Literature

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Chapter One Origins and Antiquity: Myths, Legends, and Epics The geographical origins of Western literature lie in areas as diverse as the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the central European forests, and the northwestern coasts, each of which produced a body of oral histories, myths, and legends, many of which were subsequently written down. They have been drawn on by writers since the emergence of a Western literature culture in ancient Greece. Stories have been used as entertainment, as origin myths (of the physical world, culture, or society), and as a way of preserving ideas and traditions. Attesting to the power of such stories as an important component of human societies, for good or ill, many of these retain a grip on the modern world, whether as religious texts or as a corpus of ideas that give peoples and nations a series of myths through which they can define and identify themselves as a distinct group. Though these should be taken as myths – and even the idea of a Western literary tradition is “mythological” and hard to delineate – many of the stories that have shaped Western history stem from other cultures (such as the Bible), or were a consequence of trade or colonialism (for example, the constructions of the “other” through crusader narratives or collections such as Arabian Nights), or were exported or were brought by migrating peoples (as in the work of North American writers, some like Henry James who moved east across the Atlantic, or writers from a South Asian background, such as Salman Rushdie, who have spent their working lives in Europe). The boundaries of European, and even Western, literature have been porous, allowing for the exchange of ideas and narratives. Indeed, it is partly this ability

to absorb and integrate literary influences that has defined the Western world as a cultural region. Mesopotamia and Egypt Perhaps the earliest recorded narrative is the Epic of Gilgamesh, known to modern-day scholars through inscriptions on 11 cuneiform tablets from the reign of the Assyrian Ashurbanipal (r.c. 668-627 BC). However, elements of this Mesopotamian epic are thought to have been composed during the Sumerian kingdom in around 2000 BC. The central hero, Gilgamesh, may in fact have been based on a historical figure, a king of the city of Uruk, currently believed to have been situated on the banks of the Euphrates. The story itself is complicated and episodic, but all the sections are concerned with the exploits of Gilgamesh and can be summarized as follows: Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight, after which, as neither emerges victorious, they become friends. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu then defeat Humbaba while raiding wood from his lands. Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the goddess Ishtar (referred to as Inanna in the Assyrian text). Angered, she sends the Bull of Heaven to kill him, which is subsequently killed by Gilgamesh and Enkidu. As Gilgamesh is protected by the sun god Utu, Ishtar demands that Enkidu dies in his place. After Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh searches for the secret of immortality and meets Utnapishtim, the only man to have achieved endless life, granted by the gods following his rescue of humankind during the devastating flood sent by god Marduk. Gilgamesh realizes that he will never achieve true immortality and returns to Uruk. A number of themes seen here run through many epics, including that of a heroic figure at the center of the narrative

Lilian Leong SY Page 1 Anderson, D., Lord, M., Macaroon, M., Peel, C., & Stubbs, T. (2010). The story of Literature: From antiquity to the present. Potsdam, Germany: Tandem Verlag GmbH.

whom overcomes many trials sent by the gods. Of particular interest in the Gilgamesh epic is the episode that deals with the flood, which is the earliest source for the same story (that of Noah) in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The same myth also corresponds with the ancient Greek story of Zeus unleashing a flood to destroy humankind; Deucalion and his...
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