The Epic of Gilgamesh
Homer, The Iliad
Homer, The Odyssey




The Epic of Gilgamesh

The first surviving work of fiction may well be the first in fact. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh was the fifth king of the Sumerian city of Uruk after the Great Flood. Under his rule, about 2500 BC, Uruk conquered the surrounding city-states and established something like a small nation. For two thousand years Gilgamesh survived in the Near East as an epic hero. There are versions of his story in Hittite, Hurrian, Canaanite, Sumerian, and Assyrian, and the dim memory of his fame in the Koran. The most complete text comes from Assurbanipal’s library, formed just before the destruction of Nineveh in the seventh century BC. The story seems to have taken form almost two thousand years before that. Considering the disparity of cultures and languages, the great stretch of time, the means of reproduction and communication, The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most popular stories ever told.

Rightly so. It may be the first, but it is a highly developed fictional narrative. It is not a myth. Even to call it an epic requires a stretching of the definition. It is more like a novel of a modern, individualistic hero than it is like Homer’s Iliad. It is a spiritual adventure, a story of self-realization, the discovery of the meaning of the personality, of a type that would never change down the four-thousand-year-long history of human imagination. Its figures have the cogency of symbols that will never alter. It is modern because it is like a dream of a modern man.

Gilgamesh is not a demigod. In spite of his divine ancestry and the concern of the gods of Mesopotamia with his adventures, in spite of those adventures’ wondrous character, he remains as secular as Stephen Dedalus. True, critics have taken the twelve tablets, or chapters, of the Assyrian story as standing for the twelve houses of the Zodiac and Gilgamesh as the sun moving through the drama of the year. May be; but this is a symbolic substructure as remote from the human problems of Gilgamesh as the identical substructure is from the adventures of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It would be possible to develop a convincing argument that Tom Jones is a sun myth; such symbolic patterns seem to be determinants of the imagination. What is important about Gilgamesh is that, like Tom Jones, he is a man.

As King of Uruk, Gilgamesh has too much power for the good of his community. He deflowers the virgins, consumes the young men in war, works the elders to death building the city walls. The people appeal to the gods, who make him a companion of clay, the wild man Enkidu, as a foil for his energy. Enkidu is tamed and brought to the city by a temple prostitute. As Gilgamesh comes in the night to claim the droit du seigneur from a new-wedded bride, Enkidu grapples with him and they fight a mighty battle. Enkidu at last is thrown; whereupon he and Gilgamesh embrace and swear eternal friendship. They set off for the Land of Cedars to bring back the great trees guarded by the fearful giant Humbaba. They are protected by the prayers of Gilgamesh’s mother, the priestess-goddess Ninsun; watched over by Shamash, the sun god; and aided by the storm winds to defeat Humbaba. When they return to Uruk in victory, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and offers herself to him. He rejects and insults her. She appeals to the gods for vengeance. Her father sends down the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. The companions kill the Bull, cut out his heart, and offer it to Shamash, the sun god, and Enkidu throws the thigh of the Bull in the face of Ishtar. The gods in council decide that one of the two heroes must die — more for killing the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba and cutting the sacred cedars than for insulting Ishtar. They smite Enkidu with a fatal disease. Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s lament over his body are the finest poetry of the whole story.

Gilgamesh sets off across the world in quest of immortality. Eventually he comes to Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Deluge, far away in the Western Ocean in the Garden of the Sun. Utnapishtim says that with the exception of himself, the gods have kept immortal life for themselves and allotted death to man. He tells Gilgamesh the story of the Deluge, a narrative that has many points in common with the later tale of Noah. Then he demonstrates that Gilgamesh cannot hold off sleep, much less death. However, Utnapishtim shows him how to find an underwater plant that will restore youth. Gilgamesh dives down and gets the plant, but loses it to a serpent on his way home.

At last he comes back to Uruk and realizes that the mighty walls, the temples, and the gardens that he had built are all the immortality he will ever know. And so he dies, and the citizens bury him with many offerings, and mourn his death. In the twentieth century, archeologists find the remnants of the walls of Gilgamesh’s Uruk still enduring, and the “Gilgamesh motif,” a man throttling two beasts, far away in time and place, on Anglo-Saxon jewelry at Sutton Hoo, above the North Sea.

