An Introduction to Beowulf

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Hello you, my name is Caleb Jacobo, I’m a writer living in Southern California and a literature enthusiast. Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite works, the famous Beowulf, a poem that you may have encountered in high school or college, but may not have had the opportunity to fully appreciate. This lecture is a brief overview of the poem, intended to give context to the work and introduce you to the story of Beowulf. I will not attempt to give my own or other’s thematic analysis because there are numerous resources online for that, and because I don’t want to distort your experience of the poem.

Beowulf is a long poem (over 3,000 lines long) recounting the heroic deeds of the hero Beowulf. We know less about the author of Beowulf than we do about Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey. We think the text was written in the 700’s CE by an English poet in a language called Anglo Saxon, or Old English. The events of the poem take place in a “once upon a time” in Geatland (spelled Geatland, but pronounced Yey-at land), in what is now southern Sweden, sometime in the 500’s CE, during the 200 year heroic age that followed the fall of Rome in 476 CE.


Beowulf came to us from a single manuscript that was nearly destroyed in a fire in the 1700’s (it now resides in the British Library), so despite being written in the 700’s Beowulf did not become widely studied by modern scholars until the early 1800’s. The poem did not become recognized as a work of art, worth studying for its literary value, rather than a document with only historical and philological value, until much later, when Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture on the poem in 1936 titled “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics”, highlighting the artistic value of the poem and forever changing the way scholars approached the work.

Beowulf is semi-historical, meaning that while we have no record of a Beowulf, the Swedish and Danish royal family members mentioned in the poem correspond to actual historical figures. The time in which the poem is set, the Geats had not yet converted to Christianity and would not until the late sixth century, however, the author of the poem is undoubtedly Christian, and he composed the poem from a Christian perspective, which explains all the seemingly anachronistic mentions of the Christian God and his role in the fate of mankind.

One important thing to remember when reading Beowulf is that the author had knowledge of what would eventually happen to the people in the poem, and the history of these people was well known to the intended audience of the poem. There is a reason there is no Geatland today. The Geats were eventually destroyed and absorbed by the Swedes. Also, the Danes eventually tear themselves apart with civil war. There are several allusions to their fates permeating the poem, so keep an eye out for them. You must understand that the characters in the poem are all doomed, and the intended audience would have been aware of this, but the characters themselves, of course, are ignorant to their fates. We never see this downfall in the poem, but it is important to be aware of it for a full appreciation of the text.

A Note on Kennings

Kennings are a rhetorical device used throughout Beowulf. A kenning is a condensed metaphor, usually a two-word phrase, that is used in place of the thing it refers to. For example: “bone-lappings” for the parts of the body, ligaments, that hold the bone to muscle; “word-hoard” for vocabulary or speech; “whale-road” for sea; and “bone-house” for rib cage.

The Poem

Beowulf begins by introducing the Danish kings up to the current king Hrothgar, who has constructed a splendid mead hall called Heorot to celebrate his success. The mead hall in these times was an important place, a place of refuge from the hostile external word, a place of warmth and food, where stories were exchanged between the warriors and gifts were distributed by the king, a place of rank and order and culture.

We are introduced to the threat to the Danes, a monster called Grendel, who is a descendent of Cain’s clan, the same Cain of the bible who killed his brother, Able, and was cursed by God. We are told Grendel is one of the many evil creatures born from Cain’s sin, which include giants and elves. This monster is driven to rage by the construction of Heorot and the joy and revelry within. With feelings of malice, exclusion, and kind of vengefulness Grendel decides to take his revenge on the Danes and he invades Heorot, killing and eating men, and generally terrorizing Hrothgar’s people for twelve years.

Across the sea, we are given our first glimpse of the great warrior Beowulf, although he is not yet named in the poem. He is a Geatish thane, a nobleman under his uncle, King Hygelac. News of Grendel has reached Geatland, and Beowulf has decided to take up the cause, and with a troop of men, sails to the Danish coast to assist King Hrothgar. When Beowulf arrives in Denmark, he is greeted by the Danish coast guard who is impressed with Beowulf, and after inquiring into their purpose for being there, leads them to Heorot, where king Hrothgar welcomes them.

