Greek and Roman Mythology
For all your mythological needs
Gods and goddesses? Freaky monsters? Hunky heroes? Check, check, and checkmate.
This course introduces you to the greatest hits of Greek and Roman Mythology. Split up into roughly two parts—the "debut" album of Greek stories and the "cover" album of the Roman reinterpretations—we'll get intimate with the mythological universe of two of the western world's most powerful cultures.
With an emphasis on critical reading and writing, our course is more than a cursory introduction to mythology. As you study the Greek myths and their Roman makeovers, you'll discover how these myths reflected how Greeks and Romans saw themselves—and how, despite sharing similar stories, these civilizations were also completely different.
In this course, you will
- learn the characteristics and social purposes of myth through interactive activities and projects.
- become familiar with the big names in Greek mythology, including the Olympian gods, the heroes, and lesser deities like Pan, and the must-read events, like the Trojan War.
- get comfortable with the stars of Roman mythology, including the Roman versions of the Greek gods, native Roman gods (hey there, Janus!), and Rome's original myths, like the founding of Rome.
- compare and contrast Greek and Roman myths, including how each culture's worldview and values are shown through their mythology.
- analyze modern-day myths.
- read a boatload of primary sources and write critically about them.
Unit 1. Greek Mythology 101
After taking a deep dive into the characteristics and purposes of myth, this unit takes us back to the very beginning—creation, that is. We'll read a little Hesiod, meet the Titans, and figure out how the world came to be as it is.
Unit 2. The Olympians
This unit will introduce us to the bigwigs of Greek mythology: the Olympians. In order to appease all fourteen of the gods, we've got a lesson devoted to each, where we'll learn about the gods, their stories, and their roles in the Greek pantheon.
Unit 3. The Other Greek Gods
In this unit, we'll step away from the "normal" order of things and get a glimpse at the wild, mysterious, and strangely anthropomorphized deities of Greece, including nymphs, satyrs, Hecate, the Fates, and the Furies.
Unit 4. The Heroic Age
Enter: the Heroic Age. In this unit, we'll explore the areas of Greek mythology related to hero worship—which we mean in the most literal sense. Besides the usual suspects like Hercules, Perseus, Jason, and Theseus, we'll also meet some lesser-known heroes like Bellerophon, Atalanta, and Pelops.
Unit 5. The Trojan War
This unit explores the events of the Trojan War and their important to Greek (and modern) culture. We'll read excerpts from the Iliad and explore what its themes tell us about the Greeks.
Unit 6. Rome's "Borrowed" Gods
Besides going over the Roman counterparts of the Greek gods, we'll focus in this unit on how the Romans made the gods their own (i.e. very, very Roman). Hint: Roman religion is important.
Unit 7. Rome's Homegrown Myths
The Romans didn't have a ton of homegrown myths, but you know that the ones they did have must have been pretty important. We'll learn about Roman myths as well as mysterious gods like Janus, Quirinus, and the Bona Dea, here.
Unit 8. Rome's Legendary History
The Romans really, really loved Rome. So it's no surprise they dreamed up a whole host of myths about its divine founding. This unit will introduce us to them.
Unit 9. Myths Everywhere
This short concluding unit provides time for reflection on the role of Greek and Roman Mythology in our world today. Why do we care? And what do we have that plays a similar role?
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: Heroic Display
Greek mythology is more than a bunch of stories about the beginning of the world and backstabbing gods. It also has stories about really awesome people, especially the folks from the Heroic Age called "heroes."
Before "hero" became a bizarre word for "sandwich," it was an Ancient Greek word that described people with above-average strength, beauty, intelligence, and...well, everything. They also had very specific ancestors.
Our word "hero" comes from the Ancient Greek word ἥρως (hêros), which signified somebody whose parents were a mixture of earthly and divine: one parent was mortal and the other was immortal. In other words, heroes were children of the gods, but they weren't entirely heavenly. They could still die, make mistakes, and go to the bathroom. Where are the toilets up on Olympus, anyway?
(Important clarification: the descendants of heroes could also be heroes. The divine essence lingered in your DNA for a reeeally long time.)
Nowadays we use the word "hero" to mean "someone who exemplifies how awesome people can be (and who is usually the protagonist of a story)." The modern definition is a little more complex (and depends greatly on how you define "awesome"), but you can already see why our version of "hero" somewhat fits the old-timey version found in Greek mythology: the perfect sons (and daughters) of gods would definitely exemplify how awesome we can be, right?
When thinking about the differences between modern and ancient heroes, we need to always keep in mind that different cultures have different viewpoints on the world. Just as it would be impossible for your 90-year-old grandma to set up Rock Band and get it working—"How do I hit the buttons on the plastic music wand?"—it might be hard for a Greek to understand our concept of heroism, and vice versa. We're all a little out of our element.
Before we start learning about all the valiant semi-gods of the Heroic Age, we need to get our facts straight. Today we'll dig deeper into the meaning of the word "hero" both in Ancient Greece and in this modern world of computers and YouTubes and whatnot.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 4.1a: The Greeks Weren't Like Us
The Greek Heroes were half-gods or sometimes part god. Even though they didn't necessarily live forever, they could still kick serious mortal butt. They were prettier, smarter, stronger, and luckier than we are. Don't you hate them already?
