Teach me how to teach mythology!
August 28, 2011 9:08 PM   Subscribe

I've been given a mythology class to teach, mostly to juniors and seniors (at a public high school in California). Yay! However, the previous teacher won't let me borrow her material, and my mythological education was taking one class in college and a lot self-teaching (thus, there are gaping holes in my knowledge). And so, mefites, hope me figure out the best way to teach this class!

Here are my questions/concerns:

1. I've settled on South African (Xhosa/Zulu/San) mythology first. The reason is that it was something on which I had quite a few resources (although I'm realising, not nearly enough!) and with which I had a bit of familiarity. I've done Nkulukulu's creation of man and How Death Came to the World (several different versions, which we compared and looked at similarities and differences in the telling). I've googled the subject to death and haven't found a lot of quality material out there.

2. The next thing I've got planned (we just started it on Friday) is to look at the way we (in the US/west) personify animals and the cultural characteristics we give to them. Then they'll write their own animal myth (using certain elements that they've drawn randomly). After that, we'll look at the African cultural characteristics of animals and then they'll re-write their myth to fit those personifications and analyse the differences. That might take a week or two.

3. I'd like to take the unit farther (maybe 2-3 more weeks), but I'm out of ideas. I'd like to do some background reading on myths in Africa in general, but also look at how stories have influenced art, and how they are woven into history. I don't really have resources (or even a clue/idea) for this part. I've also considered doing Things Fall Apart (instead or in addition to the history/art/whatever). Convince me whether or not it's a good idea. I'm also open to other African novels (Nervous Conditions? parts of Change of Tongue? something else?) or plays, but am a little stuck.

4. After that, I figured I could do a unit on hero's journey and watch some films that fit the genre. I'm thinking Star Wars (because I've done it before), but would like other suggestions and/or resources where someone has already built lesson plans on the film's connection to the HJ.

5. After that, I figured we'd read The Odyssey. Done it before and have lots of stuff to go with it.

6. That should put us through the end of the first semester. I know I want to do Greek/Roman/Norse mythology (for most of the remainder of the year) and I bought Edith Hamilton's Mythology and we have a textbook as well. I know I need to get the D'Aulaires' books on Greek/Roman and Norse mythology but I'm putting it off until I have a few paychecks. But other than those books, I'd love to see resources on lesson ideas, fun activities, or even just great books or movies that you would have wanted to do if you were taking my class.

7. I know LITERALLY nothing about the mythology of any other part of the world. What am I leaving out that I really shouldn't? I have some books on Native American mythology, but wouldn't even know where to start. I feel bad leaving out a massive portion of the world.

8. Finally, what are some organising ideas to use throughout the course? Right now, I feel like it's a lot of "Hey, look! Isn't that interesting!" but it doesn't feel like what we're doing fits into the larger schema of the course. Obviously there are references that you need to get in order to be an educated person, but beyond that, why study mythology? What do modern teenagers need to know about mythology? what might they find interesting? And how do I make this more than just another English class (which is what I teach)?

As I said above the fold, the previous teacher (who designed the course and was the only person who taught it at the school for 15 years) is not too forthcoming with her materials. She says I can "take stuff out of her filing cabinets," but none of it is organised and there are literally five filing cabinents. It's not gonna happen. For the purposes of this question, please assume that she is not a resource. Neither are the rest of the teachers in the English/History departments. No one has any background in mythology, and apart from a few books in the school library (but no librarian), I'm on my own. Also, the kids have all read Oedipus in 10th grade, but there's not really much background on mythology in that unit.

TL;DR: I am super excited about teaching mythology, but have no idea how to proceed. What resources would you recommend (assuming I have no money to buy lots of books) and what should I make sure to include? What will get teenagers excited about mythology? Halp!?!1!
posted by guster4lovers to Education (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Perhaps spend a bit of time studying creation myths of different cultures/religions, and noticing parallels and dissimilarities?
posted by jaksemas at 9:21 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


You seem pretty specific in terms of the cool things you want to teach, but wouldn't it be better to step back and figure out the overall plan, including benchmarks and outcomes, and then fill in the blanks? Is there a curriculum guide produced by your state that clearly states what the students should know by the end of the year?

