Saturday, October 17, 2009
As some of you know, I've been taking a Mythology course at DMACC this fall. A large fraction of the course is dedicated to online discussion questions. My responses to date have been posted. I've also reproduced a summary of each myth to facilitate discussion. Let me know what you think!
Medea is such a rich, complex character. If Euripides was interested in psychological realism, he certainly succeeds with conflicted, magical, magnificent Medea. Is she wife material, however? I have been married for seven years now, so I have a real flesh-and-blood woman as a point of reference.
In my view, character is everything when considering with whom to spend your life. Medea exhibits strengths and weaknesses on this point. Her fierce loyalty to Jason is on display throughout "Jason and the Golden Fleece" and "Medea." She is willing to leave her home in Colchis to become "a stranger in a strange land" in Hellas (197). All she asks is that Jason give her his word that he will remember her help in capturing the Golden Fleece (197). When Aeetes threatens the Argo, Medea is willing to sacrifice her own brother to save Jason: "For we must push little Apsyrtus into the grasping hands of Thanatos!" (216). Endlessly resourceful, Medea disguises herself as a priest of Artemis in order to help Jason remove Pelias from the throne of Iolcus (221).
Medea asks for only one thing from Jason in exchange for all of this: faithfulness. This is, of course, too much to ask for the supremely fickle Jason. When Jason breaks his wedding vow to marry Glauce, he unleashes the darker side of Medea's character (227). Suddenly, Medea's love turns to hate. She cannot bear to be mocked: "For I cannot let Jason abuse me! Or he will laugh at me ... And wherever I walk upon Mother Gaea, I will hear it mock me." (237). Medea then turns all her considerable creativity and power towards making Jason suffer. First, she murders Glauce and King Creon (239). Then, to leave Jason utterly alone in the world and despite the protests of a mother's heart, she kills her sons as well (239).
While I admire Medea's courage and loyalty, I would be afraid to marry someone capable of "such reckless hate" (Tolkien, "The Two Towers"). Though I like to believe that I would never betray Medea like Jason did, everyone makes mistakes. Forgiveness is essential to any healthy relationship, especially a marriage.
My gut feeling is that Medea is neither completely good nor completely evil; she is simply human. She is truly one of us.
Medea is clearly a conflicted, complex character. Though she ultimately kills her brother and her children, their deaths exact a terrible personal cost. The decision to kill her children is excruciating. Euripides pulls back the curtain of her mind to reveal the battle between a mother's devotion to her children and a jilted lover's lust for revenge. "Why should I deprive them of their growing up, their wedding, and their happy times? For they carry no blame upon their small shoulders! And surely this unspeakable deed would hurt me twice as much as it would hurt Jason!" (237). Medea will not be mocked: "Everyone will laugh at me!" (237). In the end, her anger drives her to kill her own children (239).
Jody Foster as an American woman who understands Medea's need for vengeance. While I have no reason believe that Foster herself is vengeful, her performance in the 2007 film "The Brave One" convinced me that she would understand Medea. Foster played an NPR-inspired radio host named Erica Bain. Bain and her boyfriend are brutally beaten by New York thugs. Her boyfriend eventually succumbs to his injuries and dies. Before becoming a victim of crime, Foster's character was an idealistic, sunny optimist. Instead of retreating from the world, Bain finds a "stranger inside her" that longs for only one thing: revenge. Erica buys a gun and pursues a life of vigilante justice.
Erica Bain and Medea eventually get revenge on the people who wronged them. Neither character finds healing or solace in their vengeance, however. Erica Bain is asked how a person recovers from being the victim of a crime so terrible. Her response is, "You don't."
The following summary of Medea is due to SparkNotes.
Euripedes' Medea opens in a state of conflict. Jason has abandoned his wife, Medea, along with their two children. He hopes to advance his station by remarrying with Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, the Greek city where the play is set. All the events of play proceed out of this initial dilemma, and the involved parties become its central characters.
