How do The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey help us understand world history?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The importance of these epic texts in helping to understand world history lies in the way that epic texts show the values and beliefs of a particular people group who were highly significant in the history of the world. The Greek civilisation and its values and beliefs are expressed in Homer's works, just as the Mesopotamian civilisation is enshrined in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Through studying and understanding these two epic works, it is possible to arrive at a greater understanding of these two great civilisations themselves. Particularly important in this way is the depiction of the two epic heroes of these texts, Gilgamesh and Odysseus, who, as epic heroes, are shown to possess all the qualities that were most highly esteemed by their culture and people at the time. For example, note how Odysseus is described in the opening lines of Homer's epic:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

The values that Odysseus is remembered and praised for is not his valour in battle, but the fact that he was a man "of twists and turns," clearly showing that what was important to the Greek civilisation was not simply using one's strength to overpower your enemies, but using one's intelligence and quick wit. What defines Odysseus as a hero, and is a quality that is repeated again and again throughout the text, is that he is "wily," and this suggests that this was a characteristic that was very important in Greek civilisation.

In the same way, Gilgamesh as an epic hero enables us today to understand more about the values that were important to the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia. The outpouring of grief at the death of his friend, Enkidu, strongly suggests that brotherly love and companionship was something that was very important to this civilisation, and the way in which Gilgamesh has to accept that his quest for immortality is doomed to fail likewise indicates that his eventual acceptance of his mortality and determination to make the most of his own life are other key aspects that were upheld and esteemed in this civilisation. As expressions of a culture, both of these epic texts therefore are considerably important to the understanding that we have today of world history.

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