Masterpieces of Short Fiction [TTC Video]

Masterpieces of Short Fiction [TTC Video]
Masterpieces of Short Fiction [TTC Video] by Michael Krasny
Course No 2317 | AVI, XviD, 640x480 | MP3, 128 kbps, 2 Ch | 24x30 mins | + PDF Guidebook | 4.48GB

Imagine that, in one sitting, you could enter a world of imagination and witness the triumphs, tragedies, errors, and epiphanies that arise in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people. Imagine that, in the time it takes to run an errand, you could gain remarkable insights about the true nature of humanity—its dark secrets and its saving graces. Imagine that, in the space of an hour, you could do this instead:

  • Visit a Harlem jazz club and hear the inspired improvisations of gifted bluesmen
  • Attend a glittering Parisian ball bedecked in borrowed jewels
  • Confront a dangerous criminal on a lonely backwoods road
  • Journey back to colonial America and encounter a coven of witches

This enlightening experience awaits you in Masterpieces of Short Fiction, a 24-lecture course that samples two centuries' worth of great short stories written by some of the acknowledged masters of the genre, including Anton Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway.

Dr. Michael Krasny, Professor of English at San Francisco State University and the host of KQED's award-winning news and public affairs radio program, Forum, guides you deep into 23 renowned works, illuminating the remarkable variety, breathtaking artistry, and profound themes to be found in these miniature masterpieces.

The Art of the Present Moment

Although short stories have been around throughout history in the form of myths, fables, and legends, the short story as a distinct art form arose only during the 19th century, just in time for the busy age we all live in.

More than simply a shorter version of the novel, the short story is a unique and rewarding literary form in itself. Great short fiction offers something you can find nowhere else: a world in miniature faithfully captured by the author's mastery of character, plot, setting, image, and theme. The time it takes to read a short story may be brief, but its impact lasts much longer.

"Short story writers see by the light of the flash," says author and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. "Theirs is the art of the only thing that one can be sure of—the present moment."

Encounter the Ordinary and the Extraordinary

As Masterpieces of Short Fiction demonstrates, however, that flash can reveal many different kinds of truths. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," an embittered nobleman entombs his rival in a dank crypt, while in Grace Paley's "An Interest in Life," a deserted housewife maintains her good humor and hope while trying to raise her children.

Throughout the course, you encounter both of these extremes—the extraordinary and the ordinary moments of life—while you examine the craft of short fiction.

On one end of the spectrum, you see how great authors use the short story to capture the experience of the common man and woman. From Gogol's 19th-century underdog, the Russian scribe Akaky in "The Overcoat," to Raymond Carver's sympathetic portrait of a "plain man" in "Cathedral," short story writers use their remarkable powers of observation to record and often celebrate the unsung lives of ordinary people.

But you also sample the exotic and unusual as well, whether in Franz Kafka's satirical tale of an artist who turns starvation into a work of performance art ("A Hunger Artist") or in Gabriel García Márquez's Magical Realist allegory about a winged man who falls to Earth in a Latin American village ("A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings").

Each story, whether drawn from the closely observed details of everyday life or a richly imagined land of fantasy, offers you an exquisite and unique portrait of humanity.

How to Recognize a Masterpiece

How can stories that are so brief have such a strong emotional impact? What makes each of the works in this course a masterpiece? In Masterpieces of Short Fiction, you not only enjoy great literature, but you also develop an appreciation for how these great authors elevate the craft of storytelling into an art form.

In each lecture, Professor Krasny, who holds an Award of Excellence from the National Association of Humanities Educators, focuses on a single story written by a master of the genre. Using examples from the stories themselves, he illuminates each author's virtuosic development of character, plot, setting, imagery, theme, and language. As you progress through the course, you hone your ability to recognize and assess these elements.

You also learn fascinating facts about the author's lives and the artistic and historical contexts that helped shape these great works:

  • "Young Goodman Brown" reflects Nathaniel Hawthorne's stern Puritan upbringing and his guilt about his ancestors' participation in the Salem witch trials.
  • Like the main character of "My First Goose," Isaac Babel was a Jew who nevertheless rode with the notoriously anti-Semitic Cossacks as they undertook violent pogroms in Jewish neighborhoods and villages.
  • The terse literary style in Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" (later dubbed "cablese" because it imitated the conciseness of telegram writing) was developed during the writer's early stint as a war correspondent.
  • Shirley Jackson's depiction of the village in "The Lottery" reflects her own feeling of isolation living as a progressive intellectual in a close-minded New England town.
  • Traces of James Baldwin's evangelical background remain in the poetic and biblical language of stories like "Sonny's Blues."

