Gods & Kings

Teacher:Benjamin Gross
Extra Help:     Thursdays, Room   303 and by appointment

Gods & Kings of the Ancient World


Course Overview:

The Flood (not the one we know from the Bible), the riddle of the Sphinx, the Trojan horse, the blinding of the Cyclops, David slaying Goliath with just a stone¾these stories have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years because of their universal depiction of the human condition. The larger stories they come from have been enjoyed, loved, and seen to glow with an almost sacred light by civilizations as different as the pagan Romans and the Puritan pilgrims; today, they are seen as ‘classics’ that everyone should read, and people really should because of how interesting and different they are. In this class, we will get to read some of these ‘classics’ to try to figure out why so many different cultures have loved and respected them. We will be examining the ancient world as far back as it goes by reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first written story we have evidence of, where there is a flood, a tempting woman, and an evil serpent, all in a story written over 1,000 years before the Bible was. From The Epic of Gilgamesh, we will move to the world of the ancient Greeks and read Oedipus Tyrannous, about a man who solved the Sphinx’s famous riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at mid-day, and three legs at evening?”, but could not solve the riddle of his own terrible fate. We will then finish with selections from The Odyssey, where we will hear about king Odysseus, the smartest, craftiest, best king of the ancient Greek world (he did after all end the Trojan War with his trick of the Trojan horse), and from the Bible to hear about King David, who slew the giant Goliath without wearing any armor (he was not used to it) with a mere stone. As we read, we will concentrate on developing our close-reading and analytical writing abilities in order to try to enter into a conversation with these texts that has been going on for thousands of years.


Essential Questions:

1.     Can the ancient world teach us?

2.     What are the qualities of a king?

3.     Where do kings derive their power and authority?

4.     What role does the spiritual & the divine play in the world?


Skills & Objectives:

1.     Advance close-reading skills to analyze literature for theme and meaning.

2.     Develop skills to analyze mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing, and other elements of film.

3.     Develop analytical skills for other artistic media (painting, sculpture, music, architecture) modeled on literary analysis skills.

4.     Respond to thematic questions using textually based evidence to support your analysis.

Unit 1: Oedipus

Text: Oedipus Tyrannous by Sophocles.

Cumulative Assessment & Portfolio Piece: Oedipus Rex Power Chart.

  • The Pagan world is a confusing place¾they did not have super-computer driven weather maps and complex algorithms to tell them what happened, was happening, and what was going to happen. This complexity meant the source, nature, and hierarchy of power was not entirely clear, so for your final assessment for Oedipus Rex, you are going to attempt to look back on the text and clarify the power dynamic that drives the narrative. You will be making a ‘chart’ outlining how power is manifest in the text and explaining the how, what, and why of your hierarchy. It is a chance to advance a dynamic thesis about the central themes and motifs that dominate the play (sight, fate, etc.) and grapple with them on your own.


Honors Assignment: Read Antigone & Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles & compare with Oedipus Rex.

Focus Questions:

·      Are our lives pre-determined, or do we have personal agency?

·      Is Oedipus a good or bad king?

·      How can drama capture essential qualities about the human experience that history cannot?

·      What is irony?


Unit Introduction: What would you do if you were told you were fated to marry your mother and murder your father? Would you do all you could to avoid your fate? What if it then came about, despite all your attempts to avoid it? These rhetorical questions, the first quite easy to answer, the second near impossible, stand at the heart of the story of Oedipus, and through the actions of our king Oedipus, we see what it is like to answer them, to (obviously) horrible ends. Oedipus Tyrannous is the quintessential Greek tragedy, so much so that Aristotle used it as his prime example of the genre to highlight the key elements of Greek tragic drama. It was written by the greatest of the ancient Greek playwrights in Athens at the height of Athenian artistic, cultural, and military power. Oedipus Tyrannous is most centrally about fate, and for the ancient Greeks, your life (fate) was spun before you were born. Though the idea of divine figures weaving your future seems silly to us moderns, the same idea of pre-destination still exists today. What is DNA but a woven together sequence of your destiny? And what is the quite modern, scientific idea of determinism but a simple update of the idea of divine pre-destiny? Nurture vs. Nature? The Greeks had an answer for that too, what they called double-determination, or, put into a modern phrase, “character is destiny.” As we read Oedipus, we will confront this very essential human question of how much control over our lives we actually have. The unit will also allow us to understand the essential features of Greek tragedy, both through looking at Oedipus and through the creation of our own Greek tragedies. We will finish the unit by watching Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a film that has the Oedipus story as its inspiration, but takes a much more modern, nihilistic stance on what it is to be human. The unit will also allow us to really understand irony, which essentially means being in on the joke when someone else isn’t; in our case, we are in on the ‘joke’ that Oedipus has done exactly what he tried his hardest not to do, murder his father and marry his mother, a ‘joke’ he does not get until the end of the play.



Unit 2: Odysseus

Text: Selections from The Odyssey.

Cumulative Assessment & Portfolio Piece: Create Your Own Island for Odysseus to visit.

  • The Cyclops, Circe the witch, the near divine Phaecians, as he makes his way through the wine-colored Aegean sea, Odysseus comes into contact with a diversity of peoples and places that simply do not exist today, but that is not to say that all the ways of living and being were covered by Homer; a lot has happened since the year 750 B.C.E., not to mention the fact that you have your own ideas about ways to live. To culminate our reading of The Odyssey, you are going to add onto the story that Homer wrote (or wrote down) by creating your own island for Odysseus and his crew to visit. Think about what way of living you would like to explore that Homer does not. Maybe it has to do with ecology or environmentalism, people either living in accord with or in conflict with nature; maybe it is an industrial world or a technological one much like ours is, but whatever it may be, this assessment will give you the chance to explore that tropi, both its positives and negatives, which Odysseus will ultimately leave, no matter how good or bad it is to him. What would Odysseus think about it? What do you? Note that while you do not have to write in the epic poetic form¾it can be a prose story¾you should feel free to build on the skill-work we did with the Gilgamesh assessment to craft this one.


Honors Assignment: Read the entire Odyssey and analyze a character in the story.

Focus Questions:

·      What is it like to live in a polytheistic world?

·      Why is The Odyssey such an important & influential text?

·      What kind of hero is Odysseus?


Unit Introduction: The Odyssey, along with the Bible, is the most important and influential work in the Western world. It is the story of Odysseus, the man who ended the Trojan War because he wanted to get back to his wife and son, and then took a decade to return to them. Along the way, he meets nymphs, gods, Cyclopes and witches, is offered immortality and has to descend into the underworld before he can finally return home. Odysseus is the greatest of the Greek heroes, as smart as he is strong, and the story of his return home is the basis for our definition of the word odyssey, a “long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience.” Through our reading of The Odyssey, we will learn about the pantheon of gods the Greeks believed in, and how this complicated family of deities relate to each other, sometimes in concord and other times in strife. We will try to get a feel for what a polytheistic world is really like, one where different places have profoundly different values, ideas, and ways of being. We will, like Odysseus, try to become polytropi, or knowers of many worlds. The story of the Odyssey, first sung orally¾all 20,000 lines of it¾then written down, dates from 750 BC, the tail end of the Greek Dark Age, when written language was lost, as was almost all higher social organization. Thus the story travelled for hundreds of years orally before blind Homer, whoever he was, put it down on paper. From a modern perspective, we see the story as just that, a fiction, but it is more than important to note that the Greeks saw The Odyssey as mythos or authoritative speech; the idea of ‘history’ simply did not exist at the time (our word "history" comes from the ancient Greek word histor, which simply means one who knows or sees). As you read, bear this in mind, but also bear in mind how powerful the impact of the ancient Greek world is on ours; our form of government¾democracy¾is Greek, and the very structure of our government is based on the ideas of Aristotle, a Greek philosopher; our artistic ideals are informed by Greek sculpture, and our architecture is profoundly based on Greek ideas about proportion (churches, banks, schools¾anything with columns¾have their basis in Greek temples). Few cultures have had as lasting an impact as ancient Greece (Athens really), and the Odyssey is the Greek text. Hopefully you like crafty Odysseus as much as almost all of history has, and even if you do not, you will like his journey there and back again.



Unit 3: Gilgamesh

Text: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Cumulative Assessment & Portfolio Piece: Epic Poem Personal Narrative.