Beowulf states that he will kill Grendel or die trying. He also makes a boast, that because the monster does not use weapons, he will not use weapons, and take on Grendel hand to hand. We learn later that, in fact, Beowulf was so strong (with the grip of thirty men in each hand) that he often could not use swords anyway because they would break with his strokes. After the feast, Hrothgar leaves Beowulf to defend the hall with his men.

That night, Beowulf lies awake, waiting for Grendel. Sure enough, the monster arrives in the hall. He eats one of Beowulf’s men, whether because Beowulf was sizing the creature up, or because he was lying in wait. Then Grendel goes for Beowulf, but the hero catches Grendel in an arm lock, and the two struggle fiercely in the hall, breaking mead benches. We are told here that no elder would believe the hall could be damaged the way it is, except by fire. Heorot is in fact burned to the ground in the future, when civil war breaks out among the Danes, but that is not mentioned in this poem. This is one of several allusions to the fate of the Danes. So, Beowulf defeats Grendel by tearing off his arm, and the monster escapes the hall, but is mortally wounded.

Hrothgar rewards Beowulf and his men the next day and they have a joyous feast. But that night, after the men fall asleep, Grendel’s mother, spurred on by revenge for her son’s death, enters the mead hall, steals her son’s arm back, and carries off one of King Hrothgar’s most valued men: Aeschere. Hrothgar is upset all over again and Beowulf promises to avenge Aeschere’s death. We learn that Grendel’s mother lives in a haunted mere, or a lake, infested with sea monsters. Beowulf goes to the mere and dives into the blood red water with a special sword he takes from one of the men. He encounters Grendel’s mother in her underwater lair, and she almost kills him. He is only saved by his mail shirt. Beowulf’s sword fails him, and he finds another, an immense sword that he uses to cut off the mother’s head. He then returns to the surface with the sword’s hilt and Grendel’s head as trophies.

After the fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head and he tells of the battle. There is another feast, praise and gifts are distributed, and Beowulf and his men sail back to Geatland. At home in Geatland, Beowulf is received by his uncle and the king, Hygelac. Beowulf tells of his victories in Denmark. We learn here that the Geats did not esteem Beowulf as a great hero at this point, but that his deeds in Denmark have secured his place in their hearts. Hygelac then presents Beowulf with a sword and much land, and so ends the first half of the poem.

The second half of the poem starts with recounting the death of Hygelac and his son. We learn that Beowulf becomes the king of the Geats by default and he rules the people well for fifty years.

We are told that a dragon, upset by the theft of a gem-studded cup from his hoard of treasure underground, has been unleashing his wrath on the Geats. The dragon burns everything in his path and eventually he burns down Beowulf’s own mead hall. When Beowulf hears news of his hall being burnt he is angered and weary, but even in his old age he is determined to take revenge on the dragon. He has a metal shield crafted for the battle and takes eleven men to the dragon’s lair to confront the monster there. Beowulf has to work himself up before the fight, speaking on his many triumphs and victories in the past. Beowulf is full of foreboding, but he still pursues glory.

Beowulf fights the dragon alone, but for the first time, he cannot gain the upper hand. His sword breaks on the dragon’s head and he is in trouble. One of Beowulf’s band, Wiglaf, comes to his king’s aid even though all the other men abandon Beowulf. Wiglaf encourages Beowulf in the fight, but Beowulf is bit in the neck by the dragon’s poisonous fangs. Wiglaf comes to Beowulf’s aid and stabs the dragon in the belly, allowing Beowulf to deliver the fatal blow that finally dispatches the dragon.

Beowulf is mortally wounded. He feels the poison in his veins and knows he will soon die. He asks Wiglaf to bring him some of the treasure so that he can see it and be comforted by the wealth he has won his people. Wiglaf does as Beowulf says, but when he returns, he finds his king near death. Beowulf asks that a barrow, or mound, be raised near the sea for sailors to see and remember him by. Beowulf dies, and Wiglaf rebukes the cowards who ran when their king needed them. Wiglaf predicts that with Beowulf dead and no hero to take his place, the Swedes and the Franks will attack, and their people will be wiped out, which is what indeed happens.

Wiglaf has a messenger deliver the news to the people of Beowulf’s final battle and death. The poem reiterates the danger that now looms over the Geats with Beowulf gone. A funeral pyre is built filled with treasure and hung with shields and spears. Beowulf is burned on the pyre and he is lamented by warriors and a Geatish woman who fears for her people and her fate at the hands of foreign invaders. The Geat people construct Beowulf’s barrow mound on a headland and fill it with treasure. The poem ends with the Geatish people in sorrow over the loss of their king.

