Week 2: Ancient Near East

Please choose carefully! If you can't decide for yourself, let the Fates decide... Then, when you have made your choice, you can start the Week's Assignments.

The Epic of Gilgamish is the oldest epic myth preserved in writing. Since the epic has survived only in fragments, you will be reading paraphrases (summaries) of all the twelve tablets of the epic, along with word-for-word translations of the parts of the epic that have been more fully preserved: the Slaying of Humbaba, the Death of Enkidu, and the Story of the Flood. These translations are the work of three different scholars, and you can compare the different methods they have used to convey some of the epic language and poetry of the original version in their English translations. As you can see from the quotations below, the poetry can be very powerful even in this fragmentary form. In addition, the Flood story in this epic has some interesting links to the Biblical account of Noah and the Flood. In fact, when the Gilgamesh tablets were rediscoverd in the 19th century, it caused a revolution in Biblical studies.

Here are some quotes:

Why do you now approach me?
With that Enkidu, that son of a fish
Who knew not his father,
Companion of the small turtles, of the large turtles,
And who never sucked the milk of his mother?
In your youth I beheld you
Now should I kill you to satisfy my belly?
Shamash brought you, Gilgamesh, and allowed you to reach me.
It is through his assistance that you are stepping along thus.
But, Gilgamesh, I will bite through the palate-pin
Of your throat and your neck.
I will allow the shrieking serpent-bird
The eagle and the raven to eat your flesh!

The dream is important but very frightening,
your lips are buzzing like flies.
Though there is much fear, the dream is very important.
To the living they (the gods) leave sorrow,
to the living the dream leaves pain.

A whole day long the flood descended . . .
Swiftly it mounted up . . . . . the water reached to the mountains
The water attacked the people like a battle.
Brother saw not brother.
Men could not be recognized in heaven.
The gods were terrified at the cyclone.
They shrank back and went up into the heaven of Anu.
The gods crouched like a dog and cowered by the wall.

The Egyptian Myths and Legends include some stories that were incredibly popular and influential throughout the ancient Mediterranean. For example, the Egyptian goddess Isis, her murdered husband Osiris, and her infant son Horus were objects of cult worship not only in Egypt, but also in ancient Greece and Rome, and their story was known throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. If you are interested in the history of the mysteries and ancient cults, you would probably enjoy these readings very much. In addition to these high myths about the gods and goddesses, this unit also includes some ancient Egyptian folktales and fairy tales. Unlike the Gilgamesh unit (which contains translations of ancient epic poetry), the Egyptian readings are standard English paraphrases of the Egyptian myths - they are not translations of actual Egyptian texts.

Here are some quotes:

When all the land is black, the sun bark of Ra passes through the twelve hour-divisions of night in Duat. At eventide, when the god is Tum, he is old and very frail. Five-and-seventy invocations are chanted to give him power to overcome the demons of darkness who are his enemies. He then enters the western gate, through which dead men's souls pass to be judged before Osiris. In front of him goes the jackal god, Anubis, for he is Opener of the Ways. Ra has a sceptre in one hand: in the other he carries the Ankh, which is the symbol of life.

Isis yearned to behold once again the face of her dead husband, and she opened the chest and kissed passionately his cold lips, while tears streamed from her eyes. Maneros, son of the King of Byblos, came stealthily behind her, wondering what secret the chest contained. Isis looked round with anger, her bright eyes blinded him, and he fell back dead into the sea.

The Book is at Koptos in the middle of the river.
In the middle of the river is an iron box,
In the iron box is a bronze box,
In the bronze box is a keté-wood box,
In the keté-wood box is an ivory-and-ebony box,
In the ivory-and-ebony box is a silver box,
In the silver box is a gold box,
And in the gold box is the Book of Thoth,
Round about the great iron box are snakes and scorpions and all manner of crawling things, and above all there is a snake which no man can kill. These are set to guard the Book of Thoth.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM