Suffering in Epic Poems
Forms and Expressions in World Literature
Though epic poems, such as Homer’s The Iliad, or Beowulf, were meant to entertain, spread religion and culture, and perhaps even to preserve historical truths, they also have a rarely noticed, possibly accidental agenda; defining humanity. Even tales such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam have a mutual theme, though they come from completely different cultures and time frames. That theme is that what makes us mortal; what makes us human is the aspect of loss and suffering in our lives. This is true throughout all epic poems, whether subtle or not.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian story of a king and his brotherly bond, is a fairly obvious representation of the theme connecting humanity to loss and sorrow. This story dates back to one thousand B.C.E. and “can rightly be called the first true work of world literature.” ("Longman Anthology: World Literature" Volume A 57-97) According to the epic, Gilgamesh was a great warrior and king of the city-state Uruk. He was described as almost god-like. This idea is embodied by now popular stories such as the story of Hercules, who is half-man, half-god. He is both praised and feared for his power. The epic reads, “Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance, he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.” ("Longman Anthology: World Literature" Volume A 57-97) Gilgamesh wields all of this power, yet he cannot control himself as a god would. He kills the locals’ sons, and rapes their women; possibly out of sheer boredom. He has been given more power than he can handle. In order to correct the problem, the god Anu convinces the goddess Aruru that Gilgamesh requires a counterpart to keep him occupied. Aruru creates Enkidu, an equivalent to Gilgamesh in size and strength, and they become loyal companions. Enkidu has a dream that...