Saturday, August 30, 2014

The First Amendment Conundrum of the Pagan English Teacher

My school is composed entirely of minorities, half of whom speak English as a second language. Nevertheless, our school district mandates a Shakespeare play at each level. This would be okay, except that it takes my students about six weeks to make it through a Shakespeare play.

Someone with clout in my district said, "Oh, don't have them read the whole thing! Just read the good parts and watch the rest on video."

Have you ever heard of a more intellectually dishonest practice? Just read the good parts? Does this prepare our underprivileged students for college and career?

In desperation I cast about for something other than Julius Caesar to teach my students. Lo and behold, in the grimy and crumbling 10th grade textbooks, there's a translation of Antigone. It's readable, too!

Who can resist Oedipus, Jocasta, Tiresias, Creon, Antigone? Not me! I love those stories! Greek tragedy: a staple of the well-rounded public school education. Problem solved. Out with Julius, in with the brave princess who doesn't want to leave her brother to the buzzards.

Houston, we have a problem.

Can I teach Antigone if I believe in those Gods and Goddesses? Am I being intellectually honest if I call the stories "myths?" When Antigone refers to God (translation), how can I help but tell my fine young minds that the God in question is Zeus?

I want to teach Antigone, but I can't use the word "myth." If "myth" applies to the Greek deities, it applies to all deities, including You-Know-Who, the one we can't talk about in school.

I think that as Pagans, we run into First Amendment issues with Greek tragedy. I just simply can't stand in front of my students and call Zeus a "myth." Zeus is a God. People still pray to Him.

Since September through April is the window for evaluations -- and I absolutely don't want my bosses walking in with clipboards while I'm talking about Greek deities -- I have plenty of time to think of ways to discuss the religious aspects of Greek tragedy. Maybe I'll interview a few Greek deities and see what They think. (Not inviting Mars here anymore, he torched my chintz armchair.)

If you have a helpful tip on this issue, I would love to hear it. I'm almost feeling like teaching this play could violate the First Amendment if I am a polytheist.

No use asking Zeus for His opinion. Given half a chance, He would come teach the class Himself.

A few weeks ago I was casting about to see if there was anything on YouTube in the way of a summary of Oedipus Rex. I came upon the video posted below. Nearly busted a lung laughing. Then I discovered there's a whole series of these. Watch and learn, choir!


Willow Moon said...

I too have trouble calling the deities myths. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Instead of calling it a myth why not call it a legend? Not all legends are false, but the word still implies a sort of murky truth.

The description for legend (taken from
a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.

Hope that helps you, please let us know what you decide!

miakoda said...

If you don't feel compelled to call the Judeo-Christian god a myth, why would you feel required to use that term for any other deity?

My advice would be to treat the Greek deities as matter-of-factly as any other character in the play. If you create a character list for your students, a simple note that says Zeus is the king of the Greek gods is both true and omits the whole "myth" conundrum.

If the kids use that term, maybe it's an opportunity to examine that word and what it really means. Your own personal beliefs don't have to come into the conversation.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Lots of people get hung up on the word "myth" because they think it means "false." But myth actually means the expression of truth through untruth -- it embodies a great paradox (and in this context, a great spiritual paradox). Yes, the details of any myth are made-up fiction but what the myth expresses is true and eternal. That's why it's no insult to judeo-christianity to call it a myth as well. You can't tell that to your average Bible thumper though.

Anne Johnson said...

Very thoughtful replies, thank you very much! I do agree that this would afford a "teachable moment" regarding the word "myth." Off topic, but I find the Greek tragedies more compelling than Shakespeare. The thug in the video gives a great philosophical treatise on the paradox of fearless knowledge.

Cliff said...


Let me offer you the entry on ‘myth’ from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 Edition):

Myth, n. [Written also mythe.] [Gr. myth, fable, tale, talk, speech: cf. F. mythe.]

1. A story of great but unknown age which originally embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a hero, the origin of a race, etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric origin; a popular fable which is, or has been, received as historical.

2. A person or thing existing only in imagination, or whose actual existence is not verifiable.

As for Mrs. Primmins's bones, they had been myths these twenty years. Ld. Lytton.
Myth history, history made of, or mixed with, myths.


Myth is a word. Like all words, it is slippery. It’s just a bit more slippery and lively than most. Somehow, I just know that you can tackle this thing without being punished by the authorities.

And that Thug series is WONDERFUL! Thanks so much for finding and sharing it!


Katie @ Horrific Knits said...

I'm a Pagan sociologist, which colors my opinions on things. I'm absolutely fine with the word myth, I actually use the word myth all the time.

It may be lazy language, but I don't know what to call them otherwise. I think that the Judeochristian belief set is not framed as mythology because it's codified into a set text that's still a living document-that being said, I have in fact heard that belief set referred as the JudeoChristian mythos so I think that the myth connection there is more solidified than people would think.

I personally have no issue with my beliefs being labeled as myths. I think in my head though I separate the word myth away from my beliefs, as in, there are the myths associated with a deity, and there is my personal interaction and history with that deity. That's the best way I can describe it without going Durkheimian on anyone and no one wants that. Though I guess it beats Weberian.

Anonymous said...

To be pragmatic, you can always fall back on the, "some people call these myths."

Anne Johnson said...

Smart people read this blog.


ha.the Bible is the biggest myth going.

Cliff said...

If you proceed with Antigone, you'll be able to teach your students wonderful words, among them, 'pejorative,' 'personification,' and 'anthropomorphize." They will be so educated it will hurt! One can only imagine how well they will do on all those damned tests!

Davoh said...

Self votes for "legend" ...
... Oh, oops, just looked it up in my "Chambers's 20th century dictionary" (yer, i know, my mind remains in the 20th Century).
Among other 'definitions'(?) it lists 'a story of a saint's life' ... yer, well ... not unexpected since the "english" word derives from the Latin legere to read.
Other definitions include - 'a traditional story'; 'an untrue, unhistorical, or marvellous tale'.

So, choose.

The other comment that would like to make here, is to explain to your students who don't have "english" as their 'native' language - learn this polyglot language, 'English'. Not only is it becoming 'common' throughout the rest of the planet (more common than Esperanto) ... it also gives an introduction into other languages - Greek, Latin, French, German ... and about 27 others - from which the language "English" is constructed (and one of the reasons its "grammar" is so complicated).

(and as a wry aside; can someone please convince the publisher Gideons, to ditch the Bible; and put a copy of a dictionary in every hotel/motel room ... heh).

Meanwhile, back to the question, and ancient Greeks ...

mythos; talk, story.

Davoh said...

... or, interpreting; a "legend" is something 'written'. A "myth" is only 'spoken'.