There are two basic kinds of Greek myths: stories of gods and stories of heroes. The heroes fall into two groups; pre-Trojan war, and the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The earlier stories (pre-Trojan War) probably date from about 1500 B.C.E. and the lives of these heroes fit a pattern. An extensive but rewarding class research project is to investigate and compare the stories of Theseus, Perseus, Bellerophon, Heracles, Jason and Atalanta. For each hero the questions may be asked:
Who was the hero's father? ( A king or a god)
Was the hero in danger as a baby or young child?
Where and with whom does the hero grow up? (Away from father)
Was there an oracle about the hero? What was it and to whom was it directed?
How do the gods involve themselves in the hero's life?
Is there a love story?
What is the hero's greatest achievement? (Usually killing a monster)
How does the hero's father or father figure (king) die? (Death often caused by hero, unintentionally)
How does the hero die? (Death mysterious or disgraceful)
I have presented the stories to classes in a variety of ways; flannelboard storytelling, audio-visual presentation, both student made and commercial, and story books. This was to give all students some familiarity with all the heroes. Then I assigned groups of students to research the questions above with the directions that they were to write the answers in complete sentences since the reader would not see the questions. Reading all the answers to the questions in order should give the reader a synopsis of the myth.
If the answers are written on 4x6 note cards so they can be read at a short distance the entire set can be made into a bulletin board as a grid. Hero names are listed vertically, and the headings; "Father a King or God", "In Danger as a Child", "Grows up Away from Father", etc. are listed at the top of the columns. Reading horizontally gives one the hero story, reading vertically reveals the pattern. Note: all questions cannot be answered for all heroes. There will be a few gaps, and some of the information is hard to find, for example, how does Theseus die?.
Use sources that do not simplify or reinterpret the stories. Obviously, Disney's Hercules is out! The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology can answer some of the more difficult questions, and Doris Gates's series of books on the Greek myths contains excellent retellings written at about a fourth grade reading level. Beware of versions of Atalanta which make her a silly girl who loses a race to pick up a golden bauble. This myth is really a very female one, about the competition between two goddesses, Aphrodite and Artemis, for the worship of a mortal, or perhaps more abstractly, it is the battle between sexuality and abstinence. An interesting discussion question is to ask students to argue the point "Aphrodite was kind or cruel to turn Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions at the end of the story"
This hero pattern is not unique to Greek mythology. King Arthur fits it too, as does the Biblical story of Jesus.
illus. above: Perseus flees the Gorgons; Athena and Hermes aid him.
If you have questions or comments about any of the material offered here, please email Carole at carole at slattery dot com.