This course examines the ancient life and modern afterlife of a variety of classical myths in different literary traditions. We follow the development of particular mythical figures (e.g., Odysseus, Orpheus, Helen) from their ancient sources to their modern iterations and transformations. We will be thinking in particular about the cultural work that myths accomplish. Is the use of myth opposed to an interest in the modern or the contemporary? How do modern artists use myth to give voice to characters traditionally ignored or to challenge conventional narratives? Can myths still help us tell our own stories?

In our age of rapid technological advancement, myth may seem to be a thing of the past. Yet in the last hundred years, classical myths have been retold, reimagined, and reinvented again and again. In this course we will be thinking about why this might be so—about why literature of the modern world should return so consistently to some of our most ancient stories. We will consider modern recastings of classical myths in a variety of different literary traditions, following the development of particular myths and mythical figures (Odysseus, Orpheus, Helen) from their ancient sources to their modern iterations and transformations. From Homer to Dante, Tennyson, and Margaret Atwood, Ovid to Marcel Camus and Rita Dove, and Euripides to Yeats and H.D., each trajectory will reveal a new aspect of the definition and reception of classical myth in both antiquity and modernity.

We will be thinking in particular about the cultural work that modern myths accomplish. How do later versions of a myth help to “interpret” an earlier version? How do modern artists, and especially women artists, use myth to give voice to characters traditionally ignored or to challenge conventional narratives? Is the use of myth opposed to an interest in the modern or the contemporary? How do different literary genres (poetry, prose, drama) and media (painting, film) contribute to or define the way myths are used or the effect that they have on us? Are these myths, in any of their versions, still relevant for us today? Can they help us tell our own stories?

Over the fall break we will travel to Athens, Greece, in order to seek there contemporary answers to these questions, thus moving from text to context. We will have the unique and exciting opportunity to study pictorial and architectural representations of myths on site—whether on the Acropolis or in museums—and to speak with a variety of contemporary writers and artists based in Greece about the importance of myth in their own work. We will prepare for our trip by visiting Princeton’s own art museum and by reading excerpts from the writers we will be meeting. Our visit to Athens will be tied to a written assignment and, if students so choose, to their final project for the course. 

Participants in the seminar will be expected to read the assigned texts closely and carefully, to actively and thoughtfully participate in class discussion, and to do brief, informal presentations. Over the course of the semester, students will explore the relationship between our two terms—myth and modernity—as it is reflected in the literature and the arts, and slowly, through our conversations, weekly written responses, and short essays, build an argument for what it might be, culminating either in a final critical essay, or in a creative project accompanied by an analytical account.

Katerina Stergiopoulou                                                            Seminar:  1:30 – 4:20 pm W