Also, identify the various regions and cultures in the world you want to touch on. You can probably hit a lot different cultures over the course of the year.

Using Star Wars as a teaching tool seems like a great idea. It's a great way to spend a Thursday or Friday period, when the students are getting tired. You could also get the students to create their own movie based on a myth they like.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:21 PM on August 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Speaking as a former high school teacher, you're being way too ambitious. You could easily do a whole semester on The Odyssey by itself, let alone comparative mythologies.

Heck, as a current college instructor I'd say you're aiming way too high.

IMO, and I realize this is highly Eurocentric of me, I'd stick to Greek-Roman mythologies simply because it will be of much more use to any students who want to go on and study literature and/or history in college.

"No one has any background in mythology"

What a strange thing to say. I've never taken a "mythology course," but I'd bet my degrees in English literature qualify me to have a few things to say about the subject.

Maybe start by considering the fact that mythology isn't a super-alien concept to high school kids.

Start by asking them what "Nike" means.
posted by bardic at 9:32 PM on August 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


This is super general advice, especially for a veteran teacher, but when I was last in a similar position I downloaded dozens and dozens of syllabi from other schools for my new course to find themes that interested me and to find a few "big" projects that, while not perfect, were intriguing and gave me a stationary target. Are you on twitter? #engchat is a very active discussion and I bet the ELA teachers keeping tabs on it would also have some good ideas.
posted by adorap0621 at 9:35 PM on August 28, 2011


I think you should totally do "Things Fall Apart" just because it was one of the books I read in high school that stuck with me the most. LOVED it, loved doing it in class, loved discussing it.

Another idea would be "Bible as myth" (or however you'd have to phrase that locally) ... there's a good text called "Old Testament Parallels" that has an Old Testament story and then parallel stories from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.

I also like the idea of comparing creation myths.

I've always been interested in how Tolkien was creating an origin myth for England with Lord of the Rings. That could maybe fit in somewhere (hero's journey?).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seconding the idea of spending time examining creation myths across different cultures - that was something that really stood out to me when I took my first course in mythology. And following on to that, I'd suggest looking at various archetypes and themes that you can compare across cultures: resurrected gods, trickster figures (if you're interested in African myths, I really enjoyed Yoruba Trickster Tales), flood myths, myths dealing with the 'end times' ... there are so many things that are shared across cultures that this should easily give you a semester and more's worth of material.

Also, do peruse some textbooks specifically designed to be used in mythology courses in order to get an idea of the various lesson sequences you might follow. The 'intro to world mythology' course I took many moons ago used Donna Rosenberg's World Mythology, and I did enjoy it at the time, although I'm sure there are plenty of others out there at least as worthy of checking out.
posted by DingoMutt at 9:46 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Start with Myths Retold.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:53 PM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I guess one direction you could go is folklore (which is sort of mythology before it gets all official). If you include folklore and you want to start with African traditions, then you could branch out into colonial and/or African American folk traditions and myths, which include lots of stuff about voodoo practice, for instance. Then you could expand your list of readings to stuff set in the American South. The major text for either you or your class that I'm familiar with is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

I would highly recommend you research Native American myth/folklore. Even if you can't buy books, you could certainly get them at the library; if you struggle with research, go to your nearest neighborhood librarian for help. That's what they're there for. To get you started, try Williamson's They Dance in the Sky: Native American Star Myths. It's a nice, readable, thematic collection that may inspire another bout of imitative writing from the students (rather than animal myths, this is all star myths).


I actually agree that you probably should have a broader introduction to Greco-Roman folklore in any ordinary US High School mythology class-- other than 'The Odyssey', I mean-- because, after all, this is the mythic system that's at the root of the Western civilization we're living in. While other mythic systems are certainly fascinating, they're not as central to our culture, and if people have only one myth class in their lives, ideally they come away with the basics to form a foundation of cultural literacy. But. You may way to shelve that whole subject since you don't have the proper time to devote to it. 'The Odyssey' alone, after all that time devoted to a totally different folkloric system, is just confusing. It's not even as mythic as 'The Iliad'-- it's more fantastical than mythical; that is to say, it's adventures and supernatural creatures, but mythology generally has more to do with gods, creation myths, 'how things came to be', the nature of humanity, etc etc. This is just my opinion, but I'm a folklore major in college and a life-long student of mythology, for whatever that's worth.
posted by reenka at 10:02 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


PS: If you insist on a Greek myth-related text, I recommend Ovid's Metamorphoses instead-- if you take a look, you'll see why it's more related to myths than 'The Odyssey'. Well, mostly because it's an ancient literary retelling of most of the major myths.
posted by reenka at 10:06 PM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've taught a "Mediterranean to the Moon" course [ancient Greece to 20th century] for 15-16 year old students I'll send you my material if you memail me. But if you go on the Centerforlearning.Org site, they have ready made programmes on mythology that you could use. I modified their stuff and my own stuff for the unit I taught which was literature/text based.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:06 PM on August 28, 2011


Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Mahabarata, there are so many themes in Star Wars which have Hindu origins. Chewbacca and Hanuman for example.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:10 PM on August 28, 2011


Thanks for all the responses so far.

@jaksemas - I've done that to a certain extent, but I'm REALLY getting bogged down in the many, many differing versions of major myths. I know that creation/beginning of life, hero's journey/path to manhood, peril/rescue, tragic flaw, fate vs. free will, etc. are themes in most mythology, but it's really, really tough for me to do much prep on this with the current full-court press I'm in, having just started school and teaching yadda yadda yadda. That's why I'm looking for help.

@KokuRyu - I got the assignment last Friday, and school started on Tuesday. I've got some things, but there are no standards or curriculum maps or benchmarks or anything for mythology in high school (except for a few mentions in the English standards about word derivations and history standards about pre-history). I've identified South Africa, Greek/Roman and Norse as the cultures, but again, I feel like I'm missing stuff - that's why I'm looking for feedback.

@adorp0621 - I've done that, but there just isn't much out there aimed at HS level. Most myth courses are in college, and beyond having reading and written responses/journal topics/discussion questions, I haven't found much that would work for my class. I REALLY want this to not just be "read this, then write about it, then read something else, write about it, compare/contrast, ad infinitum." Apparently we're one of two high schools in the state to offer a stand-alone mythology elective.

@bardic - the previous teacher did all Euro mythology, and because I'm passionate about my students being knowledgable about the world, I didn't want to stick to that. I know that depth is better than breadth generally at this level, but I feel like HS is too much about dead white guys anyway. And you'd be surprised at what most teachers DON'T know about mythology - I'm not saying I'm totally unqualified - what I'm saying is that most HS English teachers haven't taught much mythology, and I'm actually the one with the most background in it at my site. And that's not enough to teach this class currently. Also, assume that these kids (most of them at least) signed up for the course because they find it interesting - but it has to go beyond just being a "good story." I know it's not "alien" to them, but I still think it's fair to say that they should understand the context and importance of mythology in cultures and the way it's been transformed throughout human history. However, I don't know how to do that in a sustained, organised way.

@Eyebrows McGee - you've convinced me on TFA. My kids have liked it in the past (I've taught it twice before), and I like the idea of doing LOTR - maybe with Star Wars. Both created a mythology and it could lead to a project where they create their own, and maybe even write a play/act it out/film it/etc. Thanks!

@DingoMutt - I'll check out that website and textbook (the title sounds familiar...I may have a random copy of it somewhere). Thanks!

@LIB - that site is pretty cool. Thanks!

@reenka - they actually read Their Eyes Were Watching God in 11th grade (so all but 4 of my kids have read it), but I like the idea of doing Southern folklore. And voodoo would be cool to cover too. I'll check out the star myths (haven't even heard of it before, actually - see? THAT is why I asked Metafilter!) - I actually am really good at research, but I'm SOOOO overwhelmed at the moment with everything, that I just haven't had the time. By the time I finish TFA, I'll have some more time to research other mythology. And the only reason I was considering Odyssey (besides how many cultural references there are to it and its general level of awesomeness), was that we have copies for the kids to use. We don't have Ovid, but my impression of it was that it may be a little too hard for them? I'll reread it though - maybe I can use excerpts from it). Cheers!

@honey-barbara - thanks!

I really appreciate it guys. Anything else you (or others) have to offer will really help me out. I'm feeling less lost now!
posted by guster4lovers at 10:12 PM on August 28, 2011


Katjusa Roquette - do you have a citation for that?
posted by guster4lovers at 10:12 PM on August 28, 2011


Yeah, as someone with a B.A. in Comp Lit I would say, as undeniably awesome as the Odyssey is, and as much as I think everyone should read it, it might not be the best place to start for a discussion of Greek myth in the context of a mythology class, especially if you want this class to be multicultural and therefore don't have a lot of time to spend on any one culture. I mean, I read it in high school in a year where we covered at least 20 other books, and thought nothing of it, but I was a top student in honors English. I think it depends a lot on your kids.

If you want a more accessible Greek text that you could get through faster, I am thinking pick some good tragedies. It's good they've already read Oedipus -- that will give them a framework for understanding Greek plays. Have they read the whole trilogy or just the one play? Antigone is fabulous. If they haven't read it you could have them read it and build on what they did before. If they have already read the whole Oedipus trilogy then I would suggest the Oresteia. It depicts Cassandra, Apollo, Athena, and the Furies -- lots to talk about there.

You could also, of course, excerpt from the Odyssey.

I would definitely also include at least a discussion (if not a full reading) of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was the foundation for the Noah story in the Bible. You could have them write papers comparing those two versions of the flood myth -- that's actually a really common assignment in comparative mythology classes; flood myths are pretty universal.

Excerpts from the Hindu Ramayana would also be good to use to compare to Greek mythology.

(Relatedly, I would definitely devote at least an entire day's discussion to the reasons why we call some sacred stories "myth" and others "religion.)
posted by BlueJae at 10:14 PM on August 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


I had a mythology class in high school that was pretty good, even if it often felt a lot like story hour. Of course I had a 300 level history class in college that often felt a lot like story hour (with harder exams involving short essay answers) so that may not be a bad thing.

Have you read Cryptonomicon? Half way through there are a couple pages where someone explains his motives by comparing Ares to Athena. You can find much of it here. The part that blew me away was as I read it I kind of felt like the author was really picking and choosing which legends to include to make his point. So I did a little reading. If by picking and choosing you mean pretty much following Bullfinch verbatim, then yeah, he's picking and choosing.

So what about looking at the nature of the mythological figures in different cultures? Who were the heroes and who were the villains and why? For example, the Norse settled conflict by putting two guys in a ten foot square and having them go at it with axes. Is it surprising that they'd revere a guy who'd shove his left hand in a wolf's mouth so they could tie it up.

The Greeks, on the other hand, backed up their triremes, a little bit, a little bit more, a little bit more, OK, now! Needless to say their capital city is not named after Ares of Zeus.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:18 PM on August 28, 2011


I've identified South Africa, Greek/Roman and Norse as the cultures, but again, I feel like I'm missing stuff - that's why I'm looking for feedback.

You probably want to touch on as many regions and cultures as you can. Figure that out, and then create a list that you want to hit. Combine this list with a list of myths you want to cover in order to create a matrix. This way you can be sure to touch on as many world cultures as possible.

In regards to trying to figure out what cultures to hit, why not first focus on the 6 inhabited continents + Oceania:

North America
South America
Europe
Africa
Asia
Australia
Oceania

Next, try to identify major cultures and civilizations from each:

North America
- Inuit/Eskimo culture
- Pacific Northwest Culture
- American Southwest
- Plains
- Eastern Woodland

South America
- Mesoamerican culture
- Inca
- Aztecs
- Haiti
- Brazilian indigenous

Europe
- Greek-Roman-Norse
- Hellenistic Mythology (interesting melding of European and Asian)

Africa
- Egypt
- West African kingdoms
- Pygmy/Twa/Bushmen

Asia
- Old Testament
- Assyrian
- Zoroaster
- Persian
- India
- Han China
- Korea
- Japan

Australia
- Java
- Sumatra
- Aboriginal

Oceania
- Polynesia


Anyway, as you can see, there's a lot there.

