Explore what it means to be human today by studying what it meant to be a hero in ancient Greek times
Registration is now open for the latest session of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, a unique MOOC that introduces participants to the literature and heroes of ancient Greece via the content from one of Harvard’s longest running courses. The first of five modules on The Ancient Greek Hero, “Epic and Lyric” looks at ancient Greek heroes from the perspective of two different but related media of poetry and songmaking, epic and lyric. The major focus is Achilles, especially as viewed through the lens of the Homeric Iliad and through the “rose-colored glasses” of Sappho’s songs. The module begins on September 2nd, but new participants are welcome throughout the duration of the project. All readings are in English and no previous experience is expected.
The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, or HeroesX, is an online educational project created by Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy and hosted by edX/HarvardX that offers five units or learning “modules” related to the ancient Greek hero. Although the modules build upon each other sequentially to offer a broad view of the hero, each can be explored individually for a unique and focused perspective. This evolving collection of resources is designed to be equally accessible and transformative for a wide audience. HeroesX participants will experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making spanning over a thousand years from the eighth century BCE through the third century CE: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus. Throughout the project, Nagy and his Board of Readers model techniques for “reading out” of these works in an inductive way. This approach allows participants with little or even no experience in the subject matter to begin seeing this literature as an exquisite, perfected system of communication.
Content, community, and conversation, are prioritized in HeroesX in a way that redefines MOOC as massive, open, online content. This project provides a supportive learning community, exploring what it means to be human today by studying what it meant to be a hero in ancient Greek times. Since it was launched in March 2013, The Ancient Greek Hero has enrolled over 50,000 participants from over 170 countries. Through this project, Nagy is sharing his latest research on ancient Greek heroes, a subject that he has been studying for over four decades. Participants in previous sessions describe being transformed by the content, the community, and the profound experience of “reading closely.” HeroesX participants are also eligible to register for Hour 25, an open-ended, community-driven companion project hosted by Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
The five modules of HeroesX are “Epic and Lyric,” “Signs of the Hero in Epic and Iconography,” “The Cult of Heroes, “The Hero in Tragedy,” “Plato and Beyond.” The first module begins on September 2. Enroll now!
Module 1, “Epic and Lyric,” Hours 1–5
Here we look at the ancient Greek hero from the perspective of two different but related media of poetry and songmaking, epic and lyric. The major focus of interest is Achilles, especially as viewed through the lens of the Homeric Iliad *and* through the “rose-colored glasses” of Sappho’s songs. While the epic of the Iliad is typical of verbal art that is performed by and for men, the lyric songs of Sappho derive from traditions of singing performed mainly by women of all ages, including adolescents about to be initiated into womanhood. These “women’s traditions” are best known for two kinds of singing, laments and love songs, which are interchangeable in contexts that will surprise the modern mind. Another surprise, as we will see, is that the Iliad too contains embedded “quotations” of such laments and love songs, and that our first impression of this epic as a “men’s tradition” obscures the fact that Homeric poetry channels the songs of women as well as men. A perfect expression of such “channeling” is the figure of Achilles himself, who was admired by Greek song culture as a virtuoso singer of laments and love songs in his own right. An analysis of Homeric passages that “quote” the singing of Achilles will be an integral part of our overall experience in close reading.
Module 2. “Signs of the Hero in Epic and Iconography,” Hours 6–11
Hours 6-8 (including all the subdivisions of Hours 7 and 8), explore the interactions of text and image in a culture where the “text” is not a written document but a live performance and where the “image” is not based on anything that is written down but exists as a free-standing medium of the visual arts, expressing the same myths that are being systematically expressed by the medium of Homeric poetry. Almost all of the images we will be studying are samples of a form of vase painting known as the “Black Figure” technique. We will practice how to “read” such a medium, analyzing what it tells us about ancient Greek heroes like Achilles, in conjunction with our “reading” the performance tradition of the Homeric Iliad itself. It is important to keep in mind, as we read these images and texts together, that the myths expressed by these media were meant to be taken very seriously. In the ancient Greek song culture, myth was not mere fiction. Just the opposite: myth was a formulation of eternal cosmic truths. So, the myths conveyed by the images of the paintings we will study are just as “truthful,” from the standpoint of ancient Greek song culture, as are the related myths conveyed by the Homeric Iliad. We need to read both the texts and the images of these myths as an accurate formulation of an integral system of thought the expresses most clearly and authoritatively all those things that really matter in life.
