Chapter Three: On the Epic with Sustainable Communities & Climate Action Intersections

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Identify and practice close reading skills on the epic and the narrative (character, plot, setting)
  • Practice textual analysis to identify the mythological figures and roles in the epic (epithets)
  • Close read of key passages on the hero’s journey (theme, trope, bildungsroman, & others)
  • Enhance critical reading with ecocritical interpretative approaches(representations of nature)

The challenge of scale, complexity, and agency are problems of narrative.

Stories require that we construct a world, the setting into which we place

an agent who undertakes an action.

But what kinds of stories should these be?

Martin Puchard, Literature for a Changing Planet

2000 BCE: A goddess as protector, of fertility and protection named Ninsun of Mesopotamian mythology and religion. In "The Epic of Gilgamesh" Ninsun is Gilgamesh's mom. She interprets his dreams, sends winds for her son's travels, and may even appear as a ghost.Statue of a warrior on a horse in motion raising a spear flag.Statue engraving of Venus.Limestone carving of a maya king sitting on top facing a standing subject with three kneeling figures at the bottom.a terracotta warrior riding a horse on a pedestal.


Gilgamesh’s Ninsun control’s the wind (left), Spain’s El Cid, Italy’s Venus, Maya captives 785 CE, & Mali Calvary (right) CC

Introduction of Chapter Three

Our profound question of ‘where do we come from?’ evokes a universal quest for answers witnessed in ancient epics and pre-writing cultures. While the previous chapter features such questions in the origin stories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Taíno, and scholarship on African American storytelling, this chapter elaborates on the epic, an episodic narrative with oral tradition origins later preserved as a written literary tradition. Fragments of ancient epics continue to be found on clay tablets (with ancient writing systems), on parchment (made of animal skin) and papyrus (made of plant-based materials). Epics are compilations of separate stories, of tales that are woven together to create a linear narrative. Let’s begin to identify themes in literature by working with a West African tale (activity below).

What Do You Presently Know about Textual Analysis Beyond Theme in Literature?

What is Theme in Storytelling Traditions and its Intersection with Equality?

GOALS: To build on textual analysis skills, to identify, and to explain theme in a mythological story

INSTRUCTIONS: Theme in literary studies refers to an overall subject matter, argument, or message of a piece of literature. The theme of a story, for example, is not always obvious, transparent, or agreed upon. Read or listen to the following West African story: OER West African tale “Wisdom and the Human Race” by Barker

    1. Listen or read for basic familiarity
    2. Annotate and take notes on the storyline, plot, and characters
    3. Identify the main topic, by explaining its general subject matter and focus
    4. Lastly, identify its theme. To do so ask, What message is expressed about the main topic? Your answer will address the theme of the story. Another question to consider is, How does the story “Wisdom and the Human Race” advocate for equality and community-centered social values? Your insights should address its theme and its message in this folktale.

NOTE: *Source of story and its written version: West African folktale: “Wisdom and the Human Race” by Barker

What Key Aspects of the Epic Reflect Ancient Oral Traditions?

Oral epics are found in cultures all around the world – throughout the African continent, Near East, Middle East, India, China, Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, Russia, and the Americas and Caribbean. Most ancient epics address the deeds and feats of its heroes. These protagonists negotiate aspects of human civilization – like on the roles of nature and natural resources, establishing social norms of order or social cohesion, or ways to appease deities to win their favor or to temper the hubris of rulers. In many instances, the epic reveals concerns over territory and its resources.

World mythology also reflects oral epics preserved in writing like India’s Ramayana, the West African Malian Epic of Sundiata, and the Mycenaean Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Throughout these epics, the hero navigates adversaries who threaten social cohesion and stability. Many epics share oral storytelling techniques that assist storyteller’s memory and commonalities in theme and form, including epithets, literary tropes, and representations of nature.

The epic was a performed oral storytelling tradition. The earliest known written version of a performed epic is the Epic of Gilgamesh that dates from 2500 B.C.E. Available to us in writing today, this ancient epic seems modern with a tone that enchants and teases audiences with promises of fantastic events.