We hope you don't, because if you ever become an Ancient Greek—unlikely, but who knows when you might spill Mountain Dew on a time machine?—you'll have to worship them.
The Greek heroes weren't just literary characters: they were also important religious figures. Even after they died, heroes were thought to inhabit certain settlements or wild areas. (tl;dr: Greece was haunted!) In both roles they served as protectors and sponsors for the people who lived nearby.
If you wanted something good to happen, it wouldn't hurt to offer a sacrifice or two alongside your friendly neighborhood hero cult. Cities, towns, pastures, crossroads: most places in Ancient Greece had these cults. They were based around old ruined tombs from hundreds of years earlier. People told stories about the great, partially divine men buried there, and how they could still help the living.
Check out this depiction of people worshipping at the shrine of Oedipus.
"I'll offer this jar to Heracles. He'll love it!"
To get a heroic favor from beyond the grave, all you had to do was perform a ritual dance at the site, keep it looking nice, and maybe pour a little wine or animal blood in honor of your long-departed hero of choice, right there at his supposed resting place. Maybe you could retell his story, too.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how myths and religious rites can be born at the same time.
This is what's crazy: even in Ancient Greece there were grand, old, abandoned, mysterious ruins that amazed people and inspired stories about the bones inside.
This one—the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae—was built around 1250 BCE and would have been ancient to the people who encountered it 600 years later:
"Where did this burial mound come from? It's huge! And the architecture is sweet."
"I don't know, man. I bet the guy in there killed a half-goat half-dragon beast that had crazy-sharp claws and could spit boiling milk in your eyes."
"Totally. Let's sacrifice a goat to him and tell his tale."
Okay, so making up a myth in order to worship some unknown grave is admittedly pretty weird. Apart from the guy who has a Spiderman shrine in his basement, we don't literally worship our heroes. For the Greeks, though, literature and religion weren't so far apart.
Check out this website for a more in-depth look at the relationship between Greek heroes and their religious cults. The author occasionally mentions Greek words because he's a smarty-pants show-off, but don't mind him: you can just ignore them for now.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 4.1b: We Aren't Like the Greeks
If we call someone a "hero" today, we mean that he or she is a good person, the type who rescues kittens from trees. To put it simply: our heroes are virtuous.
The association goes so far that we demand virtuous behavior from anyone with influence or admirable abilities. Pro athletes have to dress in fancy suits and speak courteously to everyone. Politicians have to get married and stay faithful. You get the idea.
Sometimes the demand for virtuous behavior becomes a burden in the modern world. Inevitably, some people won't live up to our high "hero" standards, and we'll criticize them for it. We might even say, "He wasn't a hero like we thought he was."
The Greeks, though? Pffft. You could go ahead and throw a raging party, cheat on your wife, and then kill some guys because they disrespected your city. You'd still be a hero. Virtuous behavior (by our standards) wasn't a requirement. Many heroes behaved as badly as the gods did. Why? They were bigger and better than everyone else, so they could get away with it.
Obviously the Greeks believed that theft, murder, and other bad-guy activities should be discouraged. But there was wiggle room for truly exceptional people, and besides, Greek standards were a lot different from ours.
A Greek hero would never pause to make that "Is it ever okay to take a life?" speech that every good guy has to make in movies and TV shows today. In the Greek world, if someone was doing something wrong, then yeah, why wouldn't you stab him in the face?
Today, characters who do the same thing—take the law into their own hands—are so different from normal heroes that we call them "anti-heroes." To the Greeks, they were just heroes. Nothing "anti" about 'em.
It's not that the Greeks were more macho than us. It's just that they had a different value system. "Turn the other cheek" wasn't a comprehensible idea to them. "Why would you ever let someone hit you in the face in the first place?" would be more up their alley.
Remember: ancient Greece was a fragmented place full of warring cities. If you didn't assert yourself through strength, how could you survive?
Hopefully you'll get a better feeling for the Greek value system as we learn more about the Greek heroes individually. That'll be one of the big-time benefits of this unit: a closer look into the Greek view of the world.
For now, just remember that "Greek hero ≠ Superman."
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 4.1: Getting Personal
If you don't mind, we have a personal question for you. Who do you consider a hero?
Is it Leonid Rogozov, the Soviet doctor who developed appendicitis during a blizzard in Antarctica and had to perform surgery on his own abdomen?
Is it Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress and math whiz who invented spread spectrum communications? (Wait, what?)
The people we consider "heroes" today represent our hopes for what we can accomplish as human beings. Even though the Greek definition of "hero" was a little different, it reflected the same sense of admiration. Deep down, when we call someone a hero, we're saying "I want to be like him/her."
Myths about heroes go a step further. They don't just say "I want to be like him/her." They say "Everyone should be like him/her." That's the social power of myths for ya.
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
- Course Type: Elective
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1