Tag Archives: gilgamesh

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.

Friezes — From Assyria to Athens to the British Museum

All photos in this post are mine.

The delight I recounted for you in my post about the Louvre was continued at the British Museum last Thursday. There I was able to stand eye-to-eye with none other than Ashurnasirpal himself.

And here you were expecting, say, the Goddess Athena or Keats’ ‘heifer lowing at the skies’ on the Parthenon frieze. I can assure you that the Parthenon sculptures — frieze, metopes, pedimental sculptures — engrossed me for the better part of an hour. The vitality of the charioteers!

Me with some charioteers

The grotesquery of the centaurs’ faces, running off with the Lapith women!*

Me and a Centaur

Magnificent, beautiful, the sculptures produced under the eye of Pheidias through the grand scheme of Pericles are not to be missed!

Aphrodite? From the Parthenon’s East Pediment

But back to Ashurnasirpal.

Ashurnasirpal II was King of Assyria 883-859 BC. Like many memorable monarchs,** Ashurnasirpal was a warmonger. He extended the western boundaries of his Tigris-crossing Empire into Syria-Lebanon to the Mediterranean and into the Hittite lands of Asia Minor.

He transferred the Assyrian capital to Nimrud in modern Iraq, and the British Museum has various bits of his palace, such as these fantastic lamassu’s — winged bulls with human heads:

Me and a Lamassu’

Besides these, you can see various friezes from Nimrud in the British Museum, of Ashurnasirpal doing such things as lion-hunting or waging war. You can even see his naked soldiery swimming a river with inflated skins! Except for one guy — he must be on the Assyrian Olympic team.

There they go — note the man without an inflated skin

These sculptures and friezes are very well executed. They lack the sinuous vitality of classical Greek art, but I don’t doubt that the skills of the sculptors were lacking. One of the things about ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art that I learned in my visit to Cairo back in the day is the essentially traditionalist aspect of style. Assyrians and Egyptians (Akhenaten aside) are not trying to produce portraiture as the Graeco-Roman tradition would understand it. They are not capturing the vital essence of a moment.

I behold a frieze from Nimrud

They are placing Ashurnasirpal II within a long tradition of art, showing him to be a timeless, great king. The message is one of legitimacy and stability: He is like his father, Tukulti-Ninurta; Sargon II, whose lamassu’s are in the Louvre and look identical to Ashurnasirpal’s, is saying the same thing.

Sargon’s Lammasu’s in the Louvre

The other thing to bring to the forefront of your mind when you look at ancient Mesopotamian things is the sheer ancientness of them. The naked-swimmer frieze dates to c. 860 BC — 100 years before the traditional founding of Rome, 400 years before the Parthenon friezes! And if you think that’s old, the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre dates to the 1700s BC!!

The Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre

The Ashmolean Museum’s fragment of the Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh dates to 1900-1600 BC — a millennium before Homer!

The Epic of Gilgamesh fragment in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This glazed-brick image of a lion from Babylon dates to 604-562 BC. While not as old as the other stuff mentioned here, I just like it:

Babylonian Lion, Louvre

The cultures of the Near East are truly ancient. They were using clay for a writing material when the Greeks were using it for huts. They have a literary and political culture all their own, a war-machine all their own, art and religion all their own. Yet, even to many students of ancient history such as myself, they stand largely unknown, getting maybe a chapter about Ziggurats in a Grade 11 history textbook.

We can all rectify this. Check out the Mesopotamian collections on your next trip to a major archaeological museum, be it the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Louvre, the National Museum of Scotland or the Royal Ontario Museum, take in the Mesopotamian artefacts. If you like mythology, read some Mesopotamian mythology. If epic is your thing, check out Gilgamesh. Grab a book on Sumeria or Babylon or Assyria or ancient Persia the next time you’re in the library. Educate yourself — even if it’s just one attentive museum visit or one book; it’s better than nothing.

It may not be safe to visit the Near East itself, but we can still take a healthy interest in its culture. Who knows, maybe a fresh interest in such things will help save those lands from ruin?

*It’s a sin with centaurs do it, but when Romulus does it, it’s prudence … ?

**Remember Alexander the Great, Justinian, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, et al? Yep.