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Classical Mythology

Classical Mythology

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Classical Mythology

Course No. 243
Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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Course No. 243
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Course Overview

From Athena to Zeus, the characters and stories of classical mythology have been both unforgettable and profoundly influential. They have inspired and shaped everything from great art and literature, to our notions of sexuality and gender roles, to the themes of popular films and TV shows.

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 Heracles (Hercules in the Roman version); and the most famous of all classical myths, the Trojan War.

How Should We Study Mythology?

Professor Elizabeth Vandiver anchors her presentation in some basics. What is a myth? Which societies use myths? What are some of the problems inherent in studying classical mythology? She also discusses the most influential 19th- and 20th-century thinking about myth's nature and function, including the psychological theories of Freud and Jung and the metaphysical approach of Joseph Campbell.

You consider the relationship between mythology and culture. What are the implications of the myth of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades—as recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter—for the Greek view of life and death, marriage and gender roles?

What are the origins of classical mythology? Professor Vandiver examines similarities between the Theogony and Mesopotamian creation myths and considers the possible influences that the prehistoric Greek cultures, the Minoans and Mycenaeans, may have had on classical mythology.

She also cautions you about the dangers of probing for distant origins. For example, there is little evidence, as many today believe, that a prehistoric "mother goddess" lies at the heart of mythology. This notion may simply be wishful thinking—a modern myth about ancient myth.

In addition, Professor Vandiver explores the challenges we face in studying mythology—which is rooted in oral tradition and pre-literate society—through the literary works that recount them. How do we disentangle the original myth from its portrayal in Aeschylus's The Oresteia, or Sophocles's Oedipus the King? The more renowned the author, the more difficult this task becomes.

From the "Truth" of the Minotaur to Ovid's Impact on Shakespeare

Professor Vandiver's approach makes classical mythology fresh, absorbing, and often surprising. The many such topics you will consider include:

  • The fact that most scholars see significant flaws in the work of Joseph Campbell, one of the best-known and most popular theorists of myth. They believe he makes a variety of assumptions—that myth has a spiritual meaning, or that certain narrative elements are the same in all cultures—that he fails to support, or that are highly questionable.
  • The differences between the classical notion of the gods and our concepts of what gods, or God, should be. The ancient gods did not create the universe or earth, were not omniscient or omnipotent, were not consistently good, and did not even care much about humanity.
  • The absence of a well-defined belief in the afterlife in Greek mythology and religion. In general, it was the opposite of what we believe: both less important and less pleasant than this life.
  • The small kernel of truth, as represented in the "bull-leaping" fresco of Knossos, that may lie at the heart of the myth of the Minotaur, the half-man, half bull-like monster.
  • Chronological inconsistencies in mythology. For example, in the story of Theseus, characters interact who in other stories did not even live at the same time.
  • The way various mythological depictions of females—the Amazons, the myth of Medea, and such monsters as Medusa and Scyllare—present Greek males' anxiety about women's power, particularly their sexual power. This theme is embodied in Medea's name, which means both "genitals" and "clever plans."
  • The Romans' near wholesale "borrowing" of Greek mythology, in the context of their ambivalent view of Greek culture. They considered the Greeks to be better artists, poets, and rhetoricians than they were, but also saw them as decadent, "soft," and treacherous.
  • The extensive influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the works of William Shakespeare. Because of this relationship, Ovid has had an incalculable effect on English literature.

In her final lecture, Professor Vandiver surveys aspects of the enormous influence that classical mythology has had, and still exerts, on Western Civilization. She offers her opinions as to why this is the case. She also demonstrates that the ancient gods, monsters, and heroes are very much alive and active today in contemporary beliefs in UFOs and visits from extraterrestrials and in popular entertainment such as Star Trek and films such as the Road Warrior and the Terminatorseries.

A Popular and Top-Award Winning Teacher

"Professor Vandiver is an outstanding teacher with a clear mastery of her subject," writes Teaching Company customer Barbara Brumbaugh of Auburn, Alabama. "She examines the subject in impressive depth, yet keeps the lectures interesting and accessible to non-specialists."

Professor Vandiver is the 1998 recipient of the American Philological Association's Excellence in Teaching Award, the most prestigious teaching award given to American classicists. She also teaches the related Teaching Company courses The Iliad of Homer, The Odyssey of Homer, and Virgil's Aeneid.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2000
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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? x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    “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? x
  • 5
    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? x
  • 6
    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? x
  • 7
    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? x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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." x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Elizabeth Vandiver

About Your Professor

Elizabeth Vandiver, Ph.D.
Whitman College
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 M.A. and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at...
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Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 124 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Bravissima! Dr. Vandiver is fantastic! Most people are aware of Homer and Odysseus. The Aeneid is familiar to those who graduated from college. But there is so much more from the classical world that any educated person should know about. Professor Vandiver is absolutely fantastic! Her energy and clear explanations make this a very enjoyable and educational course. Highly recommended! November 23, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by One of the great story tellers I recently purchased a second course by Professor Vandiver. To be honest, it wouldn't really matter what she was lecturing on, I would quite happily sit and listen to her for hours! Vandiver provides a nuanced and entertaining overview of Classical Mythology. She grounds her lectures in historical context and cross references a range of study on the different elements. Perhaps one of her greatest strengths though is her willingness to acknowledge what academics don't know about the topic. She is willing to point out the gaps in study and to agree or disagree with other scholars on the subject. At the heart of it, Vandiver knows how to tell a good story, and how to bring thousand year old stories to life. November 3, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent. Fresh and Engaging History. This is a DVD course that I return to again and again, and the information remains fresh and alive. Vandiver loves her topic and has a gentle wry humor and comprehensive knowledge and enthusiasm for her topic that is infectious. She is both intellectually lofty and simply likable, and that is a rare and marvelous combination for any teacher. Her ability to bring alternative viewpoints into her discussion, to explain various theories that contradict hers, and then put her beliefs and knowledge into line alongside them is highly illuminating and valuable. Clearly she has her opinion, but she sees the importance of allowing the students (us) to evaluate other thoughts and come to our own conclusions. And she does this throughout, while imparting the information in a way that creates a great connection and context. Vandiver has persuasive and memorable ways of addressing scholarly thought, and I have found myself using some of her analogies in conversations with others. Not only do I think she is an excellent teacher, but I can see even teens being engaged by her presentational manner that is frank, open, and accessible without a shred of talking down to the viewer. Having purchased many courses, this is one of my favorites, and one of the best teachers in every aspect. If you're curious about classical mythology, and the way historians uncover this history, this is both an excellent introduction and a marvelous resource. August 25, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good Overview of Classical Mythology This course provides a good overview of the classical mythology which is primary the Greek mythology with some mention of the Roman mythology. As Professor Vandiver mentions – Roman mythology is basically Greek mythology with the names changed. This course is recommended for anybody who wants a general overview of classical Greek mythology. Since my heritage is half Scandinavian, I was hoping that this course would discuss or at least mention Norse mythology but there is no mention. Norse mythology as had influences on modern society (e.g., Thursday). It would have also been useful to understand the relationship of the Norse mythology with the Greek and Roman mythologies. June 21, 2015
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