Collin County Community College

Humanities 1301

Introduction to the Humanities

Forum 1:  Epic, Myth & Archetype


The earliest human stories were created in an oral tradition -- that is, a culture without writing, and with human speech as the only means of communicating and transmitting knowledge. The most important stories in an oral culture get told over and over again. The most effective way to preserve the important details of such stories so that they can be passed down from generation to generation -- without being able to write them down -- is to turn them into poetry. The rhythm, rhyme and repetition of a poem make it easier to remember than the same story told in prose.

One form that such stories have taken is myth. A myth is not just a fantasy. Sometimes, in everyday conversation, we call something a "myth" to suggest that it's a false rumor or a well-known misconception. But, in the history of human culture, myths are something much more important than that. They are the way cultures communicate their deepest feelings about the nature of the world, the relationships among human beings, and the relationship between human beings and the world. A myth explains the origins of some important aspect of the world as human beings experience it. Collectively, the various mythic traditions of the world represent the human desire to understand the world and our place in it. (See Book 1, p. 13 for more on myth.)

Another important kind of story emanating from oral traditions is the epic. An epic is a long narrative poem in an elevated style (meaning that the language that's used is highly intensified and full of artifice) that presents the deeds of characters with high social status (often heroic) in a series of adventures. The events related in an epic embody the ideals and values of the culture from which the story comes, and those episodes are often important to the history of a nation or race (although sometimes the relationship to that history is symbolic rather than literal).

Now, it's a human tendency that important stories get larger with every retelling. Their scope becomes broader, the challenges larger, the enemies fiercer, the outcomes more consequential. If you've ever listened to an older relative tell the same stories over many years (war stories, for example . . . or maybe fishing stories), you might have noticed that they've been amplified over time. Imagine how big those stories would be if they were repeated over hundreds of years. In something like this way, the most popular and important stories of a people converge into epics that become catalogues of the myths and values of that people.

One of the key elements in these long-lasting story forms is the appearance of archetypes. The word archetype comes from the ancient Greek words arch or arche (meaning "first" or "original") and typos (meaning "form" or "type"), and it refers to types of characters, themes, plots, events, symbols and metaphors that continually recur in myth, literature, dreams, folk tales and fairy tales (as well as present-day stories, including television and movies). Scholars think of these archetypes as embodying the human psychological drives and forces that work their way into our stories, or perhaps as the forms or patterns that storytellers instinctively found useful for organizing the universe of human social experience. (These two ways of viewing archetypes are not mutually exclusive: they can work together.)

In the paragraphs below, several important mythic traditions and epic stories are summarized. For each one, there is a page reference that tells you where to find a discussion of these stories or characters in your textbook, and often selected excerpts from the stories. Please refer to these discussions and excerpts. Take note of the implications of each of these myths or epics for the cultures in which they were created. Remember that there is never just a single correct way of looking at such stories. Although not all interpretations are possible, there will always be a range of possible interpretations. And this is what we should expect . . . no story could become so important to the history of a culture if it contained only a single meaning, a single dimension of significance, a single 'truth'.

Following the summaries is a link that will send you to a detailed explanation of archetypes and examples of archetypes from some of the epic stories presented here. Pay close attention to these archetypes and examples (you might even wish to print that page out). Your forum assignment will depend upon being able to apply the concept of archetypes to other stories.

At the bottom of the page you'll find some links to additional material on the Internet about these topics, including full English translations of most of the epics mentioned here. You can use these links if you'd like to gather more information. The links are followed by the questions I want you to address in the forum discussion.

Mesopotamian epic (Book 1, pp. 39-41)

Gilgamesh is a warrior-king of Sumeria, a hero who -- in the epic which bears his name -- rescues the people of the city of Uruk (the oldest city of which we currently have knowledge) from violence and chaos. According to archeological records, a king by that name really was one of the early kings of the city (over 5000 years ago). The Epic of Gilgamesh, which purports to tell his story, describes him as being a 'demi-god', part god and part human. With the unrestrained power that he acquires as the hero and the king of the city, he becomes the people's oppressor. This oppression is expressed in terms of Gilgamesh's own combative and sexual appetites. No one is safe when Gilgamesh is around, especially the young men and young women of the city.

This is a dilemma that has confronted cultures from the beginning. Entities that protect a culture from lawlessness or conquest by outsiders consume the resources of the culture and threaten to become a ruling elite that results in tyranny. The story of Gilgamesh suggests a series of events that cause him to re-evaluate his place in the world. Those are the events that appear in the reading in your textbook. They describe the personal loss that drives Gilgamesh to seek the secrets of immortality and what he discovers when his journey reaches its goal.

