|Were Homer's epics inspired|
by ancient tales of Gilgamesh?
What does it mean to be “literary”?As the original edition of Beye’s book points out, Homer’s epics are regarded as marking the beginning of the Western literary tradition because they were the first great stories in fixed, written form to survive and influence later poets. Scholars agree that Homer was drawing on a long oral tradition of myths and legend. Because they had no literary predecessors, neither of Homer’s great epics is “literary” in the sense of making allusion to a previous written tradition. Or at least, that’s what I would have said before I read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Now it seems pretty clear to me that Homer must have been familiar with some version of that earlier, Mesopotamian epic. And Greek scholar Charles Rowan Beye seems to agree. In commenting on the second edition of his book on ancient epic, he says:
The important addition in this 2006 book is the chapter on the Gilgamesh poems. I spent a considerable time gathering the results of the latest research in order to present a full account of these Sumerian-Akkadian texts. There is no doubt in my mind although it cannot be proven other than by inference that they had real influence on the Iliad and Odyssey texts. This connection means that students and teachers of so-called western literature have to enlarge the canon certainly to include these narratives. Literature can no longer be said to begin with Homer.However, we can never know to what extent Homer expected his readers to be familiar with Gilgamesh, or to recognize the way in which he (apparently) appropriated some of its themes and tropes for his own poems, so perhaps Homer’s epics really are not “literary” in the narrow, specialized sense in which I am using that term. I believe it’s likely that Homer would have expected his readers to be familiar, not with Gilgamesh, but with the many Greek heroes who appear in his poems — their character, their milieux, their deeds — as depicted in myriad stories passed down from (even more) ancient times in the oral tradition.