Friday, April 18, 2014

Pimping the Pantheon

My vestigial teacher calendar notified me that it's National Mythology Exam season, so I though I'd re-share my favorite study too. I present, "Pimping the Pantheon." Enjoy! 

The National Mythology Exam is coming up in two weeks, and my Latin classes are knee-deep in Roman and Greek gods. We've been reviewing the stories, symbols, family trees, and domains, so today, it was time to test the kids to see how much they have learned.

I rolled my laptop up to the front of the room and projected this painting up on the white board:

This is the The Gods of Olympus, by Guilio Romano (1499-1546), a trompe l'oiel ceiling from the Sala dei Giganti that represents the gods and other immortals of Olympus. I blew the painting up so it covered most of the whiteboard, handed each one of the kids a marker, and told them to get to it: Identify all the gods.

I don't know what it is about markers and whiteboards, but my students go a little crazy. They circled and labeled and argued and voted...and watching was the most fun I've had all week.

One of my goals is to get the students to the point where they can identify the gods by their symbols - trident, hat, armor, owl, whatever. And today, they did really well. The seventh grade found (going counter-clockwise from Zeus at 6:00 with his thunderbolts that look like wheat sheaves): Artemis, Demeter, Heracles, Dionysus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, Pan, Athena, (they missed Hestia; she's too ambiguous to identify here),  Persephone, Poseidon, Cronos, Rhea, Hades, Ares, Eros, and Aphrodite.

I then put up Saturn, by Goya.

I knew they would know this one, and they did. Some had learned about Goya in their art history class (thank you Crossroads, for having an art history class). Here, Saturn, or Cronos, is eating up his children so they can't overthrow him just as he overthrew his father. Too bad he missed one; that will come back to bite him in the ass.

Next, I put up a more challenging scene. Before moving on to this one, I reminded them of the various ways to "read" a painting - left to right if it's telling a story, or, in the case of this painting, which tells two stories, from the center out in opposing directions. 

Starting from the center, you have the first man, as modeled by Promethius, who is on the right talking to the lady with the red sash. I had given them the clue that this was a painting to be divided in two, so they quickly identified Promethius' brother, Epimethius, on the left. Back to Promethius. He's being counseled by Athena, who passes her wisdom (remember that later on when I point out an owl in another painting) on to Promethius, who then shares it with mankind. If you look up to the right, you can see Athena flying off with Promethius in the next phase of the story, and he's clutching the fire that he's acquired from Helios (see that vague shape of a chariot with horses in the cloud on the right?) hidden in a fennel stalk. That ember in a fennel stalk is the precursor of the olympic torch, by the way. I love that tidbit. Down in the right corner is mankind suffering from the torments that Pandora let loose out of her jar (see the little jar over to the left of the statue, on the ground in front of the bench?). Back over to the left. Epimethius is shaping a man out of clay in to match the model Promethius made, and there's mankind suffering again in the left corner. Oh, and that monkey guy in the tree? That's Epimethius after Zeus got mad and punished Promethius and Epimethius. I'd take the monkey transformation of Epimethius any day of the week over Promethius' punishment: eternity (well, it would have been, but he got rescued) chained to a rock while eagles (Zeus' bird) eats his liver out every day. Yeah, I have dibs on the prehensile tail.

Next, an easy one:

Yep, that's Hades taking Persephone off to the underworld in his chariot. There are some fun clues in this one, including his bident under his foot and a shadowy Cerberus in the chariot and that nymph trying to stop the chariot, but the kids didn't need it. I also mentioned that while this painting is called The Rape of Persephone, it's really more of the "seizing" of Persephone, which is appropriate, as "rapere" in Latin, which is the root of "rape" is actually to seize. 

Another hard one. I told them to be silent, look carefully, and put the pieces of the puzzle together. 

 Hints: look at what people are holding and remember that the most important people are in the center and in the foreground. The guy with the crown - that's a bident he's holding. The guy on the right has a lyre, and note the wings on the guy next to the woman. And those three biddies on the left in the front? The one of on the right has a spindle with thread in her hand.

Yep, it's the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, the guy with the wings, has led Eurydice down to the underworld after her death (by snake, nasty stuff), and Orpheus has descended with his lyre to sing for Hades and his wife Persephone in order to beg to get his love Eurydice back. Persephone talks Hades into it. The Fates are there on the left because they are the ones who determine human life and would have something to say about allowing Eurydice to thwart death. Clotho ("the spinner") spins the thread of human life, Lachesis ("the drawer of lots") measures it out, and Atropos ("the inevitable") cuts the thread. Even Zeus could not go against these ladies, despite the fact that he often wanted to. Back to the story. Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice back up to the world, but he had to NOT LOOK BACK, which of course, he does, and she disappears. When the gods tell you to do something, do it. That's the moral of that story.

