Education Week 2019: A Herculean Lecture

Greek myths have been told time and again, but Professor Roger Macfarlane explores how these myths have been adapted to our modern culture.

 PROVO, Utah (Aug. 23, 2019)—At the beginning of his Education Week lecture, Professor Roger Macfarlane (Comparative Arts and Letters) posed this question: “What is the study of classical mythology actually good for besides entertainment?” As someone who has devoted his career to studying ancient cultures and classical mythology, Macfarlane was ready with answers.

Macfarlane is passionate about studying the “reception and adaptation of classical mythology,” and for this presentation he focused primarily of the myth of Heracles, or Hercules. He used the phrase “herculean labor” to demonstrate the fact that “people have been speaking myth for hundreds, even thousands of years. Classical mythology is part of the way we talk.” References to mythology are imbedded in phrases or concepts that are second nature to us today, and it’s valuable to know their origins. Being able to recognize these references when they surface adds meaning to the world around us.

But mythology doesn’t just influence the way we speak it also influences our worldview. In the Hercules myth, the hero is tasked to complete twelve labors in order to redeem his past mistakes, but these labors have come to signify more than just Hercules’s heroic tales. Macfarlane, who studies myth adaptation, suggested, “Let’s take the labors of Heracles and rationalize and turn them into stories of virtue and fortitude.” By generalizing these stories “Heracles goes from being a mythological figure and Greek hero into being a sort of hero of virtue.”

As the idea of Hercules became more abstract, his personality traits were easily adapted to many different situations, and the ideas behind the myth of Hercules also made their way into the language of Christianity. Macfarlane specifically cited author John Milton, as Milton’s allusions to Herculean myth in his writings show “a willingness to speak about Christian things in mythological contexts.”

Ultimately, both Hercules and Christ are considered to be hero figures. Just as in the myth of Hercules, Christian teachings contain “labors huge and hard, where Christ is outstripping human beings and performing.” By comparing “small things” (Hercules vanquishing of Antaeus) to “large things” (Jesus Christ vanquishing Satan), Milton is able to speak “the language of classroom mythology and make it work.”

As Macfarlane wrapped up his lecture, he returned to the question he posed at the beginning: “What’s classical mythology good for?” His final answer, “It’s good for learning that language of classical mythology that gets spoken all the time around us.“

—Heather Bergeson (English, ’21)