Literature is Interdisciplinary

The Big Read is a literacy program, so one would assume that our program only works within the English discipline. I learned in one of my classes this spring that was taught by Deb Van Duinen, our program’s director, that literacy is important in all of our disciplines. It means something different to be literate in English versus math or science. People can also be literate in things outside of school like a sport or art or a variety of things. 

This means that we try to incorporate the other disciplines into our programming and events around our chosen book. For example, last year’s book An American Sunrise allowed us to talk about United States history through topics like the Indian Removal Act, reservations, boarding schools, etc. 

We can also see this in Greek Mythology and the fact that Greek myths tell us something about Greek civilization. These myths incorporate the geography of Italy and the surrounding islands. Additionally, they capture their religious beliefs in the gods of Olympus and tell us about their history. As we mentioned last week, literature is important because of the cultural and historical connections made through reading older stories. 

History and English sometimes pair together more clearly than other disciplines. Yet, they are still present since the Greeks had sporting events they created myths about, admired Hephaestus who was the god of craftsmanship, and the Greeks made advances in mathematics and science. 

On the surface, a difficult text may seem like outdated English, but these texts can combine several of the disciplines since it is a study of a culture that endured many years ago. 

The Legend of Hercules

Gaining knowledge is one important reason why people read literature. Students (and some teachers and parents) often ask why school curriculum requires them to read things like Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare or epic poems like Beowulf.

While this could lead to a much larger discussion, one reason for reading “classic” literature is that books can act as a window and mirror into the experiences of others, especially people and cultures from different time periods. Reading Shakespeare can give us knowledge about people from the past but it can also shed insight into who we are today.

This is exactly what we try to do with our Big Read and Little Read programs. Each year, we chose books for our community to read and through the reading and discussing of these books, we hope to highlight the power of literature to bring about this kind of understanding. 

This past year, our programming focused on Native American culture and the work of Joy Harjo to give readers a better understanding of the Native American experience. While we haven’t yet announced our 2022 book titles (stay tuned!), our recent blog posts have explored storytelling, mythology, revisionist history, and heroes through the lens of Greek Mythology. All of these provide examples of windows and mirror knowledge – insight into cultures and time periods different than our own. 

One way we see these stories as a reflection of culture can be viewed through the differences between the Greek Mythology version of Hercules and the newer Disney version of Hercules. The Greek myth reflects the values of Greek society and the Disney movie reflects values that connect with the viewer. 

Similarities: 

How to Plan the Ultimate 'Hercules' Watch Party | TodayTix Insider
  1. In both versions, Hercules is the son of Zeus, who is the head of the gods. This similarity reflects aspects that bond Greek and American society. Both cultures enjoy stories, especially ones that talk about supernatural events or powers.
  2. Hercules underwent the hero’s journey to complete his quest. They also both tell tales where a hero must change and grow through their quest. Greeks used this plot arc in their stories and it is still how most stories are told today. 
  3. The gods act as guides to Hercules throughout the film and the Greek Myth. Both versions of Hercules use the gods and other people to guide Hercules, which shows that both societies felt heroes should not have to undergo their quests alone. 

Differences: 

How Did Hercules Die?
  1.  Hera is Hercules’ mother in the Disney movie, but his mother is Alcmena, a princess, in the myth. In the Disney movie, Hades is the antagonist, but in the myth, Hera attempts to kill Hercules as a baby because she was angry Zeus was not faithful to her. This may show a difference in culture between the Greek society and today since Hera is the goddess of marriage but she was angry and drove Hercules to madness in the myth. Our culture depicted Hera as a motherly figure, which may indicate that our culture has different ideas about marriage than the Greeks. 
  2. Another difference between the myth and the movie is the character of Magara, or Meg in the movie. In the movie, Hercules and Meg fall in love and live happily ever after once Hercules saved Meg from Hades. However, Hera drives Hercules to insanity in the myths and as a result, he kills Magara and his children. Our culture today enjoys a happy ending and a hero that chooses love over a sense of adventure or power since Hercules gives up immortality to be with Meg. The Greek myth shows that they may have valued a sense of adventure and did not expect the happily ever after. 
  3. The characters in the Disney movie Hercules are more clear-cut good versus evil. Hades is the bad guy and Hercules is the hero. This is not the same in the Hercules myth since Hades is more complex with good and bad qualities and so is Hercules. Most of the characters have their flaws and their redeeming traits. In our media, it is easier to tell a story with very clear sides, but the Greek myths better show that there is more than one side to every story. 

