Vandiver leads an illuminating exploration of classical mythology and its treasure trove of unforgettable characters and stories. Classical Mythology is an introduction to the primary characters and most important stories of classical Greek and Roman mythology. Among those you will study are the accounts of the creation of the world in Hesiod's Theogony and Ovid's Metamorphoses; the gods Zeus, Apollo, Demeter, Persephone, Hermes, Dionysos, and Aphrodite; the Greek Heroes, Theseus and Hercules; and the famous classical myth of the Trojan War.
Dr. Elizabeth Vandiver is Professor of Classics and Clement Biddle Penrose Professor of Latin at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She was formerly Director of the Honors Humanities program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she also taught in the Department of Classics. She completed her undergraduate work at Shimer College and went on to earn her MA and PhD from The University of Texas at Austin.
Prior to taking her position at Maryland, she held visiting professorships at Northwestern University, the University of Georgia, the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Utah State University.
In 1998, The American Philological Association recognized her achievements as a lecturer with its Excellence in Teaching Award, the most prestigious teaching prize given to American classicists. In 2013 she received Whitman College's G. Thomas Edwards Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship. Her other awards include the Northwestern University Department of Classics Excellence in Teaching Award and two University of Georgia Outstanding Honors Professor Awards.
Professor Vandiver is the author of Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War and Heroes in Herodotus: The Interaction of Myth and History. She has also written numerous articles and has delivered many papers at national and international conferences.
We set the stage by defining key terms and outlining some problems that develop when studying classical mythology. The course approach will be to include synopses of specific myths, discussions of their cultural background, and examinations of larger issues implied by them.
02: What Is Myth?
Although myths are very old, most of the self-conscious theorizing about them dates from only the last two centuries. What do the most influential theorists say about the origin, nature, and function of myth? What distinguishes myth from legend and folklore? Can myth be understood as a subcategory of something else, or does it play some psychic role that is universal across particular cultures?
03: Why Is Myth?
This lecture continues our examination of ideas about myth, including psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, structuralist approaches of Claude Lévi-Strauss and others, and the work of Joseph Campbell, a psychological and metaphysical theorist of myth.
04: "First Was Chaos"
In his "Theogony," the Greek poet Hesiod describes the creation of the universe through the creation of the gods, and the multigenerational struggle for cosmic power that followed. How does Hesiod's version of the creation story compare with the much later Roman version preserved in Ovid's "Metamorphoses"?
05: The Reign of the Olympians
How did Zeus become the king of the gods? What is his role as the patron deity of justice and "xenia," the guest-host relationship so important in Greek culture? What is to be made of Zeus's marriages and his fathering of other Olympians, including Athena?
06: Immortals and Mortals
Hesiod's "Theogony," and his poem "Works and Days," tells of Prometheus and Pandora. What do these myths—of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, and of the first woman, who unloosed evil in the world—say about the Greek view of society and of women? What sort of gods do we find in Hesiod? What sets them apart from humans?
07: Demeter, Persephone, and the Conquest of Death
One of the most famous classical myths is the story of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Does this example of an aetiological myth shed light on gender relations and marriage practices in Athens? Does it reveal anything about the relations between humans and gods in the world of myth?
08: The Eleusinian Mysteries and the Afterlife
This great religious ritual held in honor of Demeter and Persephone seems to have promised a happy afterlife to its devotees. After investigating it, you will examine contrasting views of the afterlife found elsewhere in Greek myth and religion, including Homer, the myth of Orpheus and its associated cult of Orphism, and teachings about reincarnation.
09: Apollo and Artemis
Two of Zeus's most important offspring are Apollo and Artemis. Each of these twins has a characteristic set of functions and associations. Apollo, the god of reason and moderation, is also the god of disease, plague, sudden death for men, and prophecy. Artemis is the goddess of wildness and wild things, of the hunt, the young of all creatures, and of women in childbirth (though herself a virgin). Are there unified interpretations that can cover such multiplicity?
10: Hermes and Dionysos
Zeus's two youngest sons are Hermes and Dionysos. The former has many roles and appears to be the god of boundaries. Why is Dionysos, the god of wine and drama, different from all the other Olympian gods? What difference does that difference make?
