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7-10-2015, 03:14

Literary Issues

We argue circularly whenever we address the nature of an ANE ‘‘epic.’’ We justify the existence of the genre and assign narratives to it because we locate in the target examples literary characteristics - motifs, themes, structures, and modes - that were charted in classical and medieval literature long before ANE literature was seriously studied. The application therefore can be ungainly. Nonetheless, it might be useful in this survey to lightly comment on some of these features with minimal illustrations.


Motifs are essential components in narratives. Sequences of actions (by animates or not) coagulate into a motif, a coherent tale-unit that achieves individual integrity, often becoming crucial in moving the plot. Scholarly awareness of such an element anteceded the birth of folklore as a discipline; but more precise cataloguing of the repertoire was due to Antti Aarne in 1964 (see Aarne and Thompson 1981) and to Stith Thompson (1955-8). Since then ANE specialists (for example, Gaster 1969; Irvin 1978; Hollis 1990) have isolated motifs within ANE literature for comparison, across and within literature. Here, the issue of artistic resiliency and the capacity to adapt arise, as writers of antiquity (no less than today’s) can poach phraseology and motifs that cut across a number of genres. Thus, the intimately autobiographical Apology of Hattusilis III, king of Hatti (thirteenth century) is so steeped in the language of the heroic, including the motif of combat through champions, that its historicity is compromised (van den Hout 1995). The same can be said about the ‘‘autobiography’’ of Idrimi, from Late Bronze Age Alalah in Syria (Oppenheim 1969: 557-8). Its storehouse of literary vignettes, such as the triumphing youngest child and the questing hero, has almost convinced me to place it among Canaanite (or Syrian) literature. Egyptian autobiographies are thick in motifs for virtue (care for the poor, obedience to superiors, foolish bravery during combat, etc.) that often coincide with what is assigned to the heroic. While we can cite few motifs that were knowingly shuttled across linguistic borders (across Sumerian and Akkadian is an obvious exception), some compositions such as the Epic of Gilgamesh are repository for globs of narrative units that were transferred across genres.

One can find images that evoke the heroic in material that is not normally treated as literature. In the letters from Mari (admittedly more loquacious than others), there is a dossier on the marriage of King Zimri-Lim that can easily be placed alongside Keret or the biblical Isaac saga. In them we meet anxious schadchans, complicated voyages to distant lands, presentation of gifts, veiling the bride, anxious parents, trekking back, and preparing the bridal chamber. We may never know how much of Gilgamesh’s story was known to a vassal who allowed that because of his lord’s sensitivity and strength, ‘‘my gray hair turned black and I found youth. My heart was rejuvenated beyond compare and my reputation spread all over Idamaras’’ (Kupper 1998: no. 145). And when diplomats report on their experiences, they can be omniscient in their knowledge of events or of motivation and can fill their canvas with characters that are nearly stock, including dense rulers, dark-hearted courtiers, and scheming enemies. Their rhetoric can emulate the best found in heroic tales, with people ‘‘shaping their mouth’’ to speak, repeating acts a set number of times (seven is a good one), and indulging in the bold repartee or the bon mot (Sasson 2001).

With such adaptability in mind, it is not surprising that even the briefest composition in our roster has proven to be a storehouse ofmotifs. What to do with them then becomes an issue. While no researcher today would approve of Peter Jensen’s deriving of practically all of human literature from Gilgamesh antecedents (1906-29), it remains obvious that accumulating individual motifs for comparison rarely deepens our sense of how compositions mean or evolve. (How useful is it to know that, throughout the globe, heroes of literature are said to survive the murder of their parents, that they confront evil, that they display courage or cleverness, or that they win the hearts of their destined?) Ex-cathedra methodological formulations have sought to sharpen the comparison of motifs, among them that there should be a unity of time and space with the material in which they are embedded or that there should suggest a correspondence of contexts (social, cultural, political, or the like) in their derivation or application. Such considerations often force the affinity among motifs to remain within ANE confines. More interesting, because they allow breaking away from time or place constraints, are those studies (influenced by the work of Vladimir Propp) that establish comparison only when strings of motifs bead into in a logical sequence, a series of which form distinct tale genres, depending on the syntax with which they connect. (See below, under ‘‘Modes’’.)


It is not always possible to uncover the themes of ancient epic, not just because many gaps mar the examples at hand, but because we cannot be certain that our judgment about them corresponds with that of its original hearers. Nonetheless, some prominent themes can be mentioned.

