Document Type Doctoral Thesis Author De Villiers, Gerda firstname.lastname@example.org URN etd-03072005-144957 Document Title Understanding Gilgamesh: his world and his story Degree DLitt Department Ancient Languages Supervisor
Advisor Name Title Prof GTM Prinsloo Supervisor Keywords
- Quest for life eternal
- Narrative discourse
- Hans Robert Jauss
- Gérard Genette
- Literary approaches
- Epic of Gilgamesh
Date 2000-00-00 Availability unrestricted AbstractUnderstanding Gilgamesh – brokenly – is to understand life brokenly. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the narrative of life. It records the full cycle of the nerve and aplomb of youth, of the doubt and crisis of midlife, of the acceptance and quiescience of maturity. Moreover, this understanding is a broken understanding. It starts with the clay tablets that are broken in a literal sense of the word. Further, the narrative is a narrative of broken-ness – the story ends in tears. A man has lost his last chance of obtaining life everlasting. Yet he manages to recuperate despite his failure.
The first part of this thesis examined the world of Gilgamesh. Initially he was known as the Sumerian king Bilgames. He makes his appearance in the form of oral compositions that are recited or sung in the royal courts of kings during the Sumerian period: sheer entertainment, nothing really serious. At his side is his loyal servant Enkidu who supports his master in everything he does.
Akkadian gradually ousts Sumerian as vernacular, yet the latter continues to dominate as the language of culture and court. Bilgames survives the reign of the Sargonic dynasty, and even revives during the glorious Ur III period of Shulgi and of Ur-Nammu. Sumerian Bilgames-poems are recorded in writing.
However, by the time that Hammurapi draws up his legal codex, the Sumerian Bilgames is known as the vibrant Akkadian king Gilgamesh. His servant Enkidu is elevated to the status of friend. Together they defy men, gods, monsters. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes even further in search of life everlasting. He reaches Uta-napishtim the Distant in order to learn the secret of eternal life.
The optimism of the Old Babylonian Kingdom is replaced by the reflection and introspection of the Middle period. Life is difficult. Life is complex. The Gilgamesh Epic is once again re-interpreted and supplemented by a prologue and an epilogue: both begin and end at the same place, at the walls of Uruk. Here Gilgamesh looks back and forward to his life and contemplates about the meaning of life in general.
The second part of this thesis dealt more specifically with the story – the literary aspects of the Epic. Genette’s theory illuminated several interesting literary devices with regards to the rhythm and pace of the narrative. However, much of the reflective nature of the Epic was also revealed. There were moments of looking forward, and looking backward: after Gilgamesh broke down in tears at the end of the Epic, he suddely gained perspective on life. Somehow a broken narrative focused into a meaningful whole that may just make future sense.
Jauss’s theory illuminated why Gilgamesh refuses to be forgotten, why he is once again alive and well in the twenty first century. Although he was buried in the ruins of Nineveh for a thousand plus years, he is suddenly back on the scene – and not for academic reasons only. Not only scholars of the Ancient Near East take an interest in the old Epic, but also people from all sectors of life. Somehow Gilgamesh seems to respond to questions that are asked even by those who understand nuclear physics – but who grapple with the paradox of living meaningfully.
Understanding Gilgamesh – brokenly – understands life.
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