Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Mespotamian Seal

One of the earliest pieces of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of the adventures of a King of Uruk named Gilgamesh, who lived sometime between 2500-2800 B.C.E.1, and his adventures with his trusty companion Enkidu. And after Enkidu's death Gilgamesh's search for eternal life.

This is undoubtedly one of the earliest masterpieces of literature. The version we have is attributed to Sin-liqe-unninni, who lived in the 13th to the 11th century B.C.E., and whose name means "Oh Moon god, Accept my prayer!".2 Making it one of the oldest works that can be attributed to an author.

This is not the only version. There is a version called the old Babylonian version dated to c. 1800-1700 B.C.E., its seems to have been entirely superseded by the later version.3

The epic was based on stories written / composed in Sumerian during the third dynasty of Ur, during the reign of King Shulgi , c. 2100-2000 B.C.E.4

The stories that form the basis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, are:
  1. Bilgames and Huwawa;
  2. Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven;
  3. Bilgames and the Netherworld;
  4. The Death of Bilgames.5

Other sources of the Epic of Gilgamesh include the Mesopotamian flood myth.6

In the tale Gilgamesh is an arrogant, young King whose ruthlessness in exploiting his people to built great walls around Uruk, and his sexual exploitation of his people leads to the Gods creating Enkidu, a wild man of the forest, who is lured to Uruk to fight Gilgamesh after a great battle Gilgamesh and him become the best of friends, for it was foretold that Gilgamesh would find his soul mate.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu go the mountains of cedar where they defeat and kill the fire breathing monster Huwawa, for which they gain much renown. The Goddess Isthar then appears and asks Gilgamesh to marry her. He rejects the request with a flurry of insults. Ishtar in a rage sends the Bull of Heaven to ravage Uruk but after a great battle Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay the beast. Now truly enraged Ishtar sends a wasting disease to kill Enkidu. After a long illness Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh mourns him.

Gigamesh now brought face to face with the prospect of his own mortality goes in search of the only man and women who are immortal; Uta-napishti and his wife. After many adventures Gilgamesh finally reaches Uta-napishti's home. He asks Uta-napishti how he came to be immortal. Uta-napishti then recounts the story of the great flood that eradicated virtually all of mankind and how he survived. After the flood Uta-napishti sacrificed to the Gods and has a reward for his piety the gods gave him and his wife immortality. Thus only the Gods can give it and they wont do so again. Uta-napishti tells Gilgamesh to go home and enjoy life while he has it.

Seeing Gilgamesh's despair Uta-napishti advises Gilgamesh about a plant that if it will not give eternal life but will rejuvenate. Gilgamesh gets the plant but a snake steals it. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and contemplating the walls realizes he will be remembered.

It is of interest that in the collection of tales known has the Arabian Nights, which has a story called The Tale of Buluqiya, which is similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh.7

For a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh on the web see: Here

For the Sumerian stories about Bilgames, (Gilgamesh), see: Here

For the Tale of Buluqiya, see: Here

1, Myths From Mespotamia, Stephanie Dalley, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 40.

2, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Andrew George, Penguin Books, London, 1999, p. xxiv-v.

3, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p, xxi.

4, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. xvii.

5, The Epic of Gilgamesh, p. 149, 166, 175, 195, Bilgames is the Sumerian version of Gilgamesh.

6. The Epic of Gilgamesh, pp. 88-93. Myths from Mesopotamia, pp. 109-115, Atrahasis, pp. 9-35, (a version of the flood myth).

7, Myths From Mesopotamia, pp. 47-48.
Pierre Cloutier

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sources of Early English History

Britain 500 C.E.

The Early History of England is very poorly known although both Archaeology and Genetics may now be providing much greater information on the origin of England.1

However the textual information on the early history and origin of England and the English is based on 4 sources. Which are in chronological order:

1, On The Ruin of Britain, by St. Gildas, written c. 520-560 C.E.

2, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede, written c. 720-731 C.E.

3, The British History, attributed to Nennius, written c. 820-830 C.E.

4, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Author(s) unknown, written c. 870-890, (originally and subsequently much added too).

To discuss in order.

On the Ruin of Britain, is easily the most polished of the works, written in quite idiosyncratic but very good Latin. It is however a polemic and attack against the corruption and violence of the Britain of his day and despite an invaluable short historical introduction is of very limited historical value. This value is further undermined by the fact we don't know very well when Gildas lived so that some of the chronological indicators he gives have been given dates as far apart has a generation.

For example he gives the date of the battle of Badon as the year he was born and the date of him writing this short book as 44 years later. But when was he, Gildas, born? The result is that the battle of Badon is placed, usually, some time between 490 and 520 C.E.

Further his account is choleric, angry and basically a polemic alternating with a lamentation. in fact the nickname of the book is "the complaining book". Its portrayal of decadent, declining Britain attacked by murderous Anglo-Saxons is interesting but hard to evaluate. Its use was and will probably remain maddeningly limited.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by Bede, nick named the venerable Bede, and in good but not brillant Latin. Bede was a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria. Is the writing of the first great English writer and historian. A man of strong belief, but at least when it comes to historical fact a quite judicious writer. The book is basically a celebration of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.

