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An overwhelmingly significant portion of the world’s population believes in the existence of a Supreme Being. It is also a well-known fact that in most organized religions – created around the belief of a certain deity – there is a common denominator, the existence of a code of conduct. For Christians there is the Ten Commandments, for others their sense of right and wrong is simply bound by the golden rule – do unto others what you want others to do unto you. Another common denominator among major religions is the desire to live in peace among others and the strict avoidance of violence. Yet, history tells us that this goal of living a peaceful life is almost impossible especially in areas where unstable governments and tyrannical leaders can be seen co-existing in one place.
It is truly an understatement to say that the study of violence is a complex endeavor. There are too many angles and there can be multiple ways to begin the research. For this particular study, the proponent finds it interesting to start with two world-renowned literary works. The first one is the Epic of Gilgamesh which is truly an amazing masterwork of a nameless ancient author. The second one is the morality play called The Summoning of Every-Man.
Gilgamesh is a good place to start because it is one of the most ancient pieces of literature ever discovered. Gilgamesh is also an important component of this discussion because it reveals that violence existed since recorded history or even beyond that. Every-Man on the other hand is not an exhaustive narrative of human violence but it is included here because it provides a counterpoint in the idea that the strong will rule the weak and challenges the idea that violence will greatly reward those who wield its awesome power.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
This epic centered on the story of two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh was created to be part man, part divine but mostly godlike in appearance and abilities. He was created to be very strong, having no equal among men in that department. He was also created to be beautiful and wise. With his strength, wisdom and comely appearance he ruled Uruk with an iron hand. With his uniqueness and capabilities it was easy to understand why he wields absolute authority and thus it is also easy to comprehend why absolute power has corrupted him absolutely.
It was implied that Gilgamesh used force, in fact violence to coerce people to follow his every whim and desire. One can arrive at this conclusion because the narrative says that no husband, warrior or hero can stand against Gilgamesh. The tyrant now residing in Uruk created a magnificent city with strong walls and it became famous not only for its beauty but also of the notoriety of its king. The people made their lamentations known to the gods and they responded by creating the anti-thesis to Gilgamesh and they hoped to bring him down when they meet in battle.
One of the most distinct depiction of violence can be observed in the scene where Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally met to test their mettle against the other. They grappled and their heavy breathing was described as like raging bulls locking horns in a fight for territorial supremacy. Enkidu is challenging Gilgamesh for the right to rule Uruk and to change the order of things. The people were secretly hoping that Enkidu would prevail against their harshly and overly arrogant king.
The two warrior epitomized violence and destruction as they wrecked havoc in Uruk, damaging walls and doorposts. But Enkidu it seems was all brawn and no brains as Gilgamesh was able to exploit his weakness and defeat him. Strangely Enkidu’s anger died down and Gilgamesh embraced him as if he was his long-lost brother. The story made an odd turn, no longer was Gilgamesh the dreaded tyrant but with Enkidu as his guide he became a hero.
But the violence continued when Gilgamesh desired for greatness. He sets his eyes on the land of the living and went on to challenge the guardian of the forest named Humbaba. He went into his dwelling place and violently ended his life with the thrust of the sword to the neck of Humbaba. His new-found brother Enkidu also participated in the carnage and together they destroyed the mighty ruler of the forest. Their lust for adventure continued up until Enkidu died and this shook up Gilgamesh in a terrible way. He was confronted with the thought that he could not live forever. This time his quest for glory was replaced with the quest for immortality. But at the end Gilgamesh had to accept that he too will die like Enkidu.
The Summoning of Every-Man
The morality play Every-Man was an anonymous work completed in the 15th century. It was written at a time when religious fervor was evident in the Western World, specifically within the Christian faith. The main character of the play is Every-Man which is obviously a play of words creating a distinct message that this character represents humanity. God, the Supreme Being, the Creator of All appeared also as a character in the play and he laments the fact that his most prized creation – humans – had forsaken him by disobeying his commandments.
In the play, God prefaced his litany of complaints by describing the ordeal that he had to go through when he did came to earth in the form of a man and was crucified on the cross to pay for man’s sins. He made it clear that the sacrifice was not easy because he suffered a violent death and hanged between two thieves. It is interesting to note that while Gilgamesh relish in the use of violence Every-Man depicts violence in a different light. In fact there is no mention of a detailed account of violent acts except in the aforementioned crucifixion of a savior. The play focuses on condemning sins and although it did not specifically delve on the issue of violence it mentions in the beginning that God does not approve of unbridled anger or wrath – one of the most common precursors to violence.
