The objectives for this unit are:
1 Read, write, speak, and listen to construct meaning from the reading of
The Epic of Gilgamesh
2 Read with understanding and respond thoughtfully to a variety of materials and writing prompts;
3 Students will write before, during and after reading. The writing will have students journaling, answering questions and writing pieces similar to the ones they are reading. Also, they will be revising initial writing and understanding of what is being read;
While teaching this curriculum unit, teachers can use the background information for themselves or to present to students. The unit has a variety of angles. The first being solely literary with definitions of the epic, epic hero, and epic cycle. Then the class can move into the reading of
The Epic of Gilgamesh
. The other angle can be teaching
The Epic of Gilgamesh
as a historical document with the teacher providing historical context and then analyzing the literature from a historical perspective. In my classroom, I intend to do both. Students will learn about the epic and the epic hero as part of an overall year theme of "hero" but they will also learn about Mesopotamia as a refresher of what they learned during their World Civilization class.
The Literary Epic
It is important to note that
The Epic of Gilgamesh
does not exactly fit into the traditional literary definition of the epic and the epic hero. Knowing the literary definition and the various definitions throughout history will help students develop a literary framework
spark discussion over whether or not Gilgamesh fits into this definition. All the following information about the epic is drawn from: Merriam Webster Online Database's entry entitled "Hero" and "The Victorian Web" http://www.victorianweb.org/genre/epic2.html.
The hero is an element of literature often taught by many teachers. The word itself connotates a variety of images and emotion for students. Heroes range from those in comic books to those found in great tragedies and epics.
The epic poem is a long, narrative poem detailing the adventure or journey of an epic hero. Early epics are the result of oral tradition and have eventually been written down after many years. The author's of the first epics are unknown because of the oral tradition. As time progressed, what is known as a secondary epic style developed and authors went to great lengths to write epics in the style of the early, or primary, epic poems.
The general characteristics of the epic poem are that initially epics were intended to be sung or recited, much like music today. The poems are often generated by times of struggle and adventure. For example, the Trojan War served as inspiration for the writing of Homer's epics. The epic hero is larger than life, even though he possesses normal human characteristics. His personality and abilities, however, are more super than those of everyday man.
The epic poem has a clear set-up and design. The poem begins with an invocation - this invocation calls on a muse or god to inspire divine intervention while telling the tale. In the invocation, the subject and the epic question are introduced.
The epic's language is literary and elevated. The language is used by all in the poem, from king to servant (even though epics rarely detail lives or actions of the servants). Epic conventions include: the invocation, the epic question, the epic or Homeric simile, the epithet, the confrontation between two adversaries, the element of "in medias res", and a battle or combat
"In media res" translates to "in the midst of action". Essentially, the poem begins in the middle or during the action. The audience learns background information and details as the epic progresses. The simile is much like the literary simile using "like" or "as"; however, the epic simile is full of description and helps to move the action along and to build suspense.
The epic hero is not unlike the tragic hero in that he born into greatness or into leadership. However, the epic hero has some characteristics that clearly distinguish him from the others. The legendary hero is "often of divine descent who is endowed with great strength or ability". Gilgamesh shares these traits with other early epic heroes. The epic hero is in a different class of men based on his "skill, strength, and courage" .It is also no mistake that the hero is referred to as "he" because epic heroes are the central
character in the epic itself. ("Hero" Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam Webster's, Inc. 1995 NA. Academic OneFile. Thomson Gale.).
The epic hero's main focus is dangerous activity, essentially a war or battle over an evil force. The epic hero is someone we want fighting on our side as he is cunning, resourceful, instinctive, and skilled. He works well under pressure; he is the leader those around him need. These skills, although possessed by us all, are magnified and shown to be glorious as the hero needs then to lead and save the day
Again, like the tragic hero, our epic hero is not without fault. Often the epic hero has excessive pride (or "hubris") and is not afraid to sing his own praises. Although respected, the hero is not always someone likeable. An interesting dichotomy to analyze with the students: is it better to be a well-liked leader or a well-respected leader? Are both aspects possible? Blinded by his own praises, the hero seeks to enhance his own reputation and may take on foolish, dangerous battles in an effort to continue to add to his list of achievements. These actions not only put him in danger but also risk the lives of those around him. This, however, makes his victory even more glorious and his people, even more grateful. (Landow, George. "Notes on Heroic Poetry." http://www.victorianweb.org/genre/epic2.html. ).
Bryan M. Davis in his article on the site
The Archetypal Hero in Literature, Religion, Movies, and Popular Culture (
http://titan.sfasu.edu/~beenet/resources/heromain.html) further maps out characteristics of the archetypal or epic hero. He states that the following are common characteristics epic heroes possess. The characteristics are:
1 Unusual circumstances of birth; sometimes in danger or born into royalty
2 An event, sometimes traumatic, leads to adventure or quest
3 Hero has supernatural help
4 The Hero must prove himself many times while on adventure
5 When the hero dies, he is rewarded spiritually
These characteristics are not unlike modern heroes in movies and in popular culture. Having these characteristics allows students to read literature and look for these elements to determine whether or not a character or "hero" fits into the mold of the epic hero.
The journey is the key element of the epic and the epic cycle. The epic cycle, as outlined by Jennifer Foley in the online lesson plan,
Story of Epic Proportions: What makes a Poem an Epic?
identifies key elements of the cycle. The elements are:
1 the hero must possess supernatural abilities or powers. These can often be magnified qualities we all possess (for example, strength we all possess but the hero's is superhuman).
2 the hero is charged with a quest that will test his abilities. This will test his worthiness to be a leader.
3 Then is the presence of helpers and companions as well as mythical animals or creatures during his journey.
4 The travels of the hero will take him to a supernatural world that ordinary humans are barred.
5 The cycle reaches a low point when we think the hero has been defeated but in the end, the hero resurrects himself and regains his rightful place.
In the book,
How to Read Literature like a Professor
, Thomas Foster gives five elements of the journey that readers can analyze. The five elements are
1 the quester himself,
2 a place to go,
3 a stated reason to go there,
4 challenges or trials en route during the journey,
reason a quester goes on the journey
Many questers set out to kill a beast or do something heroic to continue their reign as king or as someone of high esteem. However, after the journey is over, there is a message or lesson the quester must learn. This absolutely becomes the real reason the quester must take the journey and becomes something universal the students can learn from.
Foster, Thomas How to Read Literature Like A Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003)
After learning about the epic, the class will then focus on
The Epic of Gilgamesh
. The poem will be the focus of a considerable amount of this unit. We will begin with some geographical and historical information regarding Mesopotamia.