Sep 14th 2014

HUM2.2x: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Hours 6-11): Signs of the Hero in Epic and Iconography (edX)

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Focusing on the interaction of Homeric epic and the visual arts, this is the second of five modules on the Ancient Greek Hero as portrayed in classical literature, song, performance, art, and cult.

HUM 2.2x. The second of five modules in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, “Hours 6-11: Signs of the Hero in Epic and Iconography” explores 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.

Additionally, this module foregrounds the historical fact, explored more fully in the third module (“Hours 12-15: The Cult of Heroes”), 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.