Continuity of a family line is certain to be one of them, albeit displayed in a broad variety. In Keret, it is frontal: the story opens on a king’s line facing extinction. This is resolved when the king’s hard-earned bride produces a potential heir who, alas, proves so wanting that Keret curses him, hence again compromising the future. This exposition of the theme is purposely unsatisfying because it is made subservient to another theme that develops an object lesson for Keret. a distressed king makes a vow that he neglects to fulfill when times get better, with the expected consequences. Continuity is also a major theme in another Ugaritic tale, Aqhat. King Danel’s plea for a son is answered, but dynastic continuity is endangered when the son impudently angers a goddess. Whether in Ugarit such unhappy endings were favored by audiences or parabolically reflected historical events is beyond us to easily recover. The continuity theme gives ample occasion for transmutation. the threat of extinction because of infertility, a wife’s sterility (heavily invested in biblical lore), or simply on facing death, might prompt heroes to alter human fate, by storming heaven (Etana), by arresting aging (Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh), by partaking divine fare (Adapa), by regaining youth (potential in Gilgamesh), or by reincarnating (Bata in The Two Brothers, Ahwere in the Setne Khamwas tales). Immortality, resurrection, and metempsychosis are other exploited alternatives.

Linked to this theme is that of Reputation or Name. In ANE lore, reputation is hardly limited to a single lifetime; rather, it reflects on past and future generations and must not be halted by one person through ignoble deeds or sloth. Preserving or expanding a reputation effectively neutralizes the limitations of human life. In this sense, Gilgamesh is less about longing for objects of desire or about halting death than about extending prestige, initially as the reward for courageous deeds through personal efforts, but eventually as the permanence of communal achievement through thoughtful leadership. This heightening of status can be acquired by testing the limits of human endurance, as in the materials concerning the Sumerian Gilgamesh and Lugalbanda, and the Egyptian Sinuhe. It can also be achieved by display of indomitable will when disorder threatens, as in the stories involving Sargon of Agade and Hattushili of Hatti (Siege ofUrshu). This resolve can be displayed agonistically, as in the Naram-Sin sagas. despite his name (‘‘Beloved of the god Sin’’) Naram-Sin slights the gods and pays for his hubris by losing political prestige (unhistorically, his kingdom is said to collapse); but he also gains immortality as a fine example of an Unheilsherrscher, a misfortune-prone elect of the gods. A variant vein, the taming of chaos, comes to be a major theme in what is labeled the ‘‘historical’’ or ‘‘royal’’ epic, involving kings and pharaohs who marshal and deploy their forces against barbarian hordes no less cosmically, symbolically, and triumphantly than do the gods of theogonies.


How a narrative unfurls a plot over a number of sequences without sacrificing literary cohesion owes much to the discrete use of structural devices. In most examples, the matter is about form, how material is organized to achieve a derived effect. However, in a few cases, such as the Semitic Gilgamesh and some of the Naram-Sin material, such devices give coherence to a broad canvas. (This is especially true if a work is orally communicated.) Among the storehouse of available devices to realize narrative integration is the periodic renewal ofscenes, such as those around a banquet, or the recurrent repetition ofa situation or an idea, such as those that are experienced during travel.

The banquet

In real life, banquets give a special rhythm to affairs of state or of family, creating bonds and solidifying loyalty. (For agreeable essays on Banquets et fetes au Proche-Orient ancien, see the Dossiers d’archeologie 280, February 2003.) In ancient lore, however, banquets serve to focus on a critical juncture of a story (as when gods banquet at the crowning of Marduk in Enuma Elish, or when Keret is assured progeny by banqueting deities). Often they offer an ironic setting for violent acts against guests (frequent in the Bible, as in the murder of Amnon, 2 Sam. 13: 28-30, but also elsewhere as in the Hittite Gurparanzakh). Banquets also serve to punctuate different moments of an unfolding drama (as when Keret’s nobles set a destiny for his throne). They can also be used as brackets for reversal of fortune, as in the Lugalbanda tales when, left to die, the hero uses food to attract divine goodwill. In some narratives (for example, the biblical Esther and the Demotic tales of Setne Khamwas), banquets can be displayed virtuosically, punctuating major moments of a tale. Banquets, too, can be veritable storehouse of motifs: crowning (or uncrowning) of kings, clothing (or unclothing) of guests, wining friends, inebriating foes, challenging enemies, empowering kin, and altering the status of individuals (but always as thresholds for major unfolding of plots (Grottanelli 1989)).

