Literacy in the Epic of Gilgamesh
||Imagine for the moment that you lived in the time of the
ancient Sumerians. Only a few individuals are trained to write in script. Most people are
illiterate, and literature is composed not by someone with a pen in hand and plenty of
paper, but by people trained in ancient oral traditions, which they learn and adapt to
each new performance. While The Epic of Gilgamesh was eventually written down in
several different versions (which our text is a composite of), many scholars believe that
the original was composed orally by a court singer of heroic tales. What would such
literature sound like? What would the audience do as they hear it sung?
that you lived in the time of the Babylonians. The written versions of the text were
perhaps still heard and understood in an essentially oral context, one where only the
scribes could read and write and the rest of the audience still had to rely on oral
performance and memory. What then is the "real" epic? Is our prose
composite translation read by most of us alone the "same" story? Does our
experience of it in any way mirror that of the ancients?
|Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word lists nine
characteristics that distinguish literature created in primarily oral cultures (ones often
without any written language) and that created in cultures with widespread literacy:
literature tends to build in structure by adding new events. This is often called
parataxis, where the author builds up idea after idea with and between them.
Written literature tends to subsume subpoints under main points. It has a large number of
literature relies on epithets and clustering. Heroes tend to have praise names attached to
literature relies on more detailed distinction of parts.
Oral literature stresses a fullness of expression that builds; one cannot loop back to
Written literature, because it makes visual retrieval possible, can go back and resume
Oral texts tend to build on what has existed so far.
Written texts can more easily break from previous patterns.
|Close to the human lifeworld
Oral literature tends to be concerned with human deeds, even the gods act like humans.
Texts conceived in oral cultures do not focus on abstractions.
||More able to distance or
denature the world Written texts tend to allow one to talk about
philosophical ideals, principles, and scientific laws.
Oral literature tends to be performed in a more combative style. Oral performers
are contestants, so they must compete for their audiences.
||Calmer in tone
Written literature tends to be more objective because it is more abstract.
Oral literature tends to be more communal in reaction.
literature tends to treat the past and the present as essentially the same.
Written literature is less able to conflate the past with the present.
In oral societies, personhood is discovered in the communal; it is hard to think of the
self as existing outside community structures.
Written societies tend to make it possible for one to be more seperate and private.
Texts become owned property.
|Thus, we have two basic different ways of experiencing
Lets briefly note how many of these characteristics are present in Gilgamesh:
||The epic moves from the beginning to the end. Each element is
added on as needed. Keep in mind that our text is a composite of several versions.
||Gilgamesh is "two thirds a god and one third man."
He is praised for his strength, courage, and beauty. Likewise, Enkidu is a fitting
companion because of his powerful strength.
||This might be hard for us to imagine because we are reading
the text, but in the original the audience would not be able to stop and back up to
something already performed.
||The numerous versions of Gilgamesh remind us that the story
did not take a radically different form over the centuries.
|Close to human lifeworld
||The gods in Gilgameshs world are deeply human in their
loves and hates. Likewise, Gilgamesh even when he ponders the meaning of his life, always
focuses on the specifics. He doesnt ponder even the abstractions of eternity outside
||Warfare and boasting are at the heart of Gilgameshs
||The authors of Gilgamesh expect us to enter into the
story. They dont wish for us to step back and question the tale.
||While the epic has a general sense of history,
Gilgameshs world is essentially no different from that of the singers.
||The meaning of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is tied to their roles in
the larger community.
We will note more examples of these characteristics as we continue with our reading of Gilgamesh.
We will also continue to discuss these ideas when we look at Homers epic poems.