“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: