Greek Myths

Greek Myths
A curriculum for upper elementary grades
Compiled and edited by by Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz, v. 0.5
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz
Introduction copyright (c) 2015 Dan Harper

N.B.: This curriculum is still in development. It is planned as an eight-session course for upper elementary grades, with supplementary material. All the stories are complete as of v. 0.3. Lesson plans and introductory material were added to v. 0.4, which was the field test version. Field test was complete as of March, 2015, and some revisions were made for v. 0.5. Additional revisions are in process. When complete this curriculum will be marked v. 1.0.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION
A. The ancient Greeks
B. Ancient Greek religions

FOR TEACHERS
C. Goals and objectives
D. How to teach this curriculum
E. More about ancient Greek religions

UNIT ONE: DEMETER AND PERSEPHONE
1. How Persephone disappeared — story and lesson plan
2. Doso and Metaneira — story and lesson plan
3. Demeter and the Baby — story and lesson plan
4. Persephone and Demeter — story and lesson plan

UNIT TWO: MONSTERS
5. Perseus and Medusa — story and lesson plan
6. Perseus and the Sea Monster — story and lesson plan
7. The Sphinx — story and lesson plan

UNIT THREE: PROMETHEUS
8. The Punishment of Prometheus — story and lesson plan

 

INTRODUCTION TO THE COURSE

 

A. The Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks lived in the lands and on the islands around the north eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. We can trace many of the most important concepts in our culture today from ancient Greek culture — democracy, science, etc. And many of the religious questions we have today — questions like whether or not god exists, whether or not god is more like humans or more like some transcendent power — can also be traced back to ancient Greece.

The most important time in ancient Greek culture began about 800 BCE, when the great epics The Iliad and The Odyssey were compiled. The books, still read today, were supposedly written by a semi-legendary poet named Homer. Homer was also supposed to have written the Homeric hymns, a series of poems to the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks. The Homeric hymns were probably written not long after The Iliad and The Odyssey.

One of the longest of the Homeric hymns tells the mythical story of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. There are several versions of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and they all differ in their details. But the version from the Homeric hymns is the oldest version of all, and the most interesting. The main story of Demeter and Persephone is best known for giving a mythical explanation of how the seasons came to be. There is also another story within the main story, about how Demeter tries to make a human immortal.

The first myth in this course is the story of Demeter and Persephone, as it appeared in the Homeric Hymns. You have probably heard the myth of Demeter and Persephone before, and like most people you probably think it is a story that is supposed to explain why we have winter. But when you read the complete myth of Demeter and Persephone, as it was told in the Homeric Hymns, you will find that it is far more complicated than that.

After the myth of Demeter and Persephone, this course has three stories about three different monsters: Medusa, a sea monster, and the Sphinx. Stories about monsters are always fun to read, but these stories feature particularly fascinating monsters, monsters which raise all kinds of interesting questions.

The final story in this course is the story of Prometheus. Prometheus was a minor god who had the courage to stand up to Zeus, the ruler of all the gods and goddesses. Prometheus is a favorite god of many Unitarian Universalists, and so he seemed to be the perfect god for the last story.

 

B. Ancient Greek Religions

When people think about ancient Greek myths, they often think that there was one uniform religion across all of ancient Greece. People often think that the Greek myths were stories told as part of ancient Greek religion, stories which everyone in ancient Greece knew.

Actually, ancient Greek religion was more complicated than that. Different cities in ancient Greece often told different versions of the Greek myths. And different cities placed greater importance on certain gods or goddesses. So the city of Athens was named after the goddess Athena, and Athena was very important to the Athenians. But in the city of Eleusis, the most important temple was dedicated to the goddess Demeter, and they were not as interested in Athena.

Furthermore, the worship of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses went on for well over a thousand years. In that long period of time, the stories told about the gods and goddesses changed, and so did the rituals and buildings dedicated to the gods and goddesses.

Not only that, but some of the local cults had different understandings of religion and religious beliefs. For example, most ancient Greeks believed that when humans die, our spirits would go to the underworld — Hades — a place where we would exist for eternity, a place that was not happy like the Christian heaven, but also not horrible like the Christian hell. However, the Eleusinian religion had a very different understanding of death — the Eleusinian religion taught that if you participated in the Eleusinian mysteries, when you died you would go to a place where you would be happy forever.

