Friday, March 27, 2015

Adventures in Comparative Mythology: Epic of Gilgamesh, What does it all mean?

In the past couple of posts in this series, we’ve been looking at the Great Flood narrative found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, trying to put the flood story into context, both within the larger story of Gilgamesh’s quest for godlike immortality and within the overall rhetorical context of the poem. Having done so, we’ve now reached the point where we can sort out what it all means. Here again, though, the question is more complex than it might seem at first glance. There’s the “meaning” of the poem from the poet’s point of view (what meaning did he apparently intend his readers to derive from the story), and the enduring significance of the story over time.

Answer the dramatic questions to find the meaning

The simplest way to get at the meaning of any story is to see what dramatic question the story poses and how that question gets answered. This refers to a question, raised at the beginning of the story, which holds the reader’s attention and drives the action of the story. Since Utnapishtim’s account of the Great Flood is a story-within-a-story, we’ll need to consider two dramatic questions — the one that governs the epic as a whole, and the one that governs the Flood narrative specifically — and to think about how the two bear upon one another.

The Larger Question: Can Gilgamesh be reined in?

His friendship with Enkidu restrained Gilgamesh
... for a time.
The story of Gilgamesh begins with the people of Uruk crying out to the gods for relief from the despotism of their king. In response to this plea, the gods create a wild man, Enkidu, “equal to Gilgamesh’s stormy heart … so that Uruk may find peace.” This raises the question in the reader’s mind, “Will this do the trick? Will Enkidu somehow secure peace for the people of Uruk?”

In the first part of the poem, it would seem that the coming of Enkidu does indeed solve the Gilgamesh problem, but perhaps not in the way that the gods intended. For Enkidu pacifies Gilgamesh not by slaying him but by humanizing him. Enkidu learns that Gilgamesh is about to ravish a bride before her wedding night, and becomes enraged at this inhuman behavior. Even someone like himself, as much a beast as a man, recognizes the barbarity of such an act. So Enkidu defends the endangered bride against the king and the two men fiercely throughout the city. Eventually Gilgamesh manages to overpower Enkidu, but rather than killing his opponent, whom he has come to admire for his fierce strength, Gilgamesh  instead makes a friend of him. In this way, although Gilgamesh has vanquished Enkidu, it is the king who is tamed through the friendship born of their strife.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Something for you Trekkies: Saints, heroes, and Klingons

Okay, I know I got all the Trekkies hooked when I put up that post about Captain Picard and the Tamarian (you all subscribed to this blog, didn't you? DIDN'T YOU?)

Well, read this to find out why my pal Dennis McGeehan, says Saint Joseph would make the perfect patron saint of the Klingons.

Death of Enkidu, if he and Gilgamesh had been Klingons

Now, what do you think Worf would think about Gilgamesh. Would he dig him, or would he bury him? More importantly, what would he think of Gilgamesh's quest for immortality?
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Adventures in Comparative Mythology: Epic of Gilgamesh, What's the Story?

Today we come to the second part of our examination of the story of the Great Flood found in the Epic of Gilgamesh the story itself. I'm actually going to break this into two separate posts, a summary of the story and the interpretation of it, which I'll combine with an examination of the story's significance. Before I do that, however, let's recap what we've already covered in Part 1.

Last time, in the first step, the rhetorical analysis, we noted that the Flood account is really a story-within-a-story, which means we need to consider it along with the larger story that contains it. This narrative technique is sometimes called a “frame tale,” a term that is very appropriate in this case because the story of Gilgamesh provides the frame (context) for the part we're most interested in, and the Flood story is what gets framed (the focus of our attention). Still, although we are most interested in the Flood account, the relationship between the two stories suggests that to understand either, we have to understand both. 

Bored with his achievements, Gilgamesh became a tyrant.
So our method of proceeding will be first to look at the frame within which the story of the Great Flood is set, and then at the Flood narrative in particular. I mentioned in my last post that Gilgamesh was a legendary king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk and that there were many tales that got handed down about his great achievements. So the poet who wrote the poem we call the Epic of Gilgamesh had a great quantity of source material from which to knit the tale he wanted to tell. We don’t need to be familiar with all that material to understand this poem, but we should be aware that the poet made conscious and deliberate choices, not only about how to tell his story, but also about which story to tell. Those choices shape our understanding of the story means. I also pointed out last time that there are at least a couple of important themes woven into the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Now, if I were to sum up this story of Gilgamesh as briefly as possible, I would probably want to indicate not only the events (plot) but also their meaning (theme). For instance, if I wanted to allude to the major theme of human mortality, I could say that this is the story of how a great hero comes to grips with the fact that the one foe he cannot conquer is Death itself. Another way to describe the story in a nutshell, emphasizing the theme of kingship, would be to say that it is a story of how a king goes from being a ruthless despot who uses his subjects to magnify himself, to being a man truly worthy of admiration and imitation. Both of those summaries, of course, are far too brief to do the poem justice, but they each capture something true about the poem. And, notice that they both indicate the kind of change that the protagonist undergoes. Every story, after all, is about change.

