Head of Athena, late 3rd-2nd century BCE; Hellenistic. Greek. Marble; 19 in. (48.26 cm). Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1996.
Credit: Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And when I was a schoolchild, I loved those old stories ... They have mystery, treachery, murder, loyalty, romance, magic, monsters—everything is in there. So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in mythology and that just continued when I was a teacher.
— Rick Riordan, from: Episode for Families: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief at the Met
Monsters, gods, and heroes ... all surefire favorites in the classroom and the stuff of Greek mythology. But Greek mythology offers so much more: inspiration for many works of art (both written and visual), insight into the human condition, a glimpse at an ancient people trying to make sense of phenomena they could not explain, and the source for many names and terms we use today. Your students might be surprised to find they're wearing shoes with the name of a Greek goddess (Nike), rooting for (or against) a team named after Greek gods (Tennessee Titans), and even listening to rock groups with mythological names (Styx).
The lessons in this unit provide you with an opportunity to use online resources to further enliven your students' encounter with Greek mythology, to deepen their understanding of what myths meant to the ancient Greeks, and to help them appreciate the meanings that Greek myths have for us today. In the lessons below, students will learn about Greek conceptions of the hero, the function of myths as explanatory accounts, the presence of mythological terms in contemporary culture, and the ways in which mythology has inspired later artists and poets.
Although myths convey exciting stories about gods and heroes, they are not equivalent to "stories" either in the modern sense of a deliberate fiction or the traditional sense of a folk tale or tall story. Rather, myths are traditional narratives often of gods, goddess, and heroes, great deeds and supernatural powers, that are passed down through various textual and visual sources and convey commonly held beliefs in a particular society about natural phenomena, historical events, and proper behavior. The lessons below will help students to understand this important distinction.
The Greek myths were not composed as stories for children. The Greeks were not shy about treating sexually explicit subjects. Although the links provided below are generally "cleaned up" versions of the myths, you should review all materials for appropriateness before presenting them to your students.
Background for the Teacher: Heroes were an important part of Greek mythology, but the characteristics Greeks admired in a hero are not necessarily identical to those we admire today. Greek heroes are not always what modern readers might think of as "good role models." Their actions may strike us as morally dubious. For example, in his encounter with the Cyclops, Odysseus helps himself to the giant's food without permission, attacks while the Cyclops is in a wine-induced stupor, and brags about blinding the one-eyed creature. This does not mean the Greeks admired thievery and bragging, however. What they admired about Odysseus, in this instance, was his capacity for quick thinking. Odysseus defied that which others would not (as is also shown by his desire to hear the Sirens' song) and pulled off great feats with panache and self-confidence.
Not all Greek heroes were admired for the same reasons. Some, such as Odysseus, were admired for their resourcefulness and intelligence, whereas others, such as Herakles, were known for their strength and courage. Some were not particularly resourceful but depended on help to accomplish their tasks.
Whether or not a given action or quality was admired depended upon its ultimate results. Being headstrong might succeed in one instance but lead to failure in another. The Greeks held their characters accountable for their actions, and a hero might be punished as well as rewarded.
Note to the teacher: Be sure to review any material before distributing it to the class. While the Bullfinch versions of the Greek myths are generally "cleaned up," some versions you find may not be appropriate for your students.
As an introduction to this curriculum unit, and as a way of leveraging student interest in the Percy Jackson books and movie, have students download and listen to this podcast, or read the transcript, of an interview of Rick Riordan novelist by Sean Hemingway associate curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Note this can be done as homework the night before class.) Here are some questions for students to answer.
Shortly before introducing Greek hero tales, give students a day or two to each identify a contemporary hero. Students can use print or other media as their source, but they should be prepared to explain what makes that person a hero.
Encourage students to share their stories of contemporary heroism. Compile a list of characteristics of our contemporary heroes. Enter these characteristics in the first row of this accompanying PDF chart. Beside the characteristic, cite the individual who fits the characteristic and what s/he did to exemplify that characteristic.
Explain to the students that they will study hero tales from Greek mythology to see which qualities of heroism do and do not match our contemporary ideas.
Share some Greek hero tales with the class; if practical, use your usual read-aloud time for this. The following stories could be introduced on consecutive days.
Working as a class, compile a list of the characteristics Greeks admired in a hero. Add the information to the chart as with the contemporary heroes. How does a Greek hero compare to a modern hero? Are any of the traits identical? Who on the student list of contemporary heroes most closely resembles a Greek hero? What contemporary person (not necessarily an actor) would students choose to play the various parts in a movie of the tales you've shared?
For additional hero tales, share stories about Perseus, Jason, or Theseus.
In their mythology, poetry, and plays, the Greeks held characters accountable for their own choices, actions, and behavior. As you read any or all of the following stories to the class, help students understand that these stories teach lessons about behaviors that were considered disagreeable or foolish by the Greeks.
After hearing these stories, ask students to name some character traits the Greeks did or did not admire. Create a list of students' suggestions; adjust the chart from Activity 3 as needed.
Greek myths often attempted to explain mysterious elements of the natural world. How did the Echo story explain what causes an echo? How did the Phaeton story explain how the sun moves across the sky and why the land of Libya is a desert? Spiders have adapted to catch prey through the creation of webs. How does the story of Arachne explain the origin of spiders?
Many of the constellations, such as those associated with the astrological signs, are named after characters from Greek myths. What signs of the zodiac can the students name? Does anyone in the class recognize any of the zodiac constellations? How does the story of Cassiopeia, in the "Perseus and Atlas" segment of Chapter XV, available through the EDSITEment resource Bullfinch’s Mythology, explain a constellation?
The Constellation Table at the site The Constellations, a link from EDSITEment’s Exploring Ancient World Cultures, allows students to read about many constellations, generally with information from the Greek stories about how the constellation came to be.
Display an appropriate selection of the following images from EDSITEment-reviewed resources in the classroom (or in the computer lab, if practical). Conduct a scavenger hunt by numbering the images and giving the students a list of the characters portrayed in the artwork. How many characters can the students identify?
These are just a handful of the images available online, and you can find many more by searching the Perseus Digital Library, Exploring Ancient World Cultures, and Internet Public Library sites. When you have chosen a selection of images, share them with the class, and discuss any images that students find especially interesting or in some way troubling.
Mythological terms are common in contemporary society. For example, an odyssey is a voyage, as well as a minivan! As students learn more about the characters of Greek mythology, they may be surprised to discover many familiar words derived from myths.
Working in small groups, students can use print or online sources to fill in as many blanks as possible on a chart like the one below. (NOTE: Depending on the class, it might be advisable for the teacher to attempt this search first to gauge how difficult it will be and to be prepared to direct students.) Most of the terms can be found in a standard collegiate dictionary; while some contemporary uses will not be included in the dictionary, such as Amazon.com or the Tennessee Titans, many of these will be known to the students. Where the technology is available, students can search online at Encyclopedia.com or Factmonster, both links from the EDSITEment resource The Internet Public Library, or the searchable Perseus Encyclopedia, found on the EDSITEment resource The Perseus Digital Library.
Groups can be assigned specific terms or everyone can attempt everything. Set a time limit for research before students begin the assignment.
Note: The chart below is available as a PDF that you may wish to download and reproduce for student use.
|Term From Mythology||Use Today||About the Mythological Character||Why does the term fit?|
Students have now seen examples of the influence of Greek mythology in art, language, science, and commerce. Share with students some of the ways that mythology has also been the inspiration for later works of fiction and poetry.
First, share with your class the paintings by Anthony Van Dyke Daedalus and Icarus and by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus available through the Web Museum of Art a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Give students time to study the paintings in detail. Can they figure out what Daedulus is telling Icarus in the Van Dyke picture? Why is the Brueghel painting called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”? (Note the single leg of Icarus falling into the water in the lower right hand corner of the painting.) Does anyone in the painting seem to be paying attention to Icarus’s plunge into the water? How prominent has the painter made the event of Icarus’s fall? What meanings do such details suggest?
Now read to the class the poems by W.H. Auden “Musee des Beaux Arts” available on the Harpers.org and a poem by William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” available on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.
Does Williams capture the feeling of the painting? How do Brueghel and Williams reinterpret the myth of Icarus for their own times? How have these artists "made the myth their own": understood it, interpreted it, and somehow extended its meaning?
4 class periods