Because of all these differences, it is probably a good idea to speak of ancient Greek religions — in the plural — rather than one single ancient Greek religion — in the singular.

As you read through the stories in this curriculum, remember that you are only reading one of the many different versions of each story. And remember that the stories in this course come from many different times. The story of Demeter and Persephone is the oldest story in the course, the story of Prometheus dates from hundreds of years later, and some of the stories of the monsters are even later than that.

 

FOR TEACHERS

 

C. Goals and objectives

(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a community.

We want this both because our religious tradition values community and a sense of belonging to a group of caring people; and also because we want children to want to come to Sun-day school, for if they don’t come (or don’t want to be here when they do come), they won’t learn anything.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:

a. We will take attendance each week so the children will hear each other’s names (including the names of any visitors or newcomers).

b. We will allow time for check-in during an opening cir-cle, so each child may say something good and something bad that has happened in the past week.

c. We will sometimes allow time for free play; and/or we will allow time for activities that allow the children to socialize (such as drawing pictures).

How we will assess the group’s performance:

Watch attendance as a percentage of enrollment. 50% attendance is average; 60% attendance is good to excellent.

(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected in our society.

This is both so children can better participate in democracy in a multicultural society, and so they understand basic cultural references.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:

a. We will expose the children to two key stories from ancient Greek religions (Demeter/Persephone, and Prometheus), so that we can expose them to this core source of Western religion. We will also introduce several less important but fun stories that offer key cultural referents for understanding Western culture and religion.

b. We will help the children engage in thoughtful and critical conversations about these stories, using feminist theology and other liberal religious approaches. Furthermore, to sharpen their critical thinking, we will not use the reductionist explanation that Greek myths are nothing more than simplistic pre-scientific explanations for natural phenomena; instead, we will tease out the religious, dramatic, and artistic aspects of these myths and stories.

c. We will help the children remember these stories.

How we will assess the group’s performance:

a. We will ask the group to repeat each story back to us during the class session (e.g., before they act out the story, during a closing circle, etc.).

b. We will lead a conversations and discussions with the children about myths and stories, so they can make sense out of the story, and to help them better remember what the story was about.

(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, things such as public speaking, singing, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:

a. By using the “think-pair-share” teaching strategy, we will help children learn how to engage in thoughtful conversations about religious stories.

(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions.

To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.

How we work towards this goal in this curriculum:

a. We will remind the children that this is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, by saying the typical opening words each week (see sessions plans).

b. We will find opportunities in class sessions to support children in their moral growth and emotional sensitivity.

c. We will seek ways to bring joy into the classroom.

d. We will foster intellectual integrity and spiritual insight through open and serious conversations.

 

D. How to teach this curriculum

When we compiled the stories in this curriculum, we were struck by how alien the stories often felt. We think we are familiar with these myths, but closer acquaintance reveals that they are stranger than we had assumed they were.

This comes through perhaps most clearly in Unit One: Demeter and Persephone. We all know that the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades is supposed to be a myth that explains why there is winter. But it turns out that in one of the earliest version of this myth, there is only passing mention of winter. In fact, one of the central purposes of this myth is to explain the origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the sects of ancient Greek religion, a sect that lasted for a thousand years.

Next, we got interested in stories of monsters like Medusa and the Sphinx, and these stories appear in Unit Two: Monsters. For all that they monsters are bloodthirsty, we both felt more sympathy for the monsters than for some of the heroes and humans who do battle with them. Perseus, for example, comes across as an arrogant blackmailer, when he tells the parents of Andromeda that he will save her only if they agree to give him Andromeda in marriage — his morality isn’t any better than that of the sea monster who threatened to devour Andromeda. These stories are not the simple stories of good and evil that they may seem.

The monster stories also reveal that there are not such firm dividing lines between gods and goddesses on the one hand, and mortals on the other hand. Perseus is a hero, more than ordinarily human, but less than a god. The monsters themselves occupy a middle ground between gods and goddesses on one hand, and mortal humans on the other hand.