11: Laughter-Loving Aphrodite
The Greek goddess of sexual desire is vividly depicted in the "Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite," which tells the story of her affair with the mortal Anchises. What is revealed about the Greek view of sexuality here? How does it compare to the Roman view of passion, as seen in Ovid?
12: Culture, Prehistory, and the "Great Goddess"
Stepping back from Greek myth itself, you will examine the similarities between Mesopotamian myth and Hesiod's "Theogony" with a view to cross-cultural influences. Next you trace the influence of the two great prehistoric cultures of Greece itself, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. Finally, you learn about the theory that there was a prehistoric "Great Goddess."
13: Humans, Heroes, and Half-Gods
How do humans fit into the creation accounts of Hesiod and Ovid? The former's "Works and Days" depicts a deterioration of humanity over time, while the latter paints a picture very different in tone and content. Do the heroes in these stories reflect a memory of the Mycenaean Age?
14: Theseus and the "Test-and-Quest" Myth
This lecture focuses on the Athenian Theseus, who saved the youth of his city by penetrating the Labyrinth and killing the monstrous Minotaur who dwelt at its center. His story is an excellent type of those myths in which the hero must face and overcome dangers and difficulties in pursuit of a worthy goal.
15: From Myth to History and Back Again
The encounter of Theseus with the Minotaur raises fascinating theoretical and interpretative issues. This strange story of a man-eating half-bull imprisoned in a maze is open to interpretation from a number of viewpoints, including those of psychology, ritual, and history.
16: The Greatest Hero of All
This lecture examines the larger-than-life deeds of Heracles, the greatest of all Greek heroes—and the one with the most contradictions. His own tendency toward excess led to the need for his famous Twelve Labors. These in turn took him farther and farther away from the center of the known world. Is he a figure for Greek culture itself?
17: The Trojan War
So many authors drew upon the Trojan War that it became the most famous episode in all of classical myth. What drove the Achaeans on their expedition against "windy Ilion"? What settled the destinies of all involved? Was it fate? The gods? Human action? Why did the Greeks see the Trojan War as marking the divide between the Age of Heroes and the rest of human history?
18: The Terrible House of Atreus
The myth of the House of Atreus is a harrowing, multigenerational narrative of cannibalism, murder, incest, and revenge. It revolves around a hereditary curse that both causes and is caused by the actions of several members of the same family, including Agamemnon, the Greek commander in the war against Troy.
19: Blood Vengeance, Justice, and the Furies
The House of Atreus fired the imagination of the great Athenian dramatist Aeschylus, whose Oresteia reshaped the traditional story into brilliant theater. Tragedy to the Athenians was no mere entertainment, but a collective experience highly ritualized in form and vital in function. What are the issues and emotions that Aeschylus explored in his trilogy? Do they bear implications for our understanding of the myth itself?
20: The Tragedies of King Oedipus
The myth of Oedipus—and especially the version presented in Sophocles's unforgettable plays—has struck profound chords in 20th-century thought. Freud's interpretation is the most famous, and Lévi-Strauss's structuralist reading has also been influential. How do they appear in the light of classics scholarship? And what do classics scholars make of Oedipus's terrible tale?
21: Monstrous Females and Female Monsters
Among the female figures in Greek myth who break out of women's usual roles are the Amazons, a race of female warriors said to have fought such heroes as Achilles, Theseus, and Heracles. The lecture also examines another foreign woman, Medea, who is most famous for her marriage to Jason. Finally, we will discuss the possible genesis of these figures in male anxieties about the role of women.
22: Roman Founders, Roman Fables
Why did the Romans "borrow" so much of their art, literature, and myth from Greece? How and why did the Romans take over—and modify—the legend of the Trojan War? How does this reflect on the native Roman foundation myth of the brothers Romulus and Remus?
23: "Gods Are Useful"
Ovid's "Metamorphoses" is our main or only source for many famous classical myths. Who was Ovid? What was the nature of the Roman context in which he composed his very literary, ironic retelling of these myths? Can we ever hope to recover the "original" stories that lie behind Ovid's versions?
24: From Ovid to the Stars
Ovid's influence in later European culture—including, very prominently, the works of Shakespeare—is profound and well worth tracing. Even today, classical mythology in general remains a force in high culture and pop culture alike. The whole genre of science fiction, for example, is a testament to the power of both ancient myths and the enduring mythic impulse.