Greek Homeric epic (Book 1, pp. 73-77)
The most famous poet of ancient Greece is Homer, who put into written form two very old (even in Homer's time) tales from the Greek oral tradition. They are two very different sorts of story. One, the Iliad, is discussed and excerpted in your textbook. The other, the Odyssey, is not in your textbook.

The Iliad is a war story. It tells of a few days in the course of a Greek siege of the city of Troy (also called 'Ilium' by the Greeks, thus the title of the poem), a siege that actually lasted ten years. The battle below the walls of Troy is related in grisly detail, focusing on the exploits of Achilles, a warrior-hero born of a goddess and a human father. The poem also conveys information about the organization and conduct of a war. It addresses issues of logistics and preparation as well as combat. It also pauses to relate the background of the Greek soldiers, including their family histories and highlights of their ancestors' relationships to the gods and Greek mythology. The poem eventually adds up to an encyclopedia of the Greek way of life, especially its emphasis upon arete. In the centuries after Homer captured the Iliad in written form, the Greeks came to think of his poems as a source of wisdom regarding ethical and political relationships, as well as a source of good advice on how to conduct a war.

The Odyssey is an adventure story. After the fall of Troy, one of the Greek commanders, Odysseus, has to make his way home by ship past all of the dangers and temptations that a poetic imagination could devise. The war in Troy lasted ten years, and it takes Odysseus another ten years to get home. This journey requires all of his cunning and cleverness, making Odysseus a kind of trickster-hero. When he arrives home, his wife Penelope is still waiting for him, although she's had to use some cunning and cleverness of her own to do so. This is a story about social relationships in a seafaring community. Some of the men are going to be gone for long periods of time. The people back at home have to believe that the seafarers will return and so keep things going while they're away. The men who leave have an obligation to return no matter how much fun they're having. The impediments to Odysseus' return are all of the excitements of life away from home. He is seduced by high adventure, beautiful women, and good drugs, but throughout it all he's thinking that he has to get home. The Odyssey propounds an ethic that creates a stable community, even though family members are separated for long periods of time. However, it also presents characters who, unlike the valiant warrior of the Iliad, must use their wits and cleverness to achieve their ends.

