Research Paper: Epic of Gilgamesh

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Epic of Gilgamesh is literature, history, and an insight into the basis for human civilization. It is an epic poem from Ancient Mesopotamia, thought to be one of the first areas in which humans urbanized. Most scholars believe it was a combination of Sumerian legends and poems gathered into a longer Akkadian epic, but it is among the earliest known literary works in human history. The most complete version still in existence is a 12-clay tablet collection from 7th century Assyria, but the earliest Sumerian versions date from as early as 2150 B.C. (Dalley, 41-42).

Historical and Geographic Background -- the word Mesopotamia is Greek and means "the land between two rivers," in this case, the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. This area is considered to be the cradle of civilization. It was one of the first verifiable areas of organized cities and domestication of plants and animals. Modern scholarship has extended the actual area of influence for Mesopotamia as far north as parts of Southeastern Turkey and parts of Khuzestan, forming a much larger area of organized civilization (Dlott). The Sumerian period dominated the Middle Eastern region from approximately 3100 BC to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC. During this period, of course, there were a number of peaks and valleys within the civilization, but the basics of modern culture were established within that time (law, medicine, formal writing, mathematics, etc.). The Mesopotamian Civilization included much of what is now modern Iraq, parts of Iran, and Turkey, and into some of the mountains of Armenia (Pollock).

Relationship to Previous Periods -- it is likely that primitive hunter-gatherers decided to experiment with some of the grains that grew naturally around the banks of the two rivers, and found that with the proper are, they could have a more regular source of food than relying on daily foraging (Dalling). Around 10,000 years ago, it appears that the tribes of this region began to plant crops; possbly because of a climate change, possibly due to a particularly mild winter, or other social issue that caused them to remain in one place for longer than a few weeks or months. This was more of a strategy for survival, scholars believe, than a planned out series of events. Because of the lack of evidence, it is difficult to say just why hunters and gatherers in this region turned to agriculture. One theory indicates that in settled areas that were developed around a political or religious leadership, populations increased, infant mortality decreased, and the division of labor increased. Additionally, as populations grew, more pressure existed on the local food supply, requiring more coordination and organization that eventually led to political structure (Kreis).

Contribution(s) to Western Civilization -- There are numerous "firsts" for Mesopotamia: the invention of writing and record keeping (in cuneiform); basic architecture (city planning and building of ziggurats (pyramids); establishment of domestication techniques for plants and animals; the basis of religion, myth, and literature; the establishment of a Code of Law (Code of Hammurabi, c. 1780 BC); formation of formal government; economic rules and regulations; technology (copper working, glass making, water storage, irrigation); formal medical system including written diagnosis and planning (Museum). The Hammurabi Code though was the first important record of humans granting contracts, rights to families and other individuals, and even though a male dominated society, to understand a primitive concept of human rights (Van De Mieroop). Of major importance, was the invention of writing and keeping records. Farmers needed to keep inventories of their livestock, products, grain yields, etc. And once commerce began, it was important to find a way to use some sort of "token system" in which to account for trade goods. Out of this grew a rather advanced system of writing, which then led to even more advances -- literature, formal religion, and a way to pass down cultural activities from generation to generation in ways other than oral traditions (Woods).

Gilgamesh as Part of the Human Experience - One very interesting aspect of the human experience is the manner in which certain themes appear again and again over time in literature, religion, mythology, and culture -- regardless of the geographic location, the economic status, and the time period. Perhaps it is the human need to explain and explore the known and unknown. But to have different cultures in time and location find ways of explaining certain principles in such similar manner leads one to believe that there is perhaps more to myth and ritual than simple repetition of stories. In a sense, then, to envision the future, we must re-craft the past, and the way that seems to happen is in the combination of myth and ritual (Bittarello).

The idea of myth is so tied into culture that even our motion picture industry has the need for particular stories to remain focal themes. Whatever the genre, even if those genres did not exist when the particular story originated, the classic nature of the values of certain subjects continues to resonate for human audiences (Voytilla).

One of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behavior. The figures described in myth are sacred and are therefore worthy role models for human beings. Thus, myths often function to uphold current social structures and institutions: they justify these customs by claiming that they were established by sacred beings. Another function is to provide people with a religious experience. By retelling myths, human beings detach themselves from the present and return to the mythical age, thereby bringing themselves closer to the divine. In fact, in some cases, a society will reenact a myth in an attempt to reproduce the conditions of the mythical age: for example, it will reenact the healing performed by a god at the beginning of time in order to heal someone in the present (Moyers).

The Nature of Myth, Legend, and Folktale - the main characters in myths are usually gods or supernatural heroes. As sacred stories, myths are often endorsed by rulers and priests and closely linked to religion. In the society in which it is told, a myth is usually regarded as a true account of the remote past. In fact, many societies have two categories of traditional narrative: "true stories," or myths, and "false stories," or fables. Myths generally take place in a primitive age, when the world had not yet achieved its current form. They explain how the world gained its current form and how customs, institutions, and taboos were established (Doty).

Legend and folktale are related to myth, but are different types of traditional stories. For instance, folktales can take place at any time and in any location, and simply told as moral plays without consideration for veracity. Legends are stories that are traditionally true, set in more recent times and told as verifiable fact. Legends typically feature humans as the main character, in contrast to myths which usually focus on an ubermensch or super-human, figure (Dundes)

Distinctions between myth, legend, and folklore are meant only as a tool to group traditional stories since, in many cultures it is unnecessary to divide their stories. Even myths and folktales are not completely differentt; a story may be considered culturally true -- and therefore a myth, in one society, but fictional -- and therefore a folktale, in another. This is particularly true when a myth evolves into or away from a part of a religious system; often taking on more traits of folktales or legends; the formerly divine characters reinterpreted as human supermen, giants, or mythical creatures. The opposite is also true; many scholars believe that some of the Ancient Mideastern myths (Sumer, Assyria, etc.) "lent" some of their mytos to Genesis (Rosenberg, 450-60).

Gilgamesh the Archetype -- as part of the tradition of heroes and myth, cultures create "supermen" to exemplify trials and tribulations of their particular civilization -- usually with a number of tasks to perform, ultimately successful, but often at the cost of their own lives. Beowulf, Odysseys, Gilgamesh, Achilles, Cu Chulainn, Sigurd (would become Siegfried), and more all vie within their own cultural mythology to be heroic. Gilgamesh, for instance, is thought to have been the fifth king of Uruk (Ancient Sumer). In Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh is credited with having been a demigod of superhuman strength who built a great city wall to defend his people from external threats and travelled to meet a sage who had survived the Great Deluge (the flood).

The complication of plot, subplot, storylines, and different characters all suggest that Gilgamesh was a compilation of tales. Briefly, Gilgamesh is a passionate ruler of the city-state Uruk. His ego and libido cause him to demand Uruk's brides before they consummate their marriage. The Gods recognize that this is not helpful to congenial civilization, and attempt to tame his lust with Enkidu, a wild man with whom the Gods hope will take Gilgamesh on adventures and distract him. Enkidu represents all stages of civilization -- he is a nomad who becomes a shepherd,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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