Outside the royal palace, a nurse laments the events that have lead to the present crisis. After a long series of trials and adventures, which ultimately forced Jason and Medea to seek exile in Corinth, the pair had settled down and established their family, achieving a degree of fame and respectability. Jason's recent abandonment of that family has crushed Medea emotionally, to the degree that she curses her own existence, as well as that of her two children.
Fearing a possible plot of revenge, Creon banishes Medea and her children from the city. After pleading for mercy, Medea is granted one day before she must leave, during which she plans to complete her quest for "justice"--at this stage in her thinking, the murder of Creon, Glauce, and Jason. Jason accuses Medea of overreacting. By voicing her grievances so publicly, she has endangered her life and that of their children. He claims that his decision to remarry was in everyone's best interest. Medea finds him spineless, and she refuses to accept his token offers of help.
Appearing by chance in Corinth, Aegeus, King of Athens, offers Medea sanctuary in his home city in exchange for her knowledge of certain drugs that can cure his sterility. Now guaranteed an eventual haven in Athens, Medea has cleared all obstacles to completing her revenge, a plan which grows to include the murder of her own children; the pain their loss will cause her does not outweigh the satisfaction she will feel in making Jason suffer.
For the balance of the play, Medea engages in a ruse; she pretends to sympathize with Jason (bringing him into her confidence) and offers his wife "gifts," a coronet and dress. Ostensibly, the gifts are meant to convince Glauce to ask her father to allow the children to stay in Corinth. The coronet and dress are actually poisoned, however, and their delivery causes Glauce's death. Seeing his daughter ravaged by the poison, Creon chooses to die by her side by dramatically embracing her and absorbing the poison himself.
A messenger recounts the gruesome details of these deaths, which Medea absorbs with cool attentiveness. Her earlier state of anxiety, which intensified as she struggled with the decision to commit infanticide, has now given way to an assured determination to fulfill her plans. Against the protests of the chorus, Medea murders her children and flees the scene in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her grandfather, the Sun-God. Jason is left cursing his lot; his hope of advancing his station by abandoning Medea and marrying Glauce, the conflict which opened the play, has been annihilated, and everything he values has been lost through the deaths that conclude the tragedy.
The issue of whether or not Medea is responsible for her actions is central to understanding "Jason and the Golden Fleece." There are two possibilities. The first is that Medea is a puppet of the gods. In this case, "Jason" is really a story about how Hera exacts revenge on Pelias. The second is that Medea, while influenced by Hera, ultimately chooses to side with Jason out of love. In this case, "Jason" is about Medea's devotion.
The answer to this question hinges on whether or not the gods are irresistible. Dr. Rosenberg addresses this question in the introduction to the "Illiad." She indicates, "Even though the gods may give advice or help, a mortal's actions in response to any given situation are determined by his or her own personality and ability. Consequently, a mortal's fate is created by the interaction between personality and situation. Because the Homeric gods are not all-powerful, mortals can be dignified, morally responsible, and important. The world of ancient Greece contains no puppets" (123).
Let's look at the text of "Jason" to see if there is a reading that supports this view.
In fairness, Medea's love for Jason begins with divine interference when Eros shoots her with an arrow (180). After this, the relationship between the actions of the gods and of Medea becomes more complicated. On pages 186 and 187, Medea wrestles with the choice to help Jason or to remain loyal to her father. She becomes so distraught that she even considers suicide (186). Hera intervenes and renews her will to live. Medea, however, makes the choice to "save the man I love" (187).
Ultimately, Medea's own skills and talents enable her to aid Jason in his quest. She uses her magic to dismember Jason (191), her herbs protect him when he fights the bulls (193), and her spell sends the dragon to sleep (199). Without Medea's active, willful participation, the quest for the Fleece would have ended in disaster. In summary, I believe that while Medea is influenced by the gods, her most important choices remain her own.
