Enroll in “The Ancient Greek Hero” with Gregory Nagy and Kevin McGrath at Harvard Extension School

Examine the human condition by studying the ancient Greek hero

Registration is now open for “The Ancient Greek Hero,” a distance learning course taught by Gregory Nagy and Kevin McGrath at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education. Over 10,000 Harvard students have taken this class over the years. “The Ancient Greek Hero” invites learners to experience, in English translation, some of the most beautiful works of ancient Greek literature and song-making: the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; songs of Sappho and Pindar; dialogues of Plato, and On Heroes by Philostratus. All texts are open access and provided free of charge.

Class begins on January 29!! Enroll Now!

Watch Kevin McGrath give a brief preview of the course:

Hours 15: “Epic and Lyric” 

Here we look at the ancient Greek hero from the perspective of two different but related media of poetry and songmaking, epic and lyric. The major focus of interest is Achilles, especially as viewed through the lens of the Homeric Iliad *and* through the “rose-colored glasses” of Sappho’s songs. While the epic of the Iliad is typical of verbal art that is performed by and for men, the lyric songs of Sappho derive from traditions of singing performed mainly by women of all ages, including adolescents about to be initiated into womanhood. These “women’s traditions” are best known for two kinds of singing, laments and love songs, which are interchangeable in contexts that will surprise the modern mind. Another surprise, as we will see, is that the Iliad too contains embedded “quotations” of such laments and love songs, and that our first impression of this epic as a “men’s tradition” obscures the fact that Homeric poetry channels the songs of women as well as men. A perfect expression of such “channeling” is the figure of Achilles himself, who was admired by Greek song culture as a virtuoso singer of laments and love songs in his own right. An analysis of Homeric passages that “quote” the singing of Achilles will be an integral part of our overall experience in close reading.

Hours 6–11: “Signs of the Hero in Epic and Iconography”

Hours 68 (including all the subdivisions of Hours 7 and 8), explore the interactions of text and image in a culture where the “text” is not a written document but a live performance and where the “image” is not based on anything that is written down but exists as a free-standing medium of the visual arts, expressing the same myths that are being systematically expressed by the medium of Homeric poetry. Almost all of the images we will be studying are samples of a form of vase painting known as the “Black Figure” technique. We will practice how to “read” such a medium, analyzing what it tells us about ancient Greek heroes like Achilles, in conjunction with our “reading” the performance tradition of the Homeric Iliad itself. It is important to keep in mind, as we read these images and texts together, that the myths expressed by these media were meant to be taken very seriously. In the ancient Greek song culture, myth was not mere fiction. Just the opposite: myth was a formulation of eternal cosmic truths. So, the myths conveyed by the images of the paintings we will study are just as “truthful,” from the standpoint of ancient Greek song culture, as are the related myths conveyed by the Homeric Iliad. We need to read both the texts and the images of these myths as an accurate formulation of an integral system of thought the expresses most clearly and authoritatively all those things that really matter in life.

Hours 911 foreground the historical fact that the heroes who were characters in the myths of ancient Greek epic, lyric, and other verbal media were at the same time worshipped as superhuman forces by the communities where their bodies were thought to be hidden from outsiders. When we take for example the Homeric Odyssey, we find that the main hero of this epic, Odysseus, was a cult hero, not only an epic hero. And the agenda that center on the idea of a cult hero, like the prospect of immortalization after death, can be clearly seen in the overall plot of the Odyssey, especially in the memorable scene where the hero experiences his homecoming to Ithaca at the same moment when the sun rises as he wakes from a mystical overnight sleep while sailing homeward.

Hours 1215:  “The Cult of Heroes”

Hour 12: In Homeric poetry the idea of hero cult is implicit even though characters like Odysseus are not explicitly identified as cult heroes. The situation is different, however, in the poetry attributed to Hesiod, where the very idea of a cult hero is precisely outlined and illustrated, especially in the myth about the five generations of humankind.

Hours 13–15 show the vast variety of perspectives brought to bear on the idea of the ancient Greek hero in the versatile medium of prose, as exemplified by authors as varied as Herodotus, the so-called father of history, and Philostratus, an intellectual from a post-classical period who was prodigiously well-versed in classical and pre-classical lore about cult heroes. As we can see from the lively prose narratives of such learned and captivating authors, the mystique of cult heroes, both male and female, enthralled their adoring worshippers, who treasured the exotic stories of epiphanies and miracles that were linked with the places made sacred by the felt presence of heroes residing in the mother earth that concealed their bodies. We will even get the chance of reading and analyzing an eyewitness prose account of an actual initiation into the mysteries of a hero cult. This prose account brings home to us the dead seriousness of personally experiencing such an initiation, and it shows the emotional impact of making contact with the consciousness of superhuman forces who inhabit the mystical world of hero cult.

Hours 16–21: “The Hero in Tragedy”

Hours 1621 bring us into the world of high classical poetry in drama, as brought to life in three tragedies of Aeschylus, two of Sophocles, and two of Euripides. We see here the Greek hero as best known to us from the perspective of world literature. The medium of drama makes heroes seem more familiar to us, since we think we know drama better than we know other verbal arts such as epic and lyric, but, by the time we finish analyzing the seven classical tragedies that we will be reading, we will see that the traditions of hero cult, infused into the verbal art of drama, cast an altogether new light on tragedy, defamiliarizing for us not only the heroes illuminated by this art but also the art itself. We will see, then, maybe for the first time ever, that the ancient Greek hero of tragedy was not at all like us—even less like us than the hero of epic or lyric. The male and female heroes of drama were larger than life, far more so than we may ever have imagined, reaching levels of both nobility and debasement that challenge our sense of equilibrium in the cosmos. As our close readings of our seven chosen tragedies will show, there was a disequilibrium in myths about heroes in the remote past, and this disequilibrium could be compensated only by experiencing the equilibrium of rituals in the immediate present—rituals culminating in the drama of heroic tragedy.

Hours 22–24: “Plato and Beyond”

Hours 22–24 challenge the idea that Socrates was a hero, just as Plato’s Socrates himself challenges that same idea. And yet, as we will see from reading Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Phaedo, the idea of the hero is very much present in Plato’s works—just as it persists in works beyond Plato, whether or not these works adopt Plato’s project of trying to substitute philosophy for literature—especially for poetry. Just as poetry serves as a primary representative for the idea of the hero, we will discover though our close readings that the philosophical prose of Plato likewise represents this same idea—though now the hero is no longer some superhuman human. Rather, the real hero now becomes the word of philosophical dialogue, which is brought back to life much as a cult hero is brought back to life ever time a heroic life is narrated or dramatized. In Plato’s works, the narration and the dramatization show not the life of the hero but the life of the word that survives the speaker of the word, provided that the word engages in dialogue—a philosophical dialogue that contemplates the eternal truths of the cosmos.