One reason why The Epic of Gilgamesh still has great power to move us is a poetic style that does not depend on elements like rhyme or meter but on rhetorical devices, parallelism and antithesis, and the antiphonal organization of short and long phrases, all of which are translatable and which are worked into emotive patterns in the originals with consummate skill. These are characteristics The Epic of Gilgamesh shares with much Near Eastern poetry, notably with the Psalms, The Song of Songs, the great Canticles of the Old Testament, the Song of Deborah in the book of Judges.

This solemn style, like the words of some great ritual, is the direct embodiment of a vision and judgment of the human condition that is permanent and universal. The absurdity of life and death, heroic wistfulness, nostalgia for lost possibilities, melancholy of missed perfection were as meaningful five thousand years ago to the Sumerians as they are to us. We look at them today in museum cases — round heads, curly hair, immense eyes and noses, plump hands folded over plump chests, cloaks like leaves or feathers — and they look out at us, and we know that they knew that the love of comrades cannot prevail against the insult of death, that erotic women destroy men with impossible demands, that nothing endures, that the memory of heroic action lasts a little while and sometimes the walls of empire a little longer, that the meaning of life can be revealed but never explained, and that the realization of these truths constitutes the achievement of true personality. From the first narrative in the world’s literature Gilgamesh emerges as the first conscious self. In the course of four thousand years of fiction, self-consciousness will be achieved in many different and more elaborate ways, but it will in fact and essence vary not at all.

* * *

Since the discovery of the Assyrian tablets in the last century there have been several English versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The best is the one by N.K. Sandars in the Penguin Classics. It is in natural English, devoid of false archaisms; all the known texts have been woven into the narrative with taste and skill; and the fifty pages of introduction are as helpful and informative as could be desired.



Homer, The Iliad

The best-qualified critics have always agreed that the first work of Western European literature has remained incomparably the greatest. In itself this is a revelation of the nature of the human mind and of the role of works of art. This is a popular judgment as well as a critical one. Today, over twenty-five centuries old, Homer competes successfully with current best sellers and detective stories and the most sensational and topical nonfiction.

Modern Americans may be the heirs of Western Civilization, but all the elements of that civilization have changed drastically since Homer’s day. The office worker who reads Homer on the subway on the way to work bears little superficial resemblance to either Homer’s characters or his audience. Why should two long poems about the life of barbaric Greece have so great an appeal?

It was the fashion in the nineteenth century to deny the existence of Homer and to break up The Odyssey and The Iliad into collections of folk ballads. Nothing disproves those theories more than this public reception. The Iliad and The Odyssey have been read by such a vast diversity of men because they are unitary works of art and deal with universal experience with unsurpassed depth, breadth, and intensity. Each poem shows the powerful insight and organization that come from the artistic craft of a complete person.

Men have argued about The Iliad for so long and raised so many side issues that it is easy for a critic to forget that it is formally a tragedy, saturated with a tragic sense of life and constructed with the inevitability of the tragedy of Orestes or Macbeth. It is a double tragedy — of Achilles and the Greeks and of Hector and the Trojans, each reinforcing the other. To modern taste, the heroes are not the Greeks, who are portrayed as quarreling members of a warrior band, but the Trojans, men of family united in the community of the city-state.

Homer, like most later writers of epic, Teutonic, Irish, or Icelandic, portrays heroic valor as fundamentally destructive, not just of social order, but of humane community. The Greeks are doomed by their characteristic virtues. Achilles sulks in his tent; Agamemnon has stolen his girl. The Greek camp is beset with a disorder that wastes all good things. Underlying disorder is violence. Violence is not approved of in itself by the Greeks, but all the values that they most admire — the nobility, pride and power, glamour and strength of barbaric chieftains — flourish only in the context of violence and must be fed by it continuously. Failure of these values provokes shame, the opposite of the assumption of responsibility, and shame provokes disaster.

On the other side of the wall, the Trojans go their orderly and dignified ways. None of them approves of the crime of Paris, but he is a member of the family of the King of Troy, and the citizens of Troy are members one of another. So they assume his guilt in an act of collective responsibility. When the Greeks arrived before the walls of Troy, the Trojans could have thrown Paris and Helen out of the city. The invaders would have gone their way. When The Iliad opens, the Greeks have been fighting for ten years and are worn out with the moral attrition of war, while the Trojans have grown ever closer together in the consciousness of doom. “Our lot is best, to fight for our country,” says Hector; and Homer implies a contrast with the Greeks, who are fighting for themselves, each for his own valor and pride.

