Orality and Literacy in the Epic of Gilgamesh

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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?

Equally, imagine 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:
Additive – Oral 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. Subordinative – Written literature tends to subsume subpoints under main points. It has a large number of subplots.
Aggregative – Oral literature relies on epithets and clustering. Heroes tend to have praise names attached to them. Analytic – Written literature relies on more detailed distinction of parts.
Copious/Redundant – Oral literature stresses a fullness of expression that builds; one cannot loop back to previous text. Continuity – Written literature, because it makes visual retrieval possible, can go back and resume previous developments.
Conservative/Traditionalist – Oral texts tend to build on what has existed so far. Potentially Subversive – 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.
Agonistically toned – 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.
Empathetic, Participatory – Oral literature tends to be more communal in reaction. Objectively Distanced
Homeostatic – Oral literature tends to treat the past and the present as essentially the same. Historical – Written literature is less able to conflate the past with the present.
Situational Self – In oral societies, personhood is discovered in the communal; it is hard to think of the self as existing outside community structures. Isolationist Self – 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 the epic:
  • Concrete
  • Face-to-Face
  • Communal
  • Present
  • Cumulative
  • Abstract
  • Separate
  • Individual
  • Time-Conscious
  • Subordinate

Let’s briefly note how many of these characteristics are present in Gilgamesh:

Additive 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.
Aggregative 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.
Copious/ Redundant 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.
Conservative/ Traditionalist 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 Gilgamesh’s 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 doesn’t ponder even the abstractions of eternity outside his experience.
Agonistic Warfare and boasting are at the heart of Gilgamesh’s experience.
Empathetic The authors of Gilgamesh expect us to enter into the story. They don’t wish for us to step back and question the tale.
Homeostatic While the epic has a general sense of history, Gilgamesh’s world is essentially no different from that of the singer’s.
Situational Self 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 Homer’s epic poems.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding