Throughout time, students have ventured through the literary works of some of the most influential poets and writers of all time, whom not only helped, but also molded the traditions and cultures that affected the ways of writers today. Along with understanding the themes of these tales, learning how these literary writings intersected with the cultures of these eras is vital. Two of the early writings were poems, The Iliad and The Aeneid, who were written by the great poets named Homer and Virgil. Along with these writings, there were other great epics like Genesis, Paradise Lost, Inferno, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. Epics like these serve a few different purposes for early oral and literary tales, for it exposed how culture and literature intersected each other repeatedly.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally shared through oral tradition, and in around 1400 was finally written by the Sumerian/Babylonian poet named Homer. The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is both a religious article and an important work of ancient literature. Discovering the matters of friendship, mortality, heroism, and humanity’s relationship to the divine, was in line with the beliefs and cultures of its time. Reasonably so, the Epic is a cautionary tale recognizing man’s flaws without offering much faith for the future. Many aspects can be pulled out about the culture and the values within the themes and motifs. One of the cultural intersections in this poem is when Gilgamesh’s best friend Enkidu is cursed by the goddess Ishtar, which he then falls ill, and ends up dying. However, before Enkidu’s death, he shares a moment with Gilgamesh and tells him “My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame” (Foster, 143). Here this displays the culture of the Greeks, for if a soldier should die in battle it is viewed as a great honor, for he would have served his family with pride and served his country well. Now, if a man dies of an illness, they are viewed, as a weak individual for there is no pride seen in this type of death. Warriors were held in high regards and their deaths on the battlefield were highly respected, for it was preferred to have died in that manner, of that time. The hero qualities of Gilgamesh can also be viewed in many of the world literature works of today.
Now, in The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri, his poetry is a bit different from some of the other works of Iliad and Gilgamesh. Dante’s poem dealt with the view of the afterlife. Religion and Christianity had a huge influence on the culture of the Roman era. Dante depicts the values of his time by incorporating the ethical standards of that period. However, this story shares some similar features within the plot to previous texts, such as themes of perseverance and divine powers, but the Inferno offers a new form of writing style in the history of literature. The Inferno highlighted the beliefs of moral good and evil. It also validated the progression from past literature through the importance placed on the acts of “sins” or the bad deeds taken by an individual and how the influence of the governing religion of this time period is emphasized throughout the culture of this work. These sinful acts were positioned within a specific realm of eternal damnation. The subject of this poem is more blatant than any other past literary piece and the inner moral struggle that rages on within every person takes center stage in this “epic” as Dante takes his journey through the realms of hell and is able to view with his own eyes the effects of such sins. The overall message of this story was to identify with the effects of sinners and provide further insight into what hell was, as Dante used this opportunity to suggest to the non-believers of his time of the punishment that awaited them.
Another epic that also intersects a few different cultural purposes in early literature is the epic of The Ramayana of Valmiki. Ramayana speaks of many topics too, from love to lust, morals, and death. This story is a massive step into the institution of Hinduism. It is not only a matching jewel of the Indian way of life but also a guide to the merged culture. It deals with all the four values of human life Dharma (virtue), Artha (wealth), Kama (desire, pleasure), and Moksha (salvation). Dharma also includes moral, social, cultural, and spiritual values, and Artha, which deals with the material or sophisticated richness. Ramayana helped educate the early Indian people with the morals required for their society to become stabilized. The epic is an accessible way for people of that time to get guidance. This type of epic regularly brought on strong loyalty and pride of their heritage. The tale brought to light the past of their people and their culture, which would have helped reinforce the society and help connect its people mutually. In the Indian culture, “early epics and narrative traditions develop along specific religious lines, but also in keeping with the social world shaped by Hinduism.” (Norton, 1168) The epic of Valmiki, Ramayana, is a “religious epic that explains the ways of the gods to human beings, and offers a model of justice and prosperity on earth.” (Norton, 1170). This Indian epic can pull similar comparisons to that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. All these epics share parallel aspects in dealings with the gods and human exchanges, heroic journeys, love stories, heartache, and tragedy, which crisscross many parallels of all cultures.
Humanity all throughout history has created epic stories to demonstrate the extraordinary explorations and conflicts within their cultures. Therefore, by creating these epics they have also created a glimpse into the basic human beliefs of hope, pride, values, and justice of their era. Many diverse cultures have used oral and written literature for many reasons to represent their mythology, religion, history, poetry, sexuality, including the depiction of how ancient societies existed. When looking at modern day literature today we still have those cultural intersects in not only our literary forms but also in the movies, shows, and arts of today.