Next , identify what kinds of myths you want to explore, and do some research on the Internet to see what cultures provide the best examples.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ok, I think I've narrowed down what I'm asking based on the answers so far - whether to organise this course as a comparative mythology course and group by theme (hero's journey, trickster, tragic hero, etc.) or to teach it as regional history/culture/mythology and group by country or culture. There's probably a middle ground, and that's probably where I'll end up, but I don't know which is more helpful.

@BlueJae - My thought was to do the Greek Pantheon and myths like Theseus, Perseus, Hercules, etc. in the Hero's Journey unit (I have the Jim Henson Storyteller Greek Myth DVD and I'll literally use any excuse to show it!). I also should have mentioned that the version of The Odyssey we have is mostly excerpts (Lotus Eaters, Circe, Calypso, etc.) and would only take two weeks at most. They didn't read the whole trilogy - only Oedipus, but we have copies, so Antigone is a great idea - thanks! I'm a little ashamed that I haven't read Gilgamesh. Is there a definitive translation of it? I have to admit...I'm hesitant to touch Bible accounts, but reading it as literature that has cultural foundations or similar elements as other mythology would probably be fine.

@Kid Charlemagne - I haven't read the Cryptonomicon, but it's now on my list. I also really, REALLY like the idea of examining heroes/villains to see what cultures value and despise, and I think that's a good direction to go in for the HJ unit. Cheers!
posted by guster4lovers at 10:42 PM on August 28, 2011


Well, I am not a teacher, but as a long-time mythology nerd who also attended a Christian school for a good chunk of their life with mandatory Bible classes, my interest in mythology was first sparked in elementary school when we were doing just one of our many comparative religion talks throughout the years (I don't know, I guess our teachers' philosophy was, "You might as well have all the info before you make your decision"), I like the idea of comparing/contrasting similar myths. For one thing, that's what got me really interested in checking out mythology on my own. Also by exploring different cultures' mythologies and concepts, and highlight their similarities while touching on common threads also gives a bit of a literary twist to show how a lot of this stuff is sort of the backbone of story telling. You could also do more critical thinking assignments or discussion by talking about similarities or differences.

If you set up main shared myths to explore, you could probably structure the class by breaking things up that way, and highlighting minor themes/topics that are touched upon in each major section.

Like you could start off with "The Beginning" and talk about creation myths, you could do a whole section on myths that involve creation from a deity or mythical being's body. There' Tiamat from Babylonian mythology, Izanagi from Japanese mythology and Ymir from Norse mythology.
You can expand from comparing creation myths, mentioned above, to several themes. Compare and contrast where humans come from (descended from gods or made by gods?)

Under the heading of "Renewal/Rebirth"Flood myth is a good place to move on from creation myths, since a lot of time they come hand-in-hand. It's also provides a little segue for you to talk about how myths were usually created as explanations for real-life phenomenons or events. For example, Persephone's abduction and the seasons, or the Chinese folktale (which is also told in other parts of Asia) of the Herd Boy and Weaver Girl, which ends up explaining why magpies are a little bald-headed at a certain time of the year. Or talk about stories dealing with trips to the underworld and coming back. From Orpheus and Eurydice (and again, maybe Persephone), Izanagi and Izanami, and Osiris in Egyptian mythology.

And get into a little eschatology with the totally bitchin' metal ending "The end of the world", and go from the Revelation/Apocalypse of John, Ragnarok, Mayan or Aztec eschatology. It'll be cool too since there so much modern fiction that's into the whole dystopic/apocalyptic thing, you could touch base and show kids how these things aren't just ancient storybook stories, but show up in modern storytelling, especially if you can highlight clips from recent movies.

And not to make it too depressing you can talk about how the end is usually just the beginning. Like people use the word "apocalypse" a lot to mean OH SHIT THE END OF THE WORLD nowadays, but the word actually means "to reveal" or "unveiling" since used in the title of that particular book of the New Testament, it was more so having to do with John being given a front-seat view of how the end times was going to go down.

Jewish eschatology means the end, but a lot of awesome things for the Jewish people once the Messiah comes. I also always found the Tzadikim fascinating. They're like the Justice League before there was a Justice League! With Ragnarok, one theory is that Norse mythology is cyclical, so the end isn't really the end, since it's just on loop. Same with Buddhist eschatology. You could ask the class why people felt the need to write about things as they were ending. Or how modern end times myths would be written (like if people think a meteor is going to hit earth, if a civilization managed to survive that, how would that be an end times myth...or creation myth?)
posted by kkokkodalk at 11:42 PM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is based on Inuit legend--highly recommended.

Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water compares and contrasts Indigenous North American myths and Bible stories. (I'm not sure if this would fit your course, but I bet you would enjoy reading it, at the least.) Lots of creation stories.

I can take a look at the readings from a First Peoples' Literature course I took in uni, if you are interested--memail me. However, this list would be novels, some rather challenging, which refer to and incorporate mythology. I don't recall any texts on myths specifically.

Ben Okri's The Famished Road jumped to mind when I read your point 3. I'm really not familiar with African myths, but I wonder if it would fit in? You would probably want to use an excerpt, rather than the whole book, for a high school class. (If they're down with the Odyssey then I'm sure they can handle it, but it's still quite long.)

I think it's great that you are not just going Greco-Roman.
posted by equivocator at 12:21 AM on August 29, 2011


Get the Power of Myth videos from PBS.

Those absolutely blew my mind in high school.

Myth's that I think are essential off the top of my head:

Gilgamesh
Osiris and Isis
Orpheus and Euridyce
The Rape of Persephone
Chronos and Zeus and the whole war between the titans and gods..
The Labors of Hercules
Perseus (and bonus, you can watch Clash of the Titans -- compare and contrast with the original myths)
Pandora
Genesis
Norse Mythology
Beowulf
Mithras

You might want to talk about the politics of myths as well -- for example, various kings claiming to be descended from gods, etc.


You might want to talk a little bit about the whole Indo-European Pantheon and how they're related to each other -- for example, that Jupiter and Zeus come from the same root word...
posted by empath at 12:26 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if your'e doing native american stuff, you might want to do Song of the South, but I realize that's kind of a touchy subject..
posted by empath at 12:27 AM on August 29, 2011


You're in California - have you checked out any local Native American groups? They could direct you towards local resources about your own area's mythology.

Joseph Campbell has been mentioned - I most enjoyed his "Masks of God" series, especially Primitive and Occidental mythologies. He's good at comparing several places and taking an inclusive position, not just of peoples but also of gender (in addition to gods and heros, there are goddesses and heroines).
posted by fraula at 12:31 AM on August 29, 2011


Can you get away with assigning a comic book? If so, I'd suggest something from Sandman.

And why not video games? Can you talk about Zelda? Or God of War?

And anime like Princess Mononoke?

Mythology touches on a lot of popular media.

Oh, and Theseus and the Minotaur would be a good one because it gets referenced so, so much...
posted by empath at 12:35 AM on August 29, 2011


There's some really great recommendations already (seconding Metamorphosis for a Greek/Roman mythology text too, since it's basically a selection of short stories).

If you want something specific for Chinese mythology, I recommend Journey to the West a.k.a. Monkey, or at least excerpts. I read it at that age, and found it really fascinating - it's a far cry from the typical 'literary' Western mythology that I had read a ton of - your hero doesn't normally pee on gods with the kind of impudence of the Monkey King. It would fall into the trickster category if you decide to cover themes.

FWIW I had a mythology unit in my English course in high school that I really enjoyed. Our individual-or-in-pairs projects were to present a myth of creation or death from a culture, with encouragement to take creative license in how we presented it. Greek/Roman mythology and modern religions were off limits, and no group could do the same myth as the other. The results were excellent - as in, mummifying a teddy bear before the students with all the instruments and tupperware canopic jars and explaining why the body was prepared that way for the trip to the underworld kind of excellence.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:37 AM on August 29, 2011


A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong is a fantastic, short primer on world mythology and will help with questions 7/8 and also the 'why' of studying mythology.

For question 3: David Lewis-Williams is a South African researcher and writer exploring the possible neurological origins of myth, and he references the San a lot. I love 'The Cave in the Mind' and 'Inside the Neolithic Mind' - both of which are fascinating and brilliantly written - but Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art looks like it may be more useful for you (caveat: I haven't read this one).
posted by freya_lamb at 1:19 AM on August 29, 2011


As the class reads the textbook's accounts of Greek myth, check the original sources for yourself: mainly Apollodorus and Hyginus. If the textbook omits strange details, that's an opportunity to let your students know the Greeks are more interesting, anthropologically, than they will usually hear about, because the myths have been smoothed of their differences and may have been interpolated with Ovid.