Discover the "Literary Form of Our Age"

Since 1970, Professor Krasny has taught courses on a wealth of subjects, including the short story, modern and contemporary American literature, ethnic American literature, transatlantic modern drama, and literary theory. Drawing on his considerable scholarly background, he provides you with an "insider's view" of the craft of short fiction that is as rare as it is valuable.

Join him on this survey of short fiction's hallmark works from its origins in the 19th century to its confrontation with the issues of the late 20th century and discover why this specific genre, in the words of Nadine Gordimer, is the "literary form of our age."

Masterpieces of Short Fiction [TTC Video]

A History of European Art [TTC Video]

A History of European Art [TTC Video]
A History of European Art [TTC Video] by William Kloss
Course No 7100 | AVI, MPEG4, 640x480 | MP3, 128 kbps, 2 Ch | 48x30 mins | + PDF Guidebook | 11.9GB

The development of the arts in Europe from the Middle Ages to the modern era is an astonishing record of cultural achievement, from the breathtaking architecture of Gothic cathedrals to the daring visual experiments of the Cubist painters.

We all have our favorite artists, periods, or styles from this immensely rich tradition, but how many of us truly know the full sweep of European art? How many of us can connect the dots of influences and inspiration that link the Renaissance with Mannerism, or that tie the paintings of the creator of modern art, Edouard Manet, to masterpieces from centuries earlier?

A History of European Art is your gateway to this visually stunning story. In 48 beautifully illustrated lectures you will encounter all the landmarks you would expect to find in a comprehensive survey of Western art since the Middle Ages. Works such as Giotto's Arena Chapel, Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo's The Last Supper, Michelangelo's David, Vermeer's View of Delft, Van Gogh's The Starry Night, Picasso's Guernica, and hundreds more.

You will also find works that are completely new to you. Plus you'll be introduced to lesser-known artists—perhaps names you've heard but never connected to specific works—and you'll understand why they deserve to be classed among the great masters.

An Unrivalled Collection of Masterpieces

Your guide to this unrivalled collection of paintings, sculptures, architecture, drawings, and other media, created over a span of more than a thousand years, is Professor William Kloss, an independent art historian long connected with the seminar and tour programs of the Smithsonian Associates at the Smithsonian Institution.

Praised by Library Journal for his "perceptive 'readings'" of masterworks in his previous course for The Teaching Company, Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance, Professor Kloss once again gives intriguing insights into great works, including:

  • Mona Lisa: The famous smile in Leonardo's painting may be a pun on the sitter's married name, which means "joyous" in Italian. Renaissance ideals of decorum could also have influenced the expression. A 16th-century Italian writer suggested that a fashionable woman should smile "as if you were smiling secretly… not in an artificial manner, but as though unconsciously … and accompanied by … certain movements of the eyes."
  • Garden of Earthly Delights: Hieronymus Bosch's surreal triptych depicting scenes of the Garden of Eden, an earthly bacchanal, and Hell was probably painted for the private enjoyment of a nobleman, as a moralizing commentary on the relations between the sexes. It has been suggested that the work might have been commissioned on the occasion of a wedding. "One can only hope that it was a happy marriage," says Professor Kloss.
  • Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte: Professor Kloss shows how this celebrated late 19th-century painting by Georges Seurat was influenced by the 15th-century works of Piero della Francesca, who was still relatively unknown in Seurat's day. Both artists imbue nearly immobile figures with stoic dignity and hints of otherworldliness. In fact, it is not just Piero but the entire monumental Italian tradition from Giotto to Masaccio to Piero that Seurat has revisited.

What You Will Learn

You begin by exploring the artistic riches of the Middle Ages, from the early architectural monuments of the Carolingian Empire to the massive cathedrals and exquisite sculpture of the French Gothic style. Then you move into the Renaissance by examining Giotto's approach to the illusionistic creation of space and tracing this accomplishment through the works of some of the greatest artists in history, from Masaccio and Donatello to the geniuses of the High Renaissance, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, and Titian. You also study the magnificent architecture of the period, and you address the Renaissance in the north through the art of Jan van Eyck, Dürer, Bosch, and Bruegel, among others.

Next, you investigate the evolution of Baroque style in the works of Caravaggio and the Bolognese Carracci family. You focus in particular on the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. You continue beyond Italy to Velázquez in Spain, to Rubens and Rembrandt in the Netherlands, and to Versailles and the court of Louis XIV in France. Then you cover reactions to the Baroque in the Rococo style of Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard.