But I think we need a more detailed summary, one that includes actual characters and events. Here goes:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Adventures in Comparative Mythology: Epic of Gilgamesh, What's the Set-Up?

Want to visit far-off times and places? Read a book.
It's the cheapest, easiest form of travel.
If you have ever spent any extended time abroad, you probably know how odd it is to live amongst “foreigners” and realize that you are the one who is “foreign.” I had such an experience when I lived in Madrid for a year as a foreign student (and “undocumented worker”). At first, it was quite shocking at first to hear the way Spaniards referred to the U. S. and Americans (hint: not always approvingly), and it was humbling to realize that they seemed to know more about us than we do about them. Eventually I came to appreciate the Spanish way of life and even to see that many of their misconceptions about my native land and people were not entirely without foundation. Then I came home and experienced culture shock all over again as I tried to re-acclimate myself to our American way of life. (I still prefer my meals at Spanish hours, and the smell of bus fumes will always say “Madrid” to me.)

Part of the lasting legacy of that Junior Year Abroad was that I reached a deep, experiential realization that the American way is just one amongst many possible ways of life, each of which must be judged on its own merits, not according to one’s unexamined prejudices. There is great value to learning firsthand what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. In a similar way, sometimes we have to learn to see treasured, but overly-familiar truths with the eyes of a stranger in order to appreciate them better. That’s what I hope will come of the exercise I proposed last week, comparing several ancient accounts of the Great Flood. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Now arm yourselves!

I love St Patrick's Day, not because I love green beer, parades, or even corned beef, but because it reminds me of the great prayer attributed to the saint who drove the snakes (and the pagans?) out of Ireland. You probably know a hymn called St Patrick's Breastplate, but did you know that the hymn was not itself written by the saint, but is based on an ancient prayer attributed to the patron of Ireland?

It is sometimes called the Lorica, a word which means “breastplate,” i.e., literally a piece of armor that protects a combatant's chest, also called a cuirass. Roman soldiers wore a lorica segmentata as part of their battle armor. In the Christian era, the term lorica also came to mean a prayer of protection — no doubt with reference to the armor of faith that St Paul in the sixth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians says will allow the believer “to stand before the wiles of the devil”:

"Roman soldier in lorica segmentata 1-cropped" by This image has been retouched by Medium69.Cette image a été retouchée par Medium69. - Self-published work by Medium69. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Re-enactor dressed as
Roman soldier in lorica segmentata
[B]e strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;
above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints … (Ephesians 6: 10-18, RSV-CE)

Friday, March 13, 2015

What can Darren Aronofsky's Noah teach us about the Western cultural tradition?

About a year ago, I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah not long after it hit the cinemas. I always cringe whenever Hollywood produces anything vaguely Biblical, and probably would not have gone to see this film, if a friend hadn’t bought me a ticket. There was a huge hue and cry from Christian viewers that this film was “not true to the Bible” (big surprise!), and even the offer of a free ticket might not have swayed me if a review by Barbara Nicolosi hadn’t assured me that there were many other reasons to hate this “terrible, terrible” film. I will admit, sometimes I just enjoy seeing something truly, laughably awful (this probably counts as “concupiscence of the eyes”), and Noah looked like it was going to be one of those, so off to the cinema I went.

I found the film to be every bit as terrible as I had expected, just on purely cinematic grounds: a nonsensical story, inconsistent characterization, illogical motivation, goofy CG effects, etc. However, unlike many viewers, I did not hate it “because it wasn’t true to the Bible” — because it was pretty clear to me that the story Aronofsky chose to tell was not the story of Noah found in Genesis — although I wasn’t really sure where all the weird bits come from. So, after I watched it, I did a little digging and discovered that, in fact, his source text was the Book of Enoch, a non-canonical Jewish text with strong gnostic overtones whose interpretation of the Great Flood grows out of a long tradition of Jewish mysticism. In other words, Aronofsky wanted to bring to the screen a non-Biblical (but thoroughly Jewish) version of Noah and the Great Flood.

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