Myth in Human History

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Grant L. Voth

About Your Professor

Grant L. Voth, Ph.D.
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...
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Myth in Human History is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very infomative and cohesive. I have much of Great Courses material and several on myth. This was the most engaging and informative of them all.
Date published: 2020-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm on Round 2 This is an excellent course for anyone interested in mythology as a whole, or in commonalities between mythical traditions. Professor Grant is an engaging speaker, and I wish I'd gotten the video version instead of audio only because I suspect I missed some cool visuals. I am listening to it a second time and picking up new details and new traditions to study, so much like a book good enough to read over and over, this course is one of the few I'll likely revisit more than once.
Date published: 2019-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A rare treat! This course is delicious, well-organized, wide-ranging, and draws from mythology the world over. Prof. Voth's obvious love and enthusiasm for his subject just scooped me in. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine overview Fine overview of subject matter. Good course. Good presentation
Date published: 2019-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Course! I enjoyed Myth in Human History very much! I viewed several lessons each day starting when the day I received them and continued until I finished them. The instructor was down to earth and spoke with intelligence and wit. I thought I knew, but I learned a lot more, and some of the scenarios he posed made me thing and associate them with current events. All in all, a fun course!
Date published: 2019-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth the time Really interesting course with a great range of coverage from all over the world. (Although his pronunciation of Maori make me wonder if the other language pronunciations are as unusual). Bravely included biblical stories in the selection as all myths are at their heart religious stories and we just use the word myth when the religion no longer has a congregation. The range of samples has aroused my curiosity for other tales from the various cultures – my reading list just keeps getting longer.
Date published: 2019-02-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Bridging religion, history, and philosophy This course is an excellent bridge between the courses I’ve done on religion and on philosophy/history/great literature. Professor Voth is low-key but articulate, perceptive, and interesting; the course is very well organized and synthesized, and he covers a great deal of (wide-ranging) material. I particularly liked his discussion, partly early on and then particularly in the final lecture, about the relationships between myth and religion. He makes the point that in great measure they cover the same things (and the same set of stories, characters, and concepts tends to be present in a vast number of cultures and different religions), and whether a given story belongs to one or the other depends on whether the individual considering it is “inside” or “outside” the story. For many Christians the creation stories in Genesis are literally true and thus religion rather than myth, while for those from other religious backgrounds they are myth, just as the Native American creation stories are myth to the Christian but not to those in whose culture they exist. Thus, how much of a given set of stories is part of a religion or in the realm of myth is a function of the individual considering them, and the distinction of religion vs myth is a sliding scale along which each individual, for each set of myths/stories/religious truths is located in a different spot. Watching this course has augmented my appreciation and understanding of a half-dozen other Teaching Company courses I have taken. It would merit 4.5 stars if that were an option.
Date published: 2019-01-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking and Enlightening Course This course presented to me, for the first time, a forum where myths and religion cross paths. Also the course correlated many myths that cross cultural, religious, and geographic borders. One example is the "flood story" that is prevalent in the world's lore and literature. There are many other examples presented in the course. With so many peoples who are diverse in culture and global location reaching similar if not almost identical conclusions, I find much material to ponder when trying to understand the established religions of the world today. Do I have final answers, conclusions, etc? Nope, but I'm still pondering. Great lecture series presented by an entertaining professor! So many stories.
Date published: 2018-10-31
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