The mythology surrounding the character Faust has enjoyed a number of pop culture incarnations, including the 1967 film "Dr. Faustus" starring Richard Burton. The film is based on Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" and provides us with a perfect example of the cycle of arete, hubris, ate, and nemesis. In my view, Marlowe's play is one of the most under appreciated works of English literature. Faust is a brilliant man who seems to have mastered many disciplines (arete). The story opens with Faust rejecting the limitations of traditional sources of knowledge: "Aristotle on logic, Galen on medicine, the Byzantine emperor Justinian on law, and the Bible on religion" (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). Faust is not satisfied with the knowledge available to unaided Man and turns to black magic (hubris). Listen to Faust himself:
"All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind, or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this [sorcery]
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man:
A sound magician is a mighty god" (Marlowe 994).
Faust's thirst of the power of knowledge is so great that he sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for the service of a devil named Mephastophilis for twenty-four years (ate). Mephastophilis reveals the hidden nature of the Universe, but refuses to tell Faust who created the world. Faust travels the world, but instead of using his new found knowledge for the benefit of mankind, is reduced to playing practical jokes (SparkNotes, Doctor Faustus). As the end of the twenty-four years approaches, Faust begins to regret his choice. He begs for deliverance: "O God, if thou wilt not have mercy on my soul, Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransomed me" (Marlowe, 1022). In the end, a group of devils drag Faust of to hell (nemesis). Here are his chilling last words: "Ugly hell gape not! Come not, Lucifer! I'll burn my books-ah, Mephastophilis!" (Marlowe, 1023).
"Doctor Faustus." SparkNotes.
Marlowe, Christopher. "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Seventh Edition. Vol. I. New York: Norton, 2000.
Medea is the real reason for the success of the quest for the Golden Fleece. Despite her fear of dishonoring her family, Medea decides to help Jason (186-187). Jason is able to withstand the fire of the bulls' breath because of the herbs the Medea provides (193). Jason possesses the strength to yoke the bulls and plow the field because of Medea's magic (191). Jason tricks the "earth-born warriors" into killing each other because of Medea's advice to throw a stone into their midst (195). Finally, Medea warns Jason of Aeetes' treachery and leads him to the Golden Fleece (197). Without Medea's skills and courage, the quest would have been a dismal failure.
Jason does not rely upon himself alone to accomplish his quest for the Fleece. The key to Jason's success is his ability to delegate tasks to others and convince them to accomplish their task. I don't believe that he is successful in this endeavor because of any particular personal quality. The crew of the Argo simply understands that they all need to contribute something for them to accomplish the quest. For instance, no particular rhetorical skill or personal charm convinces the sons of Boreas to attack the harpies. They simply have the skills to do the job. "And it came to pass that, swift as the wind, the sons of Boreas rose to meet the Harpies" (177). Later, Medea would not have helped Jason if Aphrodite had not directed Eros to cause Medea to fall in love with Jason. "'Foam-born Aphrodite must have her son, Eros - whose love-inspiring arrows flood even the hearts of the Olympian gods with fear - aim his bow at King Aeetes' maiden daughter'" (178). Jason simply benefits from Hera's desire to punish Pelias.
The following is a summary of Edith Hamilton's take on Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius of Rhodes (SparkNotes).
Hamilton’s account of the Golden Fleece comes from Apollonius of Rhodes, a Greek poet from about 300 b.c. Athamas, a king, gets tired of his first wife, Nephele, and marries a second, Ino. Ino wants Nephele’s son, Phrixus, out of the way so her own son can inherit the throne. Hermes sends a flying golden ram to rescue Phrixus and his sister, Helle, who falls off the ram and dies. Phrixus safely reaches the land of Colchis, where he sacrifices the ram to Zeus and gives its skin—the Golden Fleece—to Colchis’s king, Aetes.
Meanwhile, a man named Pelias has usurped the throne of Phrixus’s uncle, a Greek king. Jason, the deposed king’s son, grows up and returns to reclaim the throne. En route to Pelias’s kingdom, Jason loses a sandal. Pelias is afraid when he sees Jason approach, as an oracle has told him that he will be overthrown by a stranger wearing only one sandal. The wicked Pelias pretends to acquiesce but says that the gods have told him that the Golden Fleece must be retrieved for the kingdom first. This is a lie—Pelias assumes that anyone sent on that dangerous journey will never come back. Jason, intrigued by the challenge, assembles a remarkable group of heroes to help him, including Hercules, Theseus, Peleus, and Orpheus. Their ship is named the Argo, so the group is called the Argonauts.