Bede also give in the course of his book invaluable information on the early history of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Given that the information he had to use was oral, he did a remarkably good job with it. Unfortunately his concentration on the process of conversion and miracles seems to have distracted him from history proper. Further Bede had a basically negative attitude towards the Welsh, although he did use Gildas' book.

Precisely because his sources for early English history were so poor he doesn't have a lot to tell us but what he tells is invaluable, and for his own time it is a first rate source.

The British History, attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. Certainly written in the northern Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd. The book is a collection of historical miscellany gathered together and written up in latin. The text is to put it mildly a complete mess, and many different versions exist with different material in it according to the version.

Nennius or who ever wrote it seems to have made a complete hash of it. The book is however a invaluable source on Welsh beliefs concerning their early history and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons. Just how reliable those traditions are is to put it mildly subject to much debate. although the consensus is that it probably isn't a lot.

Nennius does preserve what seems to be a song celebrating Arthur's victories and some other fragments of what otherwise would be lost documents. Still its very hard to take seriously.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originally compiled during the reign of Alfred the Great. It was later continued by later additions, and in fact one version goes to 1154 C.E. It was written in Anglo-Saxon. The early (pre-Alfred) sections were compiled of various written sources like Gildas and Bede and a rich oral tradition. For Alfred's reign and later periods it is invaluable and quite good. But for the early period questions arise.

The information given in the early parts seems strongly hit or miss, doubles seem to exist and much seems purely legendary and / or nonsensical. The lack of Saxon defeats in the early parts is telling and so is the rather weird fact that the first king of Wessex, an alleged ancestor of Alfred, has a Celtic name (Cedric). Its value seems to be not just whatever history is in the text but simply what it tells us about ideology at King Alfred's court.

Its use, like Gildas for early English History, seems very limited.

That's it for our 4 primary textual sources on early English history and it doesn't add up to a lot.

Here are some locations on the web where they can be found.

For On the Ruin of Britain, see Here

For The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, see Here

For The British History, see Here and Here

For The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see Here

1. See An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, C. J. Arnold, Routledge, London, 1997. and Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, Bryan Sykes, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2006.

Pierre Cloutier

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Edward Said's Orientalism

Edward W. Said

In 1978 Edward Said published his, Orientalism. Now Edward Said was a literary critic and writer on Palestinian issues. He was often very abrasive but always entertaining. In regards to the Palestinian cause, he was definitely not "politically correct". Certainly championing the Palestinian cause has not been terribly "correct" in the U.S.A., for 30+ years now. However his literary critical style of writing lead him to the occasional, (some would argue more than occasional), embarrassment. In Edward Said's case it was, Orientalism.

The book, Orientalism, is best characterized has a rotting bowel movement. In it Edward Said, makes all sort of embarrassing mistakes, which he neglected to correct in subsequent editions of the book.1 Edward Said's discussion of Orientalism is replete with omissions, ad-hominins and baffling ignorance. 2. For example There is Edward Said's incredible ignorance of Arab orientalist writings, and his studied ignoring of Soviet orientalist writings. While casting about blame upon imperialist western writing for denigrating Arabs and Islam, he manages to completely ignore Soviet lambasting of Arabs and Muslims.3

Of course one can critically examine the biases and motives of Westerners, (and others), who wrote about the middle east. But Edward Said's attempt is mired in polemics and absurdities.4 Edward Said has a "hermetics of suspicion" concerning western writers on the Middle East. A suspicion he doesn't have concerning Middle East writers unless they've been contaminated by western modes of thought.5

Its fascinating that Edward Said states that Orientalism is a tool of Western Imperialism and arose to serve that Imperialism while at the same time claiming it originated has far back as Homer and Aesychlus! Edward Said's sympathies are for the misrepresented Persians against the Greeks resisting Persian imperialism. I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored. And in other places Edward Said dates it to the 14th century. Carefully avoiding the fact if anyone one was a victim of Imperialism in those days it was Europe from Islam! In other words orientalism in the west arose originally, in response to Islamic imperialism or more specifically the advance of the Ottoman empire, that does not justify European imperialism of course.

Further Edward Said largely ignores all other types of Orientalism except that related to the area of Syria, Iraq, Arabia and Egypt, of that pays attention basically only to stuff about Arabs. A highly blinkered view of the field.

Orientalism, has been translated into 35 languages.6 Which is definitely a sign of fashionableness but also very worrying, given the shoddiness of the product.

1. For a list of some of Said's errors see, Irwin, Robert, For Lust of Knowing, London, 2006, pp. 282-283. See also Lewis Bernard, The Question of Orientalism, New York Review of Books, New York, 24 June, 1982, p. 53-60.

2. Irwin, pp. 282-309, Lewis, pp. 53-60.

3. For examples of Soviet contempt for Islam and Arabs see Irwin, pp. 229-233. This includes the idea of Mohammad has a myth.

4.Irwin's book is for all its purpose of defending orientalism is quite critical of many of its leading scholars and of many of their assumptions.

5. Which is ironic considering Edward Said's love of western Classical music and his denigration of Middle Eastern music. See Irwin, p. 308.

6. Irwin p. 281.


For Lust of Knowing, Robert Irwin, Penguin Books, London. 2006.

Orientalism, Edward, Said, Vintage, New York, 1979.

"The Question of Orientalism", Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books, New York, June 24, 1982 p. 53.

Pierre Cloutier