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 49.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Good Introduction Well prepared and well presented. He tries to look at Myths From All Over The World, so of necessity has to be fairly superficial in his analysis, since he has to describe the myths in some detail. I had no problem with the way he organised the information. I'm pleased that he throws our current creation stories in the same pot as all the others. The course is a good introduction for someone who has little previous knowledge of the subject.
Date published: 2011-04-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A Huge Disappointment I've completed tens of Teaching Company courses and was looking forward to this one. I gave up less than halfway through -- the lectures were little more than a dry retelling of the facts of the myths, followed by the professor's listing of 15 other myths, that are similar. No analysis; utterly unengaging.
Date published: 2011-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Top-Notch! (Review based on audio download version.) Professor Voth’s voice is strong, clear and smooth, and his grammar is excellent. The course contains very few academic clichés. The introductory music is excellent. Voth seems to start off slowly, and takes the first two lectures to set up and explain what he is going to do. I’m not saying that Voth should have hit the ground running. The material in Lectures 1 & 2 is useful if not critical for a full understanding of myths. One of my all-time favorite treatments of the subject was the PBS series, ‘The Power of Myth,’ with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. I couldn’t help but measure Voth against Campbell and Moyers. ‘The Power of Myth’ was a more lively, compelling series. It’s probably not fair to compare, because ‘Power’ was made for TV (and I personally think Campbell was a genius). However, I came away with the feeling Voth might have been a bit too analytical. I love myth stories, and was eager for the professor to retell them. Voth’s analyses are so thorough that it reminded me of watching a program of how special effects are created for a fantasy movie. I often just wanted to get into the stories themselves and not focus so much on ‘how’ to interpret them. In Lecture 27, I found his explanations of why women are missing as heroes in myth as somewhat weak, if not merely obligatory and reminiscent of politically correct gender studies. Lectures 29-32, on the Tricksters, were fabulous, and the course really started moving. I had visions of Bernie Madoff and the financial ‘experts’ who caused our current recession. Voth describes the Tricksters in myth as serving as bad examples. But Tricksters also can disturb social stasis, and actually allow openings for creativity. I was surprised Voth didn’t discuss Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The last three lectures, on the Places of Myth, were nicely done. I was pleasantly surprised when Voth discussed the San Francisco Peaks as important Sacred Mountains. I see these mountains every day, as I live in northern Arizona. In sum, this is a finely analytical course on myth. I wish there had been more emphasis on retelling the stories, but we can always get the stories themselves elsewhere. Voth’s analyses are clear and superb. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2011-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved the Course I looked forward to every trip in my car while studying this course because it was riveting and so enjoyable. I completed courses in Greek Mythology through the Teaching Company and this course was an excellent addition. I especially appreciated the lectures on the goddess and King Arthur. (Courses in each one of these subjects would be great additions to the Teaching Company's offerings.) The lectures on the trickster were very interesting. I learned so much from this course! I appreciated hearing about the myths form around the world and about their common threads. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2010-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my all time favorites. Of the 30 courses I've done, this one is in the top 2 or 3. I never heard the teaches say "Um" and loved his presenting style. Used lots of good source material. Good humor and engaging presentation. This material really helped me see into the human mind and understand some of the craziness in there. He helps you see how the content of a myth can tell you a lot about the developmental stage and values of the people who told it. He illustrates how mythology is alive and well even today in Beauty and the Beast, Harry Potter, the Scarlet Letter and many other familiar stories. This isn't a course that just teaches you the stories and who told them. It is like opening up the skulls of the ancient Navajo, Norseman or Hebrew for a look inside. Masterful teaching.
Date published: 2010-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I've listened to many Teaching Company courses, very fine ones, and this is one of the best. Professor Voth presents a vast amount of information in an organized, accessible way. The subject matter is fascinating. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2010-09-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Very Disappointing I have purchased approximately 40 Teaching Company courses and have been extremely satisfied with the vast majority of them. Moreover, I have long had an interest in mythology. Thus, I was very excited to see "Myth in Human History" by Professor Voth as a new release a few months ago. I saw that the reviews of Professor Voth's other course (on world literature) were quite good and thus was confident that I would like his mythology course. I was wrong. I have two criticisms -- one as to presentation and one as to content. First, presentation. Professor Voth's course is organized by theme (creation myths, gods and goddesses, heroes, tricksters, and sacred places). That approach could make sense, but I got the feeling that Professor Voth was picking myths that fit the viewpoint he was trying to express while neglecting others. An alternative approach that I think would have worked better would have been to discuss different civilizations' myths (e.g., Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Norse, Indian, Native American, African) in turn while pointing out what they have in common and in what respects they differ. In addition, Professor Voth often discussed several different myths in each lecture, and sometimes I found it difficult to remember and differentiate the myths when he referred to them in later lectures. Perhaps the course guide could be supplemented with a short summary of each myth to which course viewers or listeners could refer when they are trying to remember the details of myths discussed in the various lectures. Second, content. One of the things that I have always found to be a weakness in the humanities and many of the social sciences is that the conclusions reached are not subject to empirical testing. The result is that these fields are particularly susceptible to intellectual fads and political correctness, and this heightens the need in my opinion for academics to strive to try to be as objective as possible, or at least to be upfront about their biases. In my view, Professor Voth failed in that regard. This was most pronounced in his discussion of the so-called great goddess hypothesis. This theory posits that really ancient civilizations were matrifocal (or even matriarchal) and characterized by equitable gender relations, minimal violence, and great unity with the natural order. But beginning around 5000 BC, everything went to hell in a hand basket once patriarchal societies took over. In other words, men are the source of evil in the world. My understanding is that the great goddess hypothesis has been sharply contested by most archeologists and historians who have addressed the issue. Although Professor Voth indicates that he takes a neutral position on the great goddess hypothesis, he then embarks on several lectures that seem to assume its truth. In sum, this is not one of the Teaching Company's better offerings.
Date published: 2010-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course I have the CD version of this course. It works very well for my drive to work. Prof Grant has a good style of lecturing and covers a broad range of myths from around the world.
Date published: 2010-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2010-08-11
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