The Argonauts face many challenges on the way to Colchis. They first meet the fierce women of Lemnos, who have killed their men, but find them atypically kind. Hercules leaves the crew, and the Argonauts meet an oracle, Phineus. The sons of Boreas, the North Wind, help Phineus by driving off some terrible Harpies who foul his food whenever he tries to eat. Phineus gives the Argonauts information that helps them pass safely through their next challenge—the Symplegades, gigantic rocks that smash together when a ship sail through them. After narrowly avoiding conflict with the Amazons, bloody women warriors, and passing by the chained Prometheus, the Argonauts finally arrive at Colchis.
Though more trials await here, Hera and Aphrodite help Jason. Like Pelias, Aetes pretends to want to give Jason the Fleece but first demands that he complete two tasks that are designed to kill him. Aphrodite sends Cupid to make Aetes’s daughter, a witch named Medea, fall in love with Jason and help him through the tasks. The first challenge is to yoke two fierce magical bulls with hooves of bronze and breath of fire, and Medea gives Jason an ointment that makes him invincible. The second task is to use the bulls to plow a field and sow it with dragon’s teeth, which causes armed men to spring up from the earth and attack Jason. Medea tells him that if he throws a rock in the middle of the armed men, they will attack each other, not him. After Jason’s success, Aetes plots to kill the Argonauts at night, but Medea again intercedes, warning Jason and enabling him to steal the Fleece by putting its guardian serpent to sleep. Medea joins the Argonauts and flees back to Greece. On the way home, she commits the ultimate act of love for Jason: to help evade the ship’s pursuers, she kills her own brother, Apsyrtus.
On the way home, the Argonauts pass more challenges, including safely navigating Scylla, the dreaded rock; Charybdis, the whirlpool; and Talus, the giant bronze man. Upon returning, Jason finds that Pelias has killed his father and that his mother has died of sadness. Jason and Medea plot revenge—Medea convinces Pelias’s daughters that they will restore Pelias to youth if they kill him, chop him up, and put the pieces into her magic pot. Out of love for their father, they slice him to bits, but Medea leaves the city, taking her magic pot with her after first restoring Jason’s father to life.
Medea and Jason have two children, but Jason leaves out of personal ambition to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth, who banishes Medea and her children. Infuriated by the unsympathetic Jason, Medea enacts a terrible revenge, sending her two sons with a beautiful magic robe as a gift for Jason’s new bride. When the girl dons the robe, it bursts into flame, consuming her and the king as he rushes to her. Medea then kills the two sons she had with Jason and flies away on a magic chariot. This tragic final chapter in the story of Jason and Medea is the subject of Euripides’ play, Medea.
The Illiad focuses on the choice that Achilles faces between a long, uneventful life and a short, glorious one. Achilles' rage is integral to the decisions he makes with respect to life and glory. Let's examine two instances of Achilles rage and how they affect his decisions. First, he refuses to fight for the Greeks after Agamemnon forces him to give up Briseis, his prize of honor. "'Yet now,' Achilles continued, 'you threaten to take away my prize of honor, which I earned and which the Greeks gave to me. Whenever I sack a town, my prize is my own. So now I will return to my homeland. I refuse to stay here, dishonored, on order to win greater wealth for you (129)!'" His rage indirectly causes the death of his friend Patroclus. Achilles' rage incites him to enter the battle to avenge Patroclus. "'I will go forth to slay Hector, who killed the man I loved. I will accept my fate whenever Zeus and the other immortals bring it upon me. Until then, may I win great fame and glory, and may every Trojan realize that the greatest of the Greeks no longer remains apart from battle'" (145). Ultimately, Achilles chooses to quench his thirst for revenge, defy fate, and garner glory in exchange for his life.
