The Idea Of Death In Gilgamesh And Iliad

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The Idea of Death in Gilgamesh and Iliad


In Poetics, Aristotle recognized literature's value for humanity when he stated that "the object of art is an imitation of life." Writers have always used the situations and events of everyday life in their writing, and since death is just as much a part of life as anything else, it is arguably one of the most recurring themes in all of literature. In poetry, fiction, and drama, death is seen as a central theme that gives way to other themes ranging from justice to rites of passage to grief. Death is a crucial fact of life, and from the emotional response to death to the various religious frameworks through which it is interpreted, it is obvious why death is used as a theme in literature so extensively. In ancient literature, the theme of death is seen regularly. In Gilgamesh, the ancient epic of Mesopotamia, death is clearly illustrated through relationships, responding to the deaths of loved ones, and war. Once Gilgamesh comes to love Enkidu, he dies, and the reader is left with Gilgamesh's thoughts and response to his friend's death. In ancient Greek mythology, the Trojan War provided a framework for a myriad of stories, including Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey; both stories recount numerous lengthy battles and gruesome scenes of death. Later, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, the three great Greek tragedians, created death-driven plays, such as Sophocles' Oedipus The King and Antigone, which includes patricide, suicide, and fratricide. In Poetics, Aristotle highlights the value of tragedy, which compels an audience to feel a catharsis, or cleansing of the soul, by witnessing tragic acts, typically deaths of highly regarded characters—deaths those characters may not totally deserve. Even in ancient literature, authors were utilizing death as a theme to elicit an emotional response in the reader or audience.


Weil now proceeds to make her most sweeping claim about the worldview of the Iliad: Homer's “Poem of Force” demonstrates the pathetic debasement of all humans. The common soldier, such as Thersites, is in theory a free agent but must endure the indignities of having to accept orders and of abuse should he balk. At the high end of the social scale, magnificent and invincible Achilles suffers humiliation at the hands of his superior, Agamemnon, who in his turn must shortly humble himself. The relevance of this circumstance to later ages is clear to Weil: The persistence of warfare and other forms of violence throughout history has meant that, though force may victimize some later rather than sooner, some less patently than others, all without exception are drawn into its net. (Griffin 15-20)

There is, however, a more subtly operating force “that does not kill, [that is], that does not kill just yet.” Under this heading, Weil discusses the peculiar mode of existence of the defeated man who supplicates his conqueror. Paralyzed by the imminence of force and the death it will bring, he imitates in advance the nothingness that is his ...
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