Epic Poems: “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, “The Iliad”, and “One Thousand and One Nights” Essay
Most epic poems present long descriptions of events that are important to certain periods in history. In addition, epic poems present readers with a detailed analysis of heroic conquests as they unfold. Most epic poetry is either primary or secondary in nature. Primary epics focus on heroes’ exploits from a firsthand account while secondary epics are mostly recreations of the author. In “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, the poem details the heroic actions of the main character with the view of incorporating them into history.
On the other hand, in the epic poem “The Iliad” the author is concerned with the heroic exploits of Achilles in the contexts of death and immortality. The main hero in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is concerned with his own immortality throughout the entire story. This situation mirrors that of “The Iliad” where the hero is seeking to replace his mortal self with an immortal version of himself that can only be achieved after death. The heroes in both “The Iliad” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh” have elements of divinity and they have partners who are almost similar in nature as seen through the characters of Enkidu and Patroclus.
On the contrary, “One Thousand and One Nights” is written using the context of the Arabic and Indian cultures. However, most of the stories in “One Thousand and One Nights” do not primarily adhere to the epic genre but they have epic-like elements. For instance, in “One Thousand and One Nights”, the themes of death, immortality, and love are evident. These themes are also heavily featured in both “The Iliad” and “Gilgamesh”. There are various similarities and differences between these three literary works; “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, “The Iliad”, and “One Thousand and One Nights”.
The most striking stylistic aspect in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is that the book is historically significant. Unlike other mythological accounts such as the one in the “The Iliad”, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” presents facts of an actual society that existed around 2700 B.C. The exploits of the hero and his society in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” reflect those of a king who ruled over an ancient Sumerian society. Some aspects of the plot in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” are also cited for having similarities with the Book of Genesis in biblical accounts. The story of Gilgamesh is quite rich in elements of symbolism and mythology.
Although the story was discovered several centuries ago, it mostly resonated with the Victorian society. Nevertheless, the story of Gilgamesh is cited for having various omissions and unfamiliar plots. These factors have not prevented the story from becoming a main staple in the modern society. The “Epic of Gilgamesh is subdivided into tablets and this coincides with the fact that most of the story was discovered by archeologists in parts. The oral transmissions that are used in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” are not strange to modern literature because they adhere to several aspects of Greek mythology.
The only difference between “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and most other literary works of Greek mythology is that Gilgamesh’s exploits have a viable historical context. Some of the aspects of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” are eerily comparable to the chronicle of Noah and the Ark as it appears in the Biblical accounts. Consequently, observers have questioned which of the two stories borrowed from the other or whether both accounts are borrowed from an older literary account.
On the other hand, “The Iliad” is considered to be one of the most complete works of the epic poetry genre. Both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are Homer’s most-known literary works and they are also the most read Greek mythologies. “The Iliad” is a product of oral literature that was passed down in history by storytellers and other narrators. This method of transmission is different from that of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, that was written in tablets. However, the transmission mode is somehow similar to that of a “Thousand and One Nights” which for a large part was carried down in oral terms until it was finally written. The modern literary world has embraced “The Iliad” as a classic work of literature and it is the most significant of Greek Mythologies.
For a long time “One Thousand and One Nights” has been the most significant work of Arabic and Indian origins. Readers are offered a rare insight into the ancient Arabic culture through the “One Thousand and One Nights”. This collection is also rich in various forms of literature because although most of the book is in prose, some parts feature poetry and music. The main difference between the collection of “One Thousand and One Nights” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh” or Homer’s “The Iliad” is that the collection was written through the efforts of several writers, translators, and researchers across North Africa and part of India.
Consequently, the “One Thousand and One Nights” does not reflect the literary styles of a single culture but those of an entire civilization and culture. Most of the stories that are included in “One Thousand and One Nights” represent the Caliphate era and its peculiar elements. There are diverse genres in the stories that are contained in “One Thousand and One Nights”. However, “most of these stories can be traced back to the ancient Mesopotamian, Arabic, Persian, Egyptian, and Indian literature” (Gerhardt 76).