By telling the story of Achilles' rage, Homer adds to Achilles' glory by immortalizing him. Generations of people in the West have heard his story. By ending the Illiad abruptly, without a lengthy denouement, the listener is left with the memory of Achilles as a vengeful, conquering hero. This is Homer's tribute to a Greek among Greeks. As a modern, I would probably have ended the Illiad with the account of Achilles' death or the fall of Troy. While this ending might be more satisfying as a conclusion, it is less effective in glorifying the Greek ideal of a warrior.
I would rather live a short, glorious life than endure a long, uneventful existence. Gandalf's description of the effect of the Ring on mortals in the Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of the life I would like to avoid. "A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness." I couldn't stand to simply continue, and neither could Achilles. He needs something to live for. When Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles' only reason for enduring a safe, inglorious life was destroyed. Only then would he enter the battle to fight for the Greeks. "I will go forth to slay Hector, who killed the man I loved. I will accept my fate whenever Zeus and the other immortals bring it upon me. Until then, may I win great fame and glory, and may every Trojan realize that the greatest of the Greeks no longer remains apart from battle" (145). Achilles is unmoved by the opportunity to win fame for the Greeks in exchange for Agamemnon's gifts (140). He will only cover himself in glory to avenge his friend.
Rosenberg, Donna. World Mythology. NTC Publishing Group: Chicago, 1999.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. George Allen & Unwin: London, 1954.
The following summary is due to SparkNotes.
Nine years after the start of the Trojan War, the Greek (“Achaean”) army sacks Chryse, a town allied with Troy. During the battle, the Achaeans capture a pair of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean forces, takes Chryseis as his prize, and Achilles, the Achaeans’ greatest warrior, claims Briseis. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, who serves as a priest of the god Apollo, offers an enormous ransom in return for his daughter, but Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back. Chryses then prays to Apollo, who sends a plague upon the Achaean camp.
After many Achaeans die, Agamemnon consults the prophet Calchas to determine the cause of the plague. When he learns that Chryseis is the cause, he reluctantly gives her up but then demands Briseis from Achilles as compensation. Furious at this insult, Achilles returns to his tent in the army camp and refuses to fight in the war any longer. He vengefully yearns to see the Achaeans destroyed and asks his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, to enlist the services of Zeus, king of the gods, toward this end. The Trojan and Achaean sides have declared a cease-fire with each other, but now the Trojans breach the treaty and Zeus comes to their aid.
With Zeus supporting the Trojans and Achilles refusing to fight, the Achaeans suffer great losses. Several days of fierce conflict ensue, including duels between Paris and Menelaus and between Hector and Ajax. The Achaeans make no progress; even the heroism of the great Achaean warrior Diomedes proves fruitless. The Trojans push the Achaeans back, forcing them to take refuge behind the ramparts that protect their ships. The Achaeans begin to nurture some hope for the future when a nighttime reconnaissance mission by Diomedes and Odysseus yields information about the Trojans’ plans, but the next day brings disaster. Several Achaean commanders become wounded, and the Trojans break through the Achaean ramparts. They advance all the way up to the boundary of the Achaean camp and set fire to one of the ships. Defeat seems imminent, because without the ships, the army will be stranded at Troy and almost certainly destroyed.
Concerned for his comrades but still too proud to help them himself, Achilles agrees to a plan proposed by Nestor that will allow his beloved friend Patroclus to take his place in battle, wearing his armor. Patroclus is a fine warrior, and his presence on the battlefield helps the Achaeans push the Trojans away from the ships and back to the city walls. But the counterattack soon falters. Apollo knocks Patroclus’s armor to the ground, and Hector slays him. Fighting then breaks out as both sides try to lay claim to the body and armor. Hector ends up with the armor, but the Achaeans, thanks to a courageous effort by Menelaus and others, manage to bring the body back to their camp. When Achilles discovers that Hector has killed Patroclus, he fills with such grief and rage that he agrees to reconcile with Agamemnon and rejoin the battle. Thetis goes to Mount Olympus and persuades the god Hephaestus to forge Achilles a new suit of armor, which she presents to him the next morning. Achilles then rides out to battle at the head of the Achaean army.
