U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Readings in Western Culture: The Iliad (Part II)

Editor's Note

This is the third in a series of posts discussing the texts included on the reading list of Stanford’s 1980s “Western Culture” curriculum.  (See entry number one and entry number two.)

There is always a beginning before the beginning, a story before the story, a history before the history begins.  And the history we tell may depend very much on which of those backstories we know best, or love most.

The story of the Iliad begins with wrath, the wrath of Achilles, disrespected by Agamemnon and deprived of a woman he captured as a prize of war.

“The Judgment of Paris,” by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1606 (Museo del Prado)

But the story before the story of the Iliad is the myth of the Judgment of Paris (Alexandros), the mortal upon whom Zeus sloughed off the unenviable task of deciding which powerful goddess was the most beautiful, good, and desirable, the best of the best:  Hera, consort of Zeus and goddess of power; Athena, brainchild of Zeus and goddess of war; or Aphrodite the goddess of love and desire, by some accounts the sea-spawn of Ouranos’s severed member, by other accounts (including that of the Iliad), the daughter of Zeus and Dione the Goddess, one of the Titans.

Choices, choices.

If Paris had had any sense, he would have said, “It is not for mortals to judge the gods” and left it at that.  On the other hand, only a senseless mortal would say that.  For the story of Job, thought to be the oldest oral tradition integrated into the written Hebrew scriptures, is about a mortal who dares to call the Divine One to account.  Though the Divine shows up to rebuke Job from the whirlwind and assert his freedom from all mortal judgment, the important thing is that God shows up.  When Job calls for the Divine to respond to the charges he brings, the Divine answers the summons. Who, then, is lord of whom?

In any case, Paris, who was handsome but not wise, chose Love over both Sovereignty and Strength in War, for which he received two things:  from Aphrodite, he received Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world; from Hera and Athena, he received enduring resentment against the house of Priam, his father, and the resolve to see his home town of Troy destroyed utterly. That’s the story that explains the story behind the story of the wrath of Achilles.  And the story of the wrath of Achilles – that is, the final written form of that earlier oral tradition of narratives — became a standard story taught in Greek and Roman grammar schools.

But the Iliad is not the oldest story, the oldest text, in the Western literary canon, not even in its antecedent oral form.  Nor, for that matter, is the Bible – not even the story of Job.  The earliest written fragment of the  Epic of Gilgamesh likely antedates the oral traditions preserved in both these later accounts.  Indeed, the story cycle of Gilgamesh may undergird and feed into the oral traditions later fixed in written form in both Genesis and the Iliad (and, for that matter, the Odyssey).

The Gilgamesh epic was first brought to light in 1853, and was well known to scholars of the Ancient Near East, Hebraists, Classicists, and general-purpose Humanists by the end of th 19th century.  Gilgamesh was available in an affordable paperback before 1960.  So why not begin a journey through the Western literary canon, or the Great Books of the Western World, with Gilgamesh, instead of the Bible or the works of Homer?

The answer is obvious.  The “canon” as constructed in the 1980s at Stanford (or in the 1950s by Robert Hutchins) was not a reflection of any intrinsic merit or absolute influence of the books there listed, but a reflection of their place in the pedagogical tradition(s) from which the listmakers came or which they aspired to belong or which they attempted to reinstantiate in some form in this reading list.  Prestige and pride of place went to Homer as the cornerstone of literature in the West; Stanford’s introduction of the Bible as one among many texts in the Great Works of the Western tradition, rather than a text above and apart from it, was perhaps an innovation.  But in neither case did Gilgamesh, though antedating and (arguably) deeply influencing the later oral and written traditions of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world – that is, traditions arising from and constituting the alleged birthplace of “Western Civilization” – find a place on the list.

This is because such lists, as John Guillory pointed out in his marvelous book Canon, Syllabus, List Cultural Capital, reflect not the history of the texts themselves (their relation to each other in terms of chronology or influence) but the history of their teaching.  They are testaments to a pedagogic tradition.  Gilgamesh, a late-comer to the syllabus, had no place in the 1950s or the 1980s in the “Great Tradition.”