Hours 9-11 foreground the historical fact that the heroes who were characters in the myths of ancient Greek epic, lyric, and other verbal media were at the same time worshipped as superhuman forces by the communities where their bodies were thought to be hidden from outsiders. When we take for example the Homeric Odyssey, we find that the main hero of this epic, Odysseus, was a cult hero, not only an epic hero. And the agenda that center on the idea of a cult hero, like the prospect of immortalization after death, can be clearly seen in the overall plot of the Odyssey, especially in the memorable scene where the hero experiences his homecoming to Ithaca at the same moment when the sun rises as he wakes from a mystical overnight sleep while sailing homeward.
Module 3, “The Cult of Heroes,” Hours 12–15
Hour 12: In Homeric poetry the idea of hero cult is implicit even though characters like Odysseus are not explicitly identified as cult heroes. The situation is different, however, in the poetry attributed to Hesiod, where the very idea of a cult hero is precisely outlined and illustrated, especially in the myth about the five generations of humankind.
Hours 13-15 show the vast variety of perspectives brought to bear on the idea of the ancient Greek hero in the versatile medium of prose, as exemplified by authors as varied as Herodotus, the so-called father of history, and Philostratus, an intellectual from a post-classical period who was prodigiously well-versed in classical and pre-classical lore about cult heroes. As we can see from the lively prose narratives of such learned and captivating authors, the mystique of cult heroes, both male and female, enthralled their adoring worshippers, who treasured the exotic stories of epiphanies and miracles that were linked with the places made sacred by the felt presence of heroes residing in the mother earth that concealed their bodies. We will even get the chance of reading and analyzing an eyewitness prose account of an actual initiation into the mysteries of a hero cult. This prose account brings home to us the dead seriousness of personally experiencing such an initiation, and it shows the emotional impact of making contact with the consciousness of superhuman forces who inhabit the mystical world of hero cult.
Module 4, “The Hero in Tragedy,” Hours 16–21
Hours 16-21 bring us into the world of high classical poetry in drama, as brought to life in three tragedies of Aeschylus, two of Sophocles, and two of Euripides. We see here the Greek hero as best known to us from the perspective of world literature. The medium of drama makes heroes seem more familiar to us, since we think we know drama better than we know other verbal arts such as epic and lyric, but, by the time we finish analyzing the seven classical tragedies that we will be reading, we will see that the traditions of hero cult, infused into the verbal art of drama, cast an altogether new light on tragedy, defamiliarizing for us not only the heroes illuminated by this art but also the art itself. We will see, then, maybe for the first time ever, that the ancient Greek hero of tragedy was not at all like us – even less like us than the hero of epic or lyric. The male and female heroes of drama were larger than life, far more so than we may ever have imagined, reaching levels of both nobility and debasement that challenge our sense of equilibrium in the cosmos. As our close readings of our seven chosen tragedies will show, there was a disequilibrium in myths about heroes in the remote past, and this disequilibrium could be compensated only by experiencing the equilibrium of rituals in the immediate present – rituals culminating in the drama of heroic tragedy.
Module 5, “Plato and Beyond,” Hours 22–24
Hours 22-24 challenge the idea that Socrates was a hero, just as Plato’s Socrates himself challenges that same idea. And yet, as we will see from reading Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Phaedo, the idea of the hero is very much present in Plato’s works – just as it persists in works beyond Plato, whether or not these works adopt Plato’s project of trying to substitute philosophy for literature – especially for poetry. Just as poetry serves as a primary representative for the idea of the hero, we will discover though our close readings that the philosophical prose of Plato likewise represents this same idea – though now the hero is no longer some superhuman human. Rather, the real hero now becomes the word of philosophical dialogue, which is brought back to life much as a cult hero is brought back to life ever time a heroic life is narrated or dramatized. In Plato’s works, the narration and the dramatization show not the life of the hero but the life of the word that survives the speaker of the word, provided that the word engages in dialogue – a philosophical dialogue that contemplates the eternal truths of the cosmos.