We’re All In Myth Together
Symposium for the Study of Mythology, August 2012
Pacifica Graduate Institute
Santa Barbara, California
Susan R. Woodward
“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
In August 2012, I had the privilege of presenting at the International Symposium on Mythology in Santa Barbara, California. For four days, teachers, authors, story-tellers, and mythologists from more than half a dozen countries shared their experience, knowledge, and talents within the realm of myth. I was fortunate enough to be selected, along with co-presenter Michael Lambert from Long Island, New York, to share our experiences with students in the classroom. We worked as “bookend” teachers, me with freshmen and Michael with seniors. We had them coming and going within the realm of high school.
The following outlines the topics I addressed in my part of the presentation as how I incorporate mythology into my curriculum:
When we read Great Expectations or The Hunger Games, we examine the individuation process of Pip and Katniss Everdeen. As these characters grow and change, we also follow the growth of Theseus, Cuchulainn, Seigfried, David and Joan of Arc.
While tracking the trials along the journeys of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, Odysseus in The Odyssey, and The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins, we also examine the character traits exhibited by Hercules, Kutoyis, Gilgamesh, Quetzalcoatl and Faust as they go through their own trials. How these characters overcome their obstacles speaks of the values of the culture embodied by these heroes.
When Odysseus descends into the Land of the Dead, we also examine the descent of Innana, Wanjiru, KuanYin, Hermodor & Balder, and Izanagi & Izanami. Students look for common motifs in the tales that demonstrate how the various cultures honor the dead through the performance of certain rites.
In each case with these stories, students create posters to share their findings.
The connection of these motifs in literature to the world of myth allows students to compare and contrast the heroes of old to their more modern counterparts. We also break down each story into the culture’s values and beliefs that shine through, and students realize that these core beliefs actually permeate their own experience. Values like courage, honesty, cleverness, honoring the dead, and overcoming obstacles speaks as much to their own lives as it does to both mythic and modern literary characters.
The Sixty Day Sojourn:
From November 1 through December 31, students participate in the online Sixty Day Sojourn that I created for them. During The 60 Day Sojourn, we work through each of the steps of the Hero’s Journey a few days at a time. In 9th grade, I provide a step-by-step approach as an introduction into the work of Joseph Campbell in the hope that they will continue on their own in the future. My website, Sharing in the Journey of the Hero, can be found at http://herosjourney.ning.com
In class, students build a bulletin board that remains up for the remainder of the year as a point of reference.
The first day a step is discussed, I share examples from movies, television, mythology, poetry, novels, etc. These are listed in the Forum where students join in the discussion and respond with examples of their own. The idea is to create a vast pool of examples to draw from when we move on to the next phase.
The second day offers a quotation from Joseph Campbell and a guided visualization that is intended to lead students to discover specific examples from their own lives. This is also in the Forum where they are able to share their experiences with the guided imagery. The Forum discussions are meant to be a sharing of examples that came to mind while reading or listening.
The third day is for the blogs. I ask introspective questions so that students can examine where they are on their own journey and share their insights with the community. As we are all the heroes of our own life stories, these stories deserve to be heard. The more we share, the more we will see how much we all have in common.
The 60 Day Sojourn is an effort to draw people of various nations, cultures, ages, and genders together to examine the things that make us similar. So much effort is spent on diversity (which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong) that we are more conscious of how we are different from one another than of how we are alike.
The New York Odyssey:
Students mirror the journey of Odysseus in a modernized version of a haphazard voyage from Troy, New York to Ithaca, New York while making various misadventured pitstops to five New York towns. Students must use maps and must research the various towns in order to add local color to their writing as they re-work the tales of five of the places that Odysseus visited on his long journey home. Students work in cooperative groups to create a compiled travel journal. Each team must begin with a logical reason for why the group is in Troy, New York and why they must return to Ithaca. Each member writes one leg of the journey, modernizing Homer’s original, and all the tales must work together to create a cohesive whole. Students must work together to map out the entire journey and make logical transitions from one adventure to the next. At the end of the project, each group must submit a travel journal that includes each student’s submission, as well as pictures and maps that outline the journey. Then, in the spirit of Homer’s oral tradition, the groups tell their tales.
The Creative Writing Project:
Students write their own myths that utilize the Hero’s Journey pattern. Each year, I choose a piece of literature that we have read in class and then create the prompt that will inspire their stories. All students work through the writing process online and receive feedback from other students. At the end of the project, the students vote on the top stories and those are published in a short story anthology.
When, in 2009, we read a series stories of true life heroes, we were inspired by the then-popular television show Heroes. Students selected one of the real life heroes, and then created a modern superhero character complete with superpowers. Those stories became the anthology, In the Footsteps…
The following year, we read Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul in which humans created immortal characters through their stories, but once the humans started to forget about the immortals they created, the immortals (who could not die) were forced into an invisible existence such as the homeless on the streets. Their task was to create a near-forgotten immortal character and then tell his/her story so as to give him/her a purpose to exist. The tales of these immortals can be found in We Remember…
After reading The Hobbit in 2011, students created their own stories of journeys and trials in Forged Through Trials. And in the current spirit of modernizing myths, legends, and fairy tales, this year’s project was to modernize a fairy tale or myth. We read The Hunger Games and compared certain aspects of the plot to the trials of Theseus, as well as analyzing the film Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief alongside the tales of Perseus. The result was Altered Reflections.
This year, with the introduction of informational texts mandated by the Common Core State Standards, we read Every Bone Tells a Story. Students have selected one of the hominin discoveries and have been researching the cultures that once lived in the areas where each was found. Using their research findings, students will attempt to put flesh on the ancient bones and tell a story about their selected hominin. Two of the finds, Turkana Boy and Lapedo Child, are of young boys, so some students have elected to write tales that include rites of passage and individuation. Kennewick Man has inspired tales of the long journey. As for The Ice Man, the world’s earliest known murder mystery, a couple of students are creating tales of the Land of the Dead. Although the project is still considered creative writing, it is steeped in research and so meets the standards of the Common Core.