Popular Culture and Classical Mythology
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... ctor of classical mythology who sat down in front of the television one Sunday afternoon and came upon a B-movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film's simple plot involved Schwarzenegger, a commando, hunting a dangerous alien, which had been wreaking havoc in the Central American jungle where it had recently landed. The intrigued instructor spent the rest of the afternoon watching how the warrior used brute strength and native ingenuity to defeat the superhuman beast. The next day, in class, the instructor mentioned the film and asked if anyone had ever seen it. Every hand in the class shot up. This was not a B-movie, but Predator, a 1987 mega-hit. Sensing an opportunity, the instructor asked if the class found any similarities in this film with any Greek stories they had heard. The name Heracles was on many sets of lips in an instant-they had by coincidence recently been studying the hero-and the rest of the class was spent illuminating the manifold parallels between the modern and ancient stories. This method of teaching classical mythology, in my case serendipitously discovered, can transform the undergraduate myth classroom: using American popular culture to energize the study of ancient stories. The method does not lead students first to study in a detached way how myth is received or reproduced through the ages, but to recognize that good stories have a profound effect on all cultures and that comparison of similar stories from different cultures can illuminate both sides in ways otherwise impossible. Often, the most difficult part of teaching mythology involves helping undergraduates to own the material-that is, to believe that what they are studying does matter, is worth their attention, beyond good grades. Greek myth at first puts off the average student by appearing on the surface facile and designed for children, yet at the same time alien and incomprehensible, too much to memorize for a test. Film, on the other hand, is a passionate medium for students; they are natural experts, natural aficionados. They know that movies are important because they spend money on them, are entertained by them, have their life philosophies affected by them. This natural energy is the instructor's gold, a mound of capital which can be invested to create corresponding energy for studying the culture of the ancient world-if the crucial connection is made that the stories of the Greeks and Romans are more like American film than they first appear, and vice versa.' Once undergraduates recognize that myths are neither simple children's stories nor mere ammunition for objective tests, the instructor can begin to close the natural distance between student and material, fostering engagement and thus learning.