How To Demystify Mythology for Your Learners

Use visual aids and live performances to help connect ancient myths to human emotions.

By Elijah Ammen

Posted

Medusa head

Even at a young age, I was admittedly a nerd. My idea of a good time at the age of eight was cross-referencing the characters in Greek myths in an old set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. I was always a little surprised when people didn't enjoy mythology the way I did. 

However, the tables have turned in recent years. Now thanks to God of War (a trilogy of best-selling Playstation games), the Percy Jackson series, and recent movies like TroyClash of the Titans, Thor, and 300, Greek culture and mythology are once again common conversation. The only problem is that while this new media generates interest, it has little value in actually learning to read myths or understanding the original stories. 

Reading Literature Standards

There are many incredible resources for teaching mythology and incorporating your standards. Because of the complexity of myths like The OdysseyThe IliadBeowulfThe Poetic Edda, or The Aeneid, they fit well with numerous Common Core Reading Literature standards. The following are easily met by using classical texts:

 

 

 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.3

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Most classical myths have only one protagonist, which allow you to focus on their development without being distracted by other characters. For older classes, this is a great way to discuss the journey of a hero in contrast with a tragic hero.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.5

Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Not all myths are told chronologically--The Odyssey is told through a series of flashbacks that mirror the oral tradition of the story. For older classes, this is also a good time to discuss Aristotelian three-act structure. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.6: 

Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

World literature is difficult to teach because students sometimes lack the background knowledge to visualize the story. However, the benefit of knowing a classical story that so many later stories allude to is invaluable.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.7:

Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g.,
Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).

Classic myths are the subject of many medieval and Renaissance paintings. Use this and modern graphic adaptations to discuss how the artist interpreted the material and why they chose any changes they made. 

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.9-10.RL.9: 

Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or
how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

This standard is impossible without the careful study of the origininal myths. So many allusions (particularly in Shakespeare) come from Greek mythology, while Norse mythology is crucial to modern classics like The Lord of the Rings.

 

Visual Aids

Other than vocabulary, the most difficult aspect of teaching myths is the lack of a visual reference. Younger generations lack the background knowledge to visualize even basic things like armor, spears, chariots, boats with sails, ancient feasts, and Greek temples; much less a cyclops, hydra, Medusa, or Cerberus. 

Be careful that your visual aids are actually useful and not doing more harm than good. The previously mentioned modern movies are great for inspiring enthusiasm, but they are terrible for any kind of authenticity. Use medieval or Renaissance artwork or paintings as examples of how Greeks and Romans lived. You can also use artwork from the time period and discuss common artwork, particularly statues and vase paintings.

Graphic novels are also a great help, but only if you find one that retains rigorous content. The best adaptations (for myths and more) have come from illustrator Gareth Hinds. He has a basic introduction to Greek and Roman mythology, as well as an incredibly detailed, fully-colored, 256-page adaptation of The Odyssey that uses a close translation of the original text, and aligns with the books in the original text. He also has a beautifully illustrated version of Beowulf that does not use the original text, but adapts the storyline for younger audiences (great as a middle-school text).

Acting

The novelty of a story can only keep someone interested for so long. In order to truly understand mythology, your class needs to be able to empathize and understand the genuine human emotion in the stories. The Odyssey is about a man who loves his family, and tries desperately to return to them. Gilgamesh is about a man who is terrifed of death after seeing his best friend die. And Beowulf is about a man who always defends others and preserves his honor (and not a man who fathers a dragon with Grendel's mother. See previous note on terrible movie adaptations). 

Have your class reenact scenes from the myths. One easy activity is to divide into groups. If you have a box of props or materials to make them, allow students to dress up. For younger learners, use Gareth Hind's Gifts From the Gods to assign stories. For older classes, consider Edith Hamilton's classic, Mythology. If you want an example of how to run Reader's Theater, we have dozens of lessons that use that strategy.

Storyboarding

An easy way of monitoring comprehension of the plot is to have them storyboard the basic events. This could be an in-class group assignment, or a homework assignment in order to serve as a reading journal. This lesson has a storyboarding activity on The Odyssey as well as several other aligned assignments.

If you don't feel like reinventing the wheel, use this storyboarding graphic organizer for your kids. 

The rewards of teaching mythology are incredible. Ancient stories incorporate the same emotions we feel today, such as love, hate, betrayal, revenge, jealousy, courage, and loyalty. When your classes can get through the obstacles and understand the relevance of these classic stories, they will have a framework to interpret all literature, and a rich global background for everything they read.