12-1 homeschool

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.1 (Winter 2012)


home-education resources


courtesy of artrenewal.org


In this and subsequent issues, then, I humbly offer my synthetic view to home educators who may be in search of ways to integrate exotic texts into our cultural landscape.  Most courses in World Literature begin with an ancient Greek text such as the Iliad or even with the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.  I personally am convinced that both Homeric epics show rather more sophistication than the typical product of oral tradition.  I therefore begin with Gilgamesh and with the legends of Herakles (as transcribed by the literate mythographer Apollodorus).  I also employ (though I have now transferred it to a later point in the course) a translation of The Boyhood Deeds of Cu Chulainn, an Irish text whose matter may well be at least as old as Homer’s.  The focus of all three works mentioned throughout the discussion below is the shaman, a shadowy figure from prehistoric myth and ritual whose influence upon the earliest recorded hero tales is unmistakable.     ~     John Harris

Early Texts: The Shaman as Hero

Obviously, no text preceding the invention of the tape recorder can be completely oral.  We may classify texts as very close to pre-literate tradition, however, when they possess a great many stylistic attributes of a live performance, when their projected view of the gods and of heroism is a traditional one, when the plots of their stories are rich in ritualistic undertones, and so forth.  Many such texts turn out to have passed into our hands.  The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, evolved in Mesopotamia (a Greek word applied later to the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates: lit. “between the rivers”), the tribal states presiding over its long period of growth being Assyria and Sumeria.  These cultures did not possess a true alphabet.  Their sacred texts, rather, were recorded on clay tablets (carefully baked for preservation) in a script called cuneiform by scholars—from the Latin cuneus, “a wedge.”  The ciphers do indeed look like slender wedges or triangles, as a very close look at the photograph below will reveal.  Such an arcane script would not have been legible to the rank and file, but only to a priestly class whose members had dedicated years of study to its mastery.  The vast majority of Assyrians would thus have been quite illiterate, and the secret of reading would also have been jealously guarded among the elite few.

The wedges, by the way, have a similar look to ogham, a script used much more sparingly and with much less refinement in ancient Ireland.  Such gashes could be easily made with a knife or other sharp edge in tree bark or on a stone.  In Ireland, scouts and hunters would apparently leave messages for those who followed in this manner.  Ancient cuneiform probably had its origins in some related technique for communicating simple facts that enhanced the chances of survival.

Indeed, ancient Irish literature is probably one of the best places to look for traces of European oral tradition.  Though the Homeric epics have come to be largely regarded as the outgrowth of a centuries-old oral transmission—and with good reason—they also show many signs of sophistication beyond anything one would expect of an oral performance.  The bard who either wrote down or dictated the Iliad and the Odyssey preserved the rigid formulas that readily clicked into certain spots of the dactylic hexameter, creating an excellent technique for off-the-cuff presentation; but he (or she) was also considerably delayed as the stylus worked its way across the parchment.  This allowed the epic poet (aoidos in Greek) to ponder the next line with rare leisure.  The result must surely have been a degree of refinement in tracing certain characters and describing certain sentiments that would have been impossible in live performance.

Ireland had no such process working in favor of its ancient lore.  Old Irish tales were recorded centuries—perhaps millennia—after their first telling (an event which really never happened, since oral stories are transformed radically over generations, like the proverbial snowball that starts as an ice pebble).  Literate Irish monks wrote down most of the tales that we possess in the Middle Ages, often making little or no effort to suppress their pagan elements.  The style of these transcriptions tends to be very bare—almost like a series of notes scrawled upon index cards—so we should be quite wary about drawing any conclusions concerning their manner of performance.  Some of these texts do include short passages of versification, however.  On the basis of such verses, some have argued that the equivalent of an Irish Iliad may have existed at one time, and that subsequent scribes could only retrieve bits and pieces of it from local memory, the majority of its action having lapsed into prose.  This is unlikely, since the versified passages show no narrative capacity at all, but rather are intricately laced with the complex allusions common in the praise poetry composed by Gaelic bards for their clan chieftains.  (The Greek poet Pindar wrote in the same vein: great events are not related, only implied.)


The Yale Tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic

In a way, though, this general loss of the ancient tradition in Ireland further ensures that scribal recollections of the old tales are more authentic.  There was no reliably transmitted text to play fast and loose with—to refine in the manner that the Homeric poet must have done while recording his epics.  Hence what we have are the bare bones of an unadorned plot.  Scholars like the French anthropologist Georges Dumezil have found in such Irish texts a rather wide window upon very ancient Celtic myths and rituals.  Dumezil refers lengthily to The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn, for example, in tracing the initiation of the Shaman (also know as Witch-Doctor, Medicine Man, and Master of the Hunt).  This central figure of tribal cultures lives in the margins of society.  He defends the boundaries of culture successfully from the threats of raw nature because he himself is but part civilized, and is indeed often descended (so the culture supposes) from the rude gods driving natural forces.  Thus his return to the community after vanquishing its enemies in wild fury is a mixed blessing, and sometimes an extreme danger.  Dumezil believes (in Horace et les Curiaces) that Cú Chulainn’s initiatory defeat of the three deadly sons of Nechta on Ulster’s border must be followed by an encounter with strictly forbidden sexual practice in order to shame the boy back to the level of mere mortal—or to paralyze him in shame, more exactly, until he can be physically subdued to manageable levels.