Final Notes

There are many layers to Beowulf, and this lecture was only meant to be an introduction to the basic story and it’s background. I hope I have given you enough to spark your curiosity and encourage you to take the plunge into reading the text yourself. It really is a rewarding read, worth re-reading and analysis even by the non-academic. There are a few good translations out there, but I recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation for it’s readability, artfulness, and because it gives you the Old English and the translated text side by side.

Thank you for taking the time to listen.


Article on Literature Awareness

Do you enjoy movies? Who doesn’t, right? I mean, movies are big, bright, and fast moving and it is very easy for us, as humans, to experience them.

Movies also give our culture a mass shared experience with everyone else in the world who enjoyed the same movie. That is, if you bump into an old school mate on an outing that you have not spoken to in years, relating to each other over a popular movie is a way to communicate on common ground.


So, what if there were movies, Oscar winning movies, that you have never seen, but you are aware of their major success. These movies do not look old or grainy, but are fresh and surprisingly modern. The plots are captivating and the characters are beautifully rendered and perfectly acted.

Not only this, but these incredible movies can be enjoyed at our own speed and in the comfortable location of our choice.

An Introduction to Greek Tragedies

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Hello, this is Caleb Jacobo again with the third lecture in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. I will say it again, I am no expert in literature and I have no degree to speak of, but I am a literature enthusiast and I understand that the journey through great literature is a tough journey to embark on, but I hope that some of these recordings can at least spark your interest enough to read these great works and enjoy them as fully as you can.

Today we are going to talk about Greek Tragedies, what they are, who the big names are, and some tips on getting the most out of them.

What is a Greek Tragedy? Well, Greek Tragedy started as a ritual celebration of the God of wine, Dionysus, each year around April or early March. The ritual was required viewing event for all the men in the ancient Greek town. Greek tragedies were performed in trilogies of three plays presented over three days, at the end of which, a fourth play, the satyr, that is not part of the tragedy, but satirized the serious dramas the people had to watch.

The Greek tragedy looked a bit different from modern plays. It was performed wearing masks that helped the audience, who had no megatron monitors to display the intricate moving of an emotional face, or recognize who was who. It was very important to the Greeks that the communication was clear, and the masks helped them accomplish that. Early Greek tragedies, having developed from the well known bard performances of epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey, had only one actor on stage at a time. Most of the tragedies that survived to today show only two or three actors on the stage at once.

Another difference is that Greek tragedies used what is called a Chorus. The Chorus, again because of the Greeks’ emphasis on making the communication clear, would pose questions in the form of lyrics that the main character must answer to the audience. The Chorus acted as the audience’s voice, asking the right questions at the right times and guiding the people through the story.

So imagine if you can that you and all your friends and your entire state being required by law to watch a movie. These guys took this stuff very seriously. You might think that it was odd to make something like a play required viewing for a state, but if you were Greek, and there was no television or movies where mass amounts of people are exposed to a common experience, Greek plays promoted and instructed the audience on how to think and feel about the world around them. The Greeks understood that art is an effective form of mass communication.

Who cares? Movies are better right? Well, to our modern standards of valuable entertainment, it may seem that way, but the effect of Greek tragedies, as we now see, are very different from our forms of entertainment today. They transcend entertainment to cultural myth and belief systems. If you combine that with the obvious genius of inventing modern drama, and the weight that the message of these plays, you will have clear impetus to read through these beautiful works.

So who should you read? I’d like to point out first that there is no surviving trilogy today. That being said, you should read them all. That being said, you can cheat a little and get this amazing three volume collection I bought online called Greek Tragedies (fitting right?). If you don’t want to buy them, at least take a look to see which plays they cover, and look up a free version online. If you want a specific place to start, read Sophocles’ Oedipus The King, you will be semi familiar with it if you enjoyed english class. If not, you will be blown away by the impact of that play.

That concludes this lecture, An Introduction to Greek Tragedies, I hope that you read these, they are not very long, but they are very important for cultural literacy if nothing else.

Tackling Shakespeare

Okay, so you’ve heard all the hullabaloo over Shakespeare through the years from your teachers or maybe your friends. He’s the poet with a funky goatee who wrote all these boring old plays in which you can’t even understand what’s going on. Big deal, right?

