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.
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.
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.