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Life Lessons from the Great Myths

Life Lessons from the Great Myths

Professor J. Rufus Fears Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
Course No.  3870
Course No.  3870
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Hector and Achilles clash on the battlefields of Troy. Arthur discovers a magical sword and becomes a powerful British king. Jesse James pulls off daring crimes across the American frontier. Myths and stories such as these have captivated billions of people throughout human history. But these and other moments are more than just mere entertainment; they also serve a more important purpose.

Great myths and grand tales teach people about the hopes and values of their cultures, and they impart invaluable life lessons that can teach, guide, and inspire. The ways in which the human imagination can transform historical events, people, and themes into powerful myths that endure through the ages is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And to examine the core of the world's greatest myths and tales—and the larger-than-life characters who figure in them—is to confront some of history's most basic human truths. It's also an engaging opportunity to better understand them, learn from them, and possibly even apply them to your own everyday life.

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Hector and Achilles clash on the battlefields of Troy. Arthur discovers a magical sword and becomes a powerful British king. Jesse James pulls off daring crimes across the American frontier. Myths and stories such as these have captivated billions of people throughout human history. But these and other moments are more than just mere entertainment; they also serve a more important purpose.

Great myths and grand tales teach people about the hopes and values of their cultures, and they impart invaluable life lessons that can teach, guide, and inspire. The ways in which the human imagination can transform historical events, people, and themes into powerful myths that endure through the ages is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And to examine the core of the world's greatest myths and tales—and the larger-than-life characters who figure in them—is to confront some of history's most basic human truths. It's also an engaging opportunity to better understand them, learn from them, and possibly even apply them to your own everyday life.

Change the way you think about some of the greatest stories ever told with Life Lessons from the Great Myths by award-winning Professor J. Rufus Fears of the University of Oklahoma. A powerful work of storytelling prowess and historical insight, these 36 captivating lectures explore events and individuals that so gripped civilizations, they transcended to the level of myth and played an important role in shaping culture, politics, religion, and more. Taking you from the battlefields of Alexander the Great and the ships of Viking explorers to the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte and the rough-and-tumble drama of the American West, this is the kind of engaging, personally rewarding Great Course that only Professor Fears can deliver.

Walk the Universal Path to Wisdom

Mythology, according to Professor Fears, is an essential part of the universal path to wisdom. We study myths and the heroes who populate them for the same reason we study any subject in the humanities: to gain wisdom. Using his decades of teaching experience and his highly popular perspective on history, Professor Fears shows you how to find, hidden within these breath-catching stories, the core sets of principles for the lives of people from around the world and across time.

To make the epic scope of world mythology more approachable, Life Lessons from the Great Myths focuses on what Professor Fears considers the most important and popular myths from key eras and cultures from more than 3,000 years of history.

  • Myths from ancient Greece and Rome: You'll travel back to the veritable cradle of Western civilization and investigate how views on warfare, heroism, family, justice, and other human values were shaped by myths and tales about the Trojan War, the adventures of Jason and Theseus, the tragedy of the House of Atreus, the founding of Rome, the rule of Julius Caesar, and more.
  • Myths from the Near East and the Middle East: Focusing on the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the books of Genesis and Exodus, you'll discover how ancient stories and events—including Gilgamesh's quest for immortality, the calling of Moses, and the bestowal of the Ten Commandments—can serve as the backbone for politics, culture, and spirituality.
  • Myths from early and modern Europe: Europe is also rife with its own mythologies and tales that built the foundations of the modern West and that still impart lessons on leadership. Among those you look at are chivalric Arthurian legends, Viking travels to North America, the Battle of Kosovo, and the near-mythic life of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • Myths from the United States: America, you'll learn, was a fertile field for transforming history into myth and shaping the nation's unique approach to freedom and self-reliance. Here, you'll find out what you can learn from the lives and deeds of George Washington, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, General Armstrong Custer, and other bold American figures.

Throughout the course, you approach each myth from a perspective that considers both its (possible) historical roots and its hidden kernels of wisdom. Not only will you get a stronger sense of how myths work together to create a broad moral framework for civilizations, you'll see how in some cases—such as Julius Caesar's life serving as a direct inspiration for Napoleon Bonaparte's military career—earlier mythic and historical exploits inform and influence subsequent generations.

Uncover Enduring Sources of Wisdom

Every myth and story you explore in Life Lessons from the Great Myths—whether a completely unfounded story, such as the sinking of Atlantis, or one that can be verified by the historical record, such as the battle of the Alamo—have long since transcended into legend. And each tale conveys higher truths too profound to be described in ordinary, factual language.

