“Many words of the ancients still ring true:
Their stories are fine medicine for mortal fear.”
καὶ τῶν παλαιῶν πόλλ’ ἔπη καλῶς ἔχει·
λόγοι γὰρ ἐσθλοὶ φάρμακον φόβου βροτοῖς. –Euripides, fr. 1065
We all know that the young readers–and many older ones–are moved by and identify with stories that draw on myth. Modern authors are part of an ancient tradition of reception, participating in the tradition of giving myth new life by adapting it for new contexts. And students can benefit from engaging in this process on their own.
In partnership with my campus’ Office of Experiential Learning and Teaching I re-designed my myth course this semester to focus more on myth as discourse and training for coping with or responding to discourse. Here is the statement I included on my syllabus:
[Myth] is designated as an experiential learning course. In the pursuit of storytelling as a discourse that shapes the way we think, see, and impact our world, the study of Classical Myth facilitates a reconsideration of where we come from as a human community and a reconfiguration of our understanding of how we shape where we will and can go. The study of myth in this capacity is fundamentally experiential: as a type of cooperative learning, it shows how storytellers and audiences—alongside teachers and students—are partners in the creation and perpetuation of the narratives that define their worlds; it is both relevant and authentic in providing students with the ability to understand the impact of mythmaking on the ancient world and in their own lives. From this perspective, the study of myth can also be transformative in providing students with the ability to sense, to decode and to reuse storytelling to understand and act as participants in their own world.
In keeping with the spirit of mythmaking and reception, this class will also engage in active learning frameworks which include, in addition to regular individual and group interpretation of myth, the telling and retelling of stories for different audiences. The process of interrogating the use of storytelling in the ancient world helps us gain agency over narratives in our own lives, understand our place in a larger human community connected by discourse, and develop greater competence in identifying the social effects of storytelling.
Periodically during the semester I would break from the typical myth course’s reading and lectures to have students work in groups or individually (1) discussing myths they liked; (2) isolating myths that made them uncomfortable; (3) discussing different versions of myths and reasons for their development; and (4) identifying narratives that had been influential in their lives. In the final weeks of the semester, I used a grant from the Experiential Learning committee to bring a storyteller to campus to work with students of different approaches to storytelling.
This work culminated in a final assignment that had students re-author an ancient myth for a modern context. In this process, I have been influenced by the work of psychologist Michael White who has focused on the importance of identifying the effects of discourse on our lives and regaining control (agency) over our own narratives by retelling our own stories.
Here’s the assignment:
Stories (‘myths’) influence our lives from our earliest moments by shaping our expectations about the world and our own lives. Who tells what story has a profound effect on the choices we can make in our lives and the roles we think we may play in the world. In this course we have focused on the variability and reception of myth, emphasizing as well myth’s function as discourse. Cultural discourse is not just an important aspect of our identities vis à vis one another, but it also shapes our sense of agency. Philosophers, social theorists, and psychologists have argued that a sense of agency—most often mediated by types of storytelling—influences the way we interpret past events, impacts our behavior in the present, and constricts our ability to make plans for the future. Retelling stories—both personal narratives and cultural discourses—provides an opportunity for individuals and groups to reconsider and reclaim agency.
This final assignment will ask students to retell stories from Ancient Greece from their own perspectives (meaning individual, temporal, cultural etc.) as part of a practice of reclaiming discourse and learning how to receive and adapt paradigmatic narratives for new purposes. Students may work alone or in groups. The assignments must be submitted by the last day of finals.
Written: Rewrite a classical myth as a short story, either introducing a new variant that changes the narrative to make it applicable to different audiences/agencies or adapting it contextually to a different culture and time (preferably our own). The rewritten narrative should be 1-2 pages (minimum; 3-5 max) with a 2-3 page essay (1) identifying the specific sources you adapted, (2) isolating and explaining the creative choices you made, and (3) discussing any challenges or limitations you encountered when completing the project. This essay is self-reflective and evaluative—it is an essential part of the process. (Note: this option is best for students who would like to work alone; if completed by a group, each member must contribute a separate essay.)
[There were two other options, a video or a recording, and nearly all the students chose to write a story]
Some of the results of this project were absolutely phenomenal. Here’s a selection of what some students did:
One student told the stories of Iphigenia and Klytemnestra from their perspectives during and after the sacrifice at Aulis. She eventually has the voices of the two combine in an abstraction of the body that echoes their lack of agency in a world dominated by gods and men. Another student similarly retold the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from the woman’s perspective, suggesting that Orpheus has reduced her to an object, even a hallucination, depriving her of her selfhood and individuality.