  • Did Gilgamesh really not sleep for 7 days? Do ‘stone’ men really exist? What about the scorpion men? The epic is a form of storytelling (like the comic book, gothic story, or realistic fiction) that was the only way to tell a story in the time Gilgamesh was written, one that is basically not used at all today. We are going to briefly revive the form as you write your own epics using the narrative features that we have spent time in class looking at examples of (gross, hyperbolic exaggeration being an obvious and awesome one) as guideposts to craft your own ‘epic’ tales. Maybe you take something real like mowing the lawn and turn it into an epic, maybe it’s a journey you went on, or maybe it is totally made up, but whatever you chose to do it has to have enough verisimilitude that readers can recognize it while at the same time having enough aspects of the epic to be fantastical (and fantastic). It is a chance to craft a story unlike those you may have before, and to relish in a form of writing that dominated storytelling for thousands of years.

Honors Assignment: Read selections from Genesis & write compare/contrast analysis.

Focus Questions:

·      Do you have to leave your home & return to it to know it for the first time?

·      What is the nature of evil?

·      What does it mean to be ‘civilized’?

·      What can, and should, man strive for?

Unit Introduction: On December 17th, 1996, the New York Times published an article about research being conducted by a team of scientists around the Black sea. What the team found was a precipitous rise in the water level of the Black sea dating to around the year 5600 B.C. Essentially, the Bosporus strait flooded with water from the Aegean sea and then flooded into the Black sea, causing the water to rise abruptly by over 500 feet. This event, this deluge, is thought by many to form the real life basis for the flood stories that appear in narratives throughout Mesopotamia and as far away as the Indian subcontinent. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first of these stories, written about a king, Gilgamesh, who is 2/3 divine, and who leaves the fabulous walls of his city of Uruk to try to gain immortality and make up for the human third in him. He fails, of course, but along the way he meets a Noah-like man who survived the flood, a serpent that steals immortality from him, and a best friend¾the first best friend in literature¾who is born in the wild, but becomes ‘civilized’ by having sex with a priestess; the ancient world was a different place, wasn’t it? Gilgamesh is, for all intents and purposes, the first story, but it was a was a lost story for thousands of years (it takes place in the year 2,500 BC, was not written down for another 1,500 years, and was not found again until 1853); since it has re-appeared, its importance and connections with other ancient works have been deeply felt and commented on. For us, it marks a starting off point for civilization, the power of men & the gods, and ultimately, the power of the narrative. As we read, we are going to pay close attention to this early form of the epic, and try to think about how it would have been seen and heard by its original audience. It is easy, from our modern, scientific perspective to view a story about a king who was 2/3 divine, one who fights a giant bull sent down from the heavens and who believes in immortality and multiple gods, as simple and downright stupid, but just think for a second about our own stories. If The Avengers happened to be found 4,000 years from now, what would it say about our culture? Are our super and action heroes, living with semi-divine powers and codes of honor, so very different from Gilgamesh? What is the job of a story, to tell the truth, or to reveal something the truth cannot? Because Gilgamesh provides us an introduction to the literary genre of the epic, we are going to end the unit by following its example to craft our own epics, using our lives as the source material, but, like in Gilgamesh (and The Avengers), we will be jazzing them up some with a bit of poetic license and embellishment.




Unit 4: David

Text: Samuel 1 & 2.

Honors Assignment: Read Kings 1 & 2 and compare King David & King Solomon.

Focus Questions:

·      What kind of king was David?

·      What is David’s relationship to God?

·      How is the ancient Jewish god different from the other gods?


Unit Introduction: King David has the best art, or, put more specifically, the best art is about him. Michelangelo’s David, made when the sculptor was only 26, stands as an apex of human artistic creation, with Bernini’s David narrowly behind it. Donatello did a David as well, and Caravaggio’s painting of David holding the head of Goliath (a self-portrait of the painter) is amongst the most powerful, finest classical images. David was the first Jewish king, and his actions, from slaying the giant Goliath in single-combat, without armor, using a single stone to dancing naked before the Ark (the same Ark from Indiana Jones), are stories that have sent reverberations throughout literature and history. Why, for example, do you think knights of the Middle Ages often fought in single combat? We are going to experience this first (and best) Jewish king directly, from his childhood as a shepherd (like Jesus, who was a direct descendent of David through his earthly father Joseph) to his ascendency as King of Judah and Israel. David reigned around the year 1,000, and vague archeological remnants of his temple seem to exist. The Jewish bible presents a world concurrent with the world of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, one surprisingly similar to the polytheistic worlds of the Greeks and ancient Sumerians. In all of these worlds there are a diversity of peoples with different languages, cultural practices, and values, and in all there is as much concord as there is discord. All have music, art, and, most importantly, warfare, and all have a deeply spiritual dimension where an individual’s connection with and knowledge of the divine gave them earthly power, but David and the Jews are as different as they are the same. They have one God, not many, and that God resides with them as he does in the temple built for him. He chose and loved them, much as Athena chose and loved Odysseus, but his love and selection of the Jews as his people enact a very different relationship between divinity and follower, and his will is much less knowable. As we read the books of Samuel (they are named after the prophet that ruled Israel in David’s time, not the king himself), we will try to understand what makes David so special and exciting, why he has inspired so much art and so many stories. We will also try to understand how the Jewish relationship with a single, mono god is different from the Greek relationship with many gods. Is a one-god world a more uniform and less interesting place, or is it just more unified? We will end our unit on David by creating our own artistic representations of the king to try to be as inspired by him as artists and writers throughout history have been.



