We have so many heroes to be thankful for in these days of the pandemic! April is also National Poetry Month, so thoughts of heroic deeds bring to mind epic poetry and heroes of legend. This post looks at three epic poems from thousands of years ago: the journey of Gilgamesh to find immortality, the struggles of Odysseus (Ulysses) to reach home, and the voyage of Aeneas from Troy to the founding of Rome. Various gods intervene in the lives of the heroes. However, they carry on despite many trials and encounters with the unexpected, just as today’s heroic men and women do.
The poems that were eventually written down were based on older stories told by word of mouth. The Gilgamesh epic is from the Tigris–Euphrates river area, historically known as Mesopotamia, and dates as far back as 3000 BCE. The oral histories were first told in Sumerian and then in the Akkadian language spoken later.
The tales were inscribed on tablets using wedge-shaped cuneiform characters. The best-preserved tablets discovered to date are in Akkadian. They were found in Nineveh (in today’s Iraq) in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal who reigned from 668 to 627 BCE.
Gilgamesh slays a demon and the bull of heaven, and travels to meet the last two survivors of the great flood. However, he misses opportunities to become immortal. Gilgamesh is a hero because he forges on, despite obstacles. “To a fight unknown to him, he advances / An expedition unknown to him he undertakes.” (Clay p. 36)
“Odyssey,” the story of the hero Odysseus (Ulysses in English) is attributed to Homer who lived around the 9th or 8th century BCE. It is assumed that the poem was captured in writing about 675-725 BCE, although there is still scholarly debate about the dates.
Sailing from Troy to Ithaca, Odysseus escapes the lethargy-inducing Lotus-Eaters, encounters the one-eyed Cyclops, loses all but one of his ships, meets the temptress Circe, visits the Land of Departed Spirits, is again tempted, this time by the Sirens, and sails between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. His men are killed by the angry chief god, Zeus, leaving Odysseus the sole survivor. He succumbs to the charms of the nymph, Calypso, but eventually makes it home to his wife, Penelope, and son Telemachus.
Again, the hero forges on although the outcome of his journey is by no means certain. In the midst of his challenges he laments: “By the Delian coast / I voyaged, leader of a warrior-host / But ah, how changed! from thence my sorrow flows / O fatal voyage, source of all my woes!” (Pope, p.98).
“Aeneid” was written down by the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BCE). The poem combines various legends about Aeneas and credits him with the founding of Rome, which developed from the earlier habitations of Lavinium and Alba Longa. Yet, his would not be an easy journey. Virgil begins the poem (here translated by the distinguished political figure, John Davis Long) as “I sing of war, I sing the man who erst / From off the shore of Troy fate-driven, came/To the Lavinian coast in Italy / Hard pressed on land and sea, the gods malign …” (Long, p. 9).
Fleeing from Troy, with his fate foretold, Aeneas is shipwrecked on the Libyan coast where he meets and spends time with the Queen of Carthage, Dido. However, gods force Aeneas onward and Dido commits suicide. Among his adventures, Aeneas journeys to the underworld, sailing to the river Tiber. The local king, Latinus, meets the ship, and a marriage is arranged between Aeneas and Lavinia, daughter of Latinus. However, the subjects of Latinus resent this arrangement, and war breaks out, but Aeneas and his men, with the aid of local Etruscans, emerge victorious. Aeneas and Lavinia are married, and they found Lavinium.
Online copies of the above works may be located by searching the Library of Congress catalog, or E-Books via the Library’s E-Resources page. An advanced catalog search for, e.g., title: “Aeneid,” name: “Virgil,” and keyword anywhere: “digital” brings up records that point to eight online versions of the epic. Looking for “Gilgamesh” in the E-Books “Basic E-Books Search” keyword brings up useful titles about the epic.
Heroic epics were told to stir the spirits of the audience. The life of a hero is not easy. Let us be inspired to persevere and support our heroes, both men and women!
“The Æneid of Virgil.” Boston: Lockwood, Brooks & company, 1879.
Homer. “The Odyssey of Homer,” tr. by Alexander Pope. With notes, by the Rev. Theodore Alois Buckley, M.A. With Flaxman’s designs, and other engravings. London, Ingram, Cooke, 1853.
Jastrow, Morris, Jr., 1861-1921. “An old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic, on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts,” by Morris Jastrow, Jr. … and Albert T. Clay … New Haven, Yale university press; [etc., etc.] 1920, .
“Estats de l’empire dv Grand Seignevr des Tvrqs ou Svltan des Ottomans en Asie, en Afriqve, et en Evrope.” Sanson, Nicolas, 1600-1667, cartographer, publisher. A Paris: Chez l’Autheur, 1654.
“Mare mediterraneum, exhibens oras hispaniæ, galliæ, italiæ, mare hadriaticum, archipelagus, natoliam, ægyptum, levantam, barcam, tripolin, tunetanum, algeriam, fezzam, maurocum,” 1695? Valck, G. (Gerard), 1651-1726.