It seems like such a mystery why everyone knows who the man was, but have never read, or heard one of his plays performed well or at all. These are the people I’m talking to today. You recognize that there must be some serious worth to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, but every time you’ve tried, you just can’t seem to get through his work.

So I decided to share with you how I finally tackled Shakespeare, his plays and his sonnets. The following is a step-by-step approach to understanding and enjoying the genius of this enormous poet.

An introduction to Greek Mythology

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Greek athleteHello, this is Caleb Jacobo again with the third lecture in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. I am no expert in literature and I have no degree to speak of, but I am a literature enthusiast and I understand that the journey through great literature is a tough journey to embark on, but I hope that some of these recordings can at least spark your interest enough to read these great works and enjoy them as fully as you can.

Today, we are going to talk about Greek Mythology, what it is, where it came from and why it is so vital to know.

So, what is Greek Mythology? Well, it is of course mythology. But what is that? Well, mythology is not just one thing. It is collection of stories, both oral and written, that were designed to teach the Greek people how to live.

The word ‘myth’ has an inaccurate connotation that is important to point out. The connotation is that a myth is supposed to be something false or untrue. But, keep in mind that the Ancient Greeks, who lived in a world without computers, television, or phones, knew very little about how their world worked and what was fact or fiction. Keeping this in mind will help you get the most out of Mythology because you will understand that for the Ancient Greeks, Myths were very real, and told stories of actual events.

That brings me to another point. Greek Mythology was very accessible. You could actually travel to where the greeks believed the center of the world was. You could visit the place where Scylla and Charybdis attacked Odysseus’ ship and killed his men. You could travel to Delphi and see the Oracle. These stories were all in the Greek people’s backyards and the myth played an everyday role in their lives.

Myths were also a way for the ancient Greeks to explain natural phenomenon, or to explain the origins of man, or the creation of them. For example, the myth of Pandora tells of the first woman, Pandora, who is created for mankind to punish them for discovering fire. Pandora is given a box(sometimes a jar) that holds all the pain and sorrow and suffering and is told not to open it. Pandora, not knowing its contents, opened the box/jar and released its contents on mankind.

Myths are mutable (changeable). Remembering that the ancient Greeks had no form of mass communication, the preservation of their stories relied on oral tradition and much later, written works. Different Greek cities had different versions of the same myth. In fact, bards and other storytellers were expected to present myths in a fresh way, since the stories of the myths were as well known to the Greeks as our favorite movies are to us.

So why is Greek Mythology so vital? The most relevant reason I can give you is that mythology is so integrated into your daily life, that knowing the mythology will increase your ability to enjoy everyday things. My reason for tackling Greek Mythology is to have a better understanding of Shakespeare, who uses references to Greek Mythology in many of his plays.

Okay, so where is the “mythology” anyway? The truth is, there is no one collection or one translation that tells us what Greek Mythology is. Greek Myths come from the Iliad, Odyssey, Greek Drama, histories written by eyewitnesses, and so on. The most comprehensive collection of Greek Mythology, and all Mythology for that matter, is Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. She does a wonderful job making the myths enjoyable to read, while retaining the purpose of providing information.

So now what? I would recommend, if you haven’t already, that you read the Iliad and Odyssey at least. And if you feel like branching out, read the Greek Tragedies by Euripides and others. I recommend finding audio versions on whatever you can, because there are some funky words that you should hear pronounced correctly.

Thanks for listening, and happy reading!



The First Oedipus Falling Poster

Hello all! Oedipus Falling is an educational play designed to be engaging, entertaining, and most important of all: clear.

Here’s the first poster. If you like it, let me know if the comments.

An introduction to The Iliad and The Odyssey

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Hello, this is Caleb Jacobo again with the second lecture in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. I will say it again, I am no expert in literature and I have no degree to speak of, but I am a literature enthusiast and I understand that the journey through great literature is a tough journey to embark on, but I hope that some of these recordings can at least spark your interest enough to read these great works and enjoy them as fully as you can.

So today, we are going to talk a little bit about HOMER and The Iliad and The Odessey. Who Homer was, what the Iliad and Odyssey are and how to approach these amazing works.

So many of you have probably heard of the Iliad and Odyssey from high school or from hollywood, like the movie ‘Troy’ starring Brad Pitt as the eternally young and incredibly strong Achilles, who refuses to fight in the Trojan war out of pride and in the end sacrifices his life for glory.

