You are teaching a Classical Mythology class and you have reached the topic of “Creation Stories” (either this is early in the course or later, after “Epic Myths”). In today’s class you want to compare and contrast ancient Greek, Roman and Near-Eastern myths about the origins of the universe. You will discuss (and the students were meant to read) selections from Hesiod’s Theogony, Aristophanes’ Birds, Apollonius of Rhodes’ song of Orpheus, Virgil’s songs of Silenus (in Eclogue 6) and Iopas (in the Aeneid), Ovid Metamorphoses book 1, the Enuma Elish, the Theogony of Dunnu, Egyptian cosmogonies, the book of Genesis and Phoenician cosmogonies.
You know that your students will find it difficult to find themselves, their bodies and minds, within such momentous narratives of cosmic creation, so you want to transform their environment to bring attention to them as well as the myths.
Hanging from the walls at 8 and 12 foot elevations you have copies of the class textbook, over platforms at different levels. You attach lights to the platforms, lighting the central area and the platforms. As the students walk into the class, somewhat confused by the shift in their typical classroom environment, you ask them to seat themselves in the area of light and on the platforms.
You are silent, rustling through papers, fingering your textbook and appearing as if you are trying to set up the PowerPoint slides for a normal lecture. You don’t give the Teaching Associates (TAs) for the class (there are usually between 4 and 6 of them) or the students any briefing as to what is about to happen.
You ask the TAs to join you in sitting in a circle on the floor, recalling some primitive place of worship. You ask one of the TAs to come forward, stand in the center of the circle, close her eyes and wait. You then ask one of the other TAs from the circle to stand behind her and gently slap her on the back, up and down the spine, gradually passing over shoulders, arms, hips, legs, the entire body.
At that moment two things happen. You start to narrate the creation myths in no apparent order – Hesiod can follow Ovid, the Theogony of Dunnu may follow Aristophanes etc – while at the same time a recording of drum beats is played and the slapping of the TAs merges into the sound your voice and the drumming. Now the circle, with you at its head, starts to move in a line through the seated students. One by one, the students are invited to join the line, moving around the space, narrating the creation myths, gently beating on the bodies of those in front of them to the sound of the drums.
Now a dance has begun with the students turning into the TAs, with the original TAs acting as catalysts. The physical environment, originally meant for seating, has become a stage. Passing the textbook back to a TA or student, who continues to read, you begin to work with responses in movement, guiding the students and TAs, shaping them, and adding new ideas until everyone actively participates in a process of mutual creation. (Imagine that you are Nature, the artifex in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). As the noise and energy fills the classroom, you witness the original circle with its unconsciously perceived powers keep reappearing.
As the end of the class draws near, bring the lesson to a careful close, asking everyone to be still and look up a the textbooks suspended overhead. You say the following words:
This is our first Myth, like all creation, it has been passionate, exuberant, strong and it drew its life from the circle and the beat. Take your books, go outside and think about these stories against the backdrop of the sky.
After speaking these words, you dismiss the class.