A Moral Genealogy in Literature: From Uruk to Classical Greece

May 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

The moral message of a piece of literature reflects the culture which the author belongs to. The three pieces of work here progress in chronological order. The Epic of Gilgamesh is from the early days of human civilization, by the ancient Mesopotamian city-state Uruk. Homer’s Odyssey, in contrast, was written around the 8th century B.C. during the early days of ancient Greece. Following Homer, a period defined by cultural historians to be classical antiquity ensues. Here, we find our next story Orpheus and Eurydice. Within the great literature in early civilizations these three elements are prominent: the embrace of power, an amoral attitude toward manipulation, and a favorable attitude toward sexuality. Odyssey shares some aspect of Gilgamesh’s moral, but its moral message lies between that of early human civilization and classical Greece. Finally, readers will find that classical antiquity champions emotional restraint. Gilgamesh, Odyssey, and Orpheus and Eurydice demonstrate a transition of culture from one centered around life and power to one that placed an emphasis on control of emotions because the morals of these stories progress in such an order. As a study of cases, we seek to provide insight and does not claim to generalize. The elements will be elaborated in sequential order.

The Epic and Gilgamesh demonstrates a praise of power, an amoral attitude toward manipulation, and favorable attitude toward sexuality. (Odyssey also shares the previous two elements.) We will start by examining the nature of Gilgamesh as a person who become heroes for his power, which will introduce us to the worldview that the books has. Then we shall proceed into the attitude toward sexuality implied in Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh’s deeds make him a hero because mighty acts glorify his existence and build a ceremonial tone, and by praising a man who craves for glory and life, the epic is precisely praising power. One dictionary has defined power as “ability to act or produce an effect.”(Merriam-Webster) In this regard, fame and wealth are but forms of power. Nietzsche has also argued that human’s “intrinsic Will to Power” is “is precisely the Will to life.”(Nietzsche 259) We will also use the concept of power and life interchangingly as an object of pursuit. Unsatisfied by the pleasures that his kingdom, Uruk, can provide, Gilgamesh seeks outside the wall for exploits to impress others. His expedition into the cedar forest against Humbaba is a spectacle for gathering fame, as he says, “I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled” (Gilgamesh 18). His quest for immortality is an ultimate expression of human’s lust for power. After all, being alive is the premise of exercising any power.

The seduction of Enkidu by the harlot, or priestess of love, reveals an amoral aspect of Uruk’s culture by showing its neutral stance toward manipulation. A trapper finds Enkidu in the wild and feels threatened by his ferocity. Thus, he asks his father for help, who answers, “Go to Uruk, find Gilgamesh, extol the strength of this wild man. Ask him to give you a harlot, a wanton from the temple of love; return with her, and let her woman’s power overpower this man” (Gilgamesh 14). Then the trapper indeed goes to find Gilgamesh and, just shortly after he has explained his plight to him, Gilgamesh also voluntarily proposes the same trickery that the hunter’s father brings up, as he says, “Trapper, go back, take with you a harlot, a child of pleasure… he will embrace her and the game of wilderness will surely reject him” (Gilgamesh 14). We see here that the trapper’s father and Gilgamesh share the same outlook in handling the situation. It seems to them not just fine, but almost as a rule, that to subdue a wild man one should use a harlot to seduce such him. This aspect of their culture stands in contrast with our modern morality, as while seduction has been deployed in statecraft and espionage, we hardly see this tactic as a part of our normal life. Arguably, for the people of Uruk, manipulation does not have a negative connotation to it. The amoral attitude toward manipulation is, in fact, a part of Uruk’s power-centered culture. To put it in ordinary English, if it gets the job done, don’t question how it happened.

While the priestess of love here serves to seduce, her post also has a higher meaning because the culture of ancient Uruk is one that embraces life(or power). From the fact that Uruk has temples of love in the epic, it is clear that sex and love might be a source of divine connection for the people of that society. As for what it is connecting to, the answer necessarily revolves around what they embrace – power and life. Admittedly, the relationship between Enkidu and the priestess of love also brings the burden of culture to Enkidu, as he “was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart”(Gilgamesh 15). However, it does not interfere with the ultimate point. Rather than weakening Enkidu, per se, his relationship with the harlot is evoking in Enkidu the aspects of humanity that he didn’t manage to fulfill before meeting her. Enkidu “longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart”(Gilgamesh 15). and precisely this need is only addressed with the help of the priestess of love, as she says, “O Enkidu, you who love life, I will show you Gilgamesh”(Gilgamesh 15). Enkidu thrives because of his encounter with the woman. Before his death, god Shamash points out to Enkidu that he has gained more than he would have in the wild by meeting the harlot, “who taught… to eat bread fit for gods and drink wine of kings.” In contrast, when Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s love, he faces punishment from god Anu, which eventually leads to the death of his companion Enkidu. In short, love and sexuality are to be praised in the epic.

Odyssey reveals a transitional moral in early Greece by praising both power and restraint. Odysseus(or Ulysses) is quite a trickster hero, as he presents himself in Book IX as “…Ulysses son of Laertes, renowned among mankind for all manner of subtlety”(Odyssey Book IX 1). However, whether by wit or by force, power is still power. Boox IX of Odyssey is mostly about Odysseus and his crew’s encounter with the Cyclopes, Polyphemus, and their escape from its cave. After two of his men are eaten by the Cyclopes, Odysseus remains calm about their death and talks Polyphemus into dozing on wine, “Look here, Cyclops… you have been eating a great deal of man’s flesh, so take and drink some wine…” He is a master of persuasion too, as he uses guilt against the Cyclopes, claiming that “he was bringing it to you as a drink offering… whereas all you do is to go on ramping and raving most intolerably… You ought to be ashamed yourself”(Odyssey Book IX 4). We celebrate the Odyssey because of many similar instances like this where Odysseus’ cleverness and charisma bring him victory. Evidence for a power-centered culture is implicit in Odysseus’ character. We also find direct evidence that, at one point, Odysseus simply tells his crew to stay, while he will go to the Cyclopes’ island with his own ship to “exploit these people”(Odyssey Book IX 3). The way Odysseus operates seems to suggest that morality is not concerned here as it is a world of all-against-all. No wonder the power to deceive is praised in the story. Patience plays a great role in Odysseus’ victory over the Cyclopes too. Odysseus “at first was inclined to seize [his] sword” after Polyphemus has eaten two of his men, but he reflects and decides that they “should all certainly be lost, for [they] should never be able to shift the stone which the monster had put in front of the door.” Thus, they wait until the morning. After the Cyclopes goes to shepherd his sheep, Odysseus ordered his men to sharpen a piece of wood into a weapon, with which they are able to blind the giant in his drunkenness. The meticulous plan of Odysseus shows self-restraint in front of danger and threat. Only with the combination of power and restraint is Odysseus able to escape from the cave.

The end of a story always has something to say about its moral. In Odyssey, despite many affronts to the gods, the protagonist’s story still has a good ending. Odysseus has angered Poseidon countless times, but he still ends up returning to his city and family. Having blinded Poseidon’s son Polyphemus, the giant pleads to his father to “grant that Ulysses may never reach his home alive”(Odyssey Book IX 6). Responding to his son’s request, Poseidon “picked up a rock much larger than the first, swung it aloft and hurled it with prodigious force,” although the rock “just fell short of the ship, but was within a little of hitting the end of the rudder”(Odyssey Book IX 7). This coincidence is representative for the book in general: man is able to walk on the edge, as long as his wit and virtues afford him. Behind this certainly is not a culture of restraint, but of power.

In contrast with the praise of power that we have seen in earlier times in human civilization, works in the Classical era tend to have a moral of restraint. In Orpheus and Eurydice, while the gods still allow for exception, it is the failure to obey the gods that leads Orpheus to his doom. This end tells a different story than Odyssey or Gilgamesh. Orpheus seeks to recover his lover from the underworld by asking the Lord of the Dead Hades for an exception. He has a form of power, musical genius, that is highly centered around human culture and is apparently weaker than Gilgamesh’s strength and Odysseus’s cunning. His lyre does manage to “[draw] iron tears down Pluto’s cheek, and made Hell grant what Love did seek”(Orpheus 1). Hades, or Pluto, does agree to his request, but under very peculiar conditions which Orpheus fails to fulfill: “that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they had reached the upper world”(Orpheus 2). One way to interpret this condition might be that Hades want to see if Orpheus can take Hades for his word and indeed believe that Eurydice is following him as he leaves, in a test of trust and respect. However, that is unlikely, since gods’ promises are almost always fulfilled in tales and they do not demand the trust of a mortal as much as we do. Thus, it is safe to assume that this plot is almost certainly added to the tale to make a point. Orpheus has two flaws here: first, he is insecure, incapable of restraining his love in order to fulfill a rational goal; second, he lacks the patience that Odysseus has as he looks back when “he had stepped out joyfully into the daylight”(Orpheus 2). The story’s ending punishes Orpheus for his excesses, condemning him to death in solitude and madness, as “he wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace, comfortless except for his lyre.”(Orpheus 2) The moral here is clear: expressions of emotions shall be restrained.

The different morals we see in these three pieces of literature are consistent with the settling-down of human society, as Gilgamesh was written in a more chaotic time than Odyssey. The morality we have today is a fruit of a long dialectic process and, at its start, it progresses from power to restraint (while leaving power to the hands of gods). Nowadays, while our culture is primarily based on that of Greece, we have also regained some of the instinctive elements from Gilgamesh’s time, most evident in America’s individualism.

Works Cited

“Power.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power/. Accessed 26 September 2017.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter A. Kaufmann. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.

Lawall, Sarah N., and Maynard Mack. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: the Western Tradition. W.W. Norton, 1999.

Homer. Odyssey Book IX. The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays & Summaries, www.online-literature.com/homer/odyssey/4/.Accessed 6 July 2016.

Hamilton, Edith. Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/eurydice/eurydicemyth.html/. Accessed 6 July 2016.

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