Decoding them, Professor Fears reveals how they serve as vibrant and enduring sources of wisdom.

  • Oedipus, Agamemnon, and Orestes: The tragic lives of these ancient Greek figures offered Athenians pointed lessons on subjects such as decision making, leadership, and family values.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh: The rich tapestry of supernatural events in this riveting epic provided support for Mesopotamian politics, including the need for a divinely appointed kingship.
  • Beowulf: The furious battles between this bold hero and a bevy of monsters played an important role in cementing Germanic ideas of courage, heroism, glory, and honor.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: Promoted by the military leader himself, the myth of this French emperor shows what it takes to achieve military and political success—but also to overreach and lose it all.
  • The battle of the Alamo: The dramatic last stand of Davy Crockett and other Americans at this Texas fort emphasizes the idea that liberty is worth any price, no matter what the odds of victory.

Relive the World's Great Myths

Professor Fears has won more than 25 awards for teaching excellence throughout his illustrious career as an instructor, lecturer, and historian. And with Life Lessons from the Great Myths, you'll see for yourself (if you aren't already a fan of this masterful orator) just why he has received such acclaim—from both his students and our own community of lifelong learners.

Professor Fears does more than just deliver insightful lectures. He tells vibrant stories with passion and drama, so much so that you'll find yourself not just learning about these myths and stories, but actually reliving them. You'll

  • watch the brothers Romulus and Remus fight over where to build the city of Rome and, in the process, give birth to an iconic ancient empire;
  • walk with Moses and the Israelites as they escape from Egyptian bondage and establish religious traditions that continue to this day;
  • charge with Jesse James as he commits his daring crimes and transcends into a veritable folk hero of the American frontier;
  • follow alongside American troops as they raise the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima for a photograph that would inspire the nation;
  • and much more.