For example, the poet’s tone in the opening lines of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (2500-1200 BC) enchants audiences by relating the fantastic feats of its hero Gilgamesh.

Let me proclaim to the land (the feats) of him

who has seen the deep Of him who knows the seas,

let me inform it fully He has (seen/visited)

The wise (one) who knows everything. Secret things

He has seen, what is hidden to man (he knows)

And he brought tidings from before the Flood

These opening lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh show the inherent heroic culture of early ancient epics.

What Are Epithets in the Epic?

Literary historians and cultural studies scholars recognize the contributions of early creation and origin mythological stories to our own storytelling practices in the twenty-first century. For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh represents an early flood story, a literary trope that is also included centuries later in the “Book of Genesis” and the cosmogony of Greek mythology. In many cases flood stories in the epic reveal human unsustainable agricultural practices. In regard to Genesis, Bennett argues that “This makes the flood a likely candidate for portraying the environmental chaos that accompanies the disorder of sin. Exploiting the environment is unsustainable. It is effectively ‘uncreating’” (Bennett 2014).

In addition to literary tropes like flood stories, epics – like The Iliad and The Odyssey – also present symbolic mythological figures with specific characterizations, known as the epithet. A form of symbolism, an epithet is an attribution associated with a key character’s inherent talent, like the epithets of Poseidon as ‘earth shaker’ and Zeus with ‘thunder’ in Greek mythology. In many cases, early examples of epithets in ancient epics associate human attributes with nature. These instances are telling, since these epithets associate male gendered deities with talents that assert efforts to have power over nature, or at least a cultural norm of an anthropocentric treatment of natural resources. These examples in literary studies are fruitful in ecocriticism, feminism, among other literary theories.

Other attributes and symbols associated with heroes, come in the form of:

  • Owls as a symbol represents Athena and her wisdom in Greek myth
  • Capes are symbols in their attire of a hero, like the cape of Superman and the visor of Wonder Woman. The cape reflects his attributes of defeating a villain who threatens humanity, and her visor alludes to her attributes to Diana and Artemis – a female warrior with masculine characteristics and powers.

Think about your favorite comic book heroes.

“We personally may relate with the hero’s associations and values, even in modern-day versions which are the vestiges of long-ago epic heroes.”These symbolic attributes reveal certain values that we as a culture embrace and share. We personally may relate with the hero’s associations and values, even in modern-day versions which are the vestiges of long-ago epic heroes. While modern-day video or table-top role playing games blur the lines between the ancient role of literature and entertainment, let’s proceed to learn more about the rich culture of storytelling, like symbolism (OER SAGA).

What are Examples of Symbolism as Literary Trope?

Trees in early creation myths serve to symbolize the web of life that binds a community with other life forms on earth, and even with the cosmos. Trees in world literature hold sacred meaning since these early stories often relate to a religious doctrine. Trees are key symbols in many origin stories around the world, including the Biblical “Book of Genesis,” which has the story of the Garden of Eden and the Maya Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation mythological story of Mesoamerica. Trees appear as much in Eastern traditions as in Western texts.

stone relief of a tree surrounded by two winged figures at the top and four figures arms in a praying position at the bottomphoto of a tall tree in the center that towered over the rest of the shorter trees of the jungle.A sacred symbol; Christian meaning of the Tree of Life is both spiritual and Earth bound sacredness.

India’s Bodh Gaya, a Buddhist sacred site, Ceiba, Maya Tree of Life, and Christian symbol of the Cross CC

Epic poems feature heroes. In several epics they seek immortality, a theme closely associated with the founding of homeland or empire. Yet, for the Anishinaabe, it is the intimacy with the land, ocean, and sky that takes precedence.

The landscape around them originates from a floating tree that unites the gods of another world with their own people by the goddess Antaensic – Sky Woman – in their own world known as Turtle Island. For the Romans, it is the quest of twin heroes Romulus and Remus who founded Rome. They were protected by the fig tree. And in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the quest for immortality represents sustainability concerns of a civilization in Mesopotamian Uruk – today’s region of Iraq. Gilgamesh’s epic journey results in tending a garden. These epic heroes who emerge in ancient mythological stories confront universal questions about life and death, fate, and mortality through the symbolism of the tree. The cycle of life and death is intertwined. Commonalities throughout works of literature are known as literary tropes.

