Textbook Leftovers

Posts Tagged ‘lost literature

What happened to The Odyssey, you ask? Well, frankly, I got bored with it. It’s a great story, but it was way too much work to blog about. So, we’re moving on to the next entry in the Norton (still in Volume A, by the way) – Sappho of Lesbos.

Gasp! Scandalous!

Okay, so what do we know about this notorious lady? Not much, as it turns out. She was born around 630 bc, on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor. She had a husband, and at least one daughter. There was a collection of her poetry, spanning nine books, in the library of Alexandria. That’s awfully unfortunate for us, because now all that remains of her apparently huge folio is two complete poems and a bunch of fragments. She was liberally quoted in other works by the ancients, and it’s clear that she was enthusiastically loved even then. And it’s clear why – she gives us a beautiful picture of the joy and sorrow of love.

Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos Painter, ca. 470 BC. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos Painter, ca. 470 BC. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, love. Now we get to the ~scandal.~ Read the rest of this entry »

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At the beginning of Part 4 of Gilgamesh, our hero is still weeping for his friend. And a new fear has struck him – fear of his own mortality. “What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death, I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods.”

Gilgamesh embarks on an epic journey to find Utnapishtim, who is a sworn doppelganger for the biblical Noah. Gilgamesh fights a pride of lions, speaks with Scorpion-men, and traverses a pitch-black tunnel. He has now found the garden of the gods, a paradise of gemstone fruit and plants. One of the gods is here, and tells him to give up, for he “will never find the life for which [he is] searching.” Gilgamesh then finds and speaks to a nearby goddess. He tells her the story of his toils and of his deep sorrow and fear. She tells him again that he can never find immortality. Instead she counsels him to go out and live his life and enjoy it for all it is worth. I am interested to see that again a woman is the voice of reason and hope. Where the male god just said “give up,” the goddess offers wise advice and help. Read the rest of this entry »

Part 2 of Gilgamesh picks up without interlude after the fight and conciliation of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. One assumes that time has passed, because they seem to have developed a deep friendship. Gilgamesh has a dream and Enkidu interprets it. Gilgamesh’s dream enforces the gods’ desires for him to rule Uruk (mandate of heaven), but that he is not destined to acquire everlasting life. The phrasing in this translation seems to imply that maybe some people are given this destiny. Finally, Gilgamesh is encouraged to not abuse his power.

More time seems to pass, and Enkidu has a complaint. All play and no work has made him unhappy and weak. In answer to this, Gilgamesh decides that now is a good time to head to the Country of the Living, also called the Land of Cedars. My assumption is that this is a poetic name for Lebanon, well known in ancient times for their cedar forests.

Gilgamesh waxes eloquent about his ambitions to attack and destroy Humbaba, a gigantic creature who guards the Forest. Enkidu has misgivings (he’s terrified, actually), and Gilgamesh insists. Their frank discussion serves as an example of friendship – two men honestly offering viewpoints and discussing them. Gilgamesh eventually “wins” the discussion (although really it seems like Enkidu gives in). Read the rest of this entry »

If I’d been randomly choosing a place to begin an adventure through world literature, I could hardly have chosen a better outset than Gilgamesh.

Reaching all the way back to practically the dawn of civilization, the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk (in modern-day southern Iraq, on the Euphrates) in about 2700 BC. That’s about 5000 years ago. The epic narrative of his exploits was in development for thousands of years in the oral tradition, and was luckily recorded on clay tablets before the entire thing was lost to the sands of time. It remained lost until around 1870 AD when it was accidentally rediscovered by archaeologists.

Due to the length of this narrative, I’ll be dealing with it in segments. Today, we confront the Prologue and Part One.

The narrative begins with praise to what seems to be a bad king (I hesitate to call him evil, but he’s painted in pretty harsh colors). His people call out to the gods in their oppression, and the gods confer amongst themselves. They decide that man is not meant to be alone, and they create a soulmate for him: “…now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.” Read the rest of this entry »