Words like alma mater, atlas, labyrinth, lunatic and narcissistic derive from mythology. References to mythology are apparent in many movies and books from Star Wars to Harry Potter and even Percy Jackson. The mythic hero is not only a Western or popular culture phenomena. Heroes from the Ancient Near East include Gilgamesh, Hippopotamus from the Middle Kingdom in Ancient Egypt. Classical mythological heroes include Achilles, Apollo, Athena, Hercules, and Prometheus. King Arthur and his Knights are considered heroes of the Middle Ages. Every country and region has their own heroes. In fact, mythological themes are timeless.
Hero in mythology is a person who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for bold exploits, and favored by the gods. A hero is also one noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.
What do you think makes a hero, a “hero”? What qualities do we tend to look for in this person? Should heroes be strong, courageous, selfless and charismatic? Could someone still be considered “heroic” without these qualities? Who are some of your “real life” heroes and how do they stack up against the heroes presented to us by Hollywood and or classic mythology? And what about the Antagonist – can the “bad guy” also be the hero, and if so, why?
The topic of mythology and heroes can be brought into the humanities classroom in different ways that allow students to critically read and reflect on this genre. Here are five different literacy assignments that showcase mythology.
- Create a Heroic Myth – After reading and examining the hero’s journey across texts, students create their own futuristic hero/heroine whose story addresses a global issue. Students write a short story describing this new hero/heroine. The story should include at least one intervention of the hero/heroine dealing with a major global use he or she was developed to counteract. The hero/heroine can be comprised of the following four components: part human, part animal, part machine, part supernatural. Additionally, students can create a superhero picture depicting the hero in action; fighting against the force the hero was created to fight.
- Mythology Collage Box – Students create collages or collage boxes along the lines of Joseph Cornell’s work that includes personal adaptations of mythological subjects. In preparation for their work, students would need to become familiar with Greco-Roman myths and examine how artists throughout history have been inspired by mythology. The collage will represent an event or a character from mythology or can even depict an abstract idea (for example: jealousy, ambition, war, music, love).
- Dramatize the Story – Become one of your favorite mythological paintings or sculpture. Speak in its voice, or the voice of one of its characters or objects. What does it feel like to be that person or object? Speak in first person and describe the experience, feelings, and character.
- Critical Analysis of Mythology Represented in Art – Students examine paintings, sculpture, poetry, and art that represents mythology. Ask students to think, discuss, and write about why has the artist chosen to paint this part of the myth? How is color used in the painting? What symbols or allegory are presented in the art work? How has mythology been appropriated and inflected with new meaning?
5. Deconstructing Mythology in Popular Films – With movies like Thor, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Wonder Woman, mythology is alive in popular films today. Have students view the films and categorize the mythology references in each or one of the movies. Students can present an analysis how the film pulls from different mythological sources and evaluate the accuracy of the mythological references.
For example, thinking of Diana and Wonder Woman. In previous myths, the Amazons were a fierce tribe of warrior women; they scorned men, except once a year when they would seek out men from neighboring tribes in order to procreate. Any male children that resulted from these unions were either murdered or sent to live with their fathers. In some myths, Amazons would cut off one of their breasts so that they could better shoot their bow and arrow. Their brutal and uncompromising toughness frames Wonder Woman in a different light than how she is often portrayed, and how this influence is utilized makes for an exciting film.