This is just one example of how ancient literature can inspire an adaptation of something that has similarities but reflects the culture of its day more than the original text. Writers know their audience so these differences tell us something about the people that the pieces were meant for, which is just one of the many reasons to read literature. 

Popular Greek Myths

The Greek gods and goddesses from our past few blog posts are important since they are characters in various Greek myths. These myths explain how the world came to be or explain natural phenomena. 

Here are some popular stories related to Greek mythology that you may wish to explore in more depth. 

Scylla and Charybdis: 

A Brief History of the Mediterranean Sea - Ulysses

These two Greek monsters inhabited the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the Italian peninsula and were responsible for the deaths of seamen. Scylla is a sea monster said to have six heads with rows of teeth to attack the seaman. There are several stories about Scylla’s creation since it is believed she was once a beautiful nymph until she was transformed by either the sorceress Circe or the sea nymph Amphitrite out of jealousy. 

Opposite Scylla was the monster Charybdis, a dangerous whirlpool and the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia. Scylla and Charybdis inspired the popular idiom “between a rock and a hard place” since ships had to choose between the lesser of two evils to pass through the strait. 

Prometheus:  

The myth of Prometheus explains how humans discovered fire. Prometheus was a Titan and the god of fire. He tricked Zeus into accepting bones and fat as a sacrifice instead of meat. In return, Zeus hid fire from humanity until Prometheus returned it to Earth against Zeus’s wishes. As punishment, Zeus nailed Prometheus to a rock and had an eagle eat Prometheus’s liver after it regrew each day. 

Medusa: 

Medusa originally was a beautiful mortal until Athena transformed her either because of her boastfulness or because of an affair with Poseidon. Medusa became a monster with snakes for hair and a look from her could turn a man into stone. 

Eventually, the King of Seriphos sent the hero Perseus on a quest to kill Medusa. Medusa was pregnant when she died. When Perseus killed her, her two children Chrysaor and Pegasus sprang from her neck. 

These are just a few of numerous Greek myths that have endured over time. The myths preserve what Greeks believed and have inspired sayings and writing by various authors today. 

Do you have a favorite Greek myth? Which one do you find the most interesting? We’d love to hear from you!

Greek goddesses

Last week we shared information about the Greek gods since they are characters within Greek Mythology that exhibit both human qualities and supernatural powers. This week we are rounding out the Mount Olympus family tree with the most notable Greek goddesses. 

Aphrodite 

Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty. There are a few different versions of her parentage. One states that she was born out of foam when Cronos threw the genitals of his father, Uranus, into the sea. Another story explains that Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, the goddess of the oracle of Dodona. Aphrodite married Hephaestus, but she has many lovers including the god Ares. 

Artemis 

Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and the daughter of Zeus and Leto. She is the goddess of the hunt and other things like wild animals, wilderness, and childbirth. Artemis is well-known for her archery skills and her hunting abilities. As the goddess of the hunt and a protector of young girls, Artemis leads a group of young girls who rejected love and in return will stay young forever. 

Athena 

Athena serves as the goddess of wisdom and war strategy. She is the patron of the Greek city of Athens and the Parthenon is a temple dedicated to Athena. Her symbols are the owl for wisdom and the olive tree. There is speculation about who Athena’s mother is, but her father is Zeus. 

Demeter 

Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and oversees the seasons. She also serves as the goddess of sacred law and the cycle of life and death. Demeter is the daughter of Cronos and Rhea, who were both Titans. Zeus fathered Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, who eventually was abducted by Hades and became his queen of the Underworld. 

Hera 

Hera is the queen of the gods as Zeus’s wife. She is the goddess of marriage and birth. Thus, her husband’s various lovers caused her to be vengeful towards her husband’s flings and offspring. 

The gods and goddesses shared are not the only gods and goddesses, but the remainder of them tend to be minor Greek deities. These Greek figures come up the most in Greek myths and are the parents of several of the most notable heroes. 

Greek gods

Greek Mythology contains many heroes and themes, yet it also contains many Greek gods and goddesses. These gods and goddesses lived on Mount Olympus, which is the highest mountain in Greece. It is difficult to truly understand Greek mythology without having a background in the names and characteristics of the deities. 

