Is Gilgamesh Relevant?

Prof. Nathalia King gives epic Hum 110 lecture on empire, war, and the relevance of ancient cultures.

By Chris Lydgate '90 | September 6, 2017

Prof. Nathalia King [English] gave a commanding lecture yesterday in Humanities 110 on the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian text that was lost for almost 2,000 years before being rediscovered in 1853. During the course of her lecture, she made several thought-provoking insights into this astonishing work of art. She also provided an intellectual justification for Hum 110 using an argument I had never thought of before.

Hum 110 (whose official name is "Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean") has come under fire in the last couple of years for being too white, too male, and too Eurocentric—or to put it another way, that the course is not relevant to today’s multicultural world. In fact, the Hum 110 syllabus has undergone dramatic revisions over the years. Many texts have been dropped, many others have been added, and the faculty are currently reworking the syllabus. Nonetheless, many people continue to ask why 18-year-olds should have to study Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Republic, and so on.

Prof. King’s remarks on Hum 110 are excerpted below and have been edited for clarity.

Gilgamesh: “When Terrified by Death”

Over the course of this year’s syllabus, we will study the rise and fall of various empires that competed for control of the vast geography of the Ancient Mediterranean. We begin our study in Mesopotamia, which included the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Mitanni and Hittite territories. Next week we will start reading texts from the Egyptian empire. We then proceed to the Kingdom of Judah, from its inception circa 900 BCE, until its defeat by the Neo-Babylonian empire around 600 BCE.  After the Iliad, we will read other Greek works leading up to Herodotus’s study of the Greco-Persian wars between 499-449 BCE and then Thucydides’s account of the fall of the Athenian empire at the hands of the Spartans in 404 BCE. The spring semester will bring us to Alexander the Great’s creation of the Hellenistic empires in 323 BCE and, finally, to the Roman takeover of the Mediterranean world.

Why study these ancient empires? A powerful reason, certainly, is that we too live in empire. Given the longstanding consequences of America’s “Manifest Destiny,” of the USA’s self-appointed role as “super power,” it is key to our own aspirations for equal citizenship to study how earlier empires defined and deployed power through their leaders, in their laws, and in their accounts of the classes, the sexes, and ethnicity; how they made the colonization of new lands and the conquest of natural resources a way of life; why they thought of slavery and the displacement of peoples for economic gain as inevitable and ubiquitous. We have a responsibility to inquire into our inheritance of such history and our own relation to the ideas we encounter.

A second important reason to study ancient cultures is to understand the contributions they have made to the shape of human experience and human flourishing even in our own world. Excavations of Ur, Uruk, Ugarit, and Ninevah have shown that astronomy, geometry, theology, and philosophy, as well as urban planning, irrigation, systems for the collection and distribution of goods, and large-scale record-keeping were instrumental to these cultures. Archeological digs have also turned up the earliest literary texts we know of: among them king lists, poems, and multiple versions of an epic that give prominence to a certain Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk in ancient Sumer around 2800 BCE.  

Such discoveries must bring home to us that Mesopotamia’s influence on the texts and artifacts we study later this year is so profound that to ignore it would distort our understanding of them. (If reading Gilgamesh has brought to mind stories in the Bible, including those of the Flood or the troublesome Serpent, then you have an inkling of the complexity of the networks of inter-cultural transmission that lead all the way to our own contemporary culture.)

Never forget that Hum 110’s account of our cultural inheritance is partial at best, representing a model of humanistic inquiry rather than a survey of all the possible subjects of humanistic inquiry.

Our collective project in Hum 110 is hence to build an inclusive and diverse account of the broader ancient Mediterranean, an account that incorporates the complex currents of cultural influence that ebbed and flowed among these peoples.  Dauntlessly traveling by foot, on horseback and by ship, they were far more mobile than we tend to imagine possible. Past scholarship has sometimes portrayed these ancient cultures, especially the Mesopotamian and Egyptian, as monolithic, deeply conservative, and fundamentally isolationist.  I urge you to question such assertions wherever you encounter them.  Engage the possibility that these cultures changed in substantive ways, both because of internal political pressures and because of their contacts and influence on one another.  

To provide just a glimpse of big changes internal to Mesopotamia, consider for example the evolving conceptions of gender that form the backdrop to the long tradition of the Gilgamesh epic. Think about the possibilities that, between 2700-1200 BCE, the religious belief that a single goddess created the world is gradually eclipsed by the growing supremacy of male over of female deities. Or that polyandry, a marriage practice in which women had multiple husbands, gives way to the institutions of monogamy, concubinage, and temple prostitution. Or that, if the office divine kingship was originally ratified by the king’s ritual marriage to a goddess, the concept that gods endorse kings will later be challenged both by kings and their subjects. (In conference, you might explore how such changes in the relations between gender and power are represented in the Gilgamesh epic.)

To grasp the complexity of this history, social changes arising within Mesopotamian culture need to be collated with the causes of change imposed from outside Mesopotamia—events such as war and international trade and diplomatic correspondence.  You don’t have to retain the specifics of these wars to understand that they represent a constant exchange of land, natural resources, military strategies, weaponry, wives, and slaves among the cultures involved.

As this whirlwind tour must impress on us, the project of this course is vast. It will involve your avid curiosity in what is strange and familiar about other cultures.  It will engage you in the close reading of literary texts, histories, and philosophical treatises.  It will depend upon your visual scrutiny of cities, temples, statues, and vases.  It will require informed speculation about how such objects and texts functioned in the social and political contexts in which they were conceived.  Our methods will be critical, analytical, and speculative—which is to say that they will involve exhaustive questioning and careful thought—along with the fundamental realization that our understanding of these texts will always be provisional and imperfect...

 —Excerpted from a Hum 110 lecture by Prof. Nathalia King [English] on August 30, 2017

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