During and after the 1980s canon wars at Stanford, the “greatness” of “the” Western literary tradition was in dispute as a criterion for the importance of these texts in the curriculum.  Just as those who designed the Stanford curriculum took the Bible from timeless truth to historical text by putting it on the list, so the claim to timeless relevance for all these texts on the list was itself historicized as a result of these debates, and antiquity sometimes superseded ubiquity as a criterion for inclusion.  Beginning in 1995, the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces included Gilgamesh (somewhat awkwardly, per David Damrosch*) as the earliest of its texts from the ancient world; recent editions of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature include Gilgamesh as the first complete work of the Western literary tradition.  (I don’t know how back the inclusion of Gilgamesh goes – if someone has the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, first published in 1984, I believe, please let me know in the comments if Gilgamesh got a seat at the table. I’m guessing not, but this is one of the facts I must track down.)

Did Gilgamesh belong on the Stanford reading list as a required or suggested work of Western literature from the ancient world?  Was Gilgamesh “excluded”?  That’s an irrelevant, even a nonsensical, question; the Stanford reading list is a relic of the past, an artifact of a certain moment in the history of pedagogy, when those who had been counted once long before among the taught were at the pinnacle of their authority as the teachers.

What’s important and interesting, with consequences still unfolding, is this:  Gilgamesh, the oldest story behind some of the oldest stories in “the West,” is on the syllabus now.

What’s worrisome is this:  for how long will there be such a thing as a syllabus of “great” or “important” or “historic” works over which we might argue?


*David Damrosch, “From the Old World to the Whole World,” in On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy, edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 41-44.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As usual, your post has me thinking…
    What makes a book (we won’t say canonical) important is the volume of references and allusions by poets, novelists, and scholars in succeeding ages. This, in some sense, also becomes the story after the story, how it fits into the philological tradition. EOG’s story hits a bump in the road so to speak and for a couple of millennia is lost. I wonder if EOG didn’t parallel or at least so comfortably fit in with the western myths of man vs god melodrama, flood myths and epic adventure it would have been so well received.

  2. Thanks Paul. I’ll start where you end: Gilgamesh, recovered in 1853, “paralleled” ancient texts known to us for much longer in that they preceded it temporally in our consciousness, laying down the narrative lines that the late-discovered work seemed to “follow.” But of course Gilgamesh did not parallel the Biblical account of the flood or Classical journeys to the underworld or the story of Jacob and Esau or the love of companions-in-arms: it preceded and flowed beneath and through those later stories.

    The entry of Gilgamesh into something like a canon, however awkwardly effected at first, may represent an important shift in an ongoing battle between two approaches to texts that might be broadly summarized as “the English department” vs. “the History department” (especially the English department in the wake of the New Criticism). That is, one argument for inclusion of texts rested on supposed “intrinsic” qualities (hinted at in the idea of “greatness”), while another argument for inclusion rested on “connective” qualities (basically, how a text fit within a tradition or mattered in/for some important past event/development). And if you look at the list, you see a compromise between departments of literature, philosophy,political science, and, in a way, history. (Fun fact: there were no historians on the committee who came up with this reading list, and that’s crucially important, I think, in explaining how little will there was among the faculty more broadly to take a stand in defense of some particular list rather than some more general set of criteria/principles of inclusion.)

    In any case, my problem now is that I’m trying to remember where and why I first read or heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh. I know it was some time during my undergrad years, and in all likelihood for a class. It might have been for a mythology class I took winter quarter freshman year, where we read Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, Joseph Campbell, some (more) Greek plays, and I can’t quite remember what else — though that’s kind of a weird fit for Gilgamesh. But I think I must have read it for that course. Certainly didn’t read it in my Western Culture track, though it’s quite possible that some tracks in fact did.

    For fun, I went to the Chronicling America website and looked for the first mention of “Gilgamesh” in any American newspaper indexed there. Here are the results — first mention is in 1893. It’s doubtless mentioned more frequently post 1920s in these papers, but I guess issues from those years are still under copyright and so not publicly available. The New York Times covered the translation of the fragments/tablets in Pennsylvania and a couple of times in its Sunday editions during the 1910s, and billed the document as shedding light on Bible history and offering an alternate account of the flood.

