Comparative Mythology and the Common Core

Use comparative mythology to make myths relevant for readers and help prepare them for rigorous Common Core texts.

By Elijah Ammen

hercules medallion

I nearly danced the first time I looked inside a Common Core textbook. While the Common Core has attracted a lot of attention for its incorporation of nonfiction, many teachers have not realized the increased focus on classic texts— particularly mythology. As a lifelong lover of mythology, I strongly believe that teaching these texts provides readers with the frameworks and archetypes that are used in all genres of modern writing.

The reason sample PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests have used passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and textbooks include not only the usual The Odyssey and The Iliadbut texts like Oedipus Rex and Antigoneis because of the high quality that allows these texts to be aligned to every strand of the Common Core standards. Because each Common Core standard is taught every nine weeks, we don't have the luxury of cherry-picking texts to teach just a few standards. We need strong texts that meet every standard. If you want a chart of the best Common Core standards to teach with mythology, check out this article

While comparative mythology sounds complex, it reduces down to one basic concept: You can't teach myth in isolationHere are several connections that need to be made in order for learners to get the most out of myth.

Personal Connections

Aristotle said that the hero is a man like ourselves, in that we can relate to his feelings and struggles. If a reader cannot empathize with the characters of a myth, he or she will never completely understand the text. Readers need to be able to understand the pain of Odysseus being separated from his family, the courage of Antigone defying the king, and the heartbreak of Oedipus when he realizes his error. There are several ways of making sure students make these connections:

  • Reflective Journaling: A simple reading journal allows readers to write down their reactions to the text. You could include prompts, such as "How would you react in this situation?" or "Describe the emotions the character is feeling." While narrative writing is low-rigor and Common Core has limited its use, it is still an important way for writers to express themselves.
  • Fishbowl Discussions: Pose a question with a fishbowl discussion about what the protagonist is going through. Have each member of the class prepare a notecard before the discussion with a similar personal experience that they can share.
  • Perspective Writing: This is a staple of the creative writing class. Have each person write from the perspective of a character, focusing on emotions and descriptive language. This helps the writer to adopt the mindset of the character and uses student-friendly language (as well as practice first-person writing). 

Structural Connections

There is nothing new under the sun. Plots to modern books and movies are littered with allusions, homages, remakes, and flat-out thefts from mythology. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on The Odyssey. The Hunger Games has major similarities to Theseus and the Minotaur, and My Fair Lady is based on Pygmalion. 

But there are more structural connections than just retellings of classic myths. Joseph Campbell developed what is known as the concept of the Heroic Journey—similarities between the stories of all heroes and how the same archetypes (types of characters) are found in all great stories. Campbell's work went on to inspire men like George Lucas, who claimed that Star Wars was directly derived from Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are many resources to help teach the heroic journey:

  • A beautifully animated TED talk explaining what Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Frodo all have in common (spoilers—it's the heroic journey).
  • PowerPoint explaining the heroic journey and how archetypes are used in a variety of stories.
  • A hilarious explanation of archetypes using puppets that reenact famous movie scenes as examples.
  • lesson plan on Movie Heroes and the Heroic Journey.

Mix and match your texts with thematic connections, not just historical. There's no need to have a "mythology unit" when you can make connections throughout different time periods. For instance, if you are teaching a text on civil disobedience, mix in Antigone along with your Thoreau, Ghandi, and MLK. It not only helps with Common Core's quarterly requirements on mixing American and World Literature, but it helps build a much larger framework than focusing on one particular text. 

Rigorous writing also results from being able to make connections between two different texts--a skill that is vital for college preparedness. Use texts with similar themes like Death of a Salesman and Oedipus Rex and have your writers analyze how in both stories, pride makes the hero blind to reality and ultimately causes his downfall.

The less you isolate mythology into its separate genre corner, the more you will get out of these classic texts. Mythology, whether Greek mythology or the mythology of the 21st century, is the backbone of literature, and needs to be understood structurally, thematically, and personally.