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University of Pennsylvania

Greek and Roman Mythology

University of Pennsylvania via Coursera


Myths are traditional stories that have endured over a long time. Some of them have to do with events of great importance, such as the founding of a nation. Others tell the stories of great heroes and heroines and their exploits and courage in the face of adversity. Still others are simple tales about otherwise unremarkable people who get into trouble or do some great deed. What are we to make of all these tales, and why do people seem to like to hear them? This course will focus on the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, as a way of exploring the nature of myth and the function it plays for individuals, societies, and nations. We will also pay some attention to the way the Greeks and Romans themselves understood their own myths. Are myths subtle codes that contain some universal truth? Are they a window on the deep recesses of a particular culture? Are they a set of blinders that all of us wear, though we do not realize it? Or are they just entertaining stories that people like to tell over and over? This course will investigate these questions through a variety of topics, including the creation of the universe, the relationship between gods and mortals, human nature, religion, the family, sex, love, madness, and death.


• Week 1: Introduction
Welcome to Greek and Roman Mythology! This first week we’ll introduce the class, paying attention to how the course itself works. We’ll also begin to think about the topic at hand: myth! How can we begin to define "myth"? How does myth work? What have ancient and modern theorists, philosophers, and other thinkers had to say about myth? This week we’ll also begin our foray into Homer’s world, with an eye to how we can best approach epic poetry.
Readings: No texts this week, but it would be a good idea to get started on next week's reading to get ahead of the game.
Video Lectures: 1.1-1.7
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 2: Becoming a Hero
In week 2, we begin our intensive study of myth through Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. This core text not only gives us an exciting story to appreciate on its own merits but also offers us a kind of laboratory where we can investigate myth using different theoretical approaches. This week we focus on the young Telemachus’ tour as he begins to come of age; we also accompany his father Odysseus as he journeys homeward after the Trojan War. Along the way, we’ll examine questions of heroism, relationships between gods and mortals, family dynamics, and the Homeric values of hospitality and resourcefulness.
Readings: Homer, Odyssey, books 1-8
Video Lectures: 2.1-2.10
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 3: Adventures Out and Back
This week we’ll follow the exciting peregrinations of Odysseus, "man of twists and turns," over sea and land. The hero’s journeys abroad and as he re-enters his homeland are fraught with perils. This portion of the Odyssey features unforgettable monsters and exotic witches; we also follow Odysseus into the Underworld, where he meets shades of comrades and relatives. Here we encounter some of the best-known stories to survive from all of ancient myth.
Readings: Homer, Odyssey, books 9-16
Video Lectures: 3.1-3.10
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 4: Identity and Signs
As he makes his way closer and closer to re-taking his place on Ithaca and with his family, a disguised Odysseus must use all his resources to regain his kingdom. We’ll see many examples of reunion as Odysseus carefully begins to reveal his identity to various members of his household—his servants, his dog, his son, and finally, his wife Penelope—while also scheming against those who have usurped his place.
Readings: Homer, Odyssey, books 17-24
Video Lectures: 4.1-4.8
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 5: Gods and Humans
We will take a close look at the most authoritative story on the origin of the cosmos from Greek antiquity: Hesiod’s Theogony. Hesiod was generally considered the only poet who could rival Homer. The Theogony, or "birth of the gods," tells of an older order of gods, before Zeus, who were driven by powerful passions—and strange appetites! This poem presents the beginning of the world as a time of fierce struggle and violence as the universe begins to take shape, and order, out of chaos.
Readings: Hesiod, Theogony *(the Works and Days is NOT required for the course)*
Video Lectures: 5.1-5.9
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 6: Ritual and Religion
This week’s readings give us a chance to look closely at Greek religion in its various guises. Myth, of course, forms one important aspect of religion, but so does ritual. How ancient myths and rituals interact teaches us a lot about both of these powerful cultural forms. We will read two of the greatest hymns to Olympian deities that tell up-close-and-personal stories about the gods while providing intricate descriptions of the rituals they like us humans to perform.
Readings: Homeric Hymn to Apollo; Homeric Hymn to Demeter (there are two hymns to each that survive, only the LONGER Hymn to Apollo and the LONGER Hymn to Demeter are required for the course)
Video Lectures: 6.1-6.7
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 7: Justice
What counts as a just action, and what counts as an unjust one? Who gets to decide? These are trickier questions than some will have us think. This unit looks at one of the most famously thorny issues of justice in all of the ancient world. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia—the only surviving example of tragedy in its original trilogy form—we hear the story of Agamemnon’s return home after the Trojan War. Unlike Odysseus’ eventual joyful reunion with his wife and children, this hero is betrayed by those he considered closest to him. This family's cycle of revenge, of which this story is but one episode, carries questions of justice and competing loyalties well beyond Agamemnon’s immediate family, eventually ending up on the Athenian Acropolis itself.
Readings: Aeschylus, Agamemnon; Aeschylus, Eumenides
Video Lectures: 7.1-7.10
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 8: Unstable Selves
This week we encounter two famous tragedies, both set at Thebes, that center on questions of guilt and identity: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Eurpides’ Bacchae. Oedipus is confident that he can escape the unthinkable fate that was foretold by the Delphic oracle; we watch as he eventually realizes the horror of what he has done. With Odysseus, we saw how a great hero can re-build his identity after struggles, while Oedipus shows us how our identities can dissolve before our very eyes. The myth of Oedipus is one of transgressions—intentional and unintentional—and about the limits of human knowledge. In Euripides’ Bacchae, the identity of gods and mortals is under scrutiny. Here, Dionysus, the god of wine and of tragedy, and also madness, appears as a character on stage. Through the dissolution of Pentheus, we see the terrible consequences that can occur when a god’s divinity is not properly acknowledged.
Readings: Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Euripides, Bacchae
Video Lectures: 8.1-8.9
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 9: The Roman Hero, Remade
Moving ahead several centuries, we jump into a different part of the Mediterranean to let the Romans give us their take on myth. Although many poets tried to rewrite Homer for their own times, no one succeeded quite like Vergil. His epic poem, the Aeneid, chronicles a powerful re-building of a culture that both identifies with and defines itself against previously told myths. In contrast to the scarcity of information about Homer, we know a great deal about Vergil’s life and historical context, allowing us insight into myth-making in action.
Readings: Vergil, Aeneid, books 1-5
Video Lectures: 9.1-9.10
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

