Who you calling Zeus? That’s Atlas, as Yalies in booming classics course know

Among the most popular courses in the humanities this semester, Milette Gaifman’s “Art and Myth in Greek Antiquity” connects ancient myth to modern culture.
Ancient Grecian urn from Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of antiquities

“Bell Krater: A, Orestes at the Altar of Apollo at Delphi; B, Three standing Men” from the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of antiquities, circa 375 B.C.E.

As a “huge fan” of the fictional character Percy Jackson while she was in middle school, Yale student Sharon Li wanted to learn a little bit more about the Greek mythology that influenced the book series that brought him to life — which included “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and “The Heroes of Olympus.” 

This semester, she’s doing just that through “Art and Myth in Greek Antiquity,” an undergraduate course taught by Milette Gaifman, professor of classics and history of art. Each week this semester, the course explores this mythology through the works of Greek art and architecture. 

While Li, a first-year student from Louisiana, had not studied Greek mythology or art history before, she figured there was no better time to begin than during her first term at Yale. “Turns out, it was probably one of the best decisions I have made this semester,” said Li, a prospective major in molecular biochemistry and biophysics, who is learning on campus this semester.

Li is one of 189 students enrolled in Gaifman’s course, the most popular undergraduate class in the humanities this semester. Gaifman last taught the course two years ago to an equally large student audience.

I think one of the reasons the class is popular is because we draw parallels between Greek myths — which many of the students have some familiarity with — and current popular culture,” said Gaifman. “Some of the students know Greek myths through the Percy Jackson books; many have read the great stories of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ In class we talk about stories, films, and other things they are familiar with, such as ‘Star Wars,’ Wonder Woman, and other superheroes, and how Greek myths actually influenced these stories and a lot more in our culture that they may not be aware of.”

Gaifman lectures online.
Gaifman lectures online.

In the past, the course was taught in the Yale University Art Gallery, where Gaifman was able to show examples of paintings, sculpture, and art in other media that depict Greek mythological figures. For this semester’s virtual class, offered via Zoom on the learning platform Canvas, she instead shares four pre-recorded mini-lectures (each about 20 minutes) weekly. Each lecture is followed by a writing prompt, which students complete before participating in an online discussion with a teaching assistant (TA).

The mini-lectures, according to the course description, “introduce temples, statues, pottery, and wall paintings in conjunction with texts, showing how pervasive myth was in the daily lives of ancient Greeks.” Students further investigate the subject matter in their sections. In lieu of visits to the art gallery, Liliana Milkova and Roksana Filipowska, staff members in the gallery’s education department, have provided videos of objects and antiquities from the collections related to Greek mythology.

The students learn about Theseus and Athena, Dionysus and Olympia, the Oracle of Delphi and the Trojan War, among other mythological figures and stories, Gaifman said. And they learn to recognize depictions of these figures in art and architecture. “In Greek myth, there’s a lot of juicy stuff — wars, affairs, drama — and so the students find the stories interesting and vivid.”

Gaifman shares these stories with an excitement and engagement that makes students eagerly anticipate each new module, said Li. “Her questions are thought-provoking and prompt us to dive deeper in order to analyze how that specific piece of art connected with audiences in ancient Greece.”

Thousands of miles away from campus, in Shenzhen, China, Yale senior Sheldon Zhao is also enjoying learning about ancient Greece. It’s a world that previously was unknown to him. “As a student who focuses on contemporary visual culture, anything before the 1800s is out of my specialties,” said Zhao, who is majoring in computer science and history of art. 

Zhao admits that he signed up for the class to fulfill a requirement, but he has also not been disappointed. “I am constantly amazed by Professor Gaifrman’s passion and energy,” he said. “She speaks into the microphone of her computer as if addressing a crowd at a rally, which has made this class perhaps the most engaging asynchronous learning experience I’ve ever had. I cannot wait to return to campus to meet her in person, to have a discussion with her at a coffee shop and share a laugh with her about nerdy art history stuff.”

The majority of the students in “Art and Myth in Greek Antiquity” are not majoring in either classics or art history. And they come from many different backgrounds. So Gaifman has to remind herself to not make any assumptions about their prior knowledge.

I could talk about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and have some students look at me as though I fell off Mars,” she said. “We have students who come from all over the world. We have students majoring in engineering, economics, math, statistics, and so many other fields. It makes for interesting interdisciplinary conversations.”

Zhao and Li credit their TAs for creating an engaging experience, even in a virtual setting.

While I wish I could stand in the hallowed hall of ancient Greek art inside of the Yale Art Gallery, I am getting a similar experience online,” said Zhao. “The TAs have personally taken videos of Greek amphoras [ancient vessels], organized a vast multimedia library, prepared worksheets, and deployed EdTech solutions so that we can spend our Zoom time together looking at and investigating art just as we would in person.”

Greek divinities: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Apollo
This marble relief from the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection features shows five Greek divinities: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Apollo. (Circa 25 B.C.E.–14 C.E.)

Christina Kraus, chair of the Department of Classics and the Thomas A. Thacher Professor of Latin, noted that classics “is an area of study that demands interdisciplinary breadth and technical expertise.

We nurture students of literature, of language, and of material culture; of cross-cultural communication and encounters; of politics, philosophy, religion history, and economics,” she said. “We also study the complex afterlives of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome and the ways in which the classical past has been, and continues to be, woven into narratives of the present.”

Midway through the semester, Li has become keenly aware of the impact of Greek culture, mythology, and literature on modern society, she said.

[T]he father-son struggle in ‘Star Wars’ mimics the father-son struggle between Ouranos and Kronos and between Kronos and Zeus,” she said. “It is also interesting to hear some Chinese songs now that have references to Odysseus and the Sirens, prompting one to question if Greek culture was able to spread to East Asia during the time of the maritime silk roads … or if is it only recently that globalization was able to spread Western culture to other parts of the world. I think it’s fascinating to explore the dynamic relations between ancient Greece and other civilizations that existed around the same time.”

Teaching the course online this semester has involved more work than her in-person rendition of “Art and Myth in Greek Antiquity,” Gaifman said. Still, she purposely makes time to bring humor to her lectures.

All of us are feeling anxiety during this strange time,” she said. “When I introduce Delphi and the Oracle, I say, ‘We can ask Delphi what’s going to happen with COVID.’ And then I say, ‘If only!’ It’s just one small way to make the course speak to current events.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,