    During and in the wake of the canon debates at Stanford, the idea of “the West” was contested — it was a construct that needed to be situated (relative to ancient Egypt, relative to Mesopotamia), expanded, or abandoned. Including “the Bible” in some ways does not at all expand the idea of the West, since the Bible is so central to Western (and Eastern) European art & culture for millennia. But in some ways it was daring to put the Bible on that list, not just because it “secularized” a sacred text, but because it shifted notions of “Western” writing further eastward.

    So is Gilgamesh part of “the canon” (part of the set of texts that at least some students read/learn about in school) now because notions of “the West” have expanded geographically or temporally or both or neither? How is Gilgamesh “Western” in ways other than its connection to / influence on texts that are incontestably so?

    I don’t really have answers to these questions — just thinking about how people’s conception of what books are worth reading/requiring changed, and why, in the wake of the canon wars. This is, by the way, a more pleasant pasture to graze upon than the weed-filled field of how the canon debates were deployed in anti-higher-education polemics. So I’m just grazing in the clover for now. Eventually I have to head back into the thistles — unless I find a new path to the end of the book somewhere in all this verdant loveliness of well-loved books.

    • L.D., I am fascinated by your series on the canon — thanks for sharing these posts. For what it’s worth, I first encountered the Epic of Gilgamesh during the summer of 1969, when it was assigned reading before entering the eighth grade. My English literature teacher considered the work important enough to make it summer reading for a bunch of fidgety junior high school students, but I have no knowledge of where or when Mrs. Hollis learned about it. I only remember her enthusiasm in class that fall. She said the images and stories in the Epic of Gilgamesh were important for shaping our imaginations.

      • Gleaves, thanks so much for this comment. I almost never use nested comments, but I will happily make an exception here!

        That’s enchanting to me that your 8th grade English teacher thought to feed your imagination with Gilgamesh (and she was not wrong). This sent me on a quick spelunking trip through College English, to see when I could find the first mention of the epic as part of the curriculum. That led to me to this retrospective article, published in 1961, by an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University looking at changes to undergraduate instruction in literature in the last fifty years. The article is really interesting for what it says about the growth of Humanities survey courses as a fairly new “field” in which English lit profs often find themselves teaching “world” literature, and he compares that to a “Great Books” approach. But he ends by saying that late in his career he taught The Epic of Gilgamesh. I would guess, then, that Gilgamesh made it onto college syllabi — including the kinds of courses someone training to be a K-12 English teacher would have taken — after World War II, and as a paperback.

        Anyway, after that spelunking trip, I thought I’d check in JSTOR to see how long it takes Gilgamesh to “break out” of specialist journals (ASOR, AOS, theological studies, Biblical studies, philological studies, etc) and start to be mentioned in work appearing in other disciplines. One of the first places where Gilgamesh pops up is in the proceedings of the American Philosophical Society a couple of times in the 1900s and 1910s, a mention in 1910 in the Journal of American Folklore, scattered references throughout the 1910s and 1920s in Folklore.

        And then I saw a reference that really caught my eye — one mention in Poetry from 1925. This was Yvor Winters’s review of Marianne Moore’s Observations. In a line in one of her poems, Moore referred to her cat as “that Gilgamesh among / the hairy carnivora.”

        So maybe your English teacher found the story that way.

        But my money is on Post WWII general education courses & cheap paperbacks.

      • After ferreting around in WorldCat and a few antiquarian bookseller sites, I can tell you that the University of Chicago Press came out with a paperback edition of Alexander Heidel’s translation of the Gilgamesh epic in 1949. Not sure if this is the first translation available in paperback, but it looks like it was reissued a few times at least into the 1960s. The Penguin paperback (N.K. Sandars, trans.) came out in 1960.

  3. Thanks, LD! FWIW and to add to your capacious response James Turner, in his excellent book Philology, notes that “when in 1872 news broke of the flood story in tablet 11 of the epic of Gilgamesh, devout hearts soared to think Noah’s flood confirmed in cuneiform.” (363)

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