Humanity vs. Divinity: The Role of Religious Perspective in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf

To remember

Beowulf preparing to cut off the head of the monster Grendel, illustration from Hero-Myths & Legends of the British Race, 1910.
  • Throughout history, civilizations largely defined by their practiced religions;
  • religion often influences both societal structure of a civilization + how it chooses to record its own history.
  • examining ancient poems The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf reflect religious ideologies of Sumerian and Anglo-Saxon civilizations
  • Epic of Gilgamesh highlights importance of Gilgamesh’s humanity during his journey for eternal life, reflecting ideologies of polytheistic Sumer,
  • Beowulf proclaims Beowulf’s faith in God as reason for his success as warrior + king, reflecting ideologies of Anglo-Saxon Christianity.
  • religious justification of Gilgamesh & Beowulf’s royalty highlights significant historical difference in how both texts were affected by the religions of their regions,
  • Epic of Gilgamesh >narrator uses ideologies of ancient Mesopotamian polytheism to justify King Gilgamesh’s reign over the city of Uruk.
  • role of Beowulf as King of the Geats justified through values of Anglo-Saxon Christianity,< Beowulf claims leadership = result of his unfaltering loyalty to God rather than his own accomplishments.
  • Beowulf = similar to Gilgamesh > exhibits superhuman feats of strength > holds no divine ancestry >> divine aspect of his rule = faith in God. (battle with the dragon threatening the Geats)
  • Gilgamesh serves as his own source of divine right, drawing a further distinction between the two heroes in the way that their humanity is represented by each text’s author.
  • Epic of Gilgamesh places importance on humane over the divine
  • author of Beowulf places importance on the divine over the humane.
  •  Gilgamesh questions mortality + seeks out Utanapishtim, sole survivor of the great flood,
  • Utanapishtim insinuates that death is not a monumental experience; all things must die eventually, + dying is no more consequential than sleeping. => Gilgamesh finds solace in ephemerality of life + embraces his humanity.
  • => focus taken from divinity + placed on humanity
  • in Sumer during time of polytheism = life heavily centered around the gods.

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Preceding

Stories of the beginnings, and one Main book composed of four major sections

Gilgamesh

Between gods and animals: becoming human in the Gilgamesh epic

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Additional reading

  1. Genesis Among the Creation Myths
  2. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 2 Mythic theme 1 God or gods warning
  3. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 3 Mythic theme 2 Hebrew story of the flood
  4. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 6 European myths
  5. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 8 South America

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Related

  1. Chronological timeline of English literature (Oxford)
  2. Men, Monsters and Library Book Hoards: The Lay of the MA Dissertation
  3. Top 3 Medieval Tales to Read and Why
  4. Gaining Appreciation for a Epic of Old English
  5. Tolkien was right: Scholars conclude Beowulf likely the work of single author
  6. ll. 53-85
  7. ll. 164-188

Undergrad Lit Review

Throughout history, civilizations have been largely defined
by their practiced religions; religion often influences both the societal
structure of a civilization and how it chooses to record its own history. By examining how the ancient poems The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf reflect the religious ideologies
of Sumerian and Anglo-Saxon civilizations, where the poems respectively
originated, a greater understanding of how religion has been historically used
in literature to accentuate the power of a nation’s ruler – in this case
Gilgamesh and Beowulf themselves – can be achieved. However, it is imperative
that the differing religious perspectives of each poem’s author are considered
in order to fully understand the significance of this religious accentuation. While
The Epic of Gilgamesh highlights the
importance of Gilgamesh’s humanity during his journey for eternal life, reflecting
the ideologies of polytheistic Sumer, Beowulf
proclaims Beowulf’s faith in God as the reason for his success as…

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Between gods and animals: becoming human in the Gilgamesh epic

To remember

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh = Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer = tells story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk.
  • gods create a friend for him > Enkidu, wild man,
  • woman Shamhat seduces Enkidu=> transforming Enkidu from beast to man => strength diminished + intellect expanded =>able to think + speak like a human being.
  • Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power > wrestle with one another => form passionate friendship.
  • Gilgamesh’s beginning number of different editions <= began as cycle of stories in  Sumerian language > collected + translated into single epic in Akkadian language. > earliest version of the epic written in dialect Old Babylonian > revised + updated in Standard Babylonian dialect
  • Gilgamesh story comes to us as a tapestry of shards, pieced together by philologists to create a roughly coherent narrative
  • newest discovery = tiny fragment lain overlooked in museum archive of Cornell University in New York, identified by Alexandra Kleinerman & Alhena Gadotti + published by Andrew George in 2018. => tablet seemed to preserve parts of both Old Babylonian + Standard Babylonian version, = two scenes not identical,
  • Gods depicted as opposite of animals = omnipotent + immortal
  • human placed somewhere in the middle = not omnipotent, but capable of

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Preceding

Stories of the beginnings, and one Main book composed of four major sections

Gilgamesh

++

Additional reading

  1. Genesis Among the Creation Myths
  2. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 2 Mythic theme 1 God or gods warning
  3. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 3 Mythic theme 2 Hebrew story of the flood
  4. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 6 European myths
  5. The flood, floods and mythic flood stories 8 South America

Recortes de Oriente Medio

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh Tablilla V de la Epopeya de Gilgamesh. Museo Sulaymaniyah, Irak. Foto: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / Wikimedia Commons

Por Sophus Helle
Publicado originalmente en Aeon bajo liciencia Creative Commons

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man.

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Gilgamesh

To remember

  • Gilgamesh Mesopotamian half god & half man > wreaks havoc in town fighting  conquering women.
  • people upset => ask the gods to do something about it => gods create Enkidu = match = almost as strong as Gilgamesh
  • sacred bull killed by Enkidu + Gilgamesh => Enkidu is poisoned.
  • Gilgamesh searches for immortality > meets Utnapishtim.
  • Gilgamesh similarities to bible & greek mythology

Diamonds or Light?

In Mesopotamia Gilgamesh is half god and half man. He is the most handsome man. He wreaks havoc in the town fighting and conquering the women. The people are upset and ask the gods to do something about it. The gods create Enkidu so Gilgamesh has a match. Enkidu is almost as strong as Gilgamesh, but when they fight Gilgamesh wins. Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel and have to fight Humbaba so they can be remembered throughout history. They defeat him. A god sends down the sacred bull. Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill it. The goddess of love tries to seduce Gilgamesh, but he does not marry her. One of them has to die for killing the sacred bull and it is Enkidu. He is poisoned. Gilgamesh searches for immortality. He meets Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim says humans cannot be immortal but he was granted immortality after a flood that wiped away most of…

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