The search for wisdom is, according to Professor Fears, the paramount purpose in life. And there is much wisdom to be gleaned from the world's great myths. By the final powerful and stirring lecture of this course, you're sure to find yourself wiser than you were before you started.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Heroes, History, and Myth
    Embark on Professor Fears's latest course with this introductory lecture. First, untangle the relationship between human history and mythology. Then, see this relationship at work through two examples from American history: the life of George Washington and the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima during World War II. x
  • 2
    The Myth of Troy
    Travel back to c. 1250 B.C. and revisit the chaos of the Trojan War. Learn how this 10-year conflict began as a result of the classical Greek idea of hubris (abusing the limits of personal power) and how its story conveys powerful political truths about the tragedy of preemptive warfare. x
  • 3
    Homer and Mythology
    Continue your look at the Trojan War, this time focusing on the great book that tells its tale: the Iliad. As Professor Fears recounts breathtaking moments from this epic poem—including the stirring final battle between Hector and Achilles—he illuminates the profound truths about humanity contained between Homer's lines. x
  • 4
    In Search of Historical Troy
    How was it proved that the Trojan War was not mere myth but an actual historical event? Find out in this insightful lecture, which tells the story of how archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered a wealth of evidence that proved, once and for all, the historicity of this momentous event. x
  • 5
    Life Lessons from the Trojan War
    Conclude your look at the Trojan War by investigating the conflict's historical roots in a pre-emptive war for control over natural resources in the Black Sea. Then, close the lecture by looking at why the Greek empire declined, as well as lessons that you can learn from Homer's Odyssey. x
  • 6
    Jason and the Golden Fleece
    Turn now to another universal Greek myth: the adventures of Jason and his Argonauts as they voyage to find the mysterious Golden Fleece. In retelling this thrilling myth, Professor Fears uncovers some of its universal mythological themes, its perspective on human values, and its kernel of historical truth. x
  • 7
    Theseus and the Minotaur
    Fundamental to the national identity of Athens was the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. Follow along as Theseus battles this mythical monster and liberates his city-state from the tyranny of King Minos. Then, witness how archaeological excavations at the Palace of Knossos have revealed startling truths about these mythological adventures. x
  • 8
    Myth and Athenian Drama
    Discover how mythic stories from Greek tragedies helped convey the most important values to ancient Athens. After a brief look at everyday life under the Athenian democracy and Aristotle's ideas of the purposes of tragedy, focus on Sophocles' powerful plays about King Oedipus. x
  • 9
    Fate and Free Will in Mythology
    What was the intellectual and political climate responsible for the rise of Athenian tragedy? How were these tragic plays meant to work on the audiences watching them? And what ideas of justice and family are embedded in the myths of Tantalus, Agamemnon, Orestes, and other members of the bloody House of Atreus? x
  • 10
    Atlantis—Fact or Fiction?
    Can myths still impart powerful human truths when they're not rooted in historical fact? Find out here in this lecture on the lost continent of Atlantis, as described by the philosopher Plato. Learn why we should still consider this myth to be so important, and how it survived across the ages. x
  • 11
    The Epic of Gilgamesh
    Investigate one of the earliest and most memorable myths from the ancient Middle East: the epic story of Gilgamesh. With his characteristic storytelling prowess, Professor Fears lets you follow along as the Sumerian king battles monsters, journeys to the end of the Earth, and seeks answers to life's most important questions. x
  • 12
    Gilgamesh and History
    Now that you're familiar with Gilgamesh, unpack the historical kernel inside the myth. Peek behind the rich mythological tapestry of creatures and events and discover central facts about the birth of civilization in the Middle East, including the construction of great walled cities and a political structure rooted in authoritarian rule. x
  • 13
    The Book of Genesis
    While few people today take the mythic stories of the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh seriously, it's a different story with the subject of this lecture: the book of Genesis from the Old Testament. Delve into the Judeo-Christian interpretation of how the world began and witness the dawn of the nation of Israel. x
  • 14
    Exodus—The Foundation of the Jewish People
    The Exodus is a seminal event in Jewish history. Follow the story's events—from the calling of Moses and the ten plagues of Egypt to the parting of the Red Sea and the bestowal of the Ten Commandments—and explore in detail some of their higher historical and moral truths. x
  • 15
    The Historical Power of Biblical Stories
    How do Genesis and Exodus define Jewish culture? How were ancient Egyptian views of monotheism passed on to the Hebrews through the rebellious pharaoh Akhenaten? Why could we consider that Moses himself may have been Egyptian? Learn the answers to these and other provocative historical questions about these great books. x
  • 16
    Aeneas—Rome's National Hero
    Learn how the Aeneid—Vergil's epic poem about the warrior Aeneas's arrival in Italy—uses mythology to celebrate the ancient Roman national identity. In particular, examine two fascinating episodes from this myth: the tormented love affair between Aeneas and Dido, and Aeneas's descent into the underworld to find his destiny. x
  • 17
    Romulus—The Founder of Rome
    Another myth central to the ancient Romans was the establishment of their city by Romulus around 753 B.C. Professor Fears details the dramatic events of Romulus's life and the dawn of the Roman Republic. While some historians dismiss Romulus's story as pure fabrication, see why Professor Fears believes otherwise. x
  • 18
    Lays of Ancient Rome
    Romans during the time of Julius Caesar often looked back to stories about the foundation of the republic—tales filled with the virtues of patriotism. Investigate one of the most popular of these stories: that of the noble Lucius Junius Brutus's revolution against the tyrannical rule of King Tarquin. x
