Read the People: Understanding the Period of Antiquity through Literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumarian text, along with two ancient Chinese poems: To be A Woman, written by Fu Xuan and Substance, Shadow, and Spirit written by T’ao Ch’ien, are all pieces of literature from the period of antiquity (the time prior to the Middle Ages). Reading each of them not simply for pleasure, but rather for the message injected into all parts of these works, allows a reader to learn a great many things other than the plot of the story they have written.
The Epic of Gilgamesh takes us through the life of the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, as he quests for the meaning of living life and for ...view middle of the document...
Although Gilgamesh was considered very wise, he was also extremely cruel and his behavior was oppressive and demeaning to the people of his kingdom. Because it was said that Gilgamesh was part-god, he was thought to be held above all others and was not subject to the rules and morals of the people, including adultery (“The Epic of Gilgamesh” 29). Gilgamesh had the right to take whatever he desired without consequence or need for remorse. His followers became so angry and frustrated with the abuse of his power that they made a plea to the Gods to provide them with relief.
Gilgamesh sounds the tocsin for his amusement; his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute…A goddess made him, strong as a savage bull, none can withstand his arms (“The Epic of Gilgamesh” 4)
Gilgamesh’s cruelty made degradation, poverty, and extreme hardships typical for most people in this period in history. Life was anything but peaceful and prosperous them to those less than nobility.
Ishtar, called the Queen of Heaven and Goddess of Love, was dangerously spiteful when she did not get her way. In fact, she was said to have yielded her power out of spite often. Ishtar tells Gilgamesh she wants to be his wife and have his children, she wants him to be her King. Gilgamesh declines. Gilgamesh said to her, with regard to another lover she once desired, “…but when you heard his answer you struck him. He was changed into a blind mole deep in the earth (“The Epic of Gilgamesh” 12).” In retaliation Ishtar begs her father for the Bull of Heaven so that she can punish him. After hearing the story, her father agrees that he should be punished and allows her to send the Bull of Heaven down to punish him which caused many earthquakes and long term damage to the crops (“The Epic of Gilgamesh” 12). One could certainly interpret the desire for instant satisfaction as a major societal priority during the period of antiquity. Personal gratification was more important than the fair treatment of any one individual in those times.
Females during the period of Antiquity often received the most unjust treatment of all—even their potential contributions were discounted and valued less. In Fu Xuan’s poem To Be a Woman, we learn how bad it was for some women then, how lowly they were valued, and how they compared to the males. “How sad it is to be a woman/Nothing on earth is held so cheap/ Boys stand leaning at the door/ like Gods Fallen out of Heaven (Xuan 4)” The woman expressing this perspective is angry and not at all satisfied with the treatment females receive. Unlike the treatment from a tyrannous king, this treatment did not only come from above. The attitude toward women was...