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Reflections on Epic Literature and the Pitfalls of History

Reflections on Epic Literature and the Pitfalls of History

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Published by Julian Scutts

Two essays

Two essays

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Julian Scutts on Nov 19, 2012
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09/17/2013

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Gilgamesh, Samson, Ulysses, Aeneas, and other Solar Heroes
 The epic of Gilgamesh predates the works of Homer by about one thousand fivehundred years. Its antiquity explains another of its unique features – its centrality withregard to the world of the Bible and that of ancient Greece and Rome. Of course, themythology on which the story of Gilgamesh is based does not accord with themonotheism of the Bible. Even in Genesis however the supreme God manifests a certainmeasure of plurality as indicated by the name
 Elohim
, formed in the plural. According tothe Rabbis the seventy translators of the Bible who produced the so-called Septuagintagreed that in Greek the word rendering Elohim should be in the singular to forestall anytendency to associate the God of the Hebrews with polytheistic notions current in theGreek world. Rabbinic commentators explain the plural reference to the Elohim as ‘We’in terms of the collegiate nature of the Court of Heaven in which God promotes the principle of consent in preference to issuing purely authoritarian decrees.In one regard, at least, the central issues thrown up by the epic transcend the divide between the monotheism of the Bible and the polytheism of Greece. Gilgamesh, whosefather is Shamesh the sun-god, has a dual nature with both divine and humancharacteristics. He cannot therefore be satisfied with material concerns and values butrestlessly seeks the eternal and an assurance of personal immortality. This, in terms of thenarrative, he almost secures by plucking a sacred herb from the ocean bed but a serpentsteals it from him when he is off his guard. One notes a parallel between the account of this incident and the role of the serpent in the biblical story of Eden.Let us consider further the fundamental affinities shared by motifs found in the epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible and the epics of classical Greek and Roman literature despitedifferences between them subject to issues of theology, ideology or culture. The epic of Gilgamesh contains the earliest known version of the Deluge story, long predating the biblical accounts about Noah and the Ark and Ovid’s account of Deucalion’s flood.Gilgamesh, Samson and Hercules in various ways evince a kinship with the power of thesun, a relationship that Jung explains in terms of the symbolism inhering in themanifestations of ‘the solar hero’ representing the male libidinal urge to achieve unionwith the anima, the Eternal Female. This insight is corroborated by Robert Graves in thefollowing passage found in
The Greek Myths:2
(Penguin Paperback), 88-89.It may be assumed that the central story of Heracles was an early variant of theBabylonian Gilgamesh epic – which reached Greece by way of Phoenicia. G hasEnkidu for a beloved comrade, Heracles has Iolaus. Gilgamesh is undone by hislove for the goddess Ishtar, Heracles by his love for Deianeira. Both are of divine parentage. Both harrow Hell. Both kill lions and overcome divine bulls, and whensailing to the Western Isle Heracles, like Gilgamesh, uses his garment for a sail.Heracles finds the magic herb of immortality,.as Gilgamesh. does, and is similarlyconnected with the progress of the sun around the Zodiac.Samson and Heracles present particularly clear cases of the solar hero. However, Jung
 