This tale and others involving Cú Chulainn may bed found the the third file of this series, The European Middle Ages and Renaissance.  They are an excellent source of information about the shamanic figure and can be made the subject of some very useful comparisons with the Gilgamesh epic (as can the medieval Germanic Beowulf, to a slightly lesser degree).  Yet the convention of confining the study of such Old Irish narratives within the Middle Ages rather than admitting that their material has roots at least a thousand years older would, if ignored, no doubt cause much confusion.  This volume therefore follows the Gilgamesh texts directly with an account of the Herakles tales (“Hercules” in Latin) generated by the highly literate Greek Apollodorus.  While this author’s text can show us nothing about traditional narrative technique, the fairly skeletal “plot summary” he provides is sufficient to illustrate certain aspects of the shaman very well.  Herakles, perhaps more than any other hero who has reached us from Western prehistory, is a tamer of wild beasts.  That his primitive function was one of mediation rather than mere slaughter seems implied in his allowing several of the monstrous creatures captured during his Twelve Labors to live.  Furthermore, in his abduction of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding Hades, he overtly descends into the Dead World, to which shamans of story more often travel figuratively or in a trance.  Finally, the life of Herakles powerfully conveys the shaman’s “two-edged sword” quality for his community; for while the hero paves the way for his culture to stabilize and expand by overpowering the fearful creatures that send ordinary humans into hiding, he is also given to homicidal bouts of blind rage.  Among his victims must be numbered some of his dearest friends, and even his wife and children.

To return to the story of Gilgamesh, or Gish, the fragmented accounts we possess strongly resonate both with the Irish Cú Chulainn stories amd with the epic cycle of Herakles.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu are indeed both shamanic figures, the latter being used in the story’s extant version to bring the former under control.  Enkidu’s wildness is tamed by a sexual encounter so that he may be enlisted by the settlement at Uruk against the tribe’s ruler, who has himself run berserk in ways that hint at sexual excess.  The two appear happily to balance one another, however, rather than to self-annihilate.  With Enkidu’s initiation complete, they go in search of the monstrous Humbaba, a creature clearly aligned with nature against culture.  Like the sons of Nechta, the beast looms menacingly beyond the border and hems in the activity of civilized human beings; and like the giant Antaeus whom Herakles can slay only by denying him contact with the earth, Humbaba appears to be an autochthonous (or “earthborn”) nightmare, his very name drawn from the root which gives us humus in Latin.

Two versions of the Gilgamesh tale’s early adventures are offered below to demonstrate graphically just how ancient and remote the material truly is.  The Jastrow-Clay translation of the cuneiform tablets provides clues for the reconstruction of an extremely threadbare narrative; the N. K. Sandars “translation” is in fact highly creative in its own right, as it must be to impose any sort of coherence.  Were it not for texts like the Irish Boyhood Deeds and the many classical accounts of Herakles’ adventures, we should have a much sketchier notion of the likely sense of Gilgamesh’s narrative.

To peek ahead just a bit, these ancient texts also serve to remind us that Homer’s far more sophisticated Achilles is himself, at the bottom, a shaman.  Semi-divine, the ultimate defense of his tribe yet paradoxically a menace to it, prone to berserk rages in battle, lacking any peaceful and lawful conjugal existence, Achilles embraces the destiny of dying young and gloriously (just as Cú Chulainn does) and was actually preceded by Herakles in besieging and destroying Troy.  We would overlook much of Homer’s artistry if we were to see in this ferocious superman of the Achaeans nothing but a shamanic figure; but we also run the risk of judging him by excessively human standards—by our standards—if we fail to appreciate that Homer’s audience would have grasped the ancient mythic component to his character.


WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Gilgamesh/Gish, Enkidu, and Other Versions of the Shaman

  • The paradoxical strain between the hero as defender of culture from raw nature and the hero as a menace to culture when not defending it from the wilderness outside.
  • A conquest of beasts/wild forces that inhibit culture from prospering.
  • A complexity in social relationships—often graphically expressed in violations of basic rules and taboos.
  • A consequent paucity or complete lack of progeny: mate is often abducted, children may actually be slain.
  • An association with the spirit world—frequently an ability to visit it and return to living world.
  • Eventual association of the hero with the divine: his outraging of human morality may at last be revered as expression of irresistible divine force.

Tendency of cycle to end in deep tragedy when hero does not achieve full divinity, since inner contradictions of his make-up must at last pull him apart.