In the last section of the course, you examine the beginnings of modern European art with the work of David, which defined the Neoclassical style. Then you explore the paintings of the great Romantic artists Goya, Géricault, and Delacroix. These styles gave way to the Realism of Courbet and Manet, which in turn, led to the Impressionist achievements of Degas and Monet. You study the reactions to Impressionism in the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Seurat, and trace the influential contributions of Cézanne and Rodin. You conclude with a consideration of the early movements of the 20th century, including Fauvism, Cubism, German Expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism, and the pivotal role of the two towering geniuses of early modern art, Picasso and Matisse.

A Guide to Looking

Professor Kloss wants you to learn to see deeply into a work of art. To achieve this goal, he has designed the course to be more than a recitation of masterpieces and their makers, dates, materials, and history. He has created a guide to looking—an engaging demonstration of how you can view art with understanding and pleasure.

How should you look at art? Professor Kloss recommends that you focus on five elements:

  • Subject: Every work of art has a subject. Very often this is the story that the work tells, as in Titian's great painting Bacchus and Ariadne, which plunges the viewer into a joyous love story drawn from ancient mythology. One can simply revel in the physical beauty of such a work, but a much richer experience is available if one takes the trouble to understand what it is about.
  • Interpretation: The way a subject is expressed in art is the artist's interpretation. Professor Kloss explores this theme by looking at three different versions of St. Matthew writing his gospel: one by an unknown artist from the 9th century, and two radically different interpretations by Caravaggio, painted in the 17th century. Caravaggio had to do a second version because his client was offended by the first!
  • Style: The artistic means of interpretation is the artist's style. This distinction is evident in a comparison between Rogier van der Weyden's Deposition from the 15th century and Rubens's treatment of the same subject in the 17th century. Both paintings depict the lowering of the dead Christ from the cross, but in markedly different styles with respect to setting, arrangement of figures, treatment of space, color, and so forth.
  • Context: The context can be related to a personal moment, to contemporary political events, to a historical period, or to a long-term cultural influence. An appreciation of the great palace at Versailles, for example, requires an understanding of the context from which it emerged—namely, the opulent, absolute monarchy of the "Sun King," Louis XIV.
  • Emotion: Emotion is a major factor both in the artist's creation of a work and in the viewer's response to it. These are not necessarily the same emotion, but sometimes they coincide in a magical way, as in Renoir's festive Luncheon of the Boating Party, which evokes a pleasure that comes from Renoir's joy in the scene and his artistic mastery that convinces us that we, too, are included in this long-ago gathering of friends.

Above all, you must give a work of art time. Savor it. Study it. Try to see it with fresh eyes. You will learn more than you imagine. Professor Kloss's gift for pulling you into an artistic work to show you what makes it function at different levels will make you want to give this course more of your own time through repeated viewings. And you will find yourself looking at all art with new appreciation.

A History of European Art [TTC Video]

Great Mythologies of the World [TTC Video]

Great Mythologies of the World [TTC Video]
Great Mythologies of the World [TTC Video] by Grant L Voth, Kathryn McClymond, Julius H Bailey, Robert Andre LaFleur
Course No 2380 | .MP4, AVC, 856x480 | AAC, 128 kbps, 2 Ch | 60x30 mins | 14.21GB

Mythology has provided fascinating and thrilling stories that are central to our lives, even today. The deep-seeded origins and wide-reaching lessons of ancient myths built the foundation for our modern-day legacies. Serving as entertainment, a means to bond, a way to pass along history, and as vessels for important lessons, morals, and rules, myths are prevalent in every civilization worldwide.

In Great Mythologies of the World, you’ll travel through space and time to access some of the greatest myths in history from Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. You’ll examine what makes these famous stories so important, distinctive, and able to withstand the test of time. You’ll also discover how, despite geographical implausibilities, many myths from across the oceans share themes, morals, and archetypes.

Four esteemed professors, each a renowned expert in their fields, will transport you to exotic locations and ancient civilizations in this 60-lecture series. You’ll become immersed in the geographies and cultures each section features, aided by dazzling visuals, images, photos, maps, and graphics. This course is a feast for the eyes and the mind.

Dr. Kathryn McClymond, Chair and Professor of the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University, kicks off your journey. She highlights different aspects of the classic Western myths you may have heard of, and introduces you to a world of mythology that may be new to you. Author of two books and numerous academic articles, Professor McClymond is an ideal guide to lead you through the epic battles and vengeful gods of Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Dr. Julius H. Bailey, Professor of Religion at the University of Redlands, then guides you through the complex and fascinating world of African mythology. Professor Bailey is a sought-after expert in the fields of African mythology and African-American religious history.

