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Dr J's Audio-Visual Resources for Classics

Courses Taught

INTELLECTUAL HERITAGE (at Temple University)

Course Info:
Sample Syllabus


Course Themes

Delphi- A Focal Point for IH 51 Texts

Writing Guides:
Writing Guidelines

style guide

Writing Analogies

Subject Study Aids:
Aeschylus' Agamemnon Study Guide

Aeschylus' Libation Bearers Study Guide

Aeschylus' Eumenides Passages

Sophocles' Oedipus and the Sphinx Lecture

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles' Funeral Oration

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and America

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and Philadelphia

Dr. J's Illustrated Aeschylus' Oresteia

Dr. J's Curse of the House of Atreus Outline

Dr. J's Background Lecture on Greek Philosophy

Dr. J's Apology Study Questions

Dr. J's Illustrated Plato's Apology

Socrates and the Apology Lecture

Dr. J's Plutarch's Pericles

Judaism Study Guide

Sundiata Study Guide

Epic Qualities of the Sundiata Lecture

Othello Study Guide

Machiavelli Study Guide

Galileo and Humanism Lecture



Courses Proposed
(needs some pruning):

Topics in Classical Culture:
The Legend of the House of Atreus: Greek Tragedy in Greece

Religious Foundations of Greek Culture

The Intersection of Myth and History

The Ancient Greek Cultural Nexus- Art, Archaeology, Literature and Topography

From 1996-2001 I taught in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This page is part of my teaching materials for Intellectual Heritage 51, a course covering literature and ideas from Sappho through Shakespeare...

Epic Qualities of the Sundiata

by Dr. Janice Siegel

An epic is a long, narrative tale that reflects the totality of a culture. By the time you are done reading an epic, you know how the people in this culture live, honor their dead, dress, eat, worship, build their homes, design their government...what kind of laws they make and how they enforce them, how they interact with other cultures and much more. Reading an epic is like seeing a cross section of a culture - all layers are bared.  

Epics are vast in terms of time, scope, and geographical space: conflicts are bigger than normal: GOOD versus EVIL (see Milton's Paradise Lost, for example). The Epic hero represents GOOD (according to the mores of the culture whose epic this is) and the foil, the hero's antagonist, always has qualities morally and culturally repulsive to the subject culture. Therefore, the epic hero's victory over his foe is not a personal victory: it is a cultural triumph! The metaphorical reading of the specific details of the conflict is always most significant. Ex: Soumaoro's habit of wearing footwear of human skin appals us in the same way that the cannibal monsters of Greek mythology do - they reveal a disrespect for human life and break a cultural taboo so frightening that they must be eradicated for the good of all. The threat is metaphorical, for it addresses cultural taboo, but it is also physical and *real* for it threatens to destroy the very society the epic represents. While pointing out the differences between cultures, epics paradoxically and simultaneously also celebrate that part of ourselves universally shared by all because of our underlying brotherhood in humanity. A curious double-sided coin, epic is.

All epics present supernatural wonders beyond our human understanding: epic heroes generally do what we cannot - Sundiata's battle with Soumaoro is on a different plain than our reality, in the same way that Odysseus fights the Cyclops (Homer's Odyssey, and Hercules fights the monster Cacus (Vergil's Aeneid). Every epic hero repeatedly thwarts death (although he must eventually succumb), either by visiting and returning from the underworld, which mere mortals cannot do (katabasis), by receiving the help of a divinity or otherwise supernatural entity, or by using magic to protect himself from the laws that govern that realm. Witness Sundiata's prayers to the jinn, and even the ease with which Balla Fasseke calms evil spirits with music. 

In the Sundiata we also have an example of epic cataloguing to acknowledge the participation of variety of tribes, peoples, city-states in the victory Sundiata brings to Mali. Just like in the song by Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the Streets, when everyone gets together for a recitation of the tale, you cheer when your home town is mentioned - in the Iliad, we have long lists of cities and their constituent families who provided men and ships to the Trojan War effort, and in the Sundiata, we have a recitation of the different tribes who allied with Sundiata and contributed to defeating Soumaoro in the Battle of Krina.

Genealogy is also particularly highlighted in epics. The overall purpose of an epic is to validate/celebrate/perpetuate the cultural identity of a people by making them a part of something bigger than what they are as individuals; a recitation of an individual's genealogy serves a similar purpose: it inserts people into the stream of their cultural history, heritage, and achievement by connecting them with their personal past, all of which has contributed to the greatness of their cultural present.

For more on the qualities of mythic heroes see Dr. J's Illustrated Mythic Hero lecture.

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 10/25/2005
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