Last year I've signed up for the Greek and Roman Mythology MOOC offered by Coursera. The course was taught by Dr. Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania and overall it has been a great experience.
The part of the course were two writing assignments, essays about mythology, which I am going to share here. Both of them were peer-reviewed by other participants of the course. My English is not perfect, but I think I did a good job.
First essay: Analysis of the Lotus-eaters episode from Odyssey using Functionalism
The first essay analyses a small part of Homer's Odyssey, encounter with Lotus-Eaters near the African coast. It got grade 5 out of 10.
Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Functionalism. In this theory, a myth serves to legitimize social values and norms (such as the practice of xenia). Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. What social norm does this episode legitimize? Be sure to spell out your reasoning very carefully. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.
In this essay I am going to analyze "The Lotus-Eaters" episode from Odyssey book 9 using the theory of Functionalism. First, let me summarize the episode: after 9 days at raging sea, Odysseus landed at the island of peaceful people who eat strange "flowery food". He sent an expedition of three men to them. They were received well and offered a "honey-sweet lotus fruit", but when they ate it, they "no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return." When Odysseus found out what happened, he dragged those men back to shore, bound them in ships and departed quickly, because he feared that others would eat the lotus as well.
There are two things to consider: the apathy and its trigger. I believe this episode is basically about drugs and their consequences. It reinforces the society consensus that drugs are bad and should be avoided, because they cause people to behave in a way that is socially undesirable. This norm still applies today; Odysseus decisive action at the island of Lotus-eaters would surely be approved both by a military officer in Ancient Greece and by today’s mother of a teenager who is so hooked on computer games that he neglects school, friends and personal hygiene. Society expects men to do great and daring things that matter, not to spent their days, quoting A.L. Tennyson, “with half-shut eyes ever to seem / falling asleep in a half-dream!”
Needless to say, things didn’t turn out well for Odysseus’s men - they were killed to the last one. We can only guess whether the ones who tasted the lotus were eaten by Cyclops shortly afterwards, or devoured by Skylla a year later, or lasted all the way to being killed by Zeus himself for eating sacred Cattle of the Sun. What is good for the society might not be always good for the individual.
PS: there's definitely a room for improvement in this essay. For one thing, several reviewers thought that I'm implying that Odysseus's men died because they ate lotus. That's not what I meant - and I'm afraid it's not entirely clear from the text of essay. I tried to show the irony that although from society point of view, Odysseus did the right thing to force his crew to continue their journey home, from the point of view of individual sailors, they would be better off if they stayed on the island of Lotus-eaters - it would save their lives. According to me, in this episode society is basically saying to us: "Don't be idle. Do great things or die trying."
PPS: Though to be fair, this life philosophy doesn't come just from society (although it's surely valued by society). It could be said that men in general have deep desire to do great things, "to put a dent in the universe" (Steve Jobs).
Second essay: Analysis of the episode from Bacchae using Freudianism
The second essay analyses the late "plot twist" in Bacchaes by Euripides. It got grade 9 (!) out of 10.
I'm a fan of Freud's work and read several books from him including his lectures, so this psychological theories is kinda my specialty. The essay does sound crazy at times, but remember - it's Freudian analysis. As a rule of thumb, if Freudian analysis doesn't make you feel dirty, you're doing it wrong :).
In this course, we have introduced Functionalism, Structuralism, Freudianism, and Myth and Ritual theory as tools to examine our myths. Choose one of these tools and use it to analyze one episode in the Greek tragedies or the portions of Vergil’s Aeneid or Ovid's Metamorphoses that we have read for this class. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. The best answers to this question will demonstrate a thorough understanding of the theoretical tool, and will use it to reveal something new in the episode under consideration. You may NOT repeat a specific result, using one of these theoretical tools, set out in lecture. Move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.
In this essay, I'm going to analyze an episode from Euripides' tragedy of Bacchae in which Pentheus spies on maenads on Kitharion. I'm going use Freudianism lens to interpret the symbolic language, which is plentiful in this part of the play, and speculate on what unconscious desires might be present here.
According to Freudianism theory, sex is one of the strongest unconscious human desires. Sex with anything, anywhere. And that is more or less what happens on Kitharion where Pentheus spies on maenads. They dwell in a mountain valley surrounded by trees. In Freudian symbolic language of dreams, that clearly represents woman sexual organ. Pentheus cannot get a proper look, so he suggests to Dionysus that “on the hill, ascending a lofty pine, I might view properly the shameful acts of the Maenads.” This seems odd – there should be many safe vantage points on top of the valley in woods. Why would he choose, of all things, a lone tree on a hill top, where can he be easily detected (and eventually is)? Freudianism can give a satisfying answer to that - both hill and tree (especially coniferous tree) represent penis in a symbolic language of dreams, the polar opposite of v... valley.
This vantage point seems even more suspicious when we witness how Dionysus bends the pine and Pentheus is seated down on a pine branch. What was he thinking? And why would he even follow a man that he previously put into jail and planned to execute? Surely he must have known something is not quite right when Dionysos pull down the top-most branch of the pine down to earth. In my opinion, this development of the play in larger context signifies in Freudian terms the breadown of repression barrier and freeing unconcious desires. At first, Pentheus attempts to suppress his unconciousness, as signified by his repression of Dionysus rituals, but he tries too hard. In the second part to play, he suddenly dresses as woman and goes to spy on maenads - as if someone flipped a switch on him. It seems that by not letting off steam, Pentheus tried to hard until his repression barrier couldn't take the pressure anymore and burst.
And now he sits on the pine, dressed like a woman – he is literally “woman on top”. At the same time, he is a man spying on maenads like a lecherous satyr. Starting as a man in control, he became a man entirely controlled by his unconcious desires.