Then travel to Asia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean with Dr. Robert André LaFleur, Professor of History and Anthropology at Beloit College. The mythologies of Asia and the Pacific are vibrant and eloquent, and you won’t find a better guide than Professor LaFleur. His current work combines historical research using Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sources with anthropological fieldwork on each of China’s five sacred mountains.

You’ll conclude your global journey in the Americas, studying folklore and mythology of north and central American indigenous people, led by Dr. Grant L. Voth, Professor Emeritus at Monterey Peninsula College. Professor Voth is the author of more than 30 articles and books and a popular Great Courses professor.

Ancient Europe

Epic battles between titanic gods. Perilous quests for lost treasures and the comfort of home. Magical items imbued with the power to protect—and destroy. The great myths of ancient Europe are a treasure trove of stories that have transfixed us for thousands of years.

But whether it’s the near-impossible labors of the ancient Greek hero Herakles, the violent founding of Rome by the wolf-raised brothers Romulus and Remus, or the cosmic exploits of the hammer-wielding Norse thunder god Thor, there’s so much more to ancient Europe’s myths than just entertainment and wonder. When looked at closely, these tales actually open wide windows on the cultures that produced them. They reveal how ancient Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians, and other European civilizations:

  • saw themselves in relation to the natural and cosmic world;
  • gave direction, value, and purpose to their everyday lives;
  • made sense of social, historical, and philosophical concerns; and even
  • laid the narrative groundwork for the future of Western literature.

“Rich myth traditions are like the land under an important historical site,” says Professor Kathryn McClymond, an expert in religion and narrative at Georgia State University. “Careful archaeology reveals layer after layer of human experience, reflecting everything from a king’s lofty dreams to a common woman’s daily routine.”

Now, in Great Mythologies of the World: Ancient Europe, join this renowned expert for an extended dig into the deepest layers of Western myths, legends, and folktales. Over the span of 12 fascinating lectures, you’ll dive into entertaining stories of warriors, gods, monarchs, and monsters with an eye toward capturing why these particular stories are so critical to our understanding of the distant past, and why they still speak to our lives today—long after the civilizations that produced them have disappeared. As vibrant and engaging as the myths they explore, Professor McClymond’s lectures offer new insights into the creation stories of Western civilization.

Gods, Heroes, Magic, and More

How was the world created, and who was responsible for creating it? How were great empires born and nurtured? Why are certain spiritual beliefs held and rituals practiced? In essence: Why do we live the way we do? Myths are the tools ancient cultures used to answer these and other profound existential questions, and in this course you’ll explore some of the greatest stories the Greeks, Romans, and Europeans told in an effort to make sense of the world.

Each lecture of Great Mythologies of the World: Ancient Europe focuses on a particular myth or series of mythological ideas. Professor McClymond, with storytelling prowess that makes these lectures a delight to listen to, transports you back in time and allows you to experience for yourself the excitement and drama of these wildly entertaining stories. But you’ll do more than just enjoy the content of these myths; you’ll get a historian’s understanding of how they shaped and influenced daily life for the people who saw them as more than just tall tales.

  • Prometheus’s daring theft: The tale of Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek gods is one of several that, more than others, demonstrates just how intertwined are the fates of gods and men in ancient Greek thought. You’ll investigate how different versions of the story cast Prometheus as a liberator of men—or just a hot-tempered troublemaker.
  • Jason’s epic quest: Come to see the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts as a somewhat darker, more melancholic version of Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca; one that reflects the rise of Roman rule in ancient Greece. Rather than thinking of Jason as just another hero, you’ll learn to see him as the hero that could have been but never was.
  • Odin’s great sacrifice: At the top of the Norse pantheon is Odin: a judge, a shaman, and a fighter constantly driven by his desire to overcome evil. What was gained by his dramatic self-sacrifice on the cosmic tree Yggdrasil, and how did it solidify his role as “All-Father” and leader of other Norse gods (including the best-known of them, Thor)?
  • Dagda’s magic harp: Irish mythology is often overshadowed by that of ancient Greece and Rome, but it contains a plethora of fantastic adventures and characters. Among the ones you’ll explore is the myth of Dagda, a warrior from an ancient race of beings whose magical oak harp could cause people to behave in particular ways, and could even order the seasons.

If you’re familiar with some of these myths, prepare to think about them in new ways. If these are new to you, you’ll quickly understand why they still endure.

A Foundation for Further Exploration

Great Mythologies of the World: Ancient Europe is designed, above all, to give you a comprehensive understanding of how myths relate to human experience. Professor McClymond takes care to ground each of the great myths she covers in well-rounded detail: citing the literary and oral traditions behind them, pondering contradictory accounts and differing variations, and stressing the cultural legacies these ancient perspectives have in contemporary music, literature, and film.

So whether you’re learning about

  • the connective tissues between Persephone and Pandora,
  • the evolution of the “mother goddess” in various mythological traditions, or
  • the Stone of Fal and other magical treasures from Celtic folktales,

you’re always in the hands of an instructor attuned to the power and importance of myth on the human experience.

“It’s hard not to feel we’ve just barely scratched the surface,” Professor McClymond says of her course. “But we’ve laid a foundation that will enable you to explore further ancient Greek, Roman, and European myth traditions.”

The Middle East and South Asia

No true understanding of world mythology—its deep-seated origins, its wide-reaching stories, its modern-day legacies—is complete without an understanding of Middle Eastern and South Asian mythology. In fact, most of what makes these myths so important is just how distinctive they are.

Unlike their Western counterparts, meaning-making stories from Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, and other countries are defined by:

  • more fluid interactions between the everyday and the divine,
  • a more potent sense of place and a connection with specific landscapes,
  • an abiding tension between the wilderness and civilization, and
  • a stronger emphasis on how gender and power shape social roles.

It’s the distinct personality of myths from this part of the world, and their relative unfamiliarity to those of us in the West, that make them so fascinating to explore. And in Great Mythologies of the World: The Middle East and South Asia, renowned Professor Kathryn McClymond of Georgia State University guides you through some of the most important tales. Focusing specifically on stories that blur the line between myth, history, religion, and philosophy, Professor McClymond’s 12 lectures offer a stirring look at the role mythology plays in this part of the world. How have stories from the Ramayana, One Thousand and One Nights, and more shaped both individuals and entire social movements? What can the adventures of Egyptian gods, Old Testament everymen, and ancient Persian princes tell us about how life was lived in these parts of the world? What do they share with other myths from the East and West? More than just introducing you to the region’s great myths, this highly entertaining course takes you deep inside the mindset of places and times in history foreign to many of us.

Ancient Myths—From the Short to the Epic

From short tales to epic poems five times the length of Homer’s Iliad, mythological tales from the Middle East and Asia offer you the chance to plunge into unfamiliar worlds and discover the heart and soul of how ancient people lived, felt, and interpreted their societies. Featuring a cast of troubled heroes, vengeful gods, all-powerful rulers, warring princes, and mysterious spirits, these exciting lectures help you navigate myths that thrived during the glories of the Babylonian Empire, the reign of the Egyptian pharaohs, the time of the Buddha, and more.

  • The epic of Gilgamesh: Why has the Babylonian hero story of an ancient king, his companion, and their battles with ogres and seductive goddesses endured for over 4,000 years? What can we learn by going back to the five ancient poems that serve as this epic’s foundation?
  • The Ramayana: One of the greatest epics of Indian culture is the Ramayana (“the doings of Ram”), and Professor McClymond reveals how the title hero’s challenges in becoming king of an ancient town are, in truth, an extended morality tale about the Hindu virtue of obedience.
  • The Book of Kings: Mixing history and fiction, The Book of Kings (Shahnameh) is best read as an anthology of Iran’s kings and heroes—with some liberties allowed to include magical creatures and powers in its depiction of ancient Persia’s mythical, heroic, and historical ages.
  • Tales from The Arabian Nights: Discover how the adventures of Sindhbad the Sailor, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and other treasured stories from the elaborately constructed One Thousand and One Nights sparked themes and motifs that would reappear in later European fairy tales.

Along with these and other myths, you’ll examine stories that can also be read as myths, even though we’re more likely to think of them as religious or philosophical texts. Among them:

  • the Book of Job, which, when looked at from a mythological perspective, challenges us to rethink our place in the world (and our suffering) by viewing it from a cosmic perspective;
  • the teachings of the Buddha, which spread so widely throughout India, Sri Lanka, China, and Japan that its mythological teachings began to reflect distinctive elements of each culture; and
  • the lives of the pharaohs, whose mythological aspects (even embedded in their royal titles) tended to hammer home their divine right to sustain order in ancient Egypt.