The journey

In lore as in monumental inscriptions, the activities of kings that are most often deemed heroic and worthy of emulation are those that recount many voyages of conquest termed unique or never previously attempted. Here is what Sargon boasts (Birth ofSargon):

[For x] years I reigned as king. I ruled and governed the black-headed folk. With copper tools,

I traversed rugged mountains. I ascended high mountains and cut through low mountains. Thrice I circled the Sealands; Dilmun surrendered.. .Any king that comes after me [and compares to me] should rule for [x years], should rule the black-headed folk, should traverse rugged mountains with copper tools... (after Westenholz 1997: 42-5).

The most elaborate narratives can be built around a simple notion: someone goes far from home and then comes back. So, we might consider grist for our mill any imaginative narrative (prose, lyrical, or poetic) in which someone (or some folk) undertake distant journeys though which they acquire status, wisdom, or insight. Naturally, we must enter qualifications: the journeys must be demanding physically but possibly also psychologically (though not necessarily spiritually), with all the complications and unexpected challenges that such experiences entail. When told, it should partake something of the grand gesture and of the ceremonial. From this perspective, it is noticeable that a good number of the compositions in our list divide neatly on how pronounced or integrated is the journey as a plot structure. In some myths, the travel of gods furnishes etiologies for festival rituals (‘‘Nanna-Suen’s Journey to Nippur’’) or delivers theological or cosmological explanations (‘‘Nergal and Ereshkigal’’). Journeys are intrinsically interesting as they convey (imaginatively or not) information about distant places. They are nicely evoked in tales (Egypt’s Sinuhe and The Foredoomed Prince) and in pseudo-autobiographies (Egypt’s Travel of Wen-Amun and Tale of Woe), where they establish a remarkable carving of foreign space as imaginatively antithetical to native topography (Loprieno 2003); but they can also serve as vehicle for the heroic where they invariably also acquire a psychological dimension.

The journey is an essential component of the Sumerian tales, ostensibly about Uruk and its chief deity, Inanna, but really about its heroic rulers. However, none of our tales plots the journey conventionally. In two about Lugalbanda (Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, Enmerkar and Ensuhgirana) that are likely to belong to a single cycle, crossing space to arrive at a destination (the city of Aratta) is itself the locus of significant developments (see Vanstiphout 2002). In one (Lugalbanda in the mountain cave), abandoned by his troops to die Lugalbanda makes discoveries about his capacity to survive. In a dream sequence that itself is another journey, he learns how to deal properly with the god. (Dreams often occur bunched repetitively in narratives, among them Kessi, Gilgamesh, and frequently in the Hebrew Bible, raising the stakes for a hero who rarely interprets correctly.) In another (Lugalbanda and Enmerkar), once again left behind, Lugalbanda accepts the power of speed after showing proper respect to the great Anzu (or Imdugud, a pre-anthropomorphized urge). Later, he uses that gift to personally achieve victory over Aratta. In the two tales about Enmerkar, however, the hero does not journey between his city and Aratta, but his henchmen, messengers and magicians, do.

While not ah the Sumerian Gilgamesh tales are plotted around travel, one, Gilgamesh and Apgga, brings foes to the gate of Uruk while two others rehearse a line that will be featured in the Semitic version. Gilgamesh and Huwawa takes Gilgamesh to the ‘‘land of the living’’ where he ends Huwawa’s life, for which he earns the god Enlil’s hatred. (Although the language is Sumerian, this composition is open-ended, replaying themes and motifs developed in the Semitic Gilgamesh from which it may have been adapted, rather than the other way around.) Another tale, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World, grafts an epic segment to a mythological introduction. Here Enkidu is the traveler, becoming the eyes and ears of Gilgamesh as he reports on the Nether World. Similarly attached to a mythic initial situation is the story of Etana whose journeys to heaven and back are background to a favored theme, the immortality of the human species (but not of individuals), a theme that is at the core of the Hebrew Eden narrative (Sasson 2000). Adapa explores a somewhat similar theme, when its hero crosses boundaries and appears before the gods in heaven.

The journey is heavily invested as a plot structure in other compositions as well. Israel brackets its entire story between voyages from Babylon to the promised land: one brings Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans, the other the exiles from Babylon. Within this huge canvas, many voyages (of Jacob, of Joseph, of David) are replayed, with different import on the narratives in which they are embedded. Most ambitious among these are the trips into and out of Egypt that not only illustrate God’s saving grace, but also occasion the delivery of all the laws that Israel will ever need. In Canaanite lore, Keret launches an expedition to retrieve a destined bride and makes a vow along the way that he fails to fulfill, thus initiating reversal of his fortune. Disguised as an autobiography of confession, Sinuhe is epic in goal and proportion, centering on exploits of survival and attachment to the homeland. Fearing implication in a crime against pharaoh, Sinuhe escapes Egypt and finds status among Asiatics. Welcomed back by pharaoh, Sinuhe returns home where alone his destiny can unfold. (Such events are realistic enough to be replayed in the life of the composer John Dowland.) Interestingly, the journeys from Egypt and back contribute to the plot by embedding within their unfolding five different explanations - from at least three differing perspectives - for Sinuhe’s initial flight, and thus they permit endless speculation on his motivation.