Roman epic (Book 1, pp. 140-141)
The Aeneid was a literary epic (meaning, one composed from the start as a written poem rather than an oral poem; the three previous examples began as oral epics) commissioned by the Roman Emperor Augustus (Octavian) to celebrate the glory of Rome. Virgil was hired to write a history of Rome that was continuous with the heroic epics of Homer (this is because the Romans saw themselves as extending and continuing -- and improving upon -- the classical tradition begun by the Greeks). In the course of the story we see Aeneas, the hero, displaying all of the qualities that Romans in the time of Virgil hold most highly. We also learn, in the Aeneid, that the fortunes of Rome have been connected by fate with the family of Augustus. This implies that the Emperor has the sanction to rule with unquestioned authority. In other words, Virgil exalts the man who's paying him. Many surviving works of art from the past were made to sing the praises of the kings, emperors, rulers, or bosses. As you might expect, the people in power tend to get a lot of extra consideration: I suppose it's a good idea to praise the king if the king is the one paying you (or the only thing between you and a prison cell).
Germanic epic (Book 2, pp. 71-72 and pp. 77-80)
Beowulf takes personal responsibility for the well-being of his people by placing himself at the forefront of danger. He fights alone. He inhabits a world of courage, honor and vengeance with very little pity. Beowulf has a nearly mindless courage that takes him straight into danger without a thought for strategy or defense. His life of physical courage represents a society where almost every important issue comes down to an act of violence. A good leader, in that kind of world, protects his people from the violent intentions of their neighbors then, in turn, leads them in acts of violence against their neighbors and shares with his people the proceeds from the plundering.
From the opening lines of the Song of Roland, the theme of Roland's life is loyalty. He exhibits a lot of the same rash courage and pride as Beowulf. When four hundred thousand enemy soldiers are surrounding him and his men, he refuses to call for help because it would be embarrassing. He's killed along with all the rest of his army (neither history nor literature records how his army felt about that). Roland is stubborn but he obeys God and Charlemagne, his feudal lord. Roland fights alongside his fellow Christian heroes to vanquish foes who are described as infidels. It is the "error" of their faith that makes the Saracens enemies in Roland's eyes. Although Roland and Charlemagne represent a principle that people should fight for justice, they also slaughter anyone who disagrees with them, a fact that complicates the question of exactly what "justice" might mean.
Medieval epic (Book 2, pp. 105-111)
In the early 14th century, the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, inspired by Virgil's Aeneid and by the theological work of the Scholastics like Thomas Aquinas, wrote an epic poem known as the Commedia Divina or, in English, Divine Comedy. One striking aspect of his poem, in comparison to previous epic works, is that Dante basically makes himself -- or more accurately, his narrator, who speaks in the first person -- the central character of his story. In essence, Dante reshapes the epic tradition to a new purpose, and uses himself to symbolically represent the individual Christian in search of complete spiritual knowledge. On his poetic journey, Dante passes through the three spiritual realms of medieval Christian doctrine -- Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He's guided on this journey by Virgil, a symbol of the classical Greek and Roman tradition and the worldly learning inherited from those cultures, and by Beatrice, a symbol of Christian virtue and spiritual revelation.
African epic (Book 3, pp. 94-98)
During the period of time that Europeans (and other Westerners) call the Middle Ages, a great empire was being forged in western Africa. The epic poem called Sundiata celebrates the achievements of the king most responsible for this empire. In the story, Sundiata begins life as a weak, sickly child -- crippled, in fact -- but grows to be a great warrior. He follows a path found in many epic stories -- the hero's (or heroine's) exile or separation from home, a journey through experiences that teach and prepare for a great challenge to come, and a triumphant return. The story also provides a display of the kind of verbal jousting that is highly prized by the African tradition.
Romantic epic (Book 5, pp. 39-47)
Nineteenth-century Europe was the period of the Romantic movement -- a cultural perspective that manifested itself in the visual arts, in literature, in philosophy, and even in politics and statecraft. (For the sake of accuracy, I should note that many elements of the Romantic period can be found in the late eighteenth century.) Perhaps the most representative figure of that Romanticism in epic form is Faust, the hero of Johann Goethe's poem by the same name. Faust can be described as a kind of "Promethean" hero. Prometheus was a Greek god who stole fire from the sacred flame on Mount Olympus to give to the human race, whom Zeus had prohibited from having it. In punishment, Zeus had Prometheus chained for all time to the face of a cliff, where each day near sundown a great vulture would feed on his liver. Being a god, Prometheus' liver would regenerate during the night, so that he would have to endure the pain of the vulture again the next day. For the Romantics, the fire represented knowledge and creative inspiration, and Prometheus is the martyr who suffers for delivering these gifts to humankind.

In Goethe's poem, Faust represents the modern Western ideal -- a figure who embodies the quest for scientific knowledge, worldly experience, and power over both the natural and the human realms. In pursuit of this quest, Faust strikes a deal with Mephistopheles (another name for the figure of evil in the Christian tradition). His quest encounters several painful episodes; however, in the end Faust retains his soul and makes it to Heaven. (In some other versions of the Faust story, Faust loses his soul.)

Postmodern anti-epic (Book 6, pp. 74-75)
In the mid-20th century, in the wake of the sometimes brutal nature of Western colonialism, and in the wake of two World Wars that wreaked destruction upon Europe and upon many other parts of the world, the European cultural atmosphere became preoccupied with existential questions. How, for example, can one find any meaning in events that appear to have no meaning whatsoever, or whose apparent meaning is abhorrent and horrifying? What to make of the fact that the search for meaningfulness in such a climate can seem endless, with no deliverance in sight? An example of a kind of literary answer to those questions is the stage play by Samuel Beckett called Waiting for Godot. One way of thinking of this play is to view it as a kind of anti-epic, or anti-quest; it's famous for the fact that "nothing happens." The two central characters (whose nicknames are Didi and Gogo) wait, endlessly, for an event that never occurs. And, as viewers, we watch them wait. To be sure, Didi and Gogo have experiences, but not because they seek them out. The experiences come to them while they're waiting and, ultimately, those experiences don't seem to have any meaning (thus making it the opposite of an epic, which is usually built around a quest).

More on archetypes

Use the above link to read descriptions of several different archetypes, with examples for each one. You will need the information found at this link to complete your forum assignment.

Web Links

Other information on oral culture and culture-founding myths and epics can be found on the Web. Browse through some of the material found on these links, then use the back button on your browser to return to this page
  • Female Heroes -- a Web site dedicated to female heroes from various times in history and various parts of the world.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh -- an English-language translation of this ancient Mesopotamian epic poem.
  • The Iliad -- an English-language translation of the Greek epic poem.
  • The Odyssey -- an English-language translation of the Greek epic poem.
  • The Aeneid -- an English-language translation of the Roman epic poem.
  • Beowulf -- an English-language translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem.
  • Song of Roland -- an English-language translation of the Old French epic poem.
  • Divine Comedy -- an English-language translation of Dante's epic poem.
  • Legend of Sundiata -- an abridged version of the epic story of the founder of the Empire of Mali (as still told by West African griots).
  • Faust -- an English-language translation of the 19th-century epic by the German poet Goethe.