Discover the Joy of Cultural Storytelling

With the same captivating storytelling powers and intellectual insights that have earned her numerous teaching accolades (including Georgia State University’s College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award), Professor McClymond brings familiar and unfamiliar stories to vivid life. Her knowledge of world mythology is superb, and her wonder at how early communities explained the world and imparted knowledge is undeniably contagious.

With Great Mythologies of the World: The Middle East and South Asia, you’ll fill a critical gap in your understanding of how human civilizations have relied on mythology—regardless of where they emerge. And in the process, you’ll also discover the sheer joy of imaginative cultural storytelling.


No course on world mythology is complete without considering the stories of Africa. While you may be familiar with some of the more well-known characters such as the spider Anansi, Great Mythologies of the World: Africa will explore a plethora of lesser-known characters and tales that seem remarkably familiar because the themes and lessons have permeated through great myths worldwide. Discover the fascinating variety and complexity of African myths, and meet the rich cultures that produced them.

The Mother of All Mythology

You could consider African myths as the mother of all mythology, as many of the African stories date back centuries before the better-known myths of Greek and Rome. Although initially maligned as “primitive,” African mythology is overflowing with the types of brave heroes, beautiful maidens, fearsome battles, mischievous tricksters, and captivating tales of triumph and heartbreak that are the foundation for all of the dramatic stories, fairytales, and fables we know and love today. Ripe with deep thought and cherished ideals of civilization, African mythology has had a profound impact on how our world has come to be.

Explore how African mythology shares, and likely inspired, many of the themes found in myths worldwide. Origin stories, tricksters, tales of vengeance, and other well-known patterns woven through the tapestry of stories worldwide can be traced back to some of the first known myths from Africa. We’ll look in depth at Africa’s great epic tradition, and how the dramatic and powerful stories were actually performed. In addition to examining how African storytelling inspired myths across nations and centuries, even up to our modern-day soap operas, we’ll also compare characters, stories, and themes from all over the continent, including myths of the Soninke people of West Africa, the Maasai of Kenya in the East, the Berbers of Algeria and Morocco in the North, and the San people of Africa’s South.

Humanity and Gods

The relationship between humanity and the gods in African mythology is complex. While the same fundamental questions about life exist across each society, their understandings of the nature of gods tends to govern the answers that appear in their stories. In some African myths, the creator god or spirits initially have a close relationship with humanity, but later distance themselves from their creations. In other stories, the creator remains aloof or distant from the start. The way in which the sacred pervades everyday life in African cultures makes people’s relationship with the divine especially immediate, intimate, and powerful, but as we’ll see, that doesn’t mean that the relationship is free of tension and conflict.

Although the supreme creator god in African religions is usually remote from humanity, lesser divinities are often heavily involved in human affairs. In this course, you’ll examine the wide range of African deities, from the fierce and vengeful god Shango of the Yoruba people, to the kindly Baganda goddess Nambi, who marries a mortal, to the mysterious and unpredictable djinn who appear in tales from Africa’s north. The interactions between African gods and mortals express many different ways of conceiving of the relationship between mortal life and the divine.

How African Myths Address the “Big” Questions

African mythology, like the myths of most peoples, reflects a deep concern with death, raising questions that seem common to all humanity: Why do we have to die? Do we deserve death? Can we bring back our lost loved ones? In myths concerning death, some of African mythology’s greatest wisdom and most striking imagery are on display. As in the Bible, many African myths tell of a brief period after creation when human beings enjoyed immortality. Invariably, though, something occurs that destroys that idyllic situation—often, human disobedience. In this way, the stories seem to serve at least partly to underscore the importance of following divine instructions and adhering carefully to communal law. To grasp the meaning of much of African mythology and place it in proper context, we need to understand the religious cosmology within which African myths developed and the perspectives on the world that shaped them. However, phenomenal diversity exists among African religions, even now that Christianity and Islam are firmly rooted on the continent. Further, Westerners may have difficulty making sense of African religious beliefs because African societies tends to blur the boundaries between the secular and the sacred in ways that Western religions do not. Nevertheless, we can identify a number of attributes in African cosmology that can serve as guideposts in our explorations.

The Hero’s Quest: An Everlasting Theme

In African mythology, as in myths around the world, it’s not uncommon to find characters traveling to the land of the dead to face an ultimate challenge and experiencing a transformation as a result. One genre of myths focuses on the deeds of culture heroes—usually male figures who are said to have played key roles in the founding of societies or who otherwise distinguished themselves in their peoples’ past. Although it’s often impossible to know whether a particular culture hero ever existed, such stories offer tantalizing hints at how certain societies may have taken shape. And fact-based or not, they inevitably capture something essential about the characters of the societies that tell them. Explore a number of culture hero stories, ranging from those that are probably highly fictionalized to those that seem much more historically plausible.