Most Greek gods and goddesses have commonalities with human beings. These commonalities include them being portrayed as men and women, powers that could be used on other deities or humans, and a desire for vengeance or pleasure. 

This post will give an explanation of some of the major Greek gods, while information about the major Greek goddesses will be shared next week. 

Zeus 

Zeus is the king of the gods after overthrowing his father, Kronos, who was the king of the Titans. He fathered many children that are gods, goddesses, or half-bloods. As the god of the weather, the lightning bolt is his symbol and a means for him to influence others. Zeus is married to Hera, but he is known for being unfaithful to his wife. 

Hades 

Hades is the ruler of the underworld and god of the dead. Thus, he judges the sins of the dead during their mortal lives. He is Zeus’s brother and married to Persephone, who is tthe daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. 

Poseidon 

Poseidon is the god of the sea, horses, and earthquakes. Among his children are the horse Pegasus, the cyclops Polyphemus, and several demigods. 

Apollo

Apollo acts as the god of distance since he is known for riding the chariot of the sun and working through the Oracle at Delphi. This oracle would guide heroes throughout their adventures by giving them a message. He is also the twin brother of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. 

Ares

Ares serves as the god of bloodlust and war. This god is known for having a temper and his attachment to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. 

Dionysus 

The god of wine and merriment was the son of Zeus. His symbol is the bull because of his associations with the sacred animal. 

Hephaestus 

Hephaestus is the god of fire and the forge. He is associated with craftsmen such as sculptors, carpenters, and metalworkers. His mother Hera threw Hephaestus off Mount Olympus at birth, so he is crippled. Additionally, he is the husband of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. 

Hermes

Hermes is the messenger god and oversees many spheres of the human world. He is associated with music, luck, fertility, and deception. Hermes also looks over heralds, travelers, thieves, merchants, and orators. 

Greek gods and goddesses have captured the imagination of many people and endured through Greek Mythology or adaptations. They represent the way that Greek culture thought about the world countless years ago.

Story Villains?

Most books, movies, tv shows, etc. all have clear protagonists and antagonists. For example, most children can identify that the Big Bad Wolf is a villain in Little Red Riding Hood and Maleficent is the villain in Sleeping Beauty. However, these one-sided stories do not leave room for understanding all perspectives. Oftentimes, media tells us who the villain is and as consumers, we follow those directions. 

Revisionist media is becoming popular, though, that reimagines villains and humanizes them with backstories. The TV show “Once Upon a Time” is an example of reimagining common Disney villains. Movies like Maleficent or Cruella give backstory about these villains. Even musicals like Wicked provide the causation behind the villains in beloved classics. 

These retellings of known stories highlight that all people have their own stories and perspectives that may be lost depending on how the story is told. There is a common phrase that you don’t truly know someone until you “walk a mile in their shoes.” These revisionist stories give viewers an opportunity to see the villain’s side of the story. 

This strategy can be employed in mythology, pop culture, history, and other contexts. It reminds me of the TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This TED talk explains that misconceptions and misunderstandings happen when an individual only gets one side of the story. Adichie asserts, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

This TED talk captures the idea that popular stories oftentimes present only one perspective on who the villain and who the hero is. While this is not inherently bad and it makes for good stories, it can be damaging to consider only one point of view. There are two sides to every story and we encourage you to investigate as many different perspectives as possible. This is one of the fascinating parts of literature since each choice by the author, including a person (villain or hero), has a purpose and reason for their actions.

The Hero’s Journey

Last week our blog post discussed the attributes of heroes and how those traits change in different cultures depending on that culture’s beliefs. 

One thing that connects many hero stories across time and genres in our present day is the arc of the Hero’s Journey. The monomyth of the Hero’s Journey was developed by Joseph Campbell, who was an American writer and professor, and it outlines twelve stages that most heroes go through in their journey. 

Throughout this post, we’ll give definitions of the stages of the Hero’s Journey and use Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to illustrate these stages in a movie. You will likely find that many different movies follow similar arcs with some variation.

Part 1 Call to Adventure 

Stage 1: The Ordinary World 

In this stage, the hero is born and there are oftentimes supernatural circumstances or a notable ancestor of the child. Harry Potter begins with life with the Dursleys, Harry’s caretakers, where Harry appears to be an outcast as he lives in a closet under the stairs, speaks to snakes, and many strange things happen around him. 