  • 19
    Alexander the Great in History
    Follow in the footsteps of the warrior Alexander the Great as he rises to power and conquers almost the entire ancient world. Specifically, you'll explore Alexander's foresight and military prowess and see how these characteristics helped create the "myth" of Alexander the Great that endures to this day. x
  • 20
    Alexander the Great in Romance
    Taming the wild horse Bucephalus. Seducing the queen of the Amazons. Traveling to the ends of the earth in search of immortality. These are just three of the many stories you investigate—all of which form the "Alexander romance" that reflected the political and cultural attitudes of the Roman Empire. x
  • 21
    Beowulf—Historical Roots and Heroic Values
    Transition now to the Germanic tribes that conquered the western Roman Empire. First, gain some historical background on the dawn of the Germanic age and its emphasis on courage and heroism. Then, see these powerful values in action as you listen to the captivating—and sometimes frightening—epic myth of the warrior Beowulf. x
  • 22
    King Arthur—Fact or Fiction?
    Explore the cycles of myth that revolved around King Arthur, whose legend became a defining force in shaping English national consciousness and the highest truths of medieval Christendom. Among these are Arthur's surprising removal of Excalibur from its stone and his creation of the chivalric Knights of the Round Table. x
  • 23
    In Search of the Holy Grail
    Continue your analysis of the myth stories surrounding King Arthur. Here, Professor Fears draws you into the complicated romance between Arthur's queen, Guenevere, and his trusted knight Sir Lancelot; the violent treachery of Arthur's son, Mordred; and the final moments of Arthur's life and his inevitable passing into legend. x
  • 24
    Vikings in America?
    Did the Vikings discover North America? For a long time this was largely regarded as fancy, but in 1960, archaeological evidence established beyond a doubt that Vikings had settled there. Investigate how this discovery was made—and the role played by the journeys of Eric the Red and Leif Erikson. x
  • 25
    Vergil the Magician
    During the Middle Ages, the Roman poet Vergil became the center of a widely spread myth that portrayed him as a magician. How did this happen? What were some of the many stories surrounding this mysterious magician? And how did they affect the ancient poet's reputation in subsequent centuries? x
  • 26
    The Battle of Kosovo
    Fought on June 28, 1389, the battle of Kosovo between the Kingdom of Serbia and the Turkish Empire is still living history in the Balkans. Go inside the history and mythic legacy of this clash to learn how its higher truths about patriotism still inspire the Serbs and their modern nation. x
  • 27
    Julius Caesar in History
    Julius Caesar's life and deeds were a veritable blueprint for some of Europe's powerful rulers, generals, and even popes. Strengthen your understanding of Caesar's historical legacy with a closer look at his rise to power, his military genius, his dramatic assassination, and his influence on subsequent generations of politicians. x
  • 28
    Napoleon and the Mantle of Caesar
    Julius Caesar's greatest student: Napoleon Bonaparte, who in the early 1800s sought to unify Europe into a single, all-powerful empire. Gain new insights into this European figure's rise and fall from power. Then, witness the creation of the "Napoleonic myth" and its own lasting impact on history. x
  • 29
    Arminius and German Mythology
    What made the war chief Arminius, who defeated the Romans in A.D. 9, the quintessential historical and mythic hero of 19th-century Germany? What did the Roman historian Tacitus see in this remarkable individual? How did Arminius's story endure down through the centuries and shape German national consciousness? Find out here. x
  • 30
    Teuton versus Roman
    Continue exploring the mythological legacy of Arminius and the ways it helped support the reformation of German self-image in medieval and early modern Germany. Then, travel back centuries and learn how the fall of the Roman Empire laid the groundwork for the development of Germany and other European nation-states. x
  • 31
    Davy Crockett and the Myth of the Frontier
    In the course's final section, turn your eyes to America—a nation that, while relatively young, comes with its own unique figures and events that have achieved near-mythical status. Meet some of the most fascinating characters from the American frontier, including President Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett. x
  • 32
    The Alamo
    Like other great battles in history, the last stand at the Alamo has long been celebrated in poetry, song, and prose as a battle of mythical greatness and glory. Find yourself standing alongside American heroes such as Davy Crockett and William Travis as they defend Texas with bravery and patriotism. x
  • 33
    Jesse James and the Myth of the Outlaw
    Outlaws are universal figures in mythology, and outlaws have played a prominent role in U.S. history. What accounts for this cultural fascination? Learn the answer by closely investigating the life and law-breaking career of Jesse James, the most prominent outlaw in the American West, and his tragic death at the hand of a friend. x
  • 34
    General Custer—Hero or Villain?
    General Armstrong Custer and his last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn make up one of the most controversial figures and moments in the mythology of the Wild West. Was he American history's arch-villain? Or is there more to Custer—and his myth—than meets the eye? x
  • 35
    Reagan, Hollywood, and American Ideals
    Ronald Reagan, according to Professor Fears, translated the values from his highly popular Hollywood films into one of the most successful presidencies in American history. Here, survey the highlights from this momentous president's life and uncover the roots of his undeniably important, near-mythic eight years in the Oval Office. x
  • 36
    Mythology as a Path to Wisdom
    Learn why the study of great myths (and the historical kernels contained within them) is an essential aspect of the humanities—and an important marker on the pathway to true wisdom. Also, Professor Fears reveals the ultimate lesson to be learned from everything you've investigated in the past 35 lectures. x

