Hendrick Goltzius The Great Hercules, 1589, engraving on paper. Gift of Norma Cummings, 2010.59.1

Teaching Classical Myth Today

Michael Nerdahl

Hendrick Goltzius The Great Hercules, 1589, engraving on paper. Gift of Norma Cummings, 2010.59.1. link

When I consider how teaching classical myth has changed over my time at Bowdoin, two Goltzius prints that I often use in my course come to mind: one is a grand depiction of the “great” hero Hercules (Greek: Heracles), and another depicts part of the myth of the nymph Callisto, part of a series of stories Goltzius portrayed from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The juxtaposition of these two images serves as a reminder of the changes to studying myth that have transpired over the last three decades. Historically, Greek myths privileged the stories of great but flawed heroes like Hercules. A champion of the Greeks and a larger-than-life hero, Hercules rid the Mediterranean world of monsters and completed his Twelve Labors as a punishment for murdering his wife and children in a fit of madness inflicted upon him by the goddess Hera. In the Goltzius print, Hercules stands immense and preposterously muscled (and mustached!), wearing the hide of the famed Nemean lion, wielding his club, and holding the horn of his conquest over the river god Achelous. In the background, three more victories are depicted: the overpowering of the Cretan Bull, the defeat of the monstrous wrestler Antaeus, and the attainment of the Apples of the Hesperides, which granted unending youth to their consumer. Masculinity, strength, violence, and classical heroic nudity claim the day.

Goltzius’s depiction metaphorically resembles the traditional focus of Western myths. The tales of great male heroes such as Hercules, Perseus, and Achilles are told and retold, from antiquity—through works such as Homer’s Iliad, Pindar’s poems, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses—to today, through cinematic displays like Brett Ratner’s Hercules (2014), Tarsem Singh’s Immortals (2011), and Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy (2004). The story of the great male hero has long been privileged, as in the interpretations of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. While the crimes and flaws of these heroes are still noted, they were, in the main, elided. Campbell’s application of the monomyth is particularly insidious in this regard; for him, the heroic myth is always indicative of a positive story arc. He offers a reading of the legendary hero reminiscent of the modern label “hero”: an ultimately good person (read: man) who overcomes obstacles.

Hendrick Goltzius, Illustration from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”; Juno Turning Callisto into a Bear, ca. 1590, engraving on paper. Gift of Charles Pendexter 1997.2.28.

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The myth of Callisto underscores the cruelty and dismissiveness of looking at myth in this way. Here, Goltzius’s portrayal of her myth offers a symbolic counterpoint to his portrayal of Hercules. First, far from being a single image dedicated to this nymph who was a part of the goddess Diana’s chorus, the engraving is merely one of a series of other stories from Ovid’s poem, many of which also recall violence against female figures. Unlike Hercules, whose single, heroized representations are legion, Callisto nowhere receives such an idolatrous image. As with Goltzius’s portrait of Hercules, Callisto’s rendition contains violence, but here the protagonist is the victim of violence; she is being tossed to the ground by Juno (Greek: Hera), who unleashes her anger at the nymph because she had the gall to be raped by Juno’s husband Jupiter (Greek: Zeus). It is worth noting that Callisto is unwillingly transformed into a bear—a stark contrast with Hercules voluntarily wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion he defeated.

These images of Hercules and Callisto form representative case studies of mythical reception as a tradition that has endured, not malevolently, but without question—even in the college classroom—until the twenty-first century. Hercules, largely washed of warts or quickly forgiven by both ancients and moderns alike, is bold, triumphant, glorious—a superhero—while Callisto, innocent, suffering, twice betrayed, and a victim, is reduced to being one of a series of Jovian, destructive trysts.

Of course, changes in how classical myth is taught in the classroom are not only reflected in, but driven by, modern social and cultural concerns. It is no coincidence that the #MeToo movement is part of our lexicon as female figures of myth are given a voice in recent works, such as Madeline Miller’s novel Circe (2018), Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls (2018), and Nina MacLaughlin’s short story collection Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung (2019). As the contrasting Goltzian presentations of Callisto and Hercules attest, social commentary has always been—and will always be—present in myths; it is up to us to see and hear the echoes.

Michael D. Nerdahl is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at Bowdoin College