Asia and the Pacific

The sun goddess, Amaterasu, has hidden herself from the world, and must be coaxed back by the spirit of unbridled joy. After a terrible flood, a sister and brother must rely upon their animal companions to make a perilous journey to bring back life-preserving fire. The herd boy and the weaving maiden, star-crossed lovers, must wait until the seventh day of the seventh month to reunite, the one day each year that they may spend together. These and many other intriguing tales are explored in Great Mythologies of the World: Asia and the Pacific, a compelling journey through Eastern mythologies. Your guide is Professor Robert LaFleur, an award-winning Professor of History and Anthropology at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

The mythologies of East Asia and the Pacific contain an astonishing array of cultural and historical themes. The variety among them is influenced by differences in geography, history, and means of transmission from one generation to the next. For example, the highly complex cultures that created thousands of years of written tradition in mainland China had different challenges and resources from people who lived comparatively unstructured lives on coral atolls in the Pacific and were guided by oral traditions for millennia. Despite these differences, there are also overarching motifs that appear again and again across centuries and vast distances, linking these traditions together.

Society and Sacrifice in a Watery World

The three most significant and ubiquitous themes in these myths are social networks, sacrifice, and the omnipresence of water. From China’s Yellow River Valley to the vast Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan, Australia, and the islands comprising Polynesia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Micronesia, and Melanesia; and from the ice and snow of Korea to the cross-cultural conception of the Milky Way as a great river across the sky, water is everywhere, in daily life and in the stories of these civilizations. The importance of effective and cooperative social structure in surviving this watery world is underscored time and again:

  • in the Chinese stories of Fu Xi and other early culture heroes, who teach early humans to descend from the trees and make fire and other tools;
  • in the Hawaiian stories of Ku and Hina working together to provide and secure bountiful seas and fertile fields to feed their hungry people;
  • in the Melanesian tale of Qat’s instructions to his brothers on how to accustom themselves to his gift of the rhythms of night and day.

The idea that self-sacrifice is sometimes required to create something valuable or to save others is another prevalent theme throughout the region:

  • in the myth of the cosmic spider of Micronesia, the worm that lifts the vault of heaven dies of exertion;
  • in the story of Shennong, Chinese god of agriculture, who creates for his people a catalog of safe and hazardous foods, poisoning himself over and over in the process;
  • even in children’s stories, such as the tale of a snowman that throws itself onto a fire to save its creators.

Points of Divergence and Convergence with World Traditions

An important factor to consider when studying mythology is the method of transmission from generation to generation: are these stories part of an oral tradition, were they originally recited and then recorded late in their history, or are they part of an ancient written tradition? Like many parts of Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East, China has a written history extending back for millennia, and this history includes foundational myths. Korea and Japan also have mythological accounts that are hundreds of years old, but an enormous amount of time passed between the original telling of the myths and when they were first recorded. These collections were written in classical Chinese and were deeply influenced by waves of cultural borrowing from China, leading to questions of how original Korean and Japanese elements may be separated from Chinese influence. In Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia, and Australia, the question of cultural authenticity is even more fraught; every word we hear about their ancient tales was written down in Western languages, by missionaries, anthropologists, traders, and colonial officials. None of these societies created a system of writing, so their mythology had been made up of a constantly regenerating oral tradition. All of these vibrant, constantly evolving myths were written down, and sometimes profoundly altered, by outsiders, and they became frozen in time. This situation is also common in many parts of Africa and the Americas.

There are also insights to be gained in comparing common thematic elements. Some of the central questions found in the mythology of Europe and the Americas do not seem to be nearly as important to the cultures here. For example, many Asian and Pacific origin stories begin with the world already in place, moving right along to issues of how people gained tools and created societies. A Western audience might wonder who created the world, and where the people come from, but these myths focus on how human institutions and technology were carved from the raw, inchoate, dangerous material of nature. From this region, only Japan’s tales of Izanagi and Izanami follow the Western tradition of creating solid land from amorphous matter. On the other hand, repair of the world, and the sky in particular, is a theme that occurs all across Asia and the Pacific: pillars, snails, worms, and deities all are depicted as pushing up a low heaven over an inhabited earth, and after that push, the world starts to look more like our own. This theme of sky repair is also found in African mythology.