  • Forum Assignment: Epic, Myth & Archetype

    After reviewing the above summaries and the associated material in the textbook, reading the additional material on archetypes (at the link called "More on archetypes"), and exploring some of the links to sites on the Internet with additional information, consider the following questions:

    The realities of our contemporary culture don't leave a lot of room for traditional myth. We tend to emphasize historical and scientific fact in our discussions of "truth" today. We do, however, still tell stories, and those stories can't avoid using some of the same structural elements that stories have always used, including archetypes. Given this fact -- that is, our continuing desire for stories that say something meaningful about the human experience -- it should be possible to find examples of these archetypes in contemporary stories.

    Your task, then, is to choose a story or movie and find three archetypal characters as I've described them at the link called More on archetypes. In other words, you should identify three separate characters from the story or movie, each of which is an example of a different archetype that I've described for you. So you should have three characters to talk about, with one archetype per character. (Some characters in some stories can be examples of more than one archetype, but you must choose the one that you think is most important in that character and talk only about that one).

    Movies can be one of the easiest forms of storytelling in which to find archetypes, since movies have to tell a complex story in a relatively short amount of time, and archetypes (since they carry a lot of pre-packaged meaning with them) often help them to do that. So, using one of your favorite movies as a source for your archetypes is one possibility. You can also choose some other form of story if you wish, however. Ideally, whatever story you choose would not be so obscure that no one else will have heard of it. Try to choose something that you think at least some of your classmates will be familiar with, even if they might not know as much about it as you do.

    In your first forum post, you should tell us the name of the story/movie you've chosen, then tell us the archetypal characters you've identified in the story. When you do this, you should explain what makes each of these characters a good example of the archetype that you've said they represent. In other words, what characteristics of the archetype do they display? Also (and this might be the trickiest part), try to explain what you think is the importance or meaning of these archetypes for this particular story. Or, to say this another way, assuming that the story has some kind of meaning for its creator(s) and its audience, how do these archetypal examples represent important qualities or values of the culture in which this story originates? What needs, desires, or demands of our culture (or the culture from which the story comes) might have produced these characters? How do these archetypal characters concentrate meaningful aspects of our contemporary cultural existence?

    Those might seem like a lot of questions, but most of them are different ways of asking the same question. Choose the one that makes the best avenue to your answer. If it will help, you can also support your examples with comparisons to characters from the readings. How (for instance) is your example like a Gilgamesh or an Odysseus or a Faust (or one of the other archetypal figures discussed above)?
    1) Prepare a response that presents your examples and your answers to the questions above. Write at least one good-sized paragraph (at least 150 to 200 words will probably be necessary, although you can use more if you need to). Your response should be informed by the information I've provided to you (including textbook readings) and by any useful information you find at the Web links listed above.

    2) Sometime before September 20, go to the WebCT discussion area and select the Topic called Epic, Myth, & Archetype. Locate my initial post (called "Archetypes") and post your response as a Reply before the end of the day on the first due date for the forum (September 20).

    3) Return to the Epic, Myth, & Archetype forum again after September 20. Read the posts that your classmates submitted in response to this assignment. You should then post at least two follow-up replies to your classmates, either to their original posts or to one of their follow-ups. Your follow-ups should show evidence of not only reading the post that you're responding to, but also giving careful thought to what it says. A valid follow-up to your classmates might provide additional evidence that supports points made in their original post, or it might provide a differing viewpoint or use information in the original post to draw an additional insight. Your first round of follow-ups should be posted before the end of the day on the second due date for the forum (September 27).

    4) Then, return again to the forum after September 27 to read my own follow-up post (called "Archetypes Follow-up"), in which I'll try to draw some conclusions from the first and second rounds of the forum and pose a new set of questions based on what you all had to say up to that point. Then post one reply to my follow-up. (The reply to my follow-up should attempt to address at least one of the new questions that I pose.) Also, post one follow-up to a classmate's reply to this third round. Continue to monitor and participate in the discussion until the concluding date for the forum. All follow-up responses must be posted by the concluding due date (October 4). You should have a total of at least four follow-up responses in addition to your initial posting.

    Humanities 1301 -- Calendar

    Humanities 1301 -- Introduction

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