Meanwhile, Hector, not expecting Achilles to rejoin the battle, has ordered his men to camp outside the walls of Troy. But when the Trojan army glimpses Achilles, it flees in terror back behind the city walls. Achilles cuts down every Trojan he sees. Strengthened by his rage, he even fights the god of the river Xanthus, who is angered that Achilles has caused so many corpses to fall into his streams. Finally, Achilles confronts Hector outside the walls of Troy. Ashamed at the poor advice that he gave his comrades, Hector refuses to flee inside the city with them. Achilles chases him around the city’s periphery three times, but the goddess Athena finally tricks Hector into turning around and fighting Achilles. In a dramatic duel, Achilles kills Hector. He then lashes the body to the back of his chariot and drags it across the battlefield to the Achaean camp. Upon Achilles’ arrival, the triumphant Achaeans celebrate Patroclus’s funeral with a long series of athletic games in his honor. Each day for the next nine days, Achilles drags Hector’s body in circles around Patroclus’s funeral bier.
At last, the gods agree that Hector deserves a proper burial. Zeus sends the god Hermes to escort King Priam, Hector’s father and the ruler of Troy, into the Achaean camp. Priam tearfully pleads with Achilles to take pity on a father bereft of his son and return Hector’s body. He invokes the memory of Achilles’ own father, Peleus. Deeply moved, Achilles finally relents and returns Hector’s corpse to the Trojans. Both sides agree to a temporary truce, and Hector receives a hero’s funeral.
I define pride as the desire for fame, glory, or self-aggrandizement. The Homeric concept of hubris gives us insight into the dangers of pride. Dr. Rosenberg defines hubris as "excessive pride and arrogance" (122). Note the adjective excessive. Pride becomes a problem when it causes us to lose sight of our peers' humanity. This has been a problem for me in the past. As a fundamentally verbal person, I have sometimes used words to be excessively harsh. When others are less than tolerant with me it can lead to strained relationships. Antaeus never saw that his ability to draw strength from Gaea might leave him vulnerable. He was blind to the possibility of defeat. Like Antaeus, I sometimes forget that my greatest strength can also be my greatest weakness.
Like Anteaus, who received strength from his mother, I received many gifts from my own parents. My father is a professor at Iowa State in Veterinary Medicine. He is a very clear, careful, and logical thinker. He is a disciplined, hardworking person who has a wide range of interests. Despite a demanding career, my Dad always made time for his family. I inherited some of his habits of mind, as well as his sense of the importance of spending time with the ones you love. For a scientist, my Dad is unusually verbal, a trait that his son also exhibits. I find great satisfaction in teaching and spending time in community with other artists and intellectuals.
My mother was always very available, nurturing, and amiable. She was a homemaker for most of her life and, indeed, made a very good home for my sister and me. One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was a love of reading. I can remember many an evening when the whole family would sit in the living room and listen to hear read. My Mom also instilled in me the idea that other people were important and worth treating well. My mother’s relentless kindness is a habit I seek to incorporate into my own life. Like Antaeus, who “immediately became much stronger” (103-104) at his mother’s touch, my mother’s presence has been a great source of strength for me.
Gilgamesh displays great courage in his quest for immortality. The fear of death is a universal obstacle for human beings. Gilgamesh refuses to accept his own mortality. Many of the people he meets on the way try to discourage him. For example, Siduri tells him, "So, Gilgamesh, accept your fate" (47). Gilgamesh just keeps going. He faces many dangers as he searches for immortality. He faces the tunnel of Mount Mashu and crosses the Waters of Death. While true immortality is denied him by the gods, Gilgamesh's courage is rewarded with a lesser kind of immortality, fame.
The first great work we considered in Mythology was the Epic of Gilgamesh. The following summary is from SparkNotes.
