Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Great Courses—Classical MythologyTHE GREAT COURSES-CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY By: Elizabeth Vandiver

Lectures by Elizabeth Vandiver


Elizabeth Vandiver travels to the past to elucidate the present in 24 lectures about Greek and Roman mythology. Professor Vandiver lectures those who wish to know something new about myths and legends but uncovers no fundamental surprise. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures infer it is a man’s world, a stage set for a future that repeats the same mistake; i.e. women as an afterthought, an extension of man to be treated as property and spoils of war.

The bulk of the lectures are about Greek myths and legends because the Romans, more often than not, just change the names of the gods. Zeus becomes Jupiter, Hera becomes Juno, Heracles becomes Hercules, Hephaestus becomes Vulcan; etc., etc., but the stories stay the same. With Roman defeat of the Greeks, belief in power and politics replaces contemplation and education.

However, this is not to suggest that Vandiver’s lectures are uninteresting. Vandiver tells stories and offers opinions that surprise and delight the curious and uninformed. For example, the gods care nothing about humans in stories that are told. To the gods, humans are at best an entertainment; at worst slaves. Vandiver suggests that the mythology of today is told by science fiction writers. She explains science fiction’ writers tell stories about the edges of the universe like Greek’ story tellers tell stories about the edges of the world. Science fiction writers create the Borg like Greeks create ½ men ½ monsters.

Vandiver questions the veracity of lecturers like Joseph Campbell who suggest myth creations of the supernatural come from a common human’ cultural base–she suggests Campbell creates hypothesis out of thin air by choosing myths as sophist’ explanations for a preconceived notion. Vandiver acknowledges Campbell’s scholarship but suggests Campbell makes more connections among myths than are warranted by the facts.

Vandiver focuses on mythology in the context of its time. She suggests mythology offers insight to the culture of the time in which the stories are created. Without context, artifacts are misunderstood. Vandiver gives the example of McDonald’s golden arches being excavated centuries from now with archaeologists surmising places for religious service rather than orders for french-fries.

Vandiver argues that some myths are based on passed down stories of remembered events. Without naming the process, the professor suggests repeated stories of events embellish real events like the Trojan War,

or the tale of the Minotaur.

The human characteristic of making facts fit a story changes the truth each time the story is told. Soon minor details turn into a mythical story of Theseus fighting a ½ bull-½ man with a sword and a ball of string. The story is repeated until someone writes it down and it becomes the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Excavations on the Turkish coast suggest there was a great war and a palace on the island of Crete suggest there was a labyrinth. The Troy excavations at an inlet off the Mediterranean show a fortified city and Sir Arthur Evans excavation at Knossos in Crete offer evidence of a labyrinthine palace.

Artifacts of battlements in Troy and bull mosaics in Knossos are concrete remnants of tales told.

Vandiver acknowledges that some myths may offer insight to the subconscious mind but when taken out of the context of the myth’s time, meaning changes; like a Tragicomic Mask. In its time a myth may be comic; in the future it may be tragic. Vandiver infers that Freud, Jung, Campbell and fellow interpreters of ancient beliefs need to be skeptical about the meaning of myths and legends past.

Vandiver’s lectures reveal a few of the gods’ surprising details but her major contribution is in tempering wild conclusions about the meaning of Greek’ and Roman’ myths in modern times. Mythology is like the American Constitution, a living record modified by time.

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