Mythology all over the world is a linking of disparate ideas—already present in social and cultural life—that is then patched together by a storyteller in various kinds of innovation, creating something new and often profound. The dynamics of written and oral traditions, as well as the watery world of the Pacific and notions of social order and sacrifice, dominate these intriguing myths.

The Americas

When we consider the “Great Myths of Western Civilization,” we tend to initially consider the Greek and Roman gods, and all the many fascinating and epic stories that came out of this canon. It may be surprising to learn that the Americas are also steeped in a rich history of mythologies, although we tend to use a different vernacular to describe them.

There are thousands of fables and folklore stories told by hundreds of peoples spread across North, Central, and South America that have endured the test of time. The Penobscot, Cherokee, Blackfoot, Natchez, Seminole, Hopi, Inuit, Huron, and others were geographically diverse, yet they spun stories with astonishingly similar details and themes. These fables performed all the same functions that myths do across the world: they help address fundamental questions such as where do we come from, how did we get here, what is the world like, and what do we need to do to survive.

Commonalities across the Lands

Despite differences in location and cultures, there are values and ideas that span the scope of Native American stories. Great Mythologies of the World: The Americas takes a deep dive into the commonalities and differences that were found in these widespread mythologies, including:

  • The notion that nature is sacred, and the tradition of animism (the idea that everything is both alive and holy), is a theme that permeates stories from all over the continents. This worldview is strikingly different from our own modern thought, and provides us with an opportunity to reframe the way we conceptualize the relationship between humans, animals, plants, and even landforms like mountains and rivers.
  • Creation stories, which are divided into “earth-diver” and “emergence” myths. The former conceive of the world beginning as a primordial sea, with creatures diving to the bottom to bring up mud to form the earth. The latter envision a series of worlds stacked on top of each other beneath the surface of the earth, with creatures from the bottom levels climbing higher and becoming more humanlike as they ascend.
  • The archetype of the Trickster, who isn’t really evil—just thoughtless, impulsive, and self-serving. However, the Trickster is often also a cultural hero and provides significant contributions to creation.

The role that the oral history of the Native American myths played, and continues to play, is an important part of how we understand the cultures today. Stories were told over and over, through centuries, and were passed down to children to teach values and traditions. This tradition means that the same story told by five different tellers in different situations results in five different stories. Much like a fossil of a paw print, we have the idea of what the animal might look like based on the impression, but we have nothing of the animal itself. The versions we know happened to be collected, translated, and recorded by anthropologists, which may also account for some of the inconsistencies in detail. Looking at multiple versions of the same story and comparing the details can provide insight into which aspects of culture are most important or most solidly fixed, and which aspects might be less important or more fluid. As Professor Voth states, “Each myth brings us closer to a more comprehensive and inclusive conception of what it meant and what it means to be human.”

Meet a Diverse Cast of Characters

Each section is organized by ecological or geographical region. You’ll travel from the Arctic and northern forest regions, to eastern woodlands, the Southeast, the Plains, and the Southwest. This course also explores myths of the Maya and Aztecs from Mesoamerica and the Inca of the Andes region of South America. Each lecture focuses on the types of myth that characterize these nations and the values manifest in them. As you travel across the nation, you’ll meet enriching characters including:

  • Awonawilona: The All-Father of the Zuni, who contains everything within himself and generated Earth Mother and Sky Father, who then shaped the world.
  • Bear Woman: Figure who appears frequently in the stories of Northwest Native Americans. In one version told by the Haida (from the islands off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska), her name is Rhpisunt.
  • Buffalo Woman: Figure in a myth of the Arikara who shows a young man how to transform the buffalo people into real animals.
  • Coyote: A creator, culture hero, and trickster in the myths of several Native American peoples, including the Crow, the Navajo, the Hopi, and others.
  • Hiawatha: Figure associated with the Iroquois Confederacy. In some stories, he becomes a cannibal who is rescued by Deganawida.
  • Kokopelli: Hunch-backed flute player; he is a fertility god who dates back to the time of the Anasazi.
  • Raven: Culture hero of the Inuit, as well as a trickster in many stories from the American Northwest. He has the ability to transform himself from a bird into a man.
  • Quetzalcoatl: One of the oldest gods in Mesoamerica, he is found in virtually every culture in the region. His name means “Plumed Serpent.”

With every stop on this journey, you’ll be treated to fascinating stories, review parallels to other creation and Bible stories, and learn how every set of mythologies has been integrated and adopted to newcomers and the passage of time.

Great Mythologies of the World [TTC Video]

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