Arts & Humanities

Gilgamesh Greets Class of ’22

Expanded Hum 110 syllabus kicks off with Mesopotamian epic.

By Katie Pelletier ’03 | August 31, 2018

Monday morning, Vollum Lecture Hall was filled to capacity as the Class of ’22, distinguished professors, and visitors like myself jostled for seats. At the stroke of the hour, Prof. Nathalia King [English] began the first lecture of a new Humanities 110 course, the syllabus recently overhauled after years of discussion, debate, protest, and even confrontation.

Prof. King began by laying out a brief introduction to the new syllabus, which she compared to Kubla Khan’s magical atlas in Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, from which she read a passage to the audience. The first quarter will consist of a unit on the Ancient Mediterranean, with texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, Genesis, and Exodus “that postulate the ideal city, that represent the emergence of real cities, or that trace the pathways of exile from or migration toward cities,” she explained.

In the next three quarters, the syllabus will center on successive cities—Athens, Mexico City, and Harlem. Prof. King gave an overview of the scope and content of these units, as well as the sort of humanistic inquiry that the students will pursue. “In the case of each city, we seek to understand the contributions made to the shape of human experience and to human flourishing,” she said. “Our syllabus is our atlas, but how much it brings to light, what it makes visible, largely depends on your contributions: how much you perceive and what you bring to conference.”

Without further ado, she delved into Gilgamesh, pointing out that the existence of the book students held in their hands was the result of collaborative humanistic study: the archaeological digs scattered throughout the middle east from 1850 onward in which the fragments were found, the efforts to piece together the fragments in museums, decode the cuneiform, discover that cuneiform was used to record several different ancient languages, and to distinguish one language from another before finally transliterating and translating the text.

Before digging into her argument that Enkidu is Gilgamesh's narrative "double" and analyzing the text using theories of the double from different disciplines, she asked the auditorium to chant in unison some lines from the poem. “Gilgameš e tadal?” she began, the text and translation (Gilgamesh where are you wandering?) projected overhead.

I was reminded of my own first Hum 110 lecture in which Prof. Wally Englert [classics 1981–2018] led the auditorium in the singing of the first lines of the Iliad. I was so happy to be there—to have made it out of my hometown and across the country, landing in this strange new city. Now I work for Reed and I’m fortunate to be able to walk from my office to Vollum and sit in on these lectures to see how the course is evolving: revisiting familiar books and encountering new ones. I’m looking forward to reporting on lectures both new and old in a series of dispatches from the new Hum 110. Stay tuned.