Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

It Came From Greek Mythology

Created September 30, 2010

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

It Came From Greek Mythology: Athena

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.

Guiding Questions

  • What meanings did myths about gods, goddesses, and heroes have for the ancient Greeks? What meanings do the Greek myths have for us today?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the basic plots of several Greek myths.
  • Discuss three types of themes in Greek myths: stories about heroes, stories about "how it came to be," and stories about the consequences of unwise behavior.
  • Cite examples of contemporary use of terms from Greek mythology.
  • Analyze artistic and literary works based on or inspired by Greek myths.

Background

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: If desired, you can refer to the complementary EDSITEment lesson plans about heroes: What Makes a Hero (3-5) and Portrait of a Hero.

Preparation Instructions

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.

  • Review each activity in this unit, locate the tales you want to share with your class and select archival materials to use for Activity 5. If possible, bookmark these materials, along with other useful websites; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • If practical, use your usual read-aloud time to share myths with the class. The tales chosen for this lesson are representative and widely available; however, other tales could serve the same purposes.
  • The tales used in this lesson are available in many versions written expressly for younger readers. In the Other Resources section of this unit, you will find a list of recommended sources for Greek myths from EDSITEment-reviewed websites and links. Almost all of the tales mentioned in this lesson can be found in The Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes by Alice Low, illustrated by Arvis Stewart (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985). This volume contains a varied selection of short versions of tales that work as read-alouds and as a source for a study of comparative myth (this collection contains the Greek creation story and a tale about a great flood, for example). It is illustrated and often available in school libraries.
  • Obtain background information on the various myths you will use. The 19th-century American writer Thomas Bullfinch produced popular versions of the Greek and Roman myths in his The Age of Fables or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855) available online through the links below from Bullfinch's Mythology, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. A number of myths are retold for young children in the interactive “Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes” section of Odyssey Online. Another highly recommended interactive site is “Hercules, Greece’s Greatest Hero” available through the Perseus digital library. Be sure to review any material before distributing it to the class. Even the generally expurgated Bullfinch versions should be checked for appropriateness. (Note: The Greek names of deities are used below, with Roman names in parentheses.)
  • The National Archives Teacher Resources, available through EDSITEment, offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Rick Riordan Discusses Mythology

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.

  • What is the appeal of mythology according to Riordan? What does Hemingway mean by the “mutability” of myths? Ask students to give their own examples of “mutability”.
  • Why did Riordan make Percy the son of Poseidon rather than Zeus?
  • Ask students to give examples of the influence of Greek or Roman mythology in the present day world.
  • Why did Riordan set the first scene in his novel at the Metropolitan Museum?
  • What connection does Riordan draw between Greek gods, comic book superheroes and today’s teenagers?
Activity 2. Heroes Then and Now

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.

  • Offer this hypothetical situation to the students: You're trapped in a room with your greatest enemy, who has the only key and superior strength. How would you get out? Now share the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops. What personal traits allowed Odysseus to escape? What personal traits got him into (or might get him into) trouble?
  • For another take on the Greek hero, share the tale of Odysseus and the Sirens. Odysseus simply must hear the Sirens' song, because no other mortal has heard the song and survived. Though Odysseus's strength of character (and physical strength) fails him when confronted with the Sirens' song, his wits save him thanks to his pre-arrangements to prevent escape. In the process, Odysseus learns about himself.
  • Ask the students to brainstorm a list of chores they would really hate to do (even worse than the chores they already do). Then read the story of Hercules and the Twelve Labors. The EDSITEment resource The Perseus Digital Library has an illustrated online exhibit about Hercules that includes a retelling of the Twelve Labors. How would the students like to do Hercules's chores? What personal traits allowed Hercules to succeed? What personal traits got him into trouble?
  • For a tale with a female heroine, read the story of Atalanta from the EDSITEment resources Bullfinch's Mythology. In what ways is she like and unlike a male Greek hero?

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.

Activity 3. Behave Yourself

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.