In all its versions, the Semitic Gilgamesh is built around voyages, but most sharply so in a series where it exhibits an exceptional accent. In the first half of the epic (tablets I-VI), voyages are either generated by the plot (Enkidu’s arrival at Uruk) or heroic (journey to the cedar forest), the last stretching over a number of tablets. They are reversed in the return to Uruk and in the death of Enkidu. From that point, the voyages take on a surrealistic dimension paralleling the distraught mind of the hero. Disheveled and wasting away, Gilgamesh embodies his friend’s unpromising beginnings and for almost a third of the epic is in perpetual roaming. At the outset he begs for a dream, but in a cryptic scene whose ambiguity and centrality evoke Jacob’s Jabbok struggle, Gilgamesh rises to battle unknown enemies (his own fears?). It is conceivable that the epic’s remaining travels, to the end of the earth and beyond, are but one night’s hallucinations.


As it concerns the deeds ofheroes, real or imagined, some epics find it convenient to depict their adventures as pages (single or multiple) from their ‘‘biographies.’’ As narrated, the events carry the hero beyond specific hurdles. Ramses II, Tukulti-Ninurta, and Hattusili I (in The siege of Urshu) are among many who must surmount deceit and villainy, staples in sagas that concern kings. But protagonists must also counteract manifest lack (Sinuhe’s distance from home, Lugalbanda’s hunger and abandonment) or fulfill a need (most often, a desire for an heir, as in Keret, Aqhat, The Queen of Kanesh, and the Tale of Zalpa). Despite their potential for failure (which of course hardly ever materializes), the subjects of such biographic pages replay themes that can be paradigmatic, archetypal, or simply conventional, all meant to multiply potential linkage with their audience.

The biographies themselves can be emblematic, episodic, or melodramatic (Sasson 1984). The first, the emblematic biography, is rarest in that one specific event in the hero’s life is exposed for its parabolic potential. It is also the most contested, for such narratives skirt the epic genre and so may cogently be placed among other categories. This is the case of Adapa, wherein the hero’s personal gain (a successful appeasement of the gods) is his species’ loss (mortality assigned to human beings). In ANE literature, however, most commonly we meet with the episodic mode in which a single hero is the subject of a series of self-contained, integral tales. Characters, even plot lines, may resurface in a number of them; but no detail from one is necessary to the denouement of another. Because of its clay tablet medium, episodic narratives are perfect for Mesopotamia, so we have the Sumerian Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh tales as wed as the Akkadian stories centering on the kings of Agade. But this mode can occur also in Egypt as in the demotic stories regarding Setne Khamwas, a son of Ramses II, who acquired folk status as a seeker of secrets better left to the gods.

In biblical lore, the story of Abraham is a perfect example of the episodic biography. Between Genesis 12 and 24, we have series of tableaus that are barely dependent on a chronological sequence and oblivious to cogent transitions. But each has a specific goal, delivering diverse manifestations of the heroic character: resourceful, cunning, martial, generous, magnanimous, and argumentative, but also indecisive, duped, and henpecked.

More appealing to us is the melodramatic biography. Rather than conveying specific behavior, it explores the inner world of a hero, progressively and deliberately, achieving a portrait that is unique and non-transferable. To this mode belong such exceptional works as the standard Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical stories of Jacob and of David. This portraiture is achieved not through authorial intent but through the sophisticated editing of inherited or adapted tales. Early on, the destiny of the hero is presented (by the bard in Gilgamesh, through an oracle for Jacob, and by divine selection for David), setting a clear path toward its fulfillment. There is a tendency to shape into the narrative an emotional fault-line, with the hero undergoing major psychological transformation just as he triumphs against all odds. No sooner does Gilgamesh vanquish Humbaba than his world is jolted by the death of his companion, Enkidu. The epic shifts course at this point, moving from the realistic (battle against a foe, in an earthly setting) to the surrealistic (battle against fear, at the edges of consciousness). The same can be said about Jacob and David who have it ah before their children wreck their hopes and aspirations.