sees this figure in the many great wanderers that populate the ancient epics of Greece andRome. The wanderer typically encounters grave menaces and challenges involving theslaying of some hideous monster or the thwarting of the seductive designs of a beautifulfemale, who is sometimes a goddess or a witch. In the epic of Gilgamesh the seductress isthe goddess Ishtar, whose sexual advances find a parallel in those of Venus when she hasdesigns on the chastity of Adonis. The quest is typically represented as a journeyinvolving a period of traversing a realm of night and darkness analogous to the image of the sun’s passage through night, sometimes pictured as a great ocean in the west. In theclassic tradition as in the epic of Gilgamesh the realm of night is also the underworld of departed souls. Many of the figures known to us in Greek mythology such as Charon theferryman plying his boat between the realms of the living and the dead find precedents inthe Gilgamesh epic. A horrific vision of the underworld is presented in a dreamexperienced by Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s fraternal comrade when mortally stricken. In this he perceives the souls of the departed as birdlike beings feeding on dust in a place of remorseless gloom. Clarence’s predeath vision of the underworld offers an interesting parallel.In the Hebrew Bible descriptions of the underworld are absent, not being compatiblewith a scriptural reluctance to divert attention from the practical this-worldly concernsand demands of religious practice. However, at least in allegoric terms the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai involve a passage through the domain of death.According to Carl Jung’s analysis the wanderer’s quest to achieve union with the animais fraught with a daunting ambiguity as the anima conflates both the maternal andconjugal aspects of the anima, the eternally female. The role of Ishtar in this role hasalready been noted. The same confusion gives rise to a fear of committing incest, adanger that Oedipus did not avoid. His fate, though the result of his ignorance, imposeson him an incurable sense of guilt. Samson, whose very name points to his closeassociation with the sun, ultimately suffers being blinded, the fate meted to Oedipus. Assolar heroes they are deprived of light, the symbol of their motive force, the sun. Gravesargued that Samson’s fate of losing strength after being shorn also reflects a pattern of solar images that permeate his story, as hair represents the rays that emanate from the sun p.63 , 185 Samson does not of course wed his mother or literally commit incest.However, Delilah (night), his
 femme fatale
, personifies a tainted relationship between aman and a woman, tainted, that is, according to the prevailing set of mores that informsthe narrative, for she is seen as a temptress, a hostile alien, the quintessential
 shikse
. In asimilar framework solar wanderers encounter a series of aberrant, disreputable or hopelessly incompatible women. Potiphar’s wife is the bane of Joseph, who once dreamsof being the central object of homage in the celestial sphere; the prostitute Rahab is theunlikely protector of Joshua, one able to arrest the progress of the sun. On the classicalside, Circe temporarily ensnares Ulysses and Dido detains Aeneas though she is the onewho incurs a tragic fate, an omen of Carthage’s ultimate destruction. Aeneas’ descentinto the underworld imparts vatic powers to foresee the coming greatness of the Romanempire. In the light of Jung’s theory of the Unconscious, in all such cases revealing theincongruity between a male and female lies the Oedipus complex with its deep-seatedfear of incest, of losing the power to distinguish mother and lover.
 
Dante's Divine Comedy poses a case of introversion, in particular the introversion of the Homeric epic and the
 Aeniad 
. Introversion arises when one author adapts the model provided by another author to his or her own aesthetic needs and purposes. This meanscontinuing and altering the same material provided by literary tradition. In the case weare considering an element of continuity resides in the fact that the spirit of Vergilaccompanies Dante, or the projection of Dante as speaker and witness, in depictions of excursions into the realms of Purgatory and Hell in
The Divine Comedy
. It is of courseBeatrice who guides Dante through Paradise.Even the most phantastic intrusions into worlds beyond or outside the physical world of daytime experience take their departure from a walk, the act of wandering in a naturalsetting, the hills of Malvern, Dante's dark forest, Bunyan's or Alice's Englishcountryside, where the respective narrator falls asleep and then dreams. Introversion alsoinvolves the selection and massive expansion of some element suggested by an episodefound in an earlier works. The descent into the underworld that forms a relatively smallcomponent of Homer's
Odyssey
or Vergil's
 Aenead 
becomes the entire arena of theDivine Comedy, except for the vestigal depiction of a walk on the surface of the earththat serves as a brief introduction to Dante's work. The
 Divine Comedy
set a trend that has been continued and refashioned in the epicworks of Milton, the Romantics, Victor Hugo and in fantasy literature in general. PerhapsWilliam Blake's distinction between "the mental traveller" and the "cold-earth wanderer"in "The Mental Traveller" points to the two options that any creative writer may choose between. Either you describe the familiar world with its common objects and sights andallow these to serve as emblems of things eternal and universal or you enter the domainof dreams and visions, directly as it were. As Erich Auerbach noted in
 Mimesis,
the
 Divine Comedy
effectively proves a vehicle of the sharpest social and political criticism,not least because in the closed domain of the afterworld things are shown to be what theyare without the possibility of a revision subject to the laws of progress and evolution. Thesame principle underlied Blake's vision of the human condition in "London." All thissuggests that any exploration of universal truth, or at least any hopeful endeavour to pursue such an exploration, must engage the mind's so-called daytime faculties and theunconscious, the domain of dreams and wandering thought, irrespective of the strategiesof a mental traveller or a cold-earth wanderer.
Four Fallacies to which the Process of History is Subject
Fallacy Number One: It is always a good idea to support my enemy’s enemy
.Louis XVI of France supported the American Revolution despite the lack of any shared political outlook uniting the monarch and the American revolutionaries. In fact Frenchmilitary support for the cause of American independence undermined the French

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