Greeks and Trojans are not the only protagonists of this tragedy. There is another community — the gods of Olympus. In the vast literature of Homeric criticism, I have never read a mention of what kind of community this was, of where in Homer’s day he could have found an earthly parallel to such a group of people. The court of Zeus is precisely a court, like those to be found in the great empires of the ancient Near East — in Egypt, Babylon, or Persia. After Homer, for a few hundred years, Greek society strove to rise above the tyrant and the court of the tyrant. The Greeks of the Classical period looked on the rulers of Persia or Egypt and their provincial imitators in the Greek world as at once frivolous and dangerous, because, in Greek opinion, they were motivated not by the moral consensus of a responsible community, but by the whims of what today we would call a collection of celebrities.

Homer contrasts the societies of the Greeks, the Trojans, and the Olympian gods as the three forms of political association that prevailed in the Heroic Age (a time that in fact, four hundred years before, must have seemed almost as remote to him as his age does to us): the barbaric war band; the ancient, Bronze Age, pre-Greek city-state; and the imperial court. He also contrasts men and gods as two disparate orders of being. The gods may behave like painted and perfumed courtiers of the Persian King of Kings, but they function also as conceptual forms of the forces of nature and of the forces that operate within the human personality on nonhuman levels. In this role, too, the tragedy of The Iliad reveals them as frivolous, dangerous, and unpredictable.

True, Homer speaks worshipfully at times of the gods, and especially of Zeus — but in terms of standardized flattery, empty of moral content. Utterly unlike that of the Jew or Muslim or Christian, Homer’s view of the supernatural is devoid of value altogether. Value arises only in the relations of men. He contrasts two different systems of relationships: the epic chivalry of the Heroic Age war band of the Greeks, and the Trojan community of mutual respect and responsibility. The conflicts and resolutions and tragedies that beset the interactions of these human beings are all the good and evil there is to be found in The Iliad. The gods contribute only chance, fate, doom — as amoral as so many roulette wheels.

Homer has been read for almost three thousand years, and is read today by millions, because he portrayed men in the night-bound world of insensate circumstance, as being each man to his fellow the only light there is, and all men to one another — as the source of the only principle of order. This, says Homer, is the human condition. Out of it in The Iliad he constructed a dramatic architecture of a cogency never to be surpassed.

Each time I put down The Iliad, after reading it again in some new translation, or after reading once more the somber splendor of the Greek, I am convinced, as one is convinced by the experiences of a lifetime, that somehow, in a way beyond the visions of artistry, I have been face to face with the meaning of existence. Other works of literature give this insight, but none so powerfully, so uncontaminated by evasion or subterfuge. If the art of poetry is a symbolic criticism of value, The Iliad is the paramount classic of that art. Its purity, simplicity, definition, and impact reveal life and expose it to irrevocable judgment, with finality and at the beginning of European literature.



Homer, The Odyssey

In all the melee on the Trojan plain, there is one person who always takes the common-sense point of view. He is cunning, prudent, imperturbable. He always seeks the greatest return for the least expenditure of blood or spirit. This is Odysseus. Amongst the Levantine Trojans and the Viking-like Greeks, caught up in the irrationality of circumstance and broken against their own contradictions, he seems an intruder from another time. And so he is.

The Iliad is a symphonic work of art. The double theme with its intense polarity is modulated, retarded, and quickened, yet moves relentlessly to climax and recapitulation. The only devices in The Odyssey are flashbacks in time, the narratives within the narrative. They complicate the structure; they do not compound it. The episode with Nausikaa is self-sufficient and is written with such poignancy and clarity that it led Samuel Butler to “prove” that The Odyssey was written by Nausikaa herself.

Only a few stories of the various Heroic Ages, those we think of as preeminently epic, are concerned with the working out of an inexorable doom, the consequence of sin, folly, and flaws of character in the protagonists. These few are tragedies — the Nibelungenlied; several Icelandic sagas, but especially Burnt Njal; the tale of Tristram and Iseult; the story of Arthur, Launcelot, and Guinevere; and the Irish Cuchulain cycle.

Epics like The Ramayana, Gilgamesh, the story of the Holy Grail are quests. Others are adventure stories like Sinbad the Sailor. When the latter possess a dramatic structure, it is of the sort we would call comic.

The Odyssey is a collection of adventures, of little melodramas like the earliest English and Scots Ballads, and of folktales like those in Grimm. The supernatural appears not from Olympus, but on the level of fairy stories and superstitions. In contrast, there is nothing folkloristic about The Iliad. Its legendary materials are myths. The Iliad never falters in its vision of the gods as personifications of nonhuman forces herding men to their doom. In The Odyssey, Poseidon is only the unruly and unpredictable sea; Athena, the virtues of Odysseus himself projected on the heavens.

