Introducing Epics and Myths from the Ancient World

Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow Dr Casey Strine tells us about his new project, supported by the Engaged Curriculum Funding Stream.

Beginning this academic year, I’ll be offering a module called Epics and Myths from the Ancient World. This module is designed for first year undergraduates who are interested to examine great texts from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Greece under three themes: creation and order; epic journeys; suffering and meaning. Together, we’ll investigate interpretative issues in each text and explore their relationship to religion, politics, ethics, and economics in the ancient world.

Most modules would stop there, but I’ve designed this one to have a second component that makes it part of the ‘engaged curriculum’ and, I hope, more exciting for students. Together, we’ll also consider how and why themes and images from these ancient texts are adopted and adapted by contemporary artists, filmmakers, and musicians, among others. In other words, we’ll explore the ‘afterlife’ (academics like to say reception history) of these epics and myths. That they have an ‘afterlife’ at all is one of the reasons people living in the 21st century—more than two thousand years after they were written—know about them.

Two things happened while I was planning this module that convinced me to add this component to it. First, I was invited to give a talk on ways that the Ten Commandments have been depicted in the visual arts (you can read it here). One of the artists I encountered in preparing that talk was Samuel Bak. His painting Nuremberg Elegy, II, where he combines a composition from Albrecht Dürer with his own reflections on the Holocaust, reminded me just how powerful a mixing of old and new can be.

Samuel Bak, Nuremberg Elegie, II, 1995 Image from http://www.puckergallery.com/artists/bak_major/bk316_major_images.html

Samuel Bak, Nuremberg Elegie, II, 1995
Image from http://www.puckergallery.com/artists/bak_major/bk316_major_images.html

Albrecht Dürer, Melancolia, 1514 Image courtesy of The British Museum

Albrecht Dürer, Melancolia, 1514
Image courtesy of The British Museum

Second, I encountered Emilie Taylor’s newest work, Hymn to Persephone (you can see a video about the project here). Emilie and I are working together on another project for the University’s Arts Enterprise scheme (details here), but as we’ve been planning she has been creating these ceramic harvest jugs that document a rich, thoughtful blend of images from ancient Greek mythology, contemporary food labels, and the mundane activities of teenagers. Her practice, her persistent questioning of how these old and new things explained and enriched one another, underscored for me how the discipline of asking those questions opens our minds to new ideas and possibilities. My students are the (lucky or unlucky) beneficiaries of those two influences.

Of course, being a teacher, I am compelled to assess students on this portion of the module (I know, all teachers are evil, aren’t we?). Students will, therefore, create their own image-based narrative that makes a statement about one of our three themes. It might be a film speaking about creation and order, perhaps a series of photos about an epic journey, maybe a new musical arrangement exploring suffering, or someone might even make a piece of pottery commenting on life’s meaning. The students’ perspectives and imagination… along with our limited budget… are the only things limiting those possibilities. Oh, and there is one other constraint: students won’t be allowed to use the written word in whatever they create. Why? Because in the ancient world about 95% of people were illiterate. You couldn’t hand them a text to read and expect they could do it. No, if you wanted to tell a story, make a political statement, or entertain an audience you had to do it without expecting them to read. I am giving my students, therefore, an artificially illiterate audience by prohibiting the written word. One question I want to explore in this module is, ‘How does eliminating the written word alter the way my students engage with and use the images and themes they find in these Epics and Myths?’ Stay tuned; I’ll blog about that issue once I’ve seen what they produce!

I suppose I could have stopped there, but I’ve decided to add one more element to the module to make even more ‘engaged.’ The students will be given a budget and a space so that they can create an exhibition of their image based narratives. Not only will that teach them about managing a project, making the most of a limited budget, and meeting a deadline, we’ll invite some local A-level students to visit the exhibition and talk with them about what they’ve learned. Sharing what they’ve enjoyed (and dreaded!) about the module will be a new way for the University to introduce students who might not understand what Uni is like to it. I hope—as does the engaged curriculum fund—that some of these students will be motivated to apply and attend University when they otherwise might never have considered that option.

 

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