Understanding the Past: Myths, Epics, Chronicles and Histories

Home/ Understanding the Past: Myths, Epics, Chronicles and Histories
Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation ElectiveSUS1HS4314

Semester and Year Offered: Usually offered in Winter Semester. Open to students of all ‘years’ (I, II, III).

Course Coordinator and Team: Professor Denys P. Leighton, but has also been taught since 2011 by two other faculty members.

Email of course coordinator: denys[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: None.

Aim: To help undergraduate students of any ‘subject’ (discipline) appreciate the relationships between the humanities (‘arts’ subjects) and the social sciences and between academic history and popular understandings of the past. The course directs attention to the emergence of modern ‘scientific history’ since c. 1750 CE and to history’s relationships to others modes of connecting past to present, especially myths and epics. The course also seeks to enrich students’ understanding of history in the ‘postmodern’ era. Not only ‘Western’ historical practices but practices of non-Western societies and civilizations are studied.

Course Outcomes:

  1. Learners become familiar with debates over meanings of the past--for example, how we distinguish between past and present and how we exercise objectivity and subjectivity in locating ourselves as observers of events in time.
  2. Learners explore questions such as the following: How do historians use ‘sources’ (written, material, oral and other)? How is History relevant to the present? Is History an effort to discover and recover the past or is it instead a creative (meaning-making) process, or is it both of these at once? Why have historians, philosophers and social scientists given contrary answers to these questions? How do we distinguish between historical fact and interpretation? What future is there for History as a scientific and humanistic discipline?
  3. Learners grasp the nature of the historian’s authority and his/her relation to non-professional and popular audiences or producers of meanings about the past.
  4. Learners achieve facility in explaining matters of historical practice to an interested audience.

Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

  1. WEEK I. Do you need a philosophy of history to understand history? Myths, epics and pre-modern understanding of past and present.
  2. WEEK II. Herodotus, The Histories. Understanding the world of the Mediterranean ecumene.
  3. WEEK III. Indian patterns in/of the past. Greco-Roman historiography.
  4. WEEK IV. Medieval historiography: ‘European’, Chinese and ‘Islamic’. Epics, chronicles and legends of nations.
  5. WEEK V. Ibn Khaldun, Muquaddimah. Bacon and Descartes on understanding the past: science and ‘facts’ of history
  6. WEEK VI. Student presentations.
  7. WEEK VII. The end of ‘amateur’ history? (E. Gibbon and D. Hume versus Jane Austen.) Understanding the past as a science of society. ‘Problems’ of historical practice outside Europe.
  8. WEEK VIII. The ‘university revolution’ and history in an era of nationalism (1800 – 1850): Hegel, Macaulay, Michelet and Marx.
  9. WEEK IX. The university revolution, professionalization and research.
  10. X. History in the light of modern science and philosophy: R. G. Collingwood, M. Oakeshott, E. H. Carr.
  11. WEEK XI. The ‘Annales School’ and the pursuit of ‘total’ history. University expansion and the study of history after 1945. History in the ‘developing’ world, c. 1920 – 1990s.
  12. WEEK XII. M. de Certeau and others. Oral history and ‘living history’.
  13. WEEK XIII. History and Postmodernism.
  14. WEEK XIV. What is history today?

Assessment Details with weights:


Assessment type

Date/period in which assessment will take place



Oral presentations

After ¼ of the course



Mid-term exam

Mid term



Short writing assignment

After ¾ of the course



End-semester exam

Per end-sems. schedule



Reading List:

  • E. J. Alagoa, ‘An African Philosophy of History in the Oral Tradition,’ (undated document, downloaded from on 7 March 2011)
  • Abu’l Raihan Al-Biruni, Taḥqīq mā fi’l Hind, trans. E. C. Sachau, Alberuni’s India, 2 vols. (London K. Paul,
  • Trench and Truebner, 1888-1910): selections.
  • E. H. Carr, What Is History? (London: Penguin, 1990 [1961]).
  • Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. D. Godley: selections.
  • George Iggers, Edward Wang, Supriya Mukherjee, Global History of Modern Historiography (New Delhi:
  • Pearson Education, 2010): selections.
  • Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (Routledge, 2003 [1991]): selections.
  • Ibn Khaldun, The Muqqadimah, trans. Franz Rosenthal: selections.
  • Devoney Looser, ‘Catharine Macaulay: The “Female Historian” in Context,’ Études Épistémè, 17 (2010),
  • 105 -118.
  • Mahābhārata: selections.
  • Masaki Mori, ‘Theories of the Epic: A Brief Historical Overview,’ Epic Grandeur: Towards a Comparative
  • Poetics of the Epic (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), Chap. 1.
  • Harbans Mukhia, ‘Time, Chronology and History: the Indian Case,’ in Solvi Songer, ed., Making Sense of
  • Global History (Oslo: Oslo University Press, 2001)
  • Wikipedia entries: s.v. ‘myth’, ‘epic poetry’.
  • Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (California UP, 1982): selections.


  • Website with primary sources and commentary: