Western Literature Has Few Epics Of Any Real Greatness. Of These, The Epic Of Gilgamesh Is By Far The Oldest.

1005 words - 4 pages

The Epic of GilgameshWestern literature has few epics of any real greatness. Of these, The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the oldest. The standard version of the epic, preceded Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by centuries. And the story of Gilgamesh's deeds is much older then that, maybe as old as the cult religion that worshipped Gilgamesh as a deity around 2600 B.C.E.But what does it mean to call Gilgamesh an "epic"? The epic form itself is sometimes traced to Homer, to define five common features to epics: 1) there is a hero of great national or even universal importance; 2) there is a vast canvas, a setting that may be the whole world or larger; 3) the plot involves battles involving superhuman deeds or a long, difficult journey; 4) gods or other supernatural beings are interested and involved; 5) there is a ritualized, performative aspect, a style more ceremonial than ordinary speech. In Gilgamesh we have a story, older than Homer, which fulfills all of these criteria. Gilgamesh is the mightiest of ancient kings, a cultural hero and, like Achilles, the son of a goddess. Gilgamesh's narrative spans not just the known world of Mesopotamia but also the sea beyond the world's end, and the tunnels through which the sun travels back to its resting place. We have superhuman achievements in battle, the defeat of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and also a lengthy and difficult journey. We have the active involvement of much of the Babylonian pantheon of gods, including Ea, Enlil, Ishtar and Shamash. And we certainly have a ceremonial style.Formally, Gilgamesh is a verse poem. It is about 3000 lines long, divided in 11 sections, according to how it was originally recorded on 11 clay tablets. It is divided into "verses," or lines, which are often connected by parallel meaning or otherwise into couplets. There are no stanzas in Gilgamesh, properly speaking: its translators arrange the verses into stanzas according to their understanding of the poem's rhythms and meanings. Unlike modern poetry, Gilgamesh does not rely extensively on metaphor or symbolism. Its highly stylized tone is preserved through the use of repetition. It is an arrangement of formalized structures of language. The reader will notice the abundance of repetition: every time we hear of Enkidu's strength, it is "as mighty as a rock from the sky," and Ninsun is always "Wild-Cow Ninsun." Most modern poetry gets its strength from characteristics of language and perception, describing things as they appear to the poet. The world of Gilgamesh is more concrete, less subjective. Gilgamesh describes the contours and colors of its world in terms of set shapes and defined tones.Though Gilgamesh is epic in scale and the way it is formed, it does not forfeit a capacity for deeply personal emotional impact. It is driven by Gilgamesh's intense, existential loneliness, in the face of society and in the face of mortality. It is the story of Gilgamesh's coming to grips with that...

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