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Myth in Human History

Myth in Human History

Professor Grant L. Voth Ph.D.
Monterey Peninsula College
Course No.  2332
Course No.  2332
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture
A warrior embarks on a voyage to retrieve a mysterious fleece. A man lassoes the sun to lengthen the day. A giant boar raises the earth from the sea with its enormous tusks.

These are just a few of the thousands of myths from around the world. They are tales of powerful gods, fearless heroes, frightening monsters, ingenious tricks, and epic battles.

But more important: These stories are the keys to truly grasping the ways that principles, rituals, codes, and taboos are woven into the fabric of a particular society or civilization. It's through myths that we can answer these and other fundamental questions:

  • How was the universe created, and why?
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A warrior embarks on a voyage to retrieve a mysterious fleece. A man lassoes the sun to lengthen the day. A giant boar raises the earth from the sea with its enormous tusks.

These are just a few of the thousands of myths from around the world. They are tales of powerful gods, fearless heroes, frightening monsters, ingenious tricks, and epic battles.

But more important: These stories are the keys to truly grasping the ways that principles, rituals, codes, and taboos are woven into the fabric of a particular society or civilization. It's through myths that we can answer these and other fundamental questions:

  • How was the universe created, and why?
  • What is the purpose of evil?
  • Why is society organized the way it is?
  • How did natural features like rivers, mountains, and oceans emerge?

Grasping the deep-seeded truths behind myths is an illuminating and rewarding journey that reveals provocative new insights into the ways that beliefs are passed on from generation to generation.

And it's a journey you can experience and own with Myth in Human History. This entertaining and illuminating course, delivered by engaging storyteller and award-winning Professor Grant L. Voth of Monterey Peninsula College, plunges you into the world's greatest myths. Taking you from ancient Greece and Japan to North America and Africa to New Zealand and Great Britain, these 36 lectures survey some of the world's most enduring myths and the cultures behind them. By the close of the final lecture, you'll find yourself looking at and understanding world mythology in startling new ways.

Explore Hundreds of Captivating Stories ...

Surveying the greatest myths may seem like an impossible task. So to make learning about world mythology all the more accessible, Myth in Human History is structured into five units.

  • Myths about creation and destruction
  • Myths about gods and goddesses
  • Myths about heroes
  • Myths about tricksters
  • Myths about sacred places

By approaching myths in this way, you'll be better able to understand mythology's profound importance in shaping nearly every aspect of culture. You'll also discover the hidden connections between them-a comparative approach that emphasizes the universality of myths across cultures.

... and Meet a Wealth of Fascinating Characters

Along with the stories themselves, you'll encounter fascinating characters, including

  • Herakles, the ancient Greek hero whose life illustrates the idea that all heroic stories have a similar structure;
  • Loki, the shape-shifting trickster who introduces the concept of time into the Norse realm of Asgard; and
  • King Arthur, the Celtic lord and founder of the Knights of the Round Table.

An Engaging Tour, a Master Storyteller

A veteran Great Courses instructor, Professor Voth draws you into each myth, and, in doing so, celebrates the same enchanting oral tradition that helped to spread so many of them. With almost every myth in the course, he first tells it as a story to be listened to and savored. Then he explains how different readings and interpretations shed meaning on the myth's role in larger culture. And finally, he invites you to develop your own interpretations of these age-old tales, as well as to ponder the role that myths-both ancient and everyday-play in your own life.

Myths, according to Professor Voth, are "gifts from the ancestors to be cherished." Myth in Human History is the perfect way for you to celebrate these cherished gifts, to learn more about them than you ever thought possible, and to discover how mythology has the power to shape human history.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Myth and Meaning
    Begin your journey into the fascinating world of myths. What exactly are myths? How have they shaped cultures? What hidden truths lie inside ancient myths like that of Herakles or contemporary ones like the alligators that "supposedly" lurk in New York City sewers? Find out in this lecture. x
  • 2
    The Continuing Importance of Myth
    Preview the types of myths you'll explore in the coming lectures, including creation myths, heroic myths, trickster myths, and myths about sacred spaces. Then, conclude the lecture with a look at how contemporary literature like the Harry Potter novels is indebted to myths as old as the human race. x
  • 3
    Creation Myths
    Start learning about great creation myths by examining their major "genres," including creation from nothing; creation by mud from a primal sea; and creation through the breaking of a cosmic egg. Then, see these creation myths in action with two from Egypt that date back to around 2300 B.C.E. x
  • 4
    Mesopotamian Creation—Enuma Elish
    Neighbors to the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians possessed their own fascinating myths. The most prominent of these: the Enuma Elish, in which the cosmos was organized from the body of the murdered goddess Tiamat. Here, investigate several interpretations of this story and how they've helped us better understand its cultural importance. x
  • 5
    Hebrew Creation Myths
    Turn now to the most familiar creation myth of all: the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. Whether you view these events as myths or sacred stories, place them into the larger context of ancient Hebrew culture by drawing comparisons with other creation myths from around the world. x
  • 6
    Emergence and World-Parent Creation Myths
    Broaden your grasp of creation myths by studying two more variations. The first is a Navajo example of an emergence myth, in which creatures journey to Earth through underground worlds. The second is a Maori version of the world-parent myth, where a parental unity breaks apart into separate individuals. x
  • 7
    Cosmic Egg and Ex Nihilo Creation Myths
    The world emerges from a cracked egg. Or it comes from a vast nothingness. These are the respective backbones of cosmic egg and ex nihilo creation myths, both of which you learn more about in this lecture on the Chinese myth of P'an Ku and the Mayan Popol Vuh. x
  • 8
    Earth-Diver and Dismembered God Creation Myths
    Finish your tour of creation myths with a closer look at two distinct approaches: a Huron tale in which the world is born out of mud dug from the depths of a primeval sea, and a Norse tale in which the torn body of the frost giant Ymir creates the cosmos. x
  • 9
    Mesopotamian and Hebrew Flood Myths
    Water is the womb of life—but it can also be the grave to which life returns. In flood myths, a catastrophic deluge punishes humanity and, in the process, recreates it. Unpack the meaning behind two popular flood myths: the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh and Noah's story from Genesis. x
  • 10
    Other Flood Myths
    All flood stories are nuanced in ways that reflect the values and fears of their particular civilizations. In this lecture, Professor Voth compares and contrasts six lesser-known flood myths from five unique world cultures: classical Greece and Rome, India, China, and Mesoamerica. x
  • 11
    Myths of Cosmic Destruction
    Apocalyptic myths, at their core, are creation myths in reverse. Discover more about these harrowing—and surprisingly hopeful—stories by focusing on the Indian myth of the last days of the cosmos, and the Norse tale of Ragnarok: an epic battle involving gods, fallen heroes, giants, and monsters. x
  • 12
    Greek and Norse Pantheons
    If it weren't for gods and goddesses, there would be no such thing as myths. So what defines a god or goddess? What do the lives and purposes of all-powerful deities like Zeus, Demeter, Apollo, Odin, and Thor reveal about the Greek and Germanic peoples who worshiped them? x
  • 13
    The Great Goddess Remembered?
    Learn about three myths that support the controversial hypothesis that ancient cultures once valued goddesses over gods. The "great goddesses" you meet: Au Co from Vietnam, the White Buffalo Woman from the Brulé Sioux of North America, and Massassi from the Wahungwe of Zimbabwe. x
  • 14
    The Goddess—Inanna and Dumuzi
    During the Agricultural Revolution, the role of the "great goddess" dramatically changed. Uncover a powerful example of this change in the Sumerian myth of the fertility goddess Inanna and her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi. Then, approach this tale from a psychological standpoint to learn what it says about individuality. x
  • 15
    The Goddess—Isis and Osiris
    Professor Voth draws you into the world of the goddess Isis and her companion, Osiris. In this Egyptian myth, Isis gives over some of her power to her male consort, who then becomes responsible for ensuring new cycles of growth. What does this mean for the evolving idea of the "great goddess"? x
  • 16
    The Eclipse of the Goddess
    Witness how the sky gods of invading civilizations threatened the power of Near Eastern goddesses, forever changing mythology and religion. Your focus here is on myths that illustrate this tension, including those of the Dahomey of Africa, the ancient Greeks, the Japanese, and other diverse cultures. x
  • 17
    Shamans and Vegetation Gods
    Shamans, which date back to the Paleolithic era, are some of the earliest examples of male gods. Chart their evolution from animal masters with magical powers (like the Cherokee's Great Bear) to actual vegetation or fertility gods during the Agricultural Revolution (such as the Syrian god Baal). x
  • 18
    Sky Gods and Earth Goddesses
    The end of the Agricultural Revolution saw a permanent separation between gods and goddesses. Learn how cultures as unique as the Bartose of Zimbabwe and the Sioux of North America crafted intriguing myths that transformed male deities into remote sky gods and female deities into earthbound monsters and temptresses. x
  • 19
    Creator Gods
    What does a god look like when he becomes the sole creator of the entire universe? How have cultures from Tahiti, India, West Africa, and other places bridged the gap between a god who is "out there" and one who lives deep within us? Find out the fascinating answers here. x
  • 20
    Gods and Goddesses of India
    Review your deeper knowledge of gods and goddesses by surveying the Hindu pantheon as it evolved over thousands of years. Along the way, examine myths about India's deities, from the adventures of the warrior god, Indra, to the cosmic dances of Shiva to the many manifestations of Vishnu. x
  • 21
    Hero Myths
    Heroes—whether gods like Prometheus, humans like King Arthur, or hybrids like Buddha—have given us the most exciting stories in human civilization. Here, delve into the controversial idea of the monomyth (a myth shared by all cultures) and see it illustrated in the story of the Greek hero Herakles. x
  • 22
    Mythic Heroes—Gilgamesh
    Travel back to ancient Mesopotamia and meet the warrior-king Gilgamesh. As you follow his exploits—including his friendship with the half-animal Enkidu, his battle with the Bull of Heaven, and his confrontation with the goddess Ishtar—see whether this hero's story is a true monomyth. x
  • 23
    Mythic Heroes—King Arthur
    Using the same monomyth lens, delve into the Celtic legend of King Arthur, made familiar by Thomas Malory's Morte D'arthur. Also, find new insights into popular figures like Lancelot, Merlin, and Guinevere, and famous events from the era of Camelot, including the search for the Holy Grail. x
  • 24
    Mythic Heroes—Jason and the Argonauts
    Explore a heroic myth from ancient Greece: Jason and his shipmates as they search for the Golden Fleece. Not only is this myth—and the subsequent tale of Jason's wife, Medea—a good illustration of the monomyth, it also touches on critical themes about the "great goddess" from earlier lectures. x
  • 25
    The Monomyths of Rank and Campbell
    Peer inside the psychology behind the heroic monomyth from the perspective of its two most famous theorists: Otto Rank and Joseph Campbell. For Rank, myths are rooted in the expression of childhood goals; for Campbell, however, they're based on attempts to forge connections with our unconscious. x
  • 26
    Mythic Heroes—Mwindo
    Use Rank and Campbell's ideas to better understand the African epic of Mwindo, which is still a living myth for the Nyangi of eastern Zaire. You'll learn more about heroic myths and also about the value of using the monomyth structure to make sense of them. x
  • 27
    Female Heroes—Demeter and Hester Prynne
    Although separated by thousands of years, Demeter (the Greek goddess of grain) and Hester Prynne (the American heroine of The Scarlet Letter) have much in common. Find out how their respective stories illustrate the characteristics of female heroes and the gender biases built into many myths. x
  • 28
    Female Heroes—Psyche and Beauty
    Detour into the world of fairy tales, where you can also find a host of female heroes. The tales of "Psyche and Cupid" and "Beauty and the Beast" not only illuminate cultural ideas of love and marriage, they also provide opportunities to compare and contrast myths with fairy tales. x
  • 29
    The Trickster in Mythology
    Trickster myths are some of the most widespread in the world. In the first of five lectures on these lowly characters who outwit others (and themselves), discover how scholars approach the trickster, and take an extended look at a cycle of trickster myths from the Winnebago of Wisconsin. x
  • 30
    Tricksters from around the World
    Broaden your knowledge of tricksters by studying four mythological taboo breakers: Hermes, who worms his way into the Greek pantheon; Enki, who plays a key role in the Sumerian flood myth; Loki, who causes mischief among the Norse gods; and Ma-ui, who introduces fire to the cultures of Oceania. x
  • 31
    Native American Tricksters
    In most Native American myths, tricksters appear as animals or have animal names. Where does this connection come from? What is the trickster's relationship to shamans? Discover the answers in the stories of Spider from the Sioux, Raven from the Pacific Northwest, and Coyote from the Navajo and Caddo. x
  • 32
    African Tricksters
    Professor Voth introduces you to tricksters from African cultures, including Ajapa the Tortoise and Ananse the Spider. These mythological figures—who serve as intermediaries between humans and sky gods—have provided agriculture, established gender roles, and more—but often just to show others how powerful they are. x
  • 33
    Mythic Tricksters—Eshu and Legba
    Conclude your look at tricksters with a series of myths about two who consistently appear in some sort of human form: Eshu (from the Yoruba) and Legba (from the Fon of Benin). Then, learn why world cultures should ultimately be grateful for their tricksters' antics and transgressions. x
  • 34
    The Places of Myth—Rocks and Lakes
    The place where a myth occurs is as important as the myth itself. Turn to Jacob's Bethel, Australia's Ayers Rock, and the Tibetan "Castle Lake"—rocks and bodies of water where the sacred once broke into the everyday world. x
  • 35
    The Places of Myth—Mountains
    Continue your tour of mythical places, stopping at Sinai on the Arabian Peninsula, the San Francisco Peaks above Arizona, Kailas in Tibet, and T'ai Shan in east China. These four locales are perfect examples of how mountains play meaningful roles in mythologies from around the world. x
  • 36
    The Places of Myth—Sacred Trees
    Professor Voth addresses the importance of Native American, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese mythological trees—all of which serve to connect Earth with both the heavens and the underworld. Then, he ends the course by detailing the role that myths play in everyday life. x

