Comments from two theorists On myth, Gilgamesh, Hesiod February 3, 2009
Ray on Gilgamesh • Ray, Benjamin Caleb. 1996. The Gilgamesh epic: Myth and meaning. In L. Patton and W. Doniger, eds. Myth and method. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 300-26.
Inspired readings “Recognizing that a single text may support several different but equally good interpretations, Richard Rorty prefers what he calls ‘inspired’ readings. These are the sort that make a difference in our lives, changing our conceptions of ourselves and our priorities in life, readings that are moved by love and hate….” (p. 301)
Studying myth • “In studying other people’s myths we should be learning about other peoples’ local truths and learning truths about ourselves, exercising both scholarly objectivity and personal subjectivity” (p. 302)
Multiple versions • The 12 tablets of the Nineveh text (written in Akkadian and “edited” by Sin-leqi-unnini) are amplified by Babylonian texts that include 5 older Sumerian tales dating from Ur’s third dynasty. And there are several other texts: the epic changed through contact with oral tradition.
A higher wisdom? • Ray notes with surprise that many scholars studying comparative religion find Gilgamesh to be a failure because he can not overcome death. However, comparative literature specialists read Gilgamesh against Homeric epic, and find that Gilgamesh becomes heroic as he achieves a higher wisdom.
Are there 4 key episodes? Ray claims 4 episodes have “distinctive” viewpoints about the meaning of life and death • a. as G and E confront their fear of death when they prepare to fight Humbaba – we see the notion of immortal fame • b. E’s movement from anger to resignation to acceptance of his death and to accepting that while his life was short, it was fulfilling, has major impact on G
Key episodes, continued • c. G becomes preoccupied with his own death and wants to find an immortal to learn how to avoid death • d. after the snake takes the plant, he becomes more reconciled to his own mortality and is now ready to live as a king
Puhvel on cosmogony • Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1987 • “Traditions of origin and creation tend to be the most mythical matter of all. Cosmogony purports to account for the universie and the world, while anthropogony purveys clues to the origin of man”
That brings us to Hesiod • Hesiod is a poet from the 8th century BC • His Works and Days is about the mythic “five races” (i.e., the five ages) of humans; the Golden Age, ruled by Kronos, a period of serenity, peace, and eternal spring; the Silver Age, ruled by Zeus, less happy, but with luxury prevailing; the Bronze Age, a period of strife; the Heroic Age of the Trojan War; and the Iron Age, the present, when justice and piety had vanished. • Hesiod's systemization, especially the idealized Golden Age, became deeply entrenched in the Western imagination and was expanded upon by Ovid. Also ascribed to him are the Theogony, a genealogy of the gods,
Hesiod and kingship • Hesiod's Theogony is a large-scale synthesis of a vast variety of local Greek traditions concerning the gods, organized as a narrative that tells how they came to be and how they established permanent control over the cosmos. In many cultures, narratives about the cosmos and about the gods that shaped it are a way for society to reaffirm its native cultural traditions. Specifically, theogonies tend to affirm kingship as the natural embodiment of society. What makes the Theogony of Hesiod unique is that it affirms no historical royal line.