However you may have been exposed to these awesome classics, they fall short of expressing all the richness and benefit of experiencing these epic poems first hand.

Who was Homer?

[UPDATE Saturday April 5th 2014: Homer as a finished achievement was a product of Ionia; that is, Homeric poems were solidified in there current form in the 6th century BCE at the latest. Also during this century, Greek science, philosophy, and mathematics were born. Confucius, the Buddha, and Zoroaster—if they existed—probably belonged to the same century. It is also questionable if Homer was an expurgator (someone who removes erroneous, vulgar, obscene, or otherwise objectionable material from (a book, for example) before publication*) presumably in order to promote urbane enlightenment, keeping at bay other popular darker elements of popular mysticism. For more information on this, see Bretrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, Book I: Ancient Philosophy, Part I, Chapter 1: The Pre-Socratics.]

Well, it is not clear who Homer was. We think he lived and wrote around 800 bce. He may have been a single man, or Homer may refer to a group of bards of the time. What we do know for sure is that Homer was not the inventor of the stories he composed, he was interpreting and writing them down. We talked a little bit about ‘epic’s already and that they were traditionally presented orally and the bards who would sing, as they say, the poem, and would have to recall the epics from memory.

Homer, if he was a single man, would have performed in this way, in front of aristocrats and their families. He would stand still, there was no performance aspect of the story telling except for the lyre, a and held harp, that the bard would strum while he recited the poem. The epics they would recite would change depending on which bard was singing them and who they were being sung to.

This concept is what confused me the first time I approached the Greek classics and Greek mythology in general. The stories are mutable, because of the oral medium, the stories were known by most everybody, and each bard would be expected to tell the epic with his own ‘spin’ on it.

What are The Iliad and The Odyssey?

So that brings us to what was the Iliad and The Odyssey are. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are epic poems written by Homer, whoever he is, around 800 bce.

The Iliad recalls the heroic deeds of Achilles, who’s hubris, or pride, is his downfall. The Odyssey tells of the heroic deeds of Odysseus and the hardships he encounters on his long journey home.

It is important to remember that a Greek Hero is not necessarily a good guy. In fact most of the time they are childish or cruel. The type of deed is not was makes a hero heroic, it is how great that deed is. If you are the strongest man alive, what you do with your strength is of little concern to Greeks when it comes to appointing their heroes.

The Iliad and the Odyssey both take place in ancient greece, hundreds of years before the epics were written, some time around 1,200 bce. Ancient Greece was not considered “Greece” back then. You simply had a collection of small city-states that shared the same language. So if you look on a map for the greece that existed in the Iliad and Odyssey, you will see a strip of land much smaller than the territory we are dealing with in the epics, which cover a good part of Western Turkey and Russia.

The Iliad is set on the backdrop of the Trojan war, an event that has recently become to seem more than just a myth. You can see pictures of the site they think most likely is Troy online and I will try to put some links on the site for them as well.

The causes of the real Trojan war were probably something boring like oil, or simple expansion, but in Greek Mythology, meaning The Iliad and Odyssey, the Trojan war began over a single woman. Helen of Sparta. The most beautiful woman in the world, who was given to Paris of Troy after he judged Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess in heaven, over Hera, the wife of the almighty Zeus. When Helen was taken from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta, he and his brother Agamemnon combine forces and sail to Troy, which is where modern Iraq is, with 1000 ships and began a siege that would last for ten years. Agamemnon and Menelaus play huge roles in future greek literature and we will talk a lot about them later.

Oddly enough, the Iliad only focuses on a span of around fifty days in the ninth year of the siege of Troy. The majority of the poem is vivid battle scenes with man and immortals and acts of heroic violence. The poem ends with Hector’s death, the brother of Paris, who Achilles straps to his carriage with the belt that Ajax, the second strongest man after Achilles, had given him, and drags his corpse around the walls of Troy and only gives the abused body back to the Trojans when the King of Troy comes himself to beg for his son. Surprising to most, the iconic symbol we think of when we think of Troy, the Trojan horse, never actually appears in the Iliad, and is only hinted at in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey, similarly to the Iliad, starts at the end of a ten year journey with the cunning hero Odysseus. The majority of the action of the poem happens in Odysseus’s telling of his ten year journey to Menelaus, who helps Odysseus finally reach his home of Ithaca. Odysseus’s tale includes encounters with mountainous one-eyed monsters and gorgeous women with incredible power, and is the source of much of what we know about Greek mythology.

