The Guest Begins

Portions of Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This cuneiform writing depicts Gilgamesh and Enkidu meeting Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest. The tablet dates to the Old Babylonian Period, 2003-1595 BCE. Photograph by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, FRCP; Wikimedia, open access.


For those of you who don’t know me, I’m JoAnna Wall, Matt’s wife. I’m taking over his blog while he is working on his book this month. My posts will be a bit more varied than Matt’s have been, but all he specified was that the posts had to be historical. So, send any complaints to him.

My first post is going to be a bit introductory, historiographical, and pedagogical. After a hiatus from teaching, I am now an adjunct professor at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, CA. I have one section of World History to 1500 C.E. to teach this semester. In this post, I’ll let you know a more about me, my research, and my teaching methods. The last part of the post will give you a taste of what my students are reading for the class and some discussion points.

Although Matt told you that I am finishing my PhD at UCLA, I am strongly considering leaving the program. After a lot of thought I have found that being in the Latin American History field was not the best place for me. Not only do I regret going straight from undergraduate to graduate school, I should have taken more time to consider advisors and my field of choice. However, I will never regret my time at UCLA as I learned so much and met Matt. Without him and our daughter Clementine, my life would be much less fulfilling.

History is still my passion. Even if I end up leaving UCLA without a PhD in hand, I have done work I am proud to share. This month I’ll post some of my research on indigenous women’s dormitories in the California Missions as well as some other work I have done on Americans who were marooned in Colonial California and their journeys home.

In this post, I want to focus on my teaching. I emphasize primary sources in my courses. Like Elmer’s letters, primary sources give us a window into a time and place that a secondary source just can’t capture. I think it is vital to students without a History background to read an analyze primary sources themselves, rather than only accessing them through a source like a textbook. Context is important, so I still give my students secondary sources to read about the period we are studying, but I mainly want them to focus on thinking about the primary sources and coming up with their own original thoughts about them.

For example, this week my students will read selections from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poetic epic from 2700 B.C.E. tells the story of King Gilgamesh of Uruk. Uruk was a Sumerian city state in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and is one of the oldest literary works in existence. To start with this primary source is kind of pushing my students into the deep end and seeing how they swim, but it is a fascinating mythological work that epitomizes Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. The Hero’s Journey from Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) ties myths from across History together to show how we as humans see our legends. Although the Epic of Gilgamesh was written almost 5000 years ago, we can still see parallels in our favorite stories from today.

If this enterprise is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Saunders trans. (1960) pg. 7

This quote illustrates the call to action. Heroes don’t just decide out of the blue to be heroes and go on an epic adventure. The ambition, whether God-given or innate, drives the hero to go on their quest. Gilgamesh’s “restless desire” can be seen in stories like The Aeneid to “Star Wars.” Although The Epic of Gilgamesh is sometimes difficult to parse for modern audiences, the comparisons to our own favorite stories help students connect with the distant past and see that even people who lived almost five millennia ago, in a place that is now best known as a war zone, are not that different from us after all. Once you can get over that mental hurdle, History becomes a lot easier to relate to our own lives. It’s one of the things I love most about History.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me. Here are a few more of my favorite lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the questions I will ask my class this week.

“He (Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy and then friend. A wild man from the wilderness) was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”

“So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said. ‘You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god. Why do you want to run wild with the beasts in the hills? Come with me.”

“Ishtar opened her mouth and said again, ‘My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.’ Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle?’ Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years of seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough.’”

-Women play important roles in The Epic of Gilgamesh. What traits to women represent in the story? How do they help and hinder Gilgamesh and Enkidu? What do their parts in the story tell us about Sumerian views of women and gender?

-Enkidu begins his life in the wilderness, the opposite of city dwelling Gilgamesh. Looking at these opposing characters, what can we learn about Sumerian culture? How did Sumerians reconcile urban life and nature? What was most important for them economically and culturally?

-The gods and goddesses of Sumeria are very active in The Epic of Gilgamesh. How do these supernatural forces compare to those in other legends, mythologies, and religions?  

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