Violence in the Modern Age
So many violent events had occurred in the modern age especially in the 20ty century. But if one will only limit the search in the decade of the 1960s and the 1970s there is no other place on earth that experienced the negative impact of violence than a region in Asia known as Indochina. Indochina is probably a vague term for most Westerners. The closest they can come to understanding this part of the world would be to see it as a region that cradles two important nations which is Vietnam and Cambodia. Upon mentioning Vietnam there would be perhaps a greater number who will nod their head in agreement as to their familiarity with the subject matter.
In the Vietnam War the spotlight of the Western media was focused on this corner of the globe. America was reluctantly drawn into the war with the Vietcongs because the government believed that if they will not intervene then a major part of Asia will fall to Communism. Vietnamese people and their lands became a pawn in the Cold War between the United States of America and the former Union Soviet Socialist Republic. The war was documented in books, articles, and documentaries. It was also made popular by war movies such as the critically acclaimed Platoon and the box-office hit Rambo.
The violence in the Vietnam War was not only fairly depicted in novels and the movies but it was also seen in continuous news footages and newspaper coverage of the conflict. One of the most telling effects of the war was the significant number of coffins shipped from Vietnam to the United States and inside these boxes are the bodies of U.S. servicemen. It was one of the most infamous episodes in the modern history of the United States. The war angered many people back home and finally the government pulled out from the war conceding victory to the Communist backed Vietcong army.
Although the Vietnam War is very important to the United States, it was not only the most violent part of Indochina. The less known story of carnage and genocide is the one involving Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. One man made this sad remark:
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As long as I can still see my shadow while walking to the rice fields, I will never be able to forget the slaughter committed by the Khmer Rouge against my wife, children and the people of Cambodia between 1975-1979 (Hinton, 1).
The main architect of the violence in Cambodia was a man named Pol Pot. From the name itself no one could have suspected that behind it is a person as evil as Hitler. Pol Pot has a twisted understanding of Communism. He wanted the people to go back to a period of Cambodian history where people lived simply using technology that was pre-Industrialized Age. In order to achieve this Pol Pot ordered the arrest and murder of intellectuals and everyone who resisted the new regime.
The events in Cambodia were also immortalized in a Hollywood movie entitled The Killing Fields. The title of the movie was well chosen because documents and interviews would later reveal the accuracy of the film. Enemies of the state where brought rice fields. The Khmer soldiers would bring the prisoners to a ditch; they will order them to kneel and struck the prisoner at the back of the neck with an iron bar (Hinton, 3). This can be interpreted as an attempt to save bullets but it is also plain to see that this is one of the most violent and sickening way to kill people.
Violence is as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh or maybe even more. It has existed since recorded history and it can be argued that as long as there are people on the earth acts of violence will continue to occur. In the Epic of Gilgamesh violence was first introduced as the byproduct of tyranny. Gilgamesh was half-man and half-god. He was blinded by his beauty and power and this made him into a corrupt ruler. He forced women to come into his bed and the tale says that he did not even leave virgins for husbands and warriors. Thus, the people secretly desired for his demise.
In an unusual turn of events he was challenged by a man like him – created by the gods to be half-divine and half-mortal. Enkidu challenged him to a violent duel but he was unable to prevail against Gilgamesh. Enkidu then became the conscience of Gilgamesh encouraging him to rule justly and righteously. But the violence did not end there. In Gilgamesh desire for glory he left the comfort of home and ventured abroad. There he killed the guardian of the forest so that he will become the undisputed ruler of a new world. His violent lifestyle ended when he died and when he realized that power does not mean anything but a good name will endure.
The Summoning of Every-Man provides a counter-point for the epic. In Gilgamesh there is a half-man, half-god who was lustful, arrogant, and violent. In Every-Man there is also a half-man, half-god Jesus who abhors violence and instead of ruling people Jesus offered his life to save his people and encourages them to live righteously. This is very important because in the modern age violence continues to be a problem and not being able to find a solution will plunge the world into a continuing series of senseless violence.
Hinton, Alexander. Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. CA: University of California Press, 2005.