The epic’s prelude offers a general introduction to Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. He built magnificent ziggurats, or temple towers, surrounded his city with high walls, and laid out its orchards and fields. He was physically beautiful, immensely strong, and very wise. Although Gilgamesh was godlike in body and mind, he began his kingship as a cruel despot. He lorded over his subjects, raping any woman who struck his fancy, whether she was the wife of one of his warriors or the daughter of a nobleman. He accomplished his building projects with forced labor, and his exhausted subjects groaned under his oppression. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and decided to keep Gilgamesh in check by creating a wild man named Enkidu, who was as magnificent as Gilgamesh. Enkidu became Gilgamesh’s great friend, and Gilgamesh’s heart was shattered when Enkidu died of an illness inflicted by the gods. Gilgamesh then traveled to the edge of the world and learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods, and he recorded them on stone tablets.
The epic begins with Enkidu. He lives with the animals, grazing in the meadows, and drinking at their watering places. A hunter discovers him and sends a temple prostitute into the wilderness to tame him. In that time, people considered women and sex calming forces that could domesticate wild men like Enkidu and bring them into the civilized world. When Enkidu sleeps with the woman, the animals reject him since he is no longer one of them. Now, he is part of the human world. Then the harlot teaches him everything he needs to know to be a man. Enkidu is outraged by what he hears about Gilgamesh’s excesses, so he travels to Uruk to challenge him. When he arrives, Gilgamesh is about to force his way into a bride’s wedding chamber. Enkidu steps into the doorway and blocks his passage. The two men wrestle fiercely for a long time, and Gilgamesh finally prevails. After that, they become friends and set about looking for an adventure to share.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals. A terrifying demon named Humbaba, the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, guards it. The two heroes make the perilous journey to the forest, and, standing side by side, fight with the monster. With assistance from Shamash the sun god, they kill him. Then they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into an enormous gate, make the rest into a raft, and float on it back to Uruk. Upon their return, Ishtar, the goddess of love, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh spurns her. Enraged, the goddess asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish him. The bull comes down from the sky, bringing with him seven years of famine. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and kill it. The gods meet in council and agree that one of the two friends must be punished for their transgression, and they decide Enkidu is going to die. He takes ill, suffers immensely, and shares his visions of the underworld with Gilgamesh. When he finally dies, Gilgamesh is heartbroken.
Gilgamesh can’t stop grieving for Enkidu, and he can’t stop brooding about the prospect of his own death. Exchanging his kingly garments for animal skins as a way of mourning Enkidu, he sets off into the wilderness, determined to find Utnapishtim. After the flood, the gods had granted Utnapishtim eternal life, and Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him how he might avoid death too. Gilgamesh’s journey takes him to the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, where the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the morning. Utnapishtim lives beyond the mountain, but the two scorpion monsters that guard its entrance refuse to allow Gilgamesh into the tunnel that passes through it. Gilgamesh pleads with them, and they relent.
After a harrowing passage through total darkness, Gilgamesh emerges into a beautiful garden by the sea. There he meets Siduri, a veiled tavern keeper, and tells her about his quest. She warns him that seeking immortality is futile and that he should be satisfied with the pleasures of this world. However, when she can’t turn him away from his purpose, she directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman. Urshanabi takes Gilgamesh on the boat journey across the sea and through the Waters of Death to Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood—how the gods met in council and decided to destroy humankind. Ea, the god of wisdom, warned Utnapishtim about the gods’ plans and told him how to fashion a gigantic boat in which his family and the seed of every living creature might escape. When the waters finally receded, the gods regretted what they’d done and agreed that they would never try to destroy humankind again. Utnapishtim was rewarded with eternal life. Men would die, but humankind would continue.
When Gilgamesh insists that he be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a test. If you think you can stay alive for eternity, he says, surely you can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh tries and immediately fails. So Utnapishtim orders him to clean himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just as Gilgamesh is departing, however, Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and takes it with him, planning to share it with the elders of Uruk. But a snake steals the plant one night while they are camping. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin and becomes young again.
When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he can’t live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement—the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The Signing of the Mayflower Compact, Percy Morgan, 1900
The Mayflower Compact
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.