It is important to note that most of the stories that are contained in “One Thousand and One Nights” are derived from other tales. This development is an effect of oral translations and the fact that translators and writers of “One Thousand and One Nights” used a framing story to derive the other stories. In the original story, the main characters are Shahryar or the overall ruler, and Scheherazade, the overall ruler’s wife.
There are striking similarities between both the mythical accounts of Gilgamesh and Homer’s “The Iliad”. For instance, the heroes in both stories go through similar experiences of leadership. Gilgamesh the hero is a character who is involved in both physical and mythical exploits. Gilgamesh traverses the worlds of both mortals and spiritual beings (Sandars 4). The hero in Gilgamesh is involved in a number of epic encounters when his situation is compared to that of ordinary Greek mythological main character. However, through Gilgamesh the readers are offered a rare insight into the conflict between death and immortality.
The hero who is presented in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” has survived through various aspects of the Sumerian civilization. While Gilgamesh existed as early as 2700 B.C, the events surrounding Homer’s characters happened a few hundred years later. Achilles and Odysseus both interact with readers in human and spiritual fronts. However, their insight into the elements of death and immortality are not as comprehensive and detailed as the ones that are presented through Gilgamesh. Although the exploits of Gilgamesh are presented in forms of tablets, the author is able to highlight recurring themes in these short stories. When the episodes of King Gilgamesh’s exploits are presented in detail, they reveal the image of a heroic leader who undergoes through several transformations in life. By the end of Gilgamesh’s journey, the heroic king has reconciled with the rest of the world.
It is important to note that the King’s change in attitude and subsequent enlightenment in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” comes from the death of his comrade Enkidu. On the other hand, Enkidu’s character as a conqueror alongside the king does not change throughout the epic’s episodes. The same pattern is replicated in “The Iliad” where the character of Achilles follows through a similar path of heroism (Homer 3). Achilles’ partner is Patroclus, who is a constant factor in the hero’s exploits, and whose loss changes the perspective of the main character.
Gilgamesh and Achilles are divine rulers in their own right and they are also crossbreeds of gods and mortals. The origins of the two rulers are only mentioned and they are not a major part of these epics. In addition, both heroes have divine abilities to communicate with gods. In the unfolding events of these stories, the heroes’ fathers (the King of Uruk and the god Thetis) do not play any major roles. On the other hand, the heroes are not preoccupied with romantic attachments and their only allegiances are to their mothers and comrades. The epics also reiterate the need for wisdom and development among these heroes.
Most of the heroes in “One Thousand and One Nights” follow different paths in their journeys because conquering is often as a result of wit and wisdom, and not divinity. In addition, most Arabian heroes are under the mercy of gods and they are not part of these deities. Nevertheless, the themes of idolatry and obedience to gods are evident in Gilgamesh, Achilles, and Arab’s societies. Immortality in most tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” is closely tied with religious assignments and general wisdom. The kings’ ability to circumnavigate through challenging and complex life situations is a key component in most ancient epics.
The framing story in “One Thousand and One Nights” involves a condemned Queen narrating stories to the King with the view of delaying her execution (Mahdi 6). This form of wit is the central premise in most of the consequent stories where characters use wisdom to get out of complex situations. On the other hand, Gilgamesh and Achilles navigate through life using sheer military power and the favor of gods.
The issue of emotion versus reason is addressed in all the three texts. In “One Thousand and One Nights”, these two aspects are merged to constitute viable solutions to the main characters. Nevertheless, emotions play a vital role in the stories of “One Thousand and One Nights” because they are used to convey the message of ‘destiny’ to the readers. Most stories in this collection begin with the main character being confronted by destiny and continue when the main character uses other tools to deal with his/her destiny. In the case of both Achilles and Gilgamesh, reason takes a back seat and it is presided over by the emotions of these main characters. For instance, the temperament of the hero in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” outlines the direction that is taken by his story. However, in the end Gilgamesh resorts to reason to make conclusions about life and immortality.
Gerhardt, Mia Irene. The Art of Story-Telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights, New York: Brill Archive, 1963. Print.
Homer, Unkown. The Iliad-Translated by Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.
Mahdi, Moses. The thousand and one nights, New York: Brill, 1995. Print.
Sandars, Nancy. The epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin, New York: Penguin Books, 1972. Print.
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