Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ancient World History (Mesopotamia): The Epic of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh the King (The Gilgamesh Trilogy)
I believe children should be well versed in ancient classic literature.  All movies and literature are just variations of the ancient narratives.  The key to seeing those patterns as well as understanding modern literature and media at a deeper level lies in studying the original stories.  Gilgamesh is one of my favorites. You may be thinking…I have never even heard of that story.  Sure you have.  If you have watched the most recent “Star Trek” film (2009), you saw the core framework play out before your very eyes.  Even the series “Lost” is a loose variation on the pattern.  Perhaps J.J. Abrams is a Gilgamesh fan?  Gilgamesh is about two men, King Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who represent different parts of human nature, so they are at odds. Ultimately, they form a bond that changes their lives.  This Gilgamesh PowerPoint provides some background information and offers a plot summary of the narrative. 

Here is a lesson plan of sorts for Gilgamesh.  It is  how I taught this story to my children (over several weeks).    Each level is designed to make this story accessible and build a schema for comprehension.  First, I gave them an overview of the narrative, similar to the one presented in this PowerPoint.  We were studying the Sumer culture at the time as well.  Though it is not necessary to understand the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is helpful.  One of the resources we used from the library was The Sumerians by Elaine Landau.  Homeschool parents may also enjoy History Pockets: Ancient Civilizations which has a section on the Ancient Mesopatamia. 

Next, we read three stunning picture books written and illustrated by Ludmila Zeman. 

The Revenge of Ishtar (The Gilgamesh Trilogy)        The Last Quest of Gilgamesh (The Gilgamesh Trilogy)
  • Gilgamesh the King provides the setting and the characters' backgrounds.  In addition, it portrays the rivalry and eventual friendship of the two men. 
  • The Revenge of Ishtar illustrates Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s quests together and Enkidu’s death.
  • The Last Quest of Gilgamesh depicts Gilgamesh’s pursuit of eternal life as well as his eventual peace with the death of his friend and his position as a mortal king. 
Gilgamesh the Hero
Then, I read a juvenile chapter book called Gilgamesh, the Hero  by Geraldine McCaughrean.  This selection offers more details of Gilgamesh and Enkidu's heroic adventures and of Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life.  The previous framework and schema gave them a place to "hang" those details, increasing overall comprehension.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Norton Critical Editions)Finally, if you want to read more for yourself or you have older children, check out a modern translation of the story.  I enjoy the Norton versions because they provide essays, criticism, and other background information along with the text.  As my children get older, they will take on this new challenge, but with the advantage of already understanding the structure of the narrative and have a schema to build on.   In the meantime, the framework will aid them in comprehending and in appreciating other related stories. 

There are some variations in facts between the two children’s versions and from the original story.  Authors often take artistic liberties or rely on alternate versions that were passed down.  The main facts and framework are the same though.   I used the disparities as an opportunity to practice comparing and contrasting. 

I also delved in to the theological, historical aspects with the depiction of the global flood in Gilgamesh and in the Bible.  Even though my children were only 9 and 12 at the time, they were able to grasp these parallels.  I found this website helpful in providing a one-to-one comparison of the two accounts.  There are many other sites and resources that tackle this topic as well.

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