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J. Rufus Fears
Ph.D. J. Rufus Fears
University of Oklahoma
Dr. J. Rufus Fears was David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also served as David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Fears was Professor of History and Distinguished Faculty Research Lecturer at Indiana University, and Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. An acclaimed teacher and scholar with more than 25 awards for teaching excellence, Professor Fears was chosen Professor of the Year on three occasions by students at the University of Oklahoma. His other accolades included the Medal for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) Great Plains Region Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the UCEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Professor Fears's books and monographs include The Cult of Jupiter and Roman Imperial Ideology and The Theology of Victory at Rome. He edited a three-volume edition of Selected Writings of Lord Acton. His discussions of the Great Books have appeared in newspapers across the country and have aired on national television and radio programs. Professor Fears passed away in October 2012.
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Reviews

Rated 3.3 out of 5 by 40 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Amazing Series of Lectures Throughout the history of mankind myths have given us our higher. In this wonderful series Professor J. Rufus Fears looks at a number of these myths and examines what they meant in their own time and what they can teach us today. The myths in this series cover the entire period of Western Civilization. From Gilgamesh and The Bible all the way through the Greek and Roman periods, the Medieval period, and up to our own times. Fears examines the kernel of truth in many of these myths and shows that most have some form of history behind them. He also shows that these stories convey truths that can serve in our own time. This means that while there is some history in the myths we shouldn't get bogged down in debating every historical fact. Instead we should look at what truths these stories convey and learn. I am sure that there will be those who object to Dr. Fears' selections. They focus entirely on what we call the Western Tradition. Of course this encompasses nearly four thousand years of literature and history that spans the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the British Isles, and North America. These myths are the myths that inform us in the modern world. They contain the wealth of a cultural heritage that we ignore to our own poverty of mind and spirit. Throughout the course there are a number of themes that Dr. Fears draws from these stories. Some of them are intended to resonate deeply with the audience in our own time. On multiple occasions he discusses the problems associated with pre-emptive war, particularly in the Middle East. Perhaps the American leadership and the American people could have avoided many of the mistakes of the past decade if we had spent more time reading the classics and less time on other subjects. He shows us the importance of following your dream. This is true of the characters in the myths as well as those who pursued the study of these myths. On several occasions he points out the intrepid amateurs who ignored the "pot-bellied" professors and found Troy, Knossos, Mycenae, and other locations deemed as mere fantasy by the experts of their time. This is just one sample of the dry humor that he shares. Personally I found Dr. Fears speaking style to be quite enjoyable. With his soft Southern accent and the subject material he often reminded me of a preacher delivering a classic sermon that would be discussed in great depth after church. I have read myths since I was a very young child and have always enjoyed them. In college I majored in history and took as many English courses as I could. There I saw first hand what damage has been done to our culture in the university setting. History and Literature studies no longer examine the higher aspirations and truths. Instead, History has become a dull plodding world of sociologists. There are notable exceptions, as the Great Courses show us. Literature studies have fallen prey to the post-modernist and the Freudian. It is refreshing to find a professor who still remembers that our stories, whether we call them history, legend, or myth, are what make us truly human. I plan to get everything I can find by Professor Fears and I hope that you will as well. April 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Prof. Fears' Best Ever Prof. Fears has an amazing talent for storytelling and an ability to inspire. In this series, he provides sustentative insight into the connection between myth and actual history, all the way from Troy up to modern times including some American “myths” also. His ability to “connect-dots” for us across many centuries is outstanding. If you want to know the connection between Rome, Christianity, and the King Arthur Legends; If you want to know the connection between Arminius and Hitler, and many more such connections throughout history, this course is the one course. His best work EVER, and the absolute best course I have taken from the Great Course company (and I have taken many scores). Prof. Fears, please keep doing what you are doing. Consider a series on the great spiritual/religious “hero’s” (Jesus, Mohamad, Gandhi, Moses, etc.) as your next project – wouldn’t that be great! February 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by great course Once I started this course I was hooked. Dr. Fears is a wonderful instructor for this course...complete with a sense of humor coupled with intellectual critique. There were moments during this course I wished I had done my Graduate with this professor. Please do yourself a favor and work your way through this course...it's well worth the effort. December 8, 2013
Rated 3 out of 5 by Deeper Meanings in Myths Classical myths, heroic legends, and exaggerated tales of the exploits of a society's favourite sons and daughters may encapsulate fundamental truths, moral values, and timeless lessons. Professor Fears, an engaging storyteller, developed this theme insightfully in 'Life Lessons From the Great Myths.' He also helped me understand how hybris (or hubris) is a recurring tragic flaw for many characters in myths. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Fears tended to express views as though they were incontestable, as when he flatly asserted that Pericles was 'one of three great democratic statesmen in history, along with Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill,' and when, discussing fate, he likewise asserted that 'if you have the DNA, the genes, for breast cancer, you're going to get it.' Fears often spoke as a passionate, verging on jingoistic, citizen of the U. S. A. I do still recommend the course, but it might have been even better presented from a 'world citizen's' perspective. November 6, 2013
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