Another story:

This one goes left to right. The quality isn't great, so I'll just describe it. This is a panel on a wedding chest, so it's the love story (not the sad bits) of Cupid and Psyche. On the left, Psyche is born and her two sisters hold her lovingly. Once humans start worshipping her more than Venus (see the suitors and the woman in white?), it's bad news for her and her parents, so they go to the temple of Apollo (background) and they are told to leave her on a hilltop (center) and she flies through the air and lands on the ground (follow the flying lady in white) where invisible servants take her to Cupid's palace, where she's told not to peek at her husband WHICH SHE DOES and all hell breaks loose. Do people not listen?? That's him, flying away on the far right. There's a happy ending, but not in this painting. On a wedding chest. Go figure.

Another easy one:

Hunter with arrows and dog stumbles upon bathing of the ladies has a moon on her head...yeah, that's the story of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor bastard came upon Artemis and her nymphs bathing in her secret grotto. Big no-no. She couldn't reach her bow to shoot him (her weapon of choice), so she splashes the spring water on him and he sprouts antlers, turns into a stag, and his dogs tear him to bits. Doh.

That's by Titian, incidentally.

Here's a more obscure story:

Check out the fingers. Yep - those are branches. Eros (hiding under the woman's dress because he knows he's in BIG trouble for starting this mess) made Apollo fall in love with Daphne, a nymph. You can tell that's Apollo because of his quiver and golden bow (and glowy head with a laurel wreath). Daphne was so horrified by Apollo that she ran away, shrieking for her father to help her out, and he rose out of the river (he was a river god) and turned her into a laurel tree. Now, I am always dubious when I teach this myth - how is being a tree better than being seduced by Apollo? As a parent, I give Peneus a break; he was protecting his children the best way he knew how.

Another story, left to right:

The kids nailed this one right away because of the labyrinth on the right, but the story starts on the far left with Ariadne meeting Theseus (with her sister, Phaedra). Moving to the right, Theseus takes her lovely string to the maze, goes in, kills the Minotaur, gets out, takes Ariadne away (the three figures walking back toward the center of the painting), and takes off for Naxos, where he sadly abandons Ariadne and she married Dionysus. There's also a ship with black sails in the background - Theseus had promised his father Aegeus that he would return with white sails if he survived the Minotaur, but Theseus got so excited he forgot to change the sails. His father thought Theseus had died, and he threw himself into the sea...which is why that sea is called the Agean Sea. Sweet story. 

On to one of my favorites...

Yeah. She's naked. Get over it. That's Leda. You can tell because she's having a moment with a swan - Zeus, actually - and there are babies coming out of eggs. Zeus wanted Leda, so he went to her in the form of a swan, she got pregnant and had egg-babies, two of which were Castor and Pollux. They are often portrayed with little skull cap hats to represent fragments of the eggs on their head. I know this because I looked it up last week. You never know when these sort of facts will come in handy.  

This next one's a classic, for so many reasons.

I thought this one would be the easiest myth to identify, but it took the kids a while. Maybe it was because the women are naked, maybe it was because they are, "a little chubby," as one girl put it, but either way, I had to really lead the younger kids through this one. I point them to the guy on the right. What do you notice? Shepherd staff, sheep, sheepdog. Sitting on Mt. Ida. Right. Paris. And the other guy? Winged cap, staff in his left hand - a caduceus, to be precise - and what is that thing in the shepherd's hand? Ah. An apple. I suppose it would have been an easier ID if the apple had said "To the Fairest" on it, but once you put the whole picture together, the story is clear. Three women. One with a peacock, one with an owl and a shield bearing the face of Medusa, and the one in the center stepping forward as if she's been selected (because she's that vain). Note the figure in the sky. That's Eris, companion to Ares, who just loves to stir things up. She's the goddess of strife, and she's the one who instigated this whole apple to the fairest scenario. This is The Judgment of Paris. And those chubby ladies? I call them Rubenesque, which is handy, as this painting is by Rubens. 

When we finished going over each painting, they begged for more, so I gave in and launched iPhoto on my computer. I found my album of photos from the Met's Greek and Roman collection, photos I had not really planned to use yet. I had a grand plan for them; last time I was there, I spent an hour taking photographs of gods and goddesses that might be identifiable by their stance, symbols, tools, clothing, and context, and they were supposed to get organized into a fancy-schmancy PowerPoint presentation. 

Oh well, whatever. I used to be OCD enough to care about this disorganization, but now...when my students plead for more, I can hardly complain about the frayed edges.

There are days I come home exhausted, ready to collapse on the couch, and then there are days like today. Days that propel me into the next day, and the next. 

And the next, which marks the start of February vacation. I plan to thank the gods by making an offering of the choices cuts of fat and meat in my backyard. 

But today? Today rocked. 


  1. (i want my daughter to go to your school!)

  2. Isn't it time to move to New Hampshire, AmyG?

  3. really wonderful lesson!

  4. Thanks for this. As a former Latin teacher, now following!