Lecture Titles

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Grant L. Voth
Ph.D. Grant L. Voth
Monterey Peninsula College
Dr. Grant L. Voth is Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College in California. He earned his M.A. in English Education from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, MN, and his Ph.D. in English from Purdue University. Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Voth has earned a host of teaching awards and accolades, including the Allen Griffin Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he was named Teacher of the Year by the Monterey Peninsula College Students' Association. He is the author of insightful scholarly books and articles on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to Edward Gibbon to modern American fiction, and he wrote many of the official study guides for the BBC's acclaimed project, The Shakespeare Plays. Before joining the faculty at Monterey Peninsula College, Professor Voth taught at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University and for several years served as a consultant on interdisciplinary studies programs for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has led travel-study tours to countries including England, Ireland, France, Greece, and Turkey, and he is a frequent guest lecturer for the internationally acclaimed Carmel Bach Festival in Carmel, California.
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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 25 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent and well designed This course, while covering many "mythical" concepts, excels in its organization. Prof. Grant teaches about myths in a topical manner which helps to provide a comparative view. For example, he discusses themes such as Goddesses, Sacred Places (such as trees, mountains, etc.) and so on, and ranges from, for example, Norse, Tibetan and Native American beliefs (an any many others). Grant has a pleasant presentation style that encompasses storytelling and analysis equally well. It would appeal to both interests and gives the course a rather "rounded" feel. Listening is enjoyable as well as informative. Highly recommended. August 11, 2010
Rated 5 out of 5 by Five stars - with some caveats This course is an excellent introduction and overview of world mythology. It covers a lot of ground, and does it well. While I would recommend it to anyone, I need to add the following caveats: Because it covers so much ground, it moves as a very brisk speed, and in some cases I would have preferred to get more depth (for example, more detail on some of the hero myths, and more discussion of the psychological interpretation of myth, a la Rank, Jung and Campbell). Second, I found my interest waning slightly in during the latter part of the course. This may have been because (while he never says so) Prof. Voth seems to be suggesting a kind of monomyth for trickster myths (similar to the monomyth of the hero). While I thought the argument and evidence presented for the hero monomyth was compelling, it seemed that the trickster myths were much more diverse (hard to see an parallel between the Norse Loki and the African Anansi as presented here, for example). Still, the course material was very engaging, and I will definitely be broadening my study of mythology as a result. January 27, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Really enjoying it I'm about halfway through this course, and I'm really enjoying it. Dr, Voth is a good speaker and his presentation is a pleasure to listen to. The content is fascinating. I appreciated the way he introduced myths from Christianity, heading off any objections to the idea that the Bible contains myths instead of literal truth by saying that (not quoting here) if that is offensive or not what the listener is looking for, there are other courses that address the topic. I think he handled that very sensitively. He has a wide range of myths from around the world, and he organizes them well. October 14, 2013
Rated 1 out of 5 by Professor mails it in I am writing my first review for the teaching company and I am sorry it is a negative review. I have a great interest in various cultures and their myths and was excited about getting this course. I have purchased about 30 teaching courses over the past decade, most in the humanities and history, and, for the most part, enjoyed them all. However, this course lacks the academic discipline and objectivity I have come to expect from the Teaching Company professors and their courses. Instead, Professor Voth stakes out one or two positions which reflect his own personal worldview and then darts around the world and through time to find stories or myths or parts of stories or myths to support his positions without presenting any countervailing or opposing viewpoints. A simple task given the scope of material that can be categorized as "myth". If you have an interest in this subject matter, I recommend Professor Vandiver's excellent course on Classical Mythology. August 26, 2013
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