n Gilgamesh Epic Gilgamesh essays
Defining Humanity in The Epic of Gilgamesh
Fifteen Works Cited Stories do not need to inform us of anything. They do inform us of things. From The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, we know something of the people who lived in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the second and third millenniums BCE. We know they celebrated a king named Gilgamesh; we know they believed in many gods; we know they were self-conscious of their own cultivation of the natural world; and we know they were literate. These things we can fix — or establish definitely.
But stories also remind us of things we cannot fix — of what it means to be human. They reflect our will to understand what we cannot understand, and reconcile us to mortality.
We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written, in part because we are scholars, or pseudo-scholars, and wish to learn something about human history. We read it as well because we want to know the meaning of life. The meaning of life, however, is not something we can wrap up and walk away with. Discussing the philosophy of the Tao, Alan Watts explains what he believes Lao-tzu means by the line, “The five colours will blind a man’s sight.
” “The eye’s sensitivity to color,” Watts writes, “is impaired by the fixed idea that there are just five true colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it down into divisions with names distracts the attention from its subtlety” (27). Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to the meaning of life is impaired by fixed notions or perspectives on what it means to be human. There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.
To see for ourselves the meaning of a story, we need, first of all, to look carefully at what happens in the story; that is, we need to look at it as if the actions and people it describes actually took place or existed.
We can articulate the questions raised by a character’s actions and discuss the implications of their consequences. But we need to consider, too, how a story is put together — how it uses the conventions of language, of events with beginnings and endings, of description, of character, and of storytelling itself to reawaken our sensitivity to the real world. The real world is the world without conventions, the unnameable, unrepresentable world — in its continuity of action, its shadings and blurrings of character, its indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean most to us bring us back to our own unintelligible and yet immeasurably meaningful lives.
The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with the convention of a frame — a prologue that sets off the story of Gilgamesh’s life. An unnamed narrator states, “I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh” (61).
Thus the narrator introduces himself before he introduces the hero, and by doing so, welcomes us, as the imaginary listeners and actual readers, into the endless present of the telling of the tale. The deeds of Gilgamesh took place in the past. Having returned from his journey and resting from his labor, Gilgamesh, the narrator recounts, engraved the whole story on a clay tablet. What we are reading, then, is the transcription of an oral telling that repeats a written telling. On the one hand the frame helps verisimilitude. By referring to Gilgamesh’s own act of writing, the narrator attempts to convince us that Gilgamesh was an actual king and that the story that follows is a true story.
On the other hand, by calling our attention to the act of telling, the narrator reminds us that the truth of a story might lie in the very fact of its being a story — the undeniable fact of its narration. To deny its .