Written by Chris Jorgensen
Today I’m back with a more in-depth discussion surrounding the Epic. Soon enough, we will move on, but I wanted to cover some of the other elements of the genre by looking into the oldest recorded Epic we have available to us. Now I picked this one because generally, most people are unfamiliar with it. A significant number of people know about the Iliad and The Odyssey, mostly due to movie adaptations or history class. But many of you might not know another, older Epic. So for today, I’m going to go over some of the elements of…
The Epic of Gilgamesh
So quick history; the Epic itself was a compilation of episodic stories rather than a whole singular piece. Essentially, this story takes place over 2000 years, with all parts adding to the tale as time went on. The Epic of Gilgamesh originated from Ancient Sumeria, but was later picked up by the Babylonian and Akkadian cultures. The first modern translation came about in the early 1870s by a man named George Smith, who then made further discoveries related to the Epic, which extended the story further.
Another interesting fact? There is proof from some artifacts that Enmebaragesi of Kish, who is part of the Epic and is the father of one of Gilgamesh’s enemies, may have lived, which gives some real-world credibility to the story.
As for the story itself, I will be referencing the Akkadian version, which is one of the more dominant versions available.
The story begins by introducing us to Gilgamesh, who is 2⁄3’s god, and 1⁄3’s man and his reign against his people. His subjects are living in anger and desperation against their king, and pray to the gods to help them. The gods solve this problem by sending someone who would be an equal match to Gilgamesh. When they do meet, there is a fierce battle between them, and the two acknowledge that both are mighty and strike a friendship over it. Thus begins Gilgamesh’s desire to go out into the world to accomplish great deeds alongside his newfound friend Enkidu.
They travel and go through all manner of the tropes that Epics are about, dreams, conversations with gods, finding a fierce monster that they have to battle. Gilgamesh defeats a great forest guardian and is cursed before he kills the beast. The gods have decided that the curse means that one of the two heroes would die, and Enkidu dreams that it will be himself. Over 12 days, his condition worsens, and he does die, Gilgamesh denies it until he sees larvae come from his body.
After this, Gilgamesh starts to wander the forests and the world in fear of death, and so he embarks on a journey to try and find eternal life. There is a reference to a great flood of the world, similarly, and predating the bible. The few survivors from this event are the only ones granted eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh lays lions and meets with more monsters that allow him to pass through a tunnel that no man has ever been inside. He completes the trip in under a day and emerges into the garden of the gods.
Through his folly, Gilgamesh destroys the objects that would have allowed him eternal life. He is then ordered to do a task of cutting down 120 trees to cross the river of death. When he arrives, the god there reprimands Gilgamesh for this effort, saying that fighting against the fate of humans diminishes the joy of living. Gilgamesh asks how some others have obtained eternal life, and he’s told the story of the great flood. In this story, the survivors were told to build a boat to exact dimensions and thus survived the flood.
This is the story (in a nutshell, like uber condensed for space and time). And there is the chance that despite my research and sunken time, I may have missed a few details. That just means that you all have to go and read it on your own at some point. Educate yourselves.
So, back to the previous discussion, we had about Epics. We can see through my quick explanation that it does fit several, if not all, of the needs of the list. That list again:
Medias res. (Latin for in the middle of things)
Large or vast setting
Invocation to a muse
Begins with theme
Heroes with values of the civilization
Hero’s descent into hell/underworld
Our story starts in Medias res, where we are introduced to everything already in full swing; including several parts of the world and the realm of gods. The story begins with the plight of the people and their plea to the gods to help them. The theme of the story is not to force a fate and learn to love life for what life offers you. The vast catalog of characters is among gods and humans that rival the gods, monsters, and beasts who do battle or banter with our characters. Not only that, but the gods intervene on the characters and their actions, through dreams or direct interactions. And of course, we see Gilgamesh going into the underworld to find the answer of eternal life.
Bam, we did it. Not a bad run down if I do say so myself. So I hope that this was an exciting introduction into the world of the Epic, and that it has helped feed your desire to find out more in the upcoming articles.
(Also, I know, I didn’t cover number 9 from the list very well but give me a break, I’m only one man.)