The New Eden
Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868
The river of American literary history springs from the imagination of an intrepid group of spiritual pilgrims. They boarded their ships and braved the Atlantic in search of more than a New World; they were looking for a New Eden. The separatist Puritans aboard the Mayflower carried with them a utopian vision founded upon Calvinist theology. These Pilgrims considered themselves to be God’s elect, a chosen people who were the inheritors of Adam’s mission to harness the untamed wilderness. Under the guidance of divine Providence they would name everything in the New World, thereby imposing order on all Creation (Fritscher).
The Pilgrims also came in search of a place where they could prosecute their faith free from interference by the government or the Church of England. In an attempt to shield the Pilgrims from whatever tyrannical state might arise in the New World, William Bradford drafted the Mayflower Compact on board the Mayflower in 1620 (Bradford 58). This brief social contract had a significant impact on the subsequent literary and cultural development of America. A close reading of the Compact elucidates the nature of its influence.
Bradford introduces the theme of Christian utopia by stating his purpose in the New World: to glorify God and to advance the Christian faith (Bradford 66). A second group of Puritans who arrived aboard the Arbella in 1630 shared his vision. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, describes the Puritan experiment in America in “A Model of Christian Charity.” From the beginning, Winthrop recognized the precarious character of the enterprise: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world” (Winthrop 86). The Massachusetts Bay colonists left England to “seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” (Winthrop 85). Winthrop’s Arbella Covenant (“A Model of Christian Charity”) suggests that the New Eden should also be a new theocracy.
Church and State
Bradford does not explicitly say that the church and state should be one, however. Instead, he suggests that the colonists “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic” (Bradford 66). Scholars suggest that the Mayflower Compact was designed to ensure religious freedom rather than to establish a theocracy (Reuben). Nevertheless, the members of the Plymouth Colony would be asked to make sacrifices. Bradford understood that the success of the Pilgrims depended upon giving up individual rights for the common good (Ross, The New Eden: Early Responses). The Mayflower Compact closes with a promise to submit to the “general good of the colony” (Bradford 66). The Pilgrims’ Utopia still depended upon allegiance to Puritan teachings.
The Dilemma of the Outsider
The tension between Christian doctrine and a pluralistic society is manifest in Colonial literature. The dilemma of the outsider is one example. Bradford records the story of Thomas Morton in Of Plymouth Plantation (Bradford 71). Morton immigrated to the New World sometime in the 1620s. He succeeded in convincing a group of indentured servants to rebel against their master in order to set up a slightly different sort of Utopia. Morton encouraged drinking, erected a maypole, and “maintained a school of Atheism” (Bradford 72). The Puritan authorities reacted to his nonconformity by returning him to England.
Maintaining loyalty to Puritanism became more difficult as the interests of the colonists became more diverse. Even aboard the Mayflower, certain “strangers” were present whose end was money, not Christian Utopia (Bradford 66). Over time, the colonists multiplied. They began to raise cattle and to spread out across an increasingly large area (Ross, The New Eden: Early Responses). Many became prosperous. Slowly, Puritan doctrine came into competition with the gospel of success (Ross, The Self-Made Man: Franklin and Crevecoeur). Much of the literature of the colonial period may be seen as an attempt by the Puritans to maintain their influence in society. Examples include Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741).
In conclusion, it seems that Colonial literature is firmly rooted in the Mayflower Compact. It contains the seeds of many of its strongest themes: the quest for Eden, the tension between church and state, and the dilemma of the outsider. In working out the implications of the Compact, writers like Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, and Edwards embarked on a new voyage: the creation of an American literature.
Bradford, William. "Of Plymouth Plantation." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th Edition. Vol. I. New York: Norton, 2008.
Fritscher, John J. "The Sensibility and Conscious Style of William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation." Bucknell Review 17 (1969): 80-90.
Reuben, Paul P. Chapter 1: Early American Literature to 1700 - A Brief Introduction. 29 September 2009.
Ross, Dale. "The New Eden: Early Responses." American Literature to 1865. Ames: Des Moines Area Community College, 2 September 2009.
—. "The Self-Made Man: Franklin and Crevecoeur." American Literature to 1865. Ames: Des Moines Area Community College, 23 September 2009.
Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter 7th Edition. Vol. I. New York: Norton, 2008.