The final myth is a unit all its own, Unit Three: Prometheus. Prometheus is is more far powerful than a mortal human, but he is less powerful than the the newly-reigning Olympian gods and goddesses, who are ruled by the all-powerful Zeus. Prometheus is especially interesting to Unitarian Universalists because he shows that rebellion against the highest god is not only possible but morally acceptable; this notion is in direct contradiction to the usual understanding in Western religion where is is both impossible to rebel against God, and morally unacceptable to do so.

Teaching techniques

The lesson plans make use of two main teaching techniques: (1) acting out the story, and (2) think-pair-share discussions. We also include some (3) miscellaneous teaching techniques.

(1) Most of the lesson plans have children act out the story. Acting out the story reaches children with all kinds of learning styles, including children who “can’t sit still.” Extensive experience has shown that once a Sunday school group learns how to go about acting out stories, the acting helps them remember and retain the story, and prepares them to talk abut the story. (Other curricula in this series, such as From Long Ago, also use this teaching technique.)

(2) Think-pair-share discussions are used in about half the lesson plans. In this technique, you give the children an open-ended question designed to promote reflection, and ask them to THINK about the question for a few moments. Next you PAIR up the children, and have them talk about their answers with their partners for a few moments. Finally, you get everyone to SHARE their own answer with the whole group.

Think-pair-share is a great technique for prompting reflection and discussion. Instead of the more extroverted and articulate children immediately calling out their answers to a question, think-pair-share provides a structure for all children to participate more equally, and perhaps to reflect a little more carefully before answering. A good summary of think-pair-share can be found at the following Web site — “ReadingQuest Strategies for Reading Comprehension: Think-Pair-Share.”

(3) Miscellaneous teaching techniques include drawing, puzzles, and games.

 

If you are new to teaching Sunday school, take the time to read through the lesson plans closely before you teach — read through any previous lesson plans and stories, too, so you know what the group has been doing over the past few weeks. When you are teaching, take the time to really work on a given teaching technique. If you have a hard time getting the children to act out a story, do the best you can this week, knowing that next week it will go a little more smoothly because the children (and you!) know what to expect.

If you are a long-time Sunday school teacher, you may wish to develop these teaching techniques more fully.

If you would like to work on helping children become better actors, the classic resource is Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook, by Viola Spolin (Northwestern University Press, 1986). This book may be previewed online at Google Books. The official Viola Spolin Web site plans to offer online videos showing how to lead various theatre games, probably beginning in 2015.

 

E. More about ancient Greek religions

Don’t feel you have to read this section of the introduction — this section is for teachers who are really interested in ancient Greek religions, and want to learn more.

Not all ancient Greek myths are the same

As we began researching the Persephone myth, we quickly found out that there was more than one Persephone myth in ancient Greece. For example, in the ancient Greek city-state of Locri, Persephone was abducted by Hades, but Demeter does not appear at all. So in Locri, Persephone takes on additional roles as a goddess. The scholar Simon Price writes:

“At Locri, Persephone lacks the usual association with Demeter, but [she] has incorporated the spheres of marriage and children, that is, those female associations that were central to the community.” (1)

Therefore, when we are talking about ancient Greece, we should be careful to talk about religions, in the plural. We’re used to thinking of religions as having more or less uniform beliefs and practices, but this simply wasn’t true in ancient Greece. Different cities in Greece had their own versions of the ancient Greek myths, and each city had its own special temples and rituals.

The version of the Persephone myth that we present in this curriculum comes from a hymn to Demeter, that is, a song devoted to the goddess Demeter, which existed in oral tradition and was set down in writing by an anonymous author, probably in the 7th century BCE. Hymns were meant to be sung, and while they were being sung, there likely would have been dancers enacting the hymn. Singers and dancers were constantly innovating and improving, making the hymns and the dances more beautiful, to better please the gods and goddesses. (2) So you can see that there were lots of versions of the ancient Greek myths.

In this sense, ancient Greek religion was utterly different from Christianity — and, for that matter, completely different from Islam and Buddhism and Judaism, religions that have central texts that help define who they are. All Buddhists know the same basic story of how Buddha achieved enlightenment; all Muslims know the same basic story about how the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was granted revelation; all Christians know the same basic story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; etc.

Unlike the Christian religion, the ancient Greek religious stories were not standardized through books and scriptures. One scholar puts it this way: “Here we see an essential difference from Greek mythology: [in Christianity] there is only a single story….” (3)

As you teach this course, you may find the children challenging you on details of the myths. “That’s not the way the myth goes!” they may tell you. Help them to understand that there is no one “right” version of ancient Greek myths. The most we can say is that we should always look for ancient sources for the myths, recognizing that many versions of the myths have disappeared.

Feminism and the myth of Persephone

“I suggest that the only way we can, as human beings, integrate ourselves into a life-sustaining relationship with nature, is for both males and females to see ourselves as equally rooted in the cycles of life and death and equally responsible for creating a sustainable way of life.” — Rosemary Radford Ruether (4)

One obvious point of this lesson is to provide a feminist perspective on this familiar myth. Since the ancient Greek myths so often have male protagonists and/or a male point of view, feminist interpretations often ask what the women in the myths might have thought and felt.

Why should we care about this? The theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther believes that the roots of our contemporary environmental crisis lie, in part, in the historic domination of women by men. Men dominated women in Western culture for many centuries, and domination came to be seen as a natural state of affairs. Thus, it came to be seen as “natural” for human beings to dominate other living beings — just the way human men dominate human women. So, Reuther argues, we have to stop thinking in terms of one living being dominating another living being. When we start asking ourselves what women in ancient Greek myths thought and felt, we are thinking our way out of destructive domination.

With the children, you can help them think through the roles of males and females in these stories. As they think about this, we hope they begin to see how gender roles that dictate that one gender dominates another are unfair and unwise.

More about feminist interpretations of ancient Greek myths

Some thinkers, most notably archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, have theorized that the earliest European cultures were peaceful matriarchal societies. Then waves of Indo-European invaders swept in and imposed a hierarchical, male-dominated culture on top of the older, peaceful, woman-centered civilizations. This is a widely-held theory in Unitarian Universalism, popularized in part by the 1986 adult curriculum “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.”

According to this theory, at one time it was the Greek goddesses who were most powerful. Then, when patriarchal human invaders conquered the peaceful matristic Greek cultures, the religions reflected this new human reality by making Zeus and the other gods more powerful than the goddesses.

It is important for teachers of this course to remember that many archaeologists and historians do not find sufficient evidence to state that the earliest European civilizations were peaceful, woman-centered cultures. Some scholars, like Cathy Gere in her book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), argue that such reconstructions of ancient cultures may instead serve as a kind of modernist myth:

“That the ‘first Europeans’ were unwarlike quickly became a cherished myth. As the twentieth century launched conflicts of ever greater reach and ferocity, the Minoan epoch came increasingly to be celebrated as the pacifist precursor to Homer’s militaristic age of heros, a luminous, feminine, fairy-tale exception to an otherwise lamentable human record of violence and hatred.” (p. 12)

One of the central values of Unitarian Universalists is the value of skepticism: we value skepticism because it keeps us from descending into dogma and orthodoxy. As Unitarian Universalists, we should remain skeptical of the notion that ancient Greece, and ancient Europe more generally, was a placid, woman-centered land where everyone worshipped the Great Goddess in peace and harmony. And we should remain equally skeptical of the notion that gods are always more powerful than goddesses, that men have always been more powerful than women, and that all this represents the normal state of being for humans.

On the Web site for the new revised edition of the Cakes for the Queen of Heaven curriculum, Nancy Irons writes: “While we can never know for sure what beliefs and values were held by ancient people, there can be more than one interpretation of the facts that we do know…. It is necessary for original material to be revisited and re-evaluated from new perspectives to see if old interpretations still hold true or if new interpretations are more appropriate.” (http://cakesforthequeenofheaven.org/component/content/article/4-faqs/1-what-is-cakes accessed 20 August 2014).

We would add one other observation: The more we learned about ancient Greek myths and ancient Greek religions, the more we had to re-assess our assumptions. Certainly it is worth studying Demeter if for no other reason than to see how a powerful goddess thwarts the supposedly all-powerful Zeus. But it may be more important to study ancient Greek myths to challenge some of our unexamined assumptions about what it means to be human.

 

NOTES

(1) Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 25.

(2) Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: havrad University Press, 1985), pp. 102-103.

(3) Guy G. Stromsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformation in Late Antiquity, trans. Susan Emanuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 30.

(4) Rosemary Radford Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005), p. 40.

Curricula for UUs