In addition to the Odyssey, try to work in some short, potent mythological plays by Euripides like Alcestis or Medea. The point would be to show how Euripides took mythological details and introduced human points of view / moral questions, inhabiting the myths, making them more complex, and giving them relevance to human affairs. Get your students to consider all myths from other points of view: What would Europa or Leda have said about Zeus? What would it take to consider Sisyphus a hero? Etc.

And be sure to let them know what Hermes is named after.

What I'm driving at, in part, is that the Greeks alone would sustain a very rich year of study, if you really brought out the details others don't. You may or may not find Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony useful, for yourself, for highlighting the weird stuff going on in a lot of Greek myths.

But as you do the hero's journey business, maybe use Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey to break down all the Disney Renaissance stories, because that's what many of them are based on (literally--the book began as a memo at Disney). And Your Mythic Journey may be useful in thinking up writing exercises where the students try to give a plot to their own pasts and futures in terms of mythic structure.

But note too that the hero's journey is a plot-focused simplification that takes myths out of the contexts where they're most meaningful. As an example, in Sanskrit drama there's an explicit theory about how to savor the emotional depths of particular relationships depicted on stage, and not by coincidence, that's what you see even in this modern re-telling of the Ramayana--a hero's journey plot, sure, but also long (up to a half-hour!) sequences of poignant music where the camera repeatedly zooms in on the faces of the major characters to see their eyes, expression, etc. and squeeze all the emotional juice out of it that's possible.

You have a number of good ideas and suggestions already for going outside Greco-Roman myth, and I'm sure your students will appreciate that. One issue with teaching Yoruba and Hindu myth in high school is that they're tied to living religions not uncommon in the US, but if you're careful not to say anything different than an English teacher explaining Christian symbolism in literature, you're probably fine.

To address your feeling that you're leaving out other parts of the world, perhaps you could develop an ongoing unit where students investigate regional mythologies themselves. E.g. let them pick a continent/region, make that region a team that has to work together on reading/revising each other's assignments, but allow each student individually to pick a tradition for which they give a presentation and write a short theatrical scene (like Euripides did for the Greeks) that their team enacts. Voila, you're in the library once a week with a free day yourself, you get a relatively easy week where they present their material, and the whole world is covered in exactly the proportions your students prefer.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:40 AM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


There are a lot of excellent suggestions upthread, and if you have plenty of time, I'd give all of the suggestions a thought/read, and then proceed to organize after having imbued the lot. If I was strapped for time, but still had a library available and some time to read (and maybe order books on amazon), I would go for a combination of Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, his History of Religious Ideas and Myth of Eternal Return. Eliade's approach is a combination of the two directions you are considering (structural/narratological and historic-geographic), he is incredibly erudite (his "History" is essentially a crash-course in world religion/myth/ritual, with enough narrative summary of the various ideas and myths he touches upon to serve your needs). He is also quite fond of typologies, so you will find him discuss different types of cosmogonies, heroic typologies, etc.

I'd combine Eliade with Vladimir I. Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, which is all sorts of wonderful, and is one of the first formalist approaches to narrative, especially oral ethnographic material. His ambition was to completely formalize folk narratives, and he formulated the by now famous, under different guises, functions, or moments of the narrativ, such as absentation (the hero leaves, someone else leaves and the hero will have to come to their rescue), departure, rescue, unrecognized arrival, difficult task, solution etc - there are 31 functions, not all of which are present in all narratives. The second set of analytic elements are the characters, such as hero, false hero, helper etc. A simplified version of his analytic categories can be applied to myths, and I could see some fascinating discussion regarding the distribution of character type attributes or of narrative moments in comparative analysis, for instance regarding the myth of the flood in the Bible, in the epic of Gilgamesh, in the Hindu myth of Manu, etc.