Stage 2: Call to Adventure 

At first, the hero accepts or reluctantly accepts the call to embark on their adventure. Oftentimes, this call comes from a messenger or an external event triggers the call. The invitation to go to Hogwarts is Harry’s invitation to adventure. 

Stage 3: Refusal of the Call

The hero tends to refuse the call to adventure at first out of fear, hesitation, insecurity, etc. In this case, Harry does not refuse the call of adventure. Instead, the Dursleys refuse to let Harry attend Hogwarts. 

Part 2 Supreme Ordeal/Initiation

Stage 4: Meet the Mentor/Helper 

During this phase of the Hero’s Journey, the hero receives protection and help from someone. This helper is often a supernatural helper. Harry meets his mentor shortly after the Dursleys refuse to allow Harry to attend Hogwarts. Hagrid, the groundskeeper at Hogwarts, arrives to take Harry to the school of witchcraft and wizardry. 

Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold 

The hero embarks on his journey but must overcome some sort of test or ordeal to enter into the world of adventure. Diagon Alley marks Harry crossing the threshold into the wizarding world. In Diagon Alley, there is everything that Harry could need at school including a wand, robes, and an own named Hedwig. 

Stage 6: Tests 

On his adventure, the hero must undergo a series of tests that might include monsters, magic, warriors, or other barriers. Harry experiences several tests in Harry Potter. There are flying broomsticks, trolls on Halloween, three-headed dogs, and the Mirror of Erised. 

Part 3 Unification and Transformation

Stage 7: Approach 

This stage is also called the approach to the inmost cave. It may be representative of something in the hero’s story like a dangerous place or an internal conflict. The hero tends to struggle with the approach and must face any fears or doubts before continuing on the journey. The three-headed dog, Fluffy, protects the inmost cave, so figuring out a way past the dog and the other tests represents the approach to the inmost cave. 

Stage 8: Ordeal 

The ordeal is the dangerous test or crisis that the hero must face on his adventure. It might include facing the hero’s greatest fear or could be a deadly enemy. Once Harry reaches the inmost cave, he is alone since Ron, Hermione, and the professors could not accompany him. The ordeal represents Harry facing Voldemort alone. 

Stage 9: Reward 

The hero defeated the enemy, survived death, and/or overcame a personal challenge. This transforms and earns the hero a prize that may come in the form of a special power, secret, greater knowledge, or reunion with someone important. Harry receives the Sorcerer’s Stone and banished Voldermort, which makes Hogwarts a safer place for him. 

Part 4 Road Back/Hero’s Return

Stage 10: Road Back 

This represents the hero commencing the adventure and returning home from the quest. Returning home comes with a challenge though, and the hero must choose between his own personal desires and the aims of a higher cause. Since Harry was knocked unconscious, the readers do not learn about Harry returning back from his fight with Voldermort. 

Stage 11: Atonement 

The Hero comes to terms with the events that happened during the adventure and makes peace with what was learned and gained. Harry wakes up in the hospital and he is surrounded by gifts. Dumbledore is there to explain the events to Harry. 

Stage 12: Return 

The hero returns to the ordinary world after the adventure has finished. At the end of this book (or movie), Harry returns to school and eventually returns home to the Dursleys. 

What is a Hero?

Last week our blog featured storytelling and the ways that this helps create understanding between diverse peoples. A central aspect of these stories is the heroes that are featured in them.

What do you think of when you think of a hero? I tend to think of the countless Marvel movies that were released since I was a kid, such as Iron Man, Captain America, Spiderman, the Hulk, and so many more. Yet, heroes are a reflection of culture, so mythology, beliefs, definitions of what it means to be a hero differ throughout history. 

To show how stories reflect culture, let’s look at the characteristics of Greek heroes and what our American culture seems to values in a hero. 

Greek Heroes:

  • Unusual conception or birth – Oftentimes heroes have one mortal parent and one immortal parent. Zeus fathered many heroes with mortals. 
  • Performs amazing feats at a young age – This allows the heroes to prove that they are destined for greatness.  
  • Favored by the gods – Heroes are the offspring of gods, so they usually find favor with gods in order to bestow on them favor or gifts.  
  • Travel to the Underworld – Even though heroes are mortal, they often had to travel to the Underworld on their quests to confront death. 
  • Hero’s Quest – Heroes oftentimes defeated monsters, evil kings, or righted wrongs to make the world a better place. These feats earned them recognition since it was a heroes’ goal to be immortalized. 
  • Suffering and Ignoble Death – Heroes in Greek Mythology have gifts from their parentage and their patron god or goddess, but they also have flaws that often result in their deaths. 