• Week 10: Roman Myth and Ovid's Metamorphoses
Our consideration of Vergil’s tale closes with his trip to the underworld in book 6. Next, we turn to a more playful Roman poet, Ovid, whose genius is apparent in nearly every kind of register. Profound, witty, and satiric all at once, Ovid’s powerful re-tellings of many ancient myths became the versions that are most familiar to us today. Finally, through the lens of the Romans and others who "remythologize," we wrap up the course with a retrospective look at myth.
Readings: Vergil, Aeneid, book 6; Ovid, Metamorphoses, books 3, 12, and 13.
Video Lectures: 10.1-10.9.
Quiz: Complete the quiz by the end of the week.

There are no required texts for the course, however, Professor Struck will make reference to the following texts in the lecture:
• Greek Tragedies, Volume 1, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, trans. (Chicago)
• Greek Tragedies, Volume 3, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore , trans. (Chicago)
• Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, M. L. West, trans. (Oxford)
• Homeric Hymns, Sarah Ruden, trans. (Hackett)
• Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles, trans. (Penguin)
• Virgil, The Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. (Vintage)
• Ovid, Metamorphoses, David Raeburn, trans. (Penguin)

These translations are a pleasure to work with, whereas many of the translations freely available on the internet are not. If you do not want to purchase them, they should also be available at many libraries. Again, these texts are not required, but they are helpful.

Taught by

Peter Struck


4.5 rating, based on 20 Class Central reviews

Start your review of Greek and Roman Mythology

  • I have been casually interested in mythology since childhood, and I took this course to experience how a prestigious institution treats such material. Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised on how it went from Week 1 to Week 10. I actually felt…
  • Joanna Maryniak completed this course, spending 7 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    I've got quite mixed feelings about this one. I am probably not its target audience - I already have completed several years of Classical Studies, I'm even writing my PhD dissertation in this area right now so it may have seemed pointless for me to…
  • John Hunt completed this course, spending 2 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    Like some others here I was lucky enough to do some classics at school and Uni in the UK and was curious to see an American approach. Most students were coming to the Greek myths for the first time. The level of engagement with the texts was more d…
  • Esyel Layne Sherman is taking this course right now, spending 6 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    It was definitely overwhelming to see all of the videos. That took me off-guard at first. But at the same time, that makes it a challenge and I love it for that. I'm only on Week 2 so far, but from what I have taken? I'm loving it. Professor Struc…
  • Doris Smith completed this course, spending 6 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    A great course with an excellent professor: I'd gladly take another course with Professor Struck any day. He's a very engaging and inspiring lecturer, with a deep knowledge and great enthusiasm for the material.
    I was a little unprepared for the amount of reading this course took, though. While I enjoyed the Greek writers, I didn't much care for Virgil or Ovid. (It may be that I was just a little burned out by then, or maybe the translations were just too clunky.)
  • Lindley Walter-Smith completed this course, spending 3 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    The enthusiasm of the lecturer for the subject matter was clear, and I really did feel I came away understanding much more about the texts (and caring more about them) than I could have from reading them myself. However, I felt that it was an in-class course not perfectly translated for an MOOC.
  • Peter Stojanovic completed this course, spending 4 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.

    Very interesting introductory course on not just Greek and Roman mythology, but also on its themes and the history of subsequent cultures' analyses of these themes. It is an abstract and interpretative course on mythology as a cultural tool rather than a resource on different mythologies per se, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
  • Anonymous

    Anonymous completed this course.

    Outstanding. Well thought out, well organized, well presented. I was not particularly interested in the topic but the excellence of the course kept me coming back for more.,
  • Sampath Kumar

    Sampath Kumar completed this course, spending 6 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be medium.

    This course was one I was looking forward to and taken when it was first released. Prof. Struck's style of teaching and initiating discussions were learner friendly and the assignments challenged one's understanding of these wonderful myths. It would have helped me if a genealogy of the gods was included. All in all ... terrific treat for students. Hats off to the professor.
  • Chalee Batungbacal
    This was a fun and enjoyable course to take! It was nostalgic to read some old favorites like the Odyssey and learning more in-depth theories and readings about what occurs in Greek and Roman mythology. I appreciated how the videos were broken up - there was never too much information in video and they were all easy to sit through and watch. The added visuals helped keep things interesting as well. Overall, I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to dive a little deeper into Greek and Roman mythology!
  • Dominique Dixon

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  • Willard Love

    Willard Love is taking this course right now.

    my interest in this course as been fulfill so far, i am not through with the course but it stands true, that most of the stories really are exciting.
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