The virtues of Odysseus are not those of a warrior, but those of a merchant-adventurer who has wandered the ancient seas from Gibraltar to the Crimea and the Caucasus and has survived and profited: agility, inventiveness, courage, prudence, and persistence. They include neither heroic valor nor civic duty. Odysseus knows neither shame nor guilt.

In The Odyssey, man is a part of nature. He can outwit nature, learn its secrets, use it. Its personifications are less than human and succumb to human wisdom or cunning. The heroes of The Iliad are shaken and thwarted in their courses by vast powers. In The Odyssey, men are continually tricked and tempted by daimons, by malicious spirits, or by “some god.” Odysseus blames a malicious devil when he forgets to wear his cloak on a chilly night. The enchantresses of The Odyssey are not archetypes of the grandeur, misery, and enervation of lust like Helen. They are witches; above all, they are the extravagantly satisfying whores that sailors wander the surface of the planet seeking to this day. Even Nausikaa bears an uncanny resemblance to that good girl the old bo’sun met once in his far-off youth when he wandered into a church social and who took him home to meet the folks.

It is home that haunts The Odyssey, as it has haunted men in fo’c’sles before and since. Although, like all sailors, Odysseus thinks he wants to get home, again like all sailors, he spends an inordinate time doing it. The keystone lines in The Odyssey which compare with Hector’s last interview with his wife and child, or Achilles’ with Priam, are in praise of marriage, yet they sound suspiciously ironic.

The adventures of The Odyssey are fantastic, but their denouement is pure fantasy. Odysseus’ return and slaughter of the suitors is the most outlandish thing in Greek literature. No custom like it is known in the mercantile Levant of Homer’s time, nor in the similar societies of the South Seas in the recent past. We have no reason to believe that a wife whose husband had abandoned her for twenty years would remain faithful, that she would be persecuted by a mob of suitors who would move into her home and struggle with one another for her hand and consume her substance. Nor has there ever been any legal code or custom that would justify the husband in mercilessly slaughtering them all when he showed up incognito after twenty years.

Something the story does resemble: the ever-recurring dream in the barren hotel rooms, crowded barracks, and fo’c’sles of traveling men, soldiers and sailors, long away. “Is my wife true to me? What is she doing now? Do they think of me at home? Will my son recognize me when I get back? Are those fellows still pestering my wife? Has she given in to them? Do they hang around the house? Wait till I get back; I’ll fix them.” As dream and daydream, the climax of The Odyssey has been a universal experience of wandering husbands; as fact, it has not existed. Any seafaring society with such a custom would have exterminated itself.

All The Odyssey has a character of dream unlike the stark objectivity of The Iliad. The events of The Iliad follow one another, bright, swift, sure, and dramatically necessary. The events of The Odyssey fade and dissolve; the narrative wanders in time; the pictures are brilliant, but they glitter through a mist of reverie — an old sailor musing over the glamour of his past. The texture of the verse is light in The Odyssey; the imagery sparkles; but it never loses both its decorative delicacy of detail and its melancholy tone. The Iliad is full of the thunder and lightning of the king of gods and men. When there is thunder in The Odyssey, it is that of some foolish one-eyed giant whose fellows laugh at him.

The Odyssey is entertainment. It is entertainment of the highest order, but it is difficult to imagine anyone saying, “Reading The Odyssey changed my life fundamentally.” The Iliad can be read only superficially as entertainment. If we make ourselves available to it, it confronts us with a vision of the nature of reality and the being of man. The Iliad says: “This is life. It is tragic, and if it has meaning, that meaning is an incommunicable mystery; it can be presented, but never explained.” The Odyssey says: “This is life. It is comic, and it is full of meanings. These meanings are all the multiform techniques for living; they can be learned by work, intelligence, and a canny conscience.”

Tragedy is a posture; comedy is an activity. If one read enough comedies, they might change one’s life fundamentally. Life as comedy can be learned; as tragedy it can only be assumed. Most men are predominantly one type or the other; an individual’s view of life is seldom equally balanced between tragedy and comedy. However, the dramatic artists of the world’s literature have usually written both; they have realized that there are two faces of the coin of life: on one side, the head of an implacable and beautiful god; on the other, a curious animal.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays