Classical Mythology

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A Herculean Task. A Homeric Performance.

I picked this up on sale back in 2014 and yes, it’s taken me this long to actually listen. I admit I was put off; at the beginning Professor Vandiver sounds a little dry, a tad dour. Don’t make the same mistake. While she is an acute scholar, the good professor also has a sense of humor that emerges as you go.

True to the precision she will bring to every lecture, we start with an illuminating discussion of the very word “mythology”. From there we examine the major 20th century interpretive theories. A scholar, it seems, is like a child at the seashore looking through bits of sea glass. A blue fragment makes everything that is blue that much bluer—but also makes everything else blue, too. So with interpretive theories. Based on one or two aspects of a myth, they distort all other aspects. It’s more than a little depressing.

The good news? Professor Vandiver is just as dubious. She’s aware of the distortions any single theory can lend the subject and recommends a balanced view, saying that each gives us a window on myth that can, perhaps, be helpful.

Once we get to the myths themselves, we’re off. I listen to lectures during my morning workout, having found that they divert my mind and make me forget the physical tedium. Professor Vandiver did all that and more. She combines an engaging, lively presentation with scholarly care. Though fashionable academic jargon abounds (“encode”, “gender”, “hegemonic”) I never heard an idea, supposition or insight that was in any way far-fetched or agenda-driven. Some agendas, indeed, even get a bucket or two of scholarly cold water tossed on them. Tackling a subject that covers the entire timeline of Western Civilization, from the first Minoan to the latest movies, Professor Vandiver manages to give us the big picture through an abundance of telling examples and details. No, not everything is covered. But it’s amazing what is.

The result? I have a useful framework for understanding and enjoying the classical myths. I get more out of listening to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Naxos’ version with David Horovitch is superb). The opening scenes of the Iliad make sense now (I thought Agamemnon was just being a jerk). I understand the watershed that the Homeric epics represent in the Greek concept of human history (and as long as we’re bandying theories about, I wonder if that accounts for the completely different tone of the two poems). And I will have to grab that copy of the Homeric Hymns I passed up at my favorite used book store back when, before these lectures, I didn’t understand what they were. Professor Vandiver may even have given me a way into appreciating Star Wars—which will make our son very happy. In the meantime, I’ve added Professor Vandiver’s lectures on The Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid to my wish list.

As with other offerings from The Great Courses, the downside is the production. True, rather than the cringe-making swell of timpani and strings used in other titles, we are treated here to a snippet of one of the Brandenburg Concertos. But there’s still that canned, cringe-making applause at the beginning and end of every lecture. Persevere. It’s more than worth it.

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