One of my favorite stories, and one of the most iconic of the Odyssey, is that of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a great sea beast with several heads, each with razor sharp teeth. Charybdis is a hugh raging whirlpool who sucks you into her gaping mouth. So these are some pretty gnarly beasts. Poor Odysseus is forced to sail his battle ship through a narrow passage with Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other. I don’t have to give any spoilers for you to have a good idea of what might happen next.

The Odyssey shows a strong contrast in it’s focus from the Iliad. In the Iliad, the importance would seem to be glory and honor and deeds of strength and force. In the Odyssey, the Greeks show a focus more on compromising and intelligently working through problems to find a solution.

It may not seem like a big deal for a story to have different themes, especially ones in the same series. But if you consider that the Iliad and the Odyssey are melting pots for older, oral, mythological stories, and that the organization and presentation chosen by Homer is the way it is, and that the Greeks went to see a play to learn how to live, you might find some interesting messages in the story’s progression.

So this has been a brief introduction to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and I hope I gave you enough information and maybe some insights that can guide you in your exploration of these masterpieces that just happened to be some of our oldest literature.

An Introduction to The Iliad and The Odyssey

Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language, 5th Edition.

An Introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh and EnkiduHello all, this is Caleb Jacobo with The New American Scholar project and this podcast is the first in a series that will attempt to give context to some of the great works of literature that I have found to be vital to my studies. While I am by no means an expert in literature, I know what information has been meaningful to me and helped me in my literary journey. That being said, Here is a brief introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

What is the Epic of Gilgamesh?

Well first, it is of course an “epic”. And what we mean by “epic” here
in literary terms, is a long narrative poem that usually focuses on a single hero as it’s main subject and recounts that hero’s heroic deeds. It is a composition that can be in either written or oral form, which was the primary means of passing along important cultural stories before the development of writing.

Probably the most famous oral epics that you may be familiar with are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. And the most famous written examples probably being Virgil’s Aeneid and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. All of which I plan on having future podcasts about. There are of course others, but they are not within the scope of this episode.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is recorded in Akkadian, an extinct semantic language which is written in cuneiform script. Cuneiform is composed using ideograms and phonetic signs much like Egyptian hieroglyphics. The epic is written on twelve stone tablets that are not completely in tact, and are actually a collection of stories that are brought together to form the epic we know today.

So, we know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem about a hero’s deeds written in the ancient Akkadian script cuneifrom, and we can safely assume that the hero of the epic is Gilgamesh.

Who is Gilgamesh?

Gilgamesh is a mesopotamian hero who was obsessed with the concept of mortality and his own death. Gilgamesh was the king of the Mesopotamian city-state Uruk (also called Erech in the bible) which some people believe the modern name Iraq came from, which is where the ancient city-state existed. Gilgamesh was also most likely the king who constructed the 6 mile long wall that surrounded Uruk.

Unlike the Iliad and Odyssey, which focused on the mythical heroes Achilles and Odysseus respectively, the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to be based on an actual historical figure who existed some time around the middle of the 26th century bce. Although no historical evidence for the events recorded in the epic exist, records of the king Gilgamesh are recorded by multiple sources including a Sumerian list of kings that reigned when we believe Gilgamesh lived.

So, now we know that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a long narrative poem about an ancient Mesopotamian King, Gilgamesh, who actually ruled some time around the 25th century bce and we can talk a bit about why the Epic of Gilgamesh is important to read.

Why is it important?

The main reason I feel that the Epic of Gilgamesh is important for any modern scholar of literature is that the epic is the oldest written story in the world. While the actual Gilgamesh reigned in Uruk around the 26th century bce, the composition of the story dates to around the 17th century bce, placing it a good thousand years before the Iliad and Odyssey. This is important because the epic gives us a starting place for analyzing influences of later literary works, including the bible, which shares much of it’s story of Noah and the great flood with the events in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The epic is also important because literature, from any time period, allows the reader to understand what was important to the people who lived durning the time it was written. For example, we can glean from the epic of Gilgamesh, that in these ancient times, honor, legacy, and bravery are among the most cherished qualities of heroes. And also, surprisingly that the environment, specifically the protection of nature was important, as well as the idea of ruling with kindness and civility. These seemingly modern concepts were alive and well thousands of years ago which suggests that the people who composed the epic were not dissimilar from the people reading it today.

