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Gilgamesh the Hero


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Gilgamesh Summary

Defining Concepts Culturally

   In developing complex definitions, you need to understand their complexity across cultures. Terms that you use that seem to have universal meaning in fact describe phenomena anc concepts that are vastly different from culture to culture. The purpose of this exercise is for you to develop a culturally specific definition of a concept that you use rather freely.

   In order to produce that definition, you need to go straight to the source. Part of what I'm trying to teach you in this course is how to understand other cultures, separated from you either geographical or historically or both, when they speak to you. For you really can't get much from a textbook; you're actually reading a modern, Western view of that culture. That modern, Western view, however, is derived from reading texts that culture has left behind. Those texts are available for you to read as well, and your understanding of other cultures should primarily be your interpretation derived from what that culture actually says about itself, rather than what some bozo with a PhD is telling you.

The Notion of a Hero

   Now the idea of a hero seems to be rather simple. But try to define it. Try to come up with a definition that includes every use of the term. Not so easy. Let me give you my baseline definition of the concept. The "hero" is a dialectical concept. "Dialectical" simply means that two opposing points of view are in conflict, so a "dialectical" concept is one that actually contains two opposite points of view in unresolved conflict with one another. On the one hand, the "hero" represents the highest human potential as a particular culture understands it. The "hero" represents the best (or near the best) a human being can either be or achieve. At the same time, however, because the "hero" represents the highest potential, the hero also represents human limitation. This is as good as a person can be, but no-one can be better. So, stories about heroes (I'm using this as a gender-neutral term) tend to be about both human potential and human limitations; frequently, heroic stories are more about the latter than the former.

Gilgamesh

   I want you to examine the summary of Gilgamesh very carefully. Your job is to come up with a Mesopotamian definition of a hero using both aspects of the concept. Using specific examples quoted from the text, define what the Mesopotamians felt were the highest abilities available to human beings. Then, using specific examples from the text again, define what the Mesopotamians felt were the limits of human abilities, the line or lines that humans could never cross. In your concluding paragraph, using your discussion of Gilgamesh as a hero, come up with a general argument speculating as to how the Mesopotamians might define the words, "human being."

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