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Horse-men, cat-women, goat-men, tree-women, man-bulls, fish-girls, snake-people–cross-species compound creatures are everywhere in ancient Greek and Roman art, poetry, and culture. The conceptual or cognitive value of those “demigods” has changed over time. In art, demigods have frequently been reduced to the status of decoration, and in literature, they have become generic markers of fantasy. But they are hardly without meaning. Embodied in satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, and other demigods is a vision of an alternative evolutionary and cultural history. In it, humans and animals live together. The distinction between nature and culture is not meaningful. Male and female are equal. The industrial revolution never happens.
This course traces the history of demigods from its origins in ancient Greek art and poetry until today. We pay special attention to three points: the relationship between mythology of demigods and ancient political theory about primitive life; evolving conceptions of nature, the origin of species, and the environment; and the capacity of the visual arts to create mythology that has a limited literary counterpart.
The first half of the course examines the origins and character of the demigods, in works of ancient art, e.g. the François vase and the Parthenon, as well as ancient texts, including Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We examine relevant cultural practices, intellectual history, and conceptions of nature, in texts such as Euripides’ Bakchai, Plato’s Phaidros, and Lucretius’ De rerum natura. We will consider in detail ancient theories of the origins of species as well as the relationship between nature and human culture.
The second half of the course investigates the post-classical survival of demigods. We consider the “rediscovery” of demigods in the work of Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Dürer, and Titian, and the rediscovery of ancient materialist theories of nature and culture. We consider in detail the important role played by demigods in the formation of Modernism in art and literature. Key texts include Schiller, “Naive and sentimental poetry,” Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Mallarmé, “L’Apres midi d’une faun,” Aby Warburg’s cultural-historical texts, and Stoppard’s Arcadia. Problems include the relationship between nymphs and prostitutes in Manet, and the meaning of fauns and the Minotaur in Picasso. We conclude with demigods in popular culture such as the Narnia chronicles or Hunger Games.
Format: lecture; Lecture and discussion
Grading: yes pass/fail option,
yes fifth course option
The requirements of the course include: attendance and participation in discussion; one five-page paper due at midterm, and one ten-page paper due at the end of term; one midterm, and a one-hour final exam.
art history majors, classics majors, then any interested student
This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
ARTH pre-1800 Courses