What is the story about?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is about the ancient mesopotamian king, Gilgamesh, who is a huge, strong, radiant man who is 2/3rds god, 1/3rd mortal, who nonetheless mistreats his subjects with violence and lechery. He kills who he pleases and takes the virginity of every bride in Uruk.

The people of Uruk call to the gods to control Gilgamesh, and in response, they create a hero, equal in size, strength and beauty. The hero is Enkidu and he is formed out of clay and placed in the wild. Eventually, an animal trapper discovers Enkidu in the woods, releasing his animal friends from the his snares. The trapper goes to the great city of Uruk to plead to Gilgamesh to help him deal with the wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh advises the trapper to go to the temple of the god ishtar and find the priestess Shamat who, with her womanly ways, can tame the wild man.
(It was beleived in that time that sex with a woman would make a wild man civil)

The trapper brings Shamat to the woods and she seduces Enkidu and they have sex for seven days, at the end of which, Enkidu is a civilized man and the animals of the forest run from him.

Shamat tells Enkidu about Gilgamesh and his mistreatment of his subjects, and Enkidu vows to stop him.

When Enkidu arrives in Uruk, he finds Gilgamesh about to sleep with a new bride and they fight each other in great battle. Gilgamesh eventually overpowers Enkidu, but Gilgamesh feels a deep connection with him and they embrace like brothers. The companionship that Gilgamesh finds in Enkidu balances out the king and he no longer abuses his people.

After Gilgamesh and Enkidu are together for some time, Gilgamesh decides they need to do something heroic so that their names will be remembered. He decides that they should enter the cedar forest, which is guarded by the monster Humbaba, and slay him and cut down the largest trees in the forest and bring them back to Uruk.

Enkidu advises against the plan because he knows of the monster Humbaba and tells Gilgamesh that they cannot hope to defeat him. Also, the elders plead with their king not to go, because they also believe the mission is suicide.

Gilgamesh will not be deterred, and so him and Enkidu travel thousands of miles into the cedar forest and they battle with the monster Humbaba.

Humbaba is weakened with the help of the gods and is defeated by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who cut off his head, even after Humbaba pleads with them, telling them that he is the protector of the forest and he keeps it safe from humans.

Upon returning victorious from the forest, the goddess Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh and attempts to seduce him with promises of great gifts.

Gilgamesh refuses her, though, pointing out that Ishtar never keeps a husband for long, and when she is done with them, she casts them aside.

The goddess is furious at being denied and so goes to the other gods and convinces them to let her unleash the bull of heaven on the heroes, who brings with it to earth seven years of famine.

The bull is a formidable beast, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu have little problem killing and eating him.

Ishtar, outraged at another offense, convinces the gods that the heros must be punished for their discretions. The gods agree that one of the heroes must die and they choose Enkidu.

Enkidu falls ill and relates to Gilgamesh visions of the underworld. Gilgamesh tries to give Enkidu hope, but Enkidu eventually dies after much suffering and Gilgamesh is beside himself with grief.

Gilgamesh, terrified at the prospect of mortality after seeing his companion die, takes to the wilderness in search of the Mesopotamian Noah, Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods after he survived the great flood by building a giant ark.

Gilgamesh finally meets Utnapishtim after a long journey thought the wilderness and the underworld, where the sun sets and rises. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he should enjoy his mortal life, and live it to the fullest, because it is short. Before he sends Gilgamesh away, Utnapishtim is convinced by his wife, who is also immortal, to tell Gilgamesh about a sacred plant that can restore a mortal’s youth.

Gilgamesh finds the water plant, but it is stolen from him by a serpent on his journey back to Uruk.

The epic ends with Gilgamesh returning to Uruk and the appendix tells of the return of the spirit of Enkidu, who advises Gilgamesh and tells him of the terrible underworld.

So, Now what?

While this podcast did not attempt to be give an in depth summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh, since there are a great many sources on the internet that provide that service better than I could, I hope that it has given you enough of a taste of the story to entice you to do the best thing you can do to appreciate and understand the Epic of Gilgamesh, read it!

An Introduction to Gilgamesh