In a later book, "Historical Roots of the Wondertale", Propp traces back the roots of the wondertale to mythological narratives, which means that both behave in a similar manner under analysis, formally speaking. I don't know if this book is available in English, but you can find summaries through Google.

Combining the above (and, if you have time, some info on the latter, and all of the other resources mentioned above), would, I believe, allow you to design a very clear lesson plan, which can integrate mythologies from around the world at different times, give you the tools to analyse them in terms of similarities and differences, and trace their continued presence in narratives which are stricto senso de-mythologised, such as contemporary film. You can still easily start with whatever you had planned as a taste of what is to follow, and formalize your ideas beginning with the second lesson, building on the knowledge and atmosphere created with South African cosmogonies.

Good luck - I do envy you your task!
posted by miorita at 5:14 AM on August 29, 2011


Throwing my hat in for excerpts from Metamorphoses rather than the Odyssey for your Greco-Roman unit. Maybe it's just a Classics distinction, but myths and epics are totally different beasts. The events of the Odyssey take place after the world of the gods is more or less nailed down, and so are more legends about human adventures than explanatory tales. Also, Ovid is just much more fun than Homer (even in translation). The Narcissus and Echo section is particularly beautiful.

(Pedantic sidenote: Despite what Wikipedia says, I've always heard been taught that Herms [the phallic statues] are named after Hermes [the god], not the other way around, and the lack of a citation on that article leads me to side with my professors)
posted by oinopaponton at 6:24 AM on August 29, 2011


At some point it might be really handy to have your students get into the whole history of cultural anthropology side of things and examine what myths are. How do they relate to the wider cultures and societies that they come from. Do they serve functions? (eg Do they explain things, are they primitive science, are they social control mechanisms used for keeping people in their place). Or are they just narrative parts of belief structures, best accounted for by their relation to other parts of those belief structures, and not by comparison to the way we understand stuff? Or is it a little from column A and a little from column B? That sort of thing.
posted by Ahab at 6:26 AM on August 29, 2011


Pedantic follow-up: I have no idea who's right, and made-up etymologies are both common and pernicious in older studies, but as a citation for the Hermes > herma connection, here's Karl Kerenyi's essay on Hermes:

The name of the God comes, however, from the lower part. Hermeias, contracted as Hermes, is a further development of herma, which is the name not of a "stone heap" (hermax or hermaion, both of them derived from herma) but of a single stone, which could be used also as a support or a ship's ballast; the word meant all of these things. The simplest conceivable monument (a phallus monument) was the primordial symbol of the Kabeirian and Hermetic ideas; this symbol was offered by nature herself.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:31 AM on August 29, 2011


Have you looked through TES?
You need a free registration/log-in to access.

I quite liked this page about myths from the movies. Not sure how accurate/true the comparisons are.
posted by 92_elements at 7:45 AM on August 29, 2011


I had a freshman mythology course. The first assignment was to hit the yellow pages and find all the business names that had to do with greek mythology. It ws a great little eye opener for a 13 year old who had never thought of such things.
posted by beccaj at 9:44 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you're a beginning teacher, and this is the first time you've taught this course, you really ought to keep it simple.

You need to focus first making sure you are being realistic about the amount of content you are going to cover. You also need to make sure you're evaluating the core skills. Make sure it will be coherent for the kids, and they will know where they have been in the course, where the are now, and where they are going. The nuts and bolts are most important, I must say.

Without structure, you can present all of the information you want, but very little of it will be transmitted.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:22 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just to clarify, I'm in my eighth year overall (teaching English, History, and other subjects) and am incredibly confident in my ability to teach in general - my classroom is well managed, I've established routines and structure, I've created my own courses on many occasions, and every year I've taught at least one new subject. It's not the teaching part that's new to me. It's the teaching mythology part that's new.

I am really excited to look into everything you guys have suggested - thanks! I appreciate all contributions and welcome any more you've got to give!
posted by guster4lovers at 2:47 PM on August 29, 2011


For American Indian/Native American myths I would recommend the book American Indian Myths and Legends . For movies, how about Black Orpheus.
posted by gudrun at 4:34 PM on August 29, 2011


@gudrun - I actually was given a copy of that last year - good to know it's a decent one!
posted by guster4lovers at 4:41 PM on August 29, 2011


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