Modernity and Myth

Jan. 27, 2020

Julie Clack

For thousands of years, Greek myths have been reinvented and reinterpreted by many other cultures. In Katerina Stergiopoulou’s first-year seminar “Modernity and Myth,” students examined the ancient and modern afterlife of classical myths in different literary traditions. 

“I wanted to give students a sense of these myths as a living force that shape the intellectual, cultural, or material world we find ourselves in, whether directly or indirectly, and whether we realize it or not, said Stergiopoulou, assistant professor of classics and Hellenic studies. “At the same time, by studying the history of engagement with such materials and the uses to which they have been put, I hoped that we would be able to think critically about their contemporary place: their usefulness or danger, their relevance or irrelevance.” 

Over fall break, Stergiopoulou and her students traveled to Athens to experience both the ancient and modern legacies of the myths they studied in the classroom. During their week in Athens, the group visited many of the city’s main archaeological sites, including the Parthenon, which brought the course’s themes to life. 

“Many of the readings we studied in class were meditations on specific locations in Greece, such as the Acropolis. It was paradigm-shifting to see these locations with my own eyes and compare my experiences with the experiences of those whose work we read in class,” said Daniel Lyons.

“Seeing the Parthenon really helped my understanding of a lot of the tensions between modernity and myth,” said Adira Smirnov.

Ana Blanco agreed: “Our trip to Athens made everything that we were learning in class seem more concrete and tangible. We read a lot of poetry about Greek landscapes and political and cultural topics, so it was a lot easier to understand them when we were actually able to witness everything with our own eyes.”

group of people posing for a photo outside in front of trees

After a week of living in the city, the group experienced, as Andrew Tran observed, “the juxtaposition of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ firsthand.” 

“I really enjoyed seeing how the modern city lives around such rich archaeological history,” said Alice McGuinness. This juxtaposition was also reflected in the course’s syllabus of modern works and classical texts. 

“The variety and depth at which we have studied well-known ancient texts, like Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ as well as new material written by later poets surprised me,” said Brandon Jones. “The course has transformed the way I interpret old texts and exposed me to new, innovative literary methods of adopting, modifying or reusing the old myths to create novel material.” 

In addition to reading or re-reading classic texts, students also enjoyed the exposure to contemporary authors. “Initially I was under the assumption that literary and poetic works from the 19th and 20th centuries would be as ‘modern’ as the texts would get, and that the texts would only be from English-speaking Westerners such as the Romanticist Lord Byron or the Modernist James Joyce,” said Tran. “Though we did discuss them, I was surprised to read works from contemporary poets as well.” 

Another benefit of traveling to Greece was the opportunity to meet two of these poets in person: Phoebe Giannisi and A.E. Stallings. “One of my favorite parts of the trip was meeting with the contemporary poets whose work we read in class,” said Alex Krauel. “They clarified a lot of our questions and spoke about the intentions behind their poems.” 

The course helped many students make meaningful personal connections to the material. “I have been surprised by how many links I am able to draw from our texts to my own life and by the complexity of each text we read,” said McGuinness. 

“There is always some new insight or complication that you can find in these texts,” Lyons added.

“My biggest hope is that my students come away from the course with a love of reading and studying literary texts, no matter what they end up majoring in; I also hope that they develop a passion for the classical world, and a deeper understanding of its multifaceted impact on modern life in Greece and beyond,” said Stergiopoulou.

The course’s trip to Greece was jointly supported by the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.

A group of people posing for a picture in the Athens Center on Princeton University Campus