The Epic of Gilgamesh/Legacy

From Gerald R. Lucas
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The Legacy of Gilgamesh: Influences on Literary Texts

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving works of literature, has exerted its influence on a wide array of literary texts throughout history. The lasting legacy of the themes, characters, and narrative elements of the epic have resonated across time and cultures.

The Bible

Gilgamesh’s influence on the Bible is evident in the story of Noah and the flood found in the Book of Genesis. The parallels between the two flood narratives are striking: a divine warning, the construction of an ark to save humanity and animals, and the emergence of a survivor in a transformed world. The shared motifs of divine judgment, salvation, and rebirth illustrate the enduring power of Gilgamesh’s flood narrative and its incorporation into the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Homer’s Epics

Although direct textual influence is difficult to establish, there are certain thematic and structural similarities between Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics. Both Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics emerged from oral traditions, passed down through generations before being written down.

In terms of themes, both Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics explore heroic ideals and the representation of larger-than-life heroes. Gilgamesh and the Greek heroes in the Iliad embody qualities such as strength, bravery, and an unyielding pursuit of glory. They face numerous challenges and engage in epic battles that shape their identities and leave lasting impacts on their respective societies. The influence of Gilgamesh’s heroic themes can be seen in the characterization of Achilles and other Greek heroes who display similar qualities and engage in heroic quests.

Structurally, both Gilgamesh and the Odyssey follow the journey of a central hero and employ an episodic narrative framework. Gilgamesh and Odysseus undertake a series of adventures and encounters, showcasing their prowess, encountering gods and mythical creatures, and experiencing personal growth and transformation. These shared narrative structures contribute to the epic storytelling style found in both Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics.

Virgil’s Aeneid

The influence of Gilgamesh on Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, is particularly evident in the characterization of the hero Aeneas. Like Gilgamesh, Aeneas embarks on a perilous journey filled with encounters with gods, mythical creatures, and challenges that test his resolve. Both heroes grapple with themes of heroism, destiny, and the search for meaning in a changing world. Gilgamesh's legacy is visible in the portrayal of Aeneas as a complex and relatable hero, navigating the complexities of his own fate.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, draws inspiration from various literary and mythological sources, including Gilgamesh. In the Inferno, the first part of the poem, Dante encounters the shade of Gilgamesh himself, alongside other legendary figures from antiquity. This inclusion emphasizes the enduring impact of Gilgamesh on Western literature and highlights its association with themes of heroism, mortality, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Gilgamesh’s influence on Herman Melville’s iconic novel, Moby-Dick, is evident in its exploration of themes such as mortality, obsession, and the quest for meaning. Captain Ahab, the novel’s enigmatic protagonist, shares similarities with Gilgamesh in his relentless pursuit of the white whale, Moby Dick. Both characters grapple with their own mortality and become consumed by an all-consuming desire for vengeance or immortality. Gilgamesh’s legacy lives on in Melville’s examination of the human condition and the consequences of relentless pursuit.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gilgamesh’s influence can be felt in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterwork, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez’s novel, often associated with magical realism, explores themes of love, loss, and the cyclical nature of time, echoing the existential concerns found in Gilgamesh. The characters in Marquez’s novel, like Gilgamesh, grapple with mortality and the search for immortality, with their lives and actions deeply intertwined with mythical and larger-than-life elements.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

In his graphic novel series, Gaiman weaves together mythological elements from various traditions, including the ancient Mesopotamian epic. The character of Dream (Morpheus) shares similarities with Gilgamesh in his immortal nature and introspective journey.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s novel draws inspiration from various mythological and legendary sources, including Gilgamesh. The narrative explores memory, love, and the search for meaning against the backdrop of a post-Arthurian Britain.

These examples demonstrate the profound and enduring influence of Gilgamesh on literary texts across diverse cultural and historical contexts. Gilgamesh’s exploration of universal themes such as mortality, heroism, friendship, and the search for meaning continues to resonate with writers and readers alike. Its legacy can be seen in the incorporation of Gilgameshian motifs, characters, and narrative elements, providing a testament to the timeless significance and enduring power of this ancient Mesopotamian epic.

Topics for Reflection

See also: Gilgamesh’s Enduring Influence
  1. Reflect on a personal experience where you encountered a significant loss or setback. How did this experience shape your perspective on life and mortality? How does it relate to Gilgamesh’s journey in the epic?
  2. Consider the friendships you have formed in your life. How have these relationships influenced your personal growth and development? In what ways do they mirror or differ from the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu?
  3. Discuss a moment in your life when you were confronted with the fleeting nature of time and the importance of seizing the present. How did this experience change your outlook on life? How does it relate to the carpe diem theme in Gilgamesh?
  4. Explore the pursuit of achievement and success in your own life. How does Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality parallel your own aspirations? Do you find yourself constantly focused on future goals, or are you able to appreciate the present? How can you strike a balance between ambition and embracing the present moment?
  5. Examine a cultural or literary work from the present day that explores similar themes as The Epic of Gilgamesh. How do these modern interpretations or adaptations connect with your own understanding of the epic? How do they reflect the timeless nature of the epic’s themes?
  6. Imagine a conversation between yourself and Gilgamesh. What advice or insights would you share with him based on your own experiences? How do you think he would respond? What lessons from his journey can you apply to your own life?
  7. Consider the impact of technology and social media on your relationships and connection with others. How does this relate to the themes of friendship and human connection in Gilgamesh? How can you cultivate deeper and more meaningful relationships in a digital age?
  8. Reflect on a moment when you faced your own mortality or contemplated the concept of death. How did this reflection shape your perspective on life and the choices you make? In what ways does it align with the themes of mortality and the quest for meaning in Gilgamesh?