Echo

  • Ask the students about echoes they have heard. Where was the best echo they have ever heard? What causes echoes?
  • Tell the tale of Echo and Narcissus available through the EDSITEment resource Bullfinch's Mythology. In what way was having to echo a fitting punishment for Echo? How does this tale explain what causes echoes? How did the story dramatize poor behavior?
  • If desired, offer this writing challenge to students, based on an assignment conceived by poet Kenneth Koch. Begin by reviewing some examples of ways Echo communicated effectively using only an echo. Can your students (working alone or in pairs) create a dialogue that makes sense in which one party can only echo? Give some straightforward examples, such as:

    Teacher: Here is the assignment you will do.
    Student: Will do!

    Ask the students to suggest examples of this sort. Next, offer a variety of other possible echoes:

    Part of a word:
    Student #1: Who is doing the report on Narcissus?
    Student #2: Us.

    A homophone for a word:
    Student #1: Is that Billy I hear?
    Student #2: Here!

    Ask the students to suggest examples of this sort. Then give them the opportunity to write their own dialogues (or poems, where the ending of one line is echoed at the beginning of the next). When the students have finished, give volunteers the opportunity to perform their dialogues.

Narcissus

  • Share with the class this definition of narcissism drawn from a standard print or online dictionary: "too much interest in and admiration for your own physical appearance and/or your own abilities." Then ask students, if someone is termed a "narcissist", what would that mean? Can the students name a fictional character from any medium who could be called a narcissist? Is that a trait we admire in people?
  • Relate the tale of Narcissus. Have students examine Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus from the Web Gallery of Art site. As students, was Narcissus's fate a fitting end for him? How did the story dramatize his arrogance and the consequences of this behavior?

Phaethon

Icarus

  • Share the lesson of Icarus in the DAEDALUS story available through the EDSITEment resource Bullfinch's Mythology. As students, was Icarus's fate a fitting end for him? How did the story dramatize his inappropriate choices?

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.

Activity 4. How It Came to Be

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.

Activity 5. It Came from a Myth (Part 1)

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.

Activity 6. It Came from a Myth (Part 2)

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?
1. Amazon   
2. Arcadia   
3. Atlas   
4. Calliope   
5. Chaos   
6. Gemini   
7. Harpy   
8. Iris   
9. Nike   
10. Oracle   
11. Phoenix   
12. Psyche   
13. Python   
14. Sirens   
15. Styx   
16. Titans   
Activity 7. Myth as an Inspiration for Art and Poetry

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?

Extending The Lesson

  • Ask students to create original writing inspired by myth. Each student should choose a character from Greek mythology and tell the character’s story looking for a different take, as Breughal did, or put the mythical character in a new situation. Before writing, students could discuss how Brueghel and Williams made mythology relevant to their own times, and what mythological themes and meanings are still relevant for the world students live in now.
  • Students can explore more deeply the influence of Greek words on our contemporary vocabulary. Most dictionaries give the origins of words, as does the WWWebster Dictionary, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Students can look for words of Greek origin and read the derivation. Some contemporary words that stem from Greek terms encountered in this lesson include:
arachnid echo Herculean narcissist siren song

 

  • Students interested in the use of mythological terms in astronomy should check out Mythical and Geographical Names, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Exploring Ancient World Cultures, for an extensive list.
  • Interactive Activity: The EDSITEment resource Odyssey Online offers a variety of activities for elementary and middle school students to explore, including games. Through the site, you can also find information on many mythologies for students interested in comparative myths.
Selected EDSITEment Websites
Recommended Further Reading in Greek and Roman Mythology
  • Aliki. The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. Harper Collins, 1994.
  • d’Aulaire,Ingri. D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 1992.
  • Evslin, Bernard. Heroes, Gods, and Monsters of the Greek Myths. Scholastic Magazines, 1966
  • Fisher, Leonard Everett. Theseus & the Minotaur. Holiday, 1988.
  • Fleischman, Paul. Dateline: Troy. Candlewick, 2006.
  • Philip, Neil. The Adventures of Odysseus. New Ed, 1997.
  • Russell, William F. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, Specially Arranged for Children Five and Up by an Educational Expert. Three Rivers Press, 1992
  • Sutcliff, Rosemary. The Wanderings of Odysseus. Laurel Leaf, 2005.
  • Williams, Marcia. The Iliad and the Odyssey. Candlewick Press, 1996.
  • Yolen, Jane. Wings. Harcourt, 1997.

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
Skills
  • Analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Research
  • Using primary sources

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media