‘… a myth is made up of all its variants ….’ — Claude Lévi-Strauss
Course description: A wide-ranging comparative exploration of how a number of human societies imaginatively constructed the worlds in which they lived. Our vehicle for conducting this investigation will be a close study and interrogation of the arguments and assumptions recently presented by one scholar who advocates a single prehistoric origin for all the mythologies evidenced among the inhabitants of our planet.
Warning: In this class you may sometimes encounter readings which blatantly express sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist assumptions. This is because the academic discipline of religious studies has its roots amidst the violent programs of government sponsored expansion, subjection, and wealth extraction carried out by European (and later American) societies upon the rest of the world from the early modern period into the mid-twentieth century (and beyond). Information about the lives and behaviors of these conquered peoples was collected by a motley crew of adventurers, soldiers, traders, colonial bureaucrats, and missionaries, and almost all of the information they gathered was put to mercenary use in strengthening the imperial stranglehold over another society’s natural and human resources and in suppressing the likelihood of indigenous resistance and revolt. Victorian era (and many not so slightly later) figures who wrote about religion, by and large, accepted without question or argument the intellectual, moral, economic, political, social, and cultural superiority of European civilization over the cultures of the peoples populating the pre-Columbian Americas, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and the Pacific islands, and the polar regions, and they often (though not always!) championed the Protestant flavor of Christianity as the supreme pinnacle of human religious history. Many of their operating assumptions and allegiances are now rightly recognized as simplistic, sinister, and abhorrent. Yet as students of the history of religious studies, we need to gain an uneasy familiarity with the mistaken assumptions and allegiances of these disciplinary forebears so that we do not end up repeating and perpetuating their sins.
Texts: The following textbook is required for this course:
E. J. Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
An electronic version of this work from Atkins Library is at: https://charlotte.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01UNCC_INST/13ttfn3/alma991010806472504091
Other primary texts and/or secondary readings will be distributed on Canvas as needed.
a. Readings. The nature of this course entails a significant amount of close reading and reflection. Students are responsible for anticipating and completing the reading assignments (outlined below) in a timely manner. Every student is expected to read and to be prepared to critically expound the work assigned for each class meeting.
b. Take-home written exercises. An indeterminate number of written exercises (usually one per week; optimally one per class) will be prepared and submitted for in-class discussion and out-of-class evaluation. These exercises vary in length from less than one (1) to a maximum of five (5) typewritten or electronically printed pages. All of these exercises will be announced and explained by the instructor during the course of or at the conclusion of a class meeting. The instructor’s evaluation of the student’s collective written exercise performance (using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D) will comprise 75% of the course grade.
c. Final take-home essay. Instead of an in-class three-hour final examination, you will prepare a final essay wherein you will be expected to synthesize many of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, as well as to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. Once its topic is assigned (on the final class meeting day), this essay will be delivered to the instructor before the date and time officially mandated for the final examination of this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. The final essay is worth 15% of the course grade.
d. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion, close reading, and analysis by both the instructor and class members comprises a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or written assignment(s), and the instructor reserves the right to administer occasional unannounced oral ‘pop-quizzes’ should he deem the situation so warrants (grades for such quizzes are averaged with those of the take-home exercises). Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic. The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, apparent class preparation, presentations, and informed oral contributions, will constitute 10% of the final course grade.
e. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-95+ A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk, wi-fi, and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) All unwritten or unsubmitted written assignments will be averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade. No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) Homework exercises fall due on the date announced by the instructor in class. They must be typed and submitted by email to me in either Microsoft Word or Adobe format prior to the start of the class for which they have been assigned. No physical copies of homework will be accepted or returned. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions (even from those of you who may be physically absent during our discussion); however, ‘early’ submissions (i.e., before the start of class) are always welcome and will receive full credit. These exercises are graded using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D; failure to submit = 0.
3) For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30.
4) Since your diligent physical participation is critical for the success of this course, attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One or two absences are regrettable; three absences are the limit of tolerability. Four (4) or more absences will result in an automatic F for the course. Please note that—with the exception of religious holidays—the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
5) Policy regarding Audits: the instructor expects auditors (whether formally enrolled as such or not) to meet the same attendance, preparation, and oral participation standards as those students who are taking the course for credit. The instructor does not expect auditors to prepare and submit any written assignments.
6) I do not post grades on Canvas or use it for grading. You can easily determine your own course progress (or lack thereof) by paying attention to number and quality of the grades you earn and performing the arithmetic required (using the equivalency tables listed above) to generate a ‘rough’ grade average.
c. There will be no class meetings on the following days:
Thursday, October 26 (extended fall recess)
Thursday, November 23 (Thanksgiving break)
d. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
e. The standards, requirements, and procedures set forth in this syllabus are subject to modification at any time by the course instructor. Notice of such changes will be by announcement in class, or by email, or by changes to this syllabus posted on Canvas or on my course website at https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/.
ROUGH COURSE OUTLINE
Introduction to the class (abbreviated)
Dimensions of mythopoeic thought
Some conceptual and terminological issues
Bruce Lincoln, “The Center of the World and the Origins of Life,” History of Religions 40 (2000-01): 311-326.
Ina Wunn, “Beginning of Religion,” Numen 47 (2000): 417-452.
Witzel, Origins, 1-104.
Witzel, Origins, 105-185.
Chapter 3 (cont’d)
Witzel, Origins, 105-185.
Witzel, Origins, 187-277.
Chapter 4 (cont’d)
Witzel, Origins, 187-277.
Witzel, Origins, 279-355.
Chapter 5 (cont’d)
Witzel, Origins, 279-355.
No class – creating equity with the Monday and Tuesday classes of this week.
Witzel, Origins, 357-373.
Witzel, Origins, 375-419.
Chapter 7 (cont’d)
Witzel, Origins, 375-419.
Thanksgiving break (no class)
Witzel, Origins, 421-439.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
As you might imagine, the critical literature devoted to this topic is immense. Witzel provides extensive annotation and a detailed bibliography. If you get excited about a particular topic, check out what he suggests or just ask me for further advice and ideas.
 Quoted from his essay “The Structural Study of Myth,” in his Structural Anthropology (New York, 1963; reprinted, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1967), 213.
 Note Prov 15:28: לב צדיק יהגה לענות ופי רשעים יביע רעות, which I’m inclined to render as ‘the mind of the devoted (student) contemplates before answering, whereas the mouth of the clueless spews forth worthless nonsense.’