Several students drew on their knowledge from other courses. One offers a staging to retell the story of Tantalus as a moment in therapy for a young woman suffering from an eating disorder, introducing the therapeutic method of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Here, Tantalus as the image of someone who has down wrong and is suffering traps the young woman in a narrative of self-punishment.
While many students did stick close to narratives that combined with their own identities, others engaged some with current events. A student who had been silent most of the semester submitted a piece called “Snowden and the Promethean Dilemma”, casting Edward Snowden as a Prometheus figure. In his reflective essay, he smartly connects the two figures as working as both heroes and villains.
Another student focused on the social creation of gendered identities through the perspective of the story of the Amazons and Theseus. At the narrative’s center is Hippolyta’s comparison of Greek and Amazon lives, ending with an admission that Theseus is right to fear the power of warrior women.
Several students took more humorous approaches that still turned out to be powerful. One adapted the story of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite to a high school in order to examine ‘slut-shaming’ and hypocrisy in dress-codes. Another departed from myth a bit and adapted a bit of the Republic to a Rush Limbaugh style call-in show with a group of talking heads arguing about the definition of justice (it is pretty hilarious).
One of the most startling and powerful compositions was a retelling of the story of Persephone and Demeter in the context of the vanishing of women in Juárez, Mexico. The combination was clearly meaningful to the student and produced narrative I won’t forget for many years. It could easily be the basis of a screenplay.
To end on a lighter note, one student who absolutely loves science fiction retold the labors of Herakles in space. In his story, Herak has been genetically enhanced by the Zeus Hegemony and hidden away for his own safety with the Thebesian Confederacy. The Nemean Lion is a prototype starship; the Lernean Hydra is a collection of self-replicating mines and the Erymanthian Boar is a B.O.A.R: a Bio-Engineered Optimal Android Raider. It keeps going, but I don’t want to reveal too much.
There are stories, everywhere we look…
Plato, Republic, 377c
“We must begin, it seems, by selecting among the storytellers—they must be judged by what they do well or not. We will authorize those who make the cut for nurses and mothers to tell to children since these stories shape their minds more than they can shape their bodies with their hands. But we must reject most of the stories we tell now,
What kinds of stories?
In the greater stories, we will also find [the nature of] the worse ones. For it is necessary that the greater and the lesser stories have the same shape and do the same thing, don’t you think?
I do. But I don’t know what these greater stories you mention are.
I mean those stories which Hesiod and Homer tell to us along with the other poets. For these poets used to tell and continue to tell people stories made up of lies.
What sort of stories are you criticizing in saying this?
The very thing which ought to be censured first and foremost: apart from everything else, when a lie is told improperly.”
Πρῶτον δὴ ἡμῖν, ὡς ἔοικεν, ἐπιστατητέον τοῖς μυθοποιοῖς, καὶ ὃν μὲν ἂν καλὸν [μῦθον] ποιήσωσιν, ἐγκριτέον, ὃν δ’ ἂν μή, ἀποκριτέον. τοὺς δ’ ἐγκριθέντας πείσομεν τὰς τροφούς τε καὶ μητέρας λέγειν τοῖς παισίν, καὶ πλάττειν τὰς ψυχὰς αὐτῶν τοῖς μύθοις πολὺ μᾶλλον ἢ τὰ σώματα ταῖς χερσίν· ὧν δὲ νῦν λέγουσι τοὺς πολλοὺς ἐκβλητέον.
Ποίους δή; ἔφη.
᾿Εν τοῖς μείζοσιν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, μύθοις ὀψόμεθα καὶ τοὺς ἐλάττους. δεῖ γὰρ δὴ τὸν αὐτὸν τύπον εἶναι καὶ ταὐτὸν δύνασθαι τούς τε μείζους καὶ τοὺς ἐλάττους. ἢ οὐκ οἴει;
῎Εγωγ’, ἔφη· ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐννοῶ οὐδὲ τοὺς μείζους τίνας λέγεις.
Οὓς ῾Ησίοδός τε, εἶπον, καὶ ῞Ομηρος ἡμῖν ἐλεγέτην καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι ποιηταί. οὗτοι γάρ που μύθους τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ψευδεῖς συντιθέντες ἔλεγόν τε καὶ λέγουσι.
Ποίους δή, ἦ δ’ ὅς, καὶ τί αὐτῶν μεμφόμενος λέγεις;
῞Οπερ, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, χρὴ καὶ πρῶτον καὶ μάλιστα μέμφεσθαι, ἄλλως τε καὶ ἐάν τις μὴ καλῶς ψεύδηται.