Heroes in American culture:

  • Selflessness – Serving people who are in need voluntarily without the expectation of reward or external gain. 
  • Bravery – Heroes are not afraid to face their fear for the common food. Heroes tend to run towards problems instead of away from them. 
  • Moral integrity – A strong moral compass is important for heroes, while they may mess up their moral compass tends to help them do the right thing in the end. 
  • Confidence – Heroes oftentimes are charming and able to gain the trust of others by keeping their cool in tricky situations and being able to lead well. 
  • Skills and Strengths – A hero has the right training or has been given the physical ability to make them capable of helping others. These skills and strengths can come from a variety of sources, but it helps them serve the people. 

One of the biggest differences that stands out to me between Greek Mythology and our modern idea of a hero is the fact that a hero does not have to be born of a certain parent and their gifts may come later in life. In contrast, Greek heroes were born of gods or goddesses that gave them gifts from birth and these gifts were visible earn in their lives. 

Another difference is the character of the heroes. Our American culture values bravery, selflessness, and confidence, but Greek Mythology often had heroes who were most recognized for their ability to prevail in battle or in their quest. Therefore, American heroes are most recognized for doing the “right thing”, while Greek heroes were recognized for prevailing in battles. 

Reading about a culture’s mythology provides a lot of insight into their beliefs and ideas about the world. The actions and characteristics are one way that a culture’s values are reflected, but the plots and themes of the stories also allow readers to learn about others. This is one reason it’s important to read stories from different backgrounds. Gaining knowledge about others, from past or present, can help us shed light on and even push against our own stories, heroes, and values.

Storytelling

As an education student at Hope College, I get to join a classroom at various times throughout the week to learn about education from a practicing teacher. One of my placements teaches a Greek mythology elective, which is one of my favorite classes to observe because of how engaging it is. 

This class made me think a lot about what is more commonly taught in English classes like the ninth-grade courses I also observe in this placement. This class does not seem as clearly connected to typical literature practices since it incorporates a lot of history and religious aspects as well. Yet, this class is closer to the study of language than I gave it credit for because many texts began as oral traditions or storytelling for a culture that was passed down and eventually recorded. This is something common to different cultures and the traditions within the cultures. 

Oftentimes, we look to stories as entertainment through books, movies, podcasts, or other mediums. In the past, these stories have been a way to connect people across generations or places and also a way to preserve beliefs and cultures. Comparing stories across time or other barriers tells a lot about the different values and beliefs of those people based on what they focus on or communicate at the center of the message. 

This Greek mythology class understandably talks a lot about myths, but there are many other versions of stories that circulated in the past and made their way into print. 

Myths are stories that try to answer life’s overarching questions. They might explain how the Earth was created, what happens after death, why the seasons change, or anything that lacked a clear explanation. Each culture has its own unique explanation about how the world was created and usually, they incorporate a set of heroes or gods to show good and bad behavior. For example, the Great Flood is an example of a myth found in various cultures from Native American tribes to the Chinese, to the Christian Old Testament to the ancient Mesopotamians. 

Another area of storytelling is folktales, which are fictional stories about people or animals. These tend to incorporate morals or lessons unlike the function of myths which is to explain some phenomenon. Fairytales are examples of stories that teach moral lessons or even fables like the Tortoise and the Hare. 

The ways that we communicate and preserve our stories have changed over time with advancements in technology. Now we do more things digitally since taking pictures preserves memories and posting on social media connects people across the world.

Previously, telling stories was a common pastime and a way to build community. This change is one reason why it is important to continue to read stories with Greek mythology being one of the most common examples of this. It is a way to learn about people from the past and what they used to believe to be true. 

Today by Billy Collins

As March comes to a close so does National Reading Month. You likely know that reading comes in many different genres and themes for readers of all different interests. We hope you have enjoyed some of our recommendations and thought of reading in new ways this month. 

Spring is now officially here, so I hope reading this poem helps you anticipate warm spring days. 

Today By Billy Collins

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

One of my favorite lines from this poem reads, “it made you want to throw/ open all the windows in the house.” I love nothing more than cranking my window open to let the warm, fresh air blow into the room.

What lines stick out to you as you read? Let us know in the comments.