Many of the texts we will be examining in class are difficult, often with complex themes that are not always clearly discernable. Advancing a hypothesis about a text, film, or piece of art and being ‘wrong’ is central to the learning process. I hope we can use the risk-taking of the writers and artists we are studying in class as an inspiration, and try to push ourselves in order to enhance our thinking skills and impact how we see the world around us.




Academic Honesty: Plagiarism is a serious offense in this classroom as it involves theft and dishonesty. Intellectual integrity is central to learning, so I implore you to engage in original thought and cite sources when they are used (including Sparknotes and Schmoop). Work that is plagiarized, either from a fellow student or from an online source, will receive a zero with no chance to make it up, your parent or guardian will be contacted, and the office will be notified.


Revision: Revision is central to the writing process; no one that writes professionally turns something in they have not revised themselves and had others revise for them. We will follow this same professional behavior towards the written word in class, using class time to revise what we write in order to improve ourselves as writers. Additionally, work turned in will be revisable as my feedback on it is meant to improve your abilities as a writer.


Timeliness: If a student is not able to turn in a major assignment on time, he or she must make arrangements with the teacher within 24 hours of the due date. At the discretion of individual teachers, students may be provided extra time to receive partial credit on major assignments. Make-up assignments must be submitted within 7 calendar days (1 week) from the original due date. Assignments submitted before the 7 day window will receive a lower grade in the Work Habits strand (5 points lost for every day late) but fully assessed in all other strands. Late homework must be turned in by the next class.


Honors: Honor in English is an opportunity to challenge yourself and enrich your experience of the literature we will read in class. The goal of honors is to challenge you in order to advance your independence, time management, and self-direction, and to strengthen your compositional and analytical skills. It is open to all students, but there is a good deal of independent, supplemental work involved. In order to qualify for honors credit, you must:


·      Read and respond to one piece of literary criticism for a text.

·      Complete an honors version of each project.

·      Evidence the characteristics of a classroom leader, socially and academically, including: being regularly prepared for class, speaking respectfully while advancing the tone and terroir of class discussions, assist other students when appropriate, and evidence the characteristics of good scholarship in English.


The honors assessments will supplement the cumulative assessment for each unit, and will provide an opportunity to enhance your understanding of the text. Upon completion of all the honors requirements, your semester grade will be raised by 0.5 points. Should you choose to pursue honors in English and later reconsider, the honors work you do complete will be graded for extra credit, but your semester grade will receive no additional points.


Grading Policy:

Composition (25%) Composition is synonymous with writing, and will take the form of analytical paragraphs, in class responses to the text, analytical essays, and creative writing pieces.

Analysis (35%) Analysis represents critical thinking about a text and can take the form of study questions and other assessments where you have to think about and analyze a text. It is also embedded in many of the composition assignments, so when you write an analytical paragraph, the analysis is the thoughts you have about the text, whereas the composition is how you express those thoughts. How fluidly you embed a textual quotation would fall under composition while what you have to say about that quotation and how it contributes to a theme in the text is analysis.

Oral Presentation (5%) Oral presentation may take the form of student presentations, participation in class discussions, participation in small group discussions, and other forms of vocalizing one's ideas in class, formally or informally.

Work Habits (35%) Work habits are the study skills necessary to gain mastery over the curriculum. It might take the form of reading quizzes, book annotation checks, revisions of essays, and self-reflections. 

Course Documents

Sep 23, 2015, 11:20 AM