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Read the People - the Period of Antiquity Understood Through Literature

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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 the comfort needed to accept his mortality. To Be a Woman presents to the reader the perspective of a young woman about the way that her society relates to women with an attitude even less than one of indifference. T’ao Ch’ien, author of “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit,” introduces us to the reality of the commoners of another society during that period who were without the power to control their circumstances. All of these pieces of literature delve into the painful realities of life and the embracing of death; however, they are from the perspectives of those who occupy very different stations in life, and thus have very different problems and experiences which gives the reader vastly different understandings of life during this period of time. The attributes of the characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh and those of the speakers in To Be a Woman and Substance, Shadow, and Spirit, respectively, work together to help the reader understand much about the period of antiquity. The feelings of the people regarding tyrants like Gilgamesh, the grand priority of instant satisfaction, the seeming submission of commoners to life below the nobles, and the value or lack thereof placed upon women during this time stood out the most to during my reading.

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 ingrained into every part of their society. “No one is glad when a girl is born: by her the family sets no store (Xuan 7-8).” From this excerpt we can see that the family of a female child does not value her life any more than society values her, or any more than she comes to values herself. “When she grows up, she hides in her room/Afraid to look at a man in the face (Xuan 9-10).” In short, by understanding the attitude of this speaker, a reader begins to understand how dismal and discouraging life was for some people during the period of antiquity.

In contrast, the sentiment in T’ao Ch’ien’s “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit”suggests that the allure of instant satisfaction and gratification isn’t a bad thing. He implies that it may actually be the saving grace of an oppressed people. Ch’ien conveys through this poem the wisdom of a man that has gained peace of mind from the acceptance of your fate and from the enjoyment of the present. In this excerpt he calls attention to the natural order of things, to the resignation to the inevitable. Not with a defeatist attitude, but rather one of acceptance and faith in the process that governs all life.

Plants observe a constant rhythm/ Withered by frost, by dew restored./ But man, most sentient being of all,/In this is not their equal./He is present here in the world today,/ Then leaves abruptly, to return no more./…I hope you will take my advice:/ When wine if offered, don’t refuse (Ch’ien 3-7, 15-16)

Even in the midst of chaos and despair, there were those that still lived satisfied lives because of their faith in the predictability of life and did not allow their spirits and personal freedoms to be dissolved by their unchangeable circumstances. This shows that during the period of antiquity people were faithful and strong in spite of the conditions that may result in the depression of the spirit.

The power hungry Gilgamesh ruled his people as he wished, subjecting them to all sorts of violations of their humanity, Ishtar was spiteful and vindictive, women in ancient China were devalued, and an acceptance of ones conditions was crucial to the individual’s happiness. It’s known that kings like Astyages ruled Media for 35 years; he punished one of his subjects by killing his son and served him to him at a banquet (History of Media and Persia). Knowing the impact of rulers similar to Gilgamesh and Ishtar leads a reader to believe that life must have been much less than ideal for their subjects.

The anger and frustration of the speaker in To Be a Woman supports that theory by expressing the unfairness and disregard with which women were treated then, and although the speaker in Substance, Shadow, and Spirit does offer another perspective where your station in life may be inevitable, but your condition is only as dismal as you make it, he still shows that there was indeed a need to adopt that type of philosophy about life in order to sustain mental and emotional health. There is a host of inferred information one can gather by analyzing a poem or story, and a skilled writer is able to show u

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Works Cited

History of Media and Persia. 1997. Internet. 6 June 2012.

Ch’ien’s, T’ao. “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit.” Michigan Tech University, Michigan., 5 June 2012.

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. Andrew George. London, England: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Xuan, Fu. “To Be a Woman.” Ancient Chinese Stories, Tales, and Chinese Poetry. Ancient Chinese Stories. 06 June 2012. <


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