What Are the Literary Tropes of the Early Oral Epic?

A literary trope is a recognizable plot element, theme, or visual cue that has figurative or metaphorical meaning. It can appear within the body of an author’s work, within a tradition, or even across cultures in world literature and world mythology.

A common trope is the hero’s journey – in oral traditions these stories usually involve twin heroes. This plot element is found in stories all around the world. Any literary work in verse is considered poetry, as Aristotle affirmed in Poetics. Yet, oral traditions inhabit both styles of poetry and prose.

Prose has its origins in oral traditions too, as in speeches, sermons, and creation myth. Any community that shares dramatic, poetic, or storytelling traditions constitutes value placed on a work of literature.

Scholars in literary studies identify overarching literary tropes in early storytelling oral traditions. Some of these tropes may reveal how a culture negotiates their own lived experiences, as a displaced people who gain a sense of place and identity through their own storytelling tradition. For example, the hero’s journey of an epic can reveal how its culture values a cosmic sense of permanence. Other epics may reveal an ideology of empire building, through the actions of its epic hero. Epics may also represent how its culture negotiates dualities: light and darkness, the cosmos and the earth, human civilization and the wilderness, and heroism and villainy. Their stories – originally retold in oral traditions – present key characterizations and themes witnessed across world literature, which are then seen as tropes. Literary tropes also represent archetypal characters witnessed in the ancient Mesopotamian odyssey Epic of Gilgamesh and Maya culture and mythology Popol Vuh.

“…these ancient epics seem modern with a tone that engages and teases audiences with promises of its fantastic events.”

The fantastic feats of the hero or heroes of an epic show a culture’s religious doctrine, ideological social practices, and norms, and reflect the day-to-day lived experiences of the community members. The epic also shows a culture’s effort to express what it means to be human.

For example, the hero’s journey in the Sumer, Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh presents a set of challenges to test its hero. The lines below are from a scene that shows Gilgamesh as obstinate. His hubris emerges through his unbending insistence on killing the god of the forest, Humbaba, so he can attain its lumber, a resource Gilgamesh associates with establishing his own legacy.

But whether you come along or not,

I will cut down the tree. I will kill Humbaba,

I will make a lasting name for myself,

I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever.’

(Puchner 2020)

*Another translation

‘I am determined to cut them down, so that I may gain fame everlasting.’

Gilgamesh spoke again to Enkidu, saying:

‘Now, O my friend, I must give my orders to the craftsmen,

So that they cast in our presence our weapons.’ OER “Epic of Gilgamesh”

Ecocritics point to Gilgamesh’s hubris to demonstrate how his insistence on killing Humbaba, the protector of the forest, reveals Mesopotamia’s need for natural resources beyond their own territory. Narrative moments like these enrich interpretative approaches like ecocriticism, because ancient cultures, like our own, were also challenged with resource scarcity, due to human overconsumption and preoccupations with building legacies. The rise of urbanization then and now are not examples of sustainable cities.

What are the Common Features of the Epic

The form of the epic with it narrative recited or written down verse – lines of poetry – is composed of several common elements witnessed in early world literature and religious scripture:

  • Characters associated with the cosmos and supernatural
  • The invocation of a muse by the poet as messenger and storyteller
  • Narrating from the ‘middle of the action’
  • Epithets
  • A hero’s journey
  • And negotiating and resolving conflict

What Are the Narrative Elements of the Epic?

The narrative elements of the epic include the following, oral epics

  • Are rooted in performance and ritual and represent both nature and social norms
  • Show a diversity of ancient languages and religious practices across geographic regions
  • “Hence, the supernatural qualities of most epic heroes establish and reaffirm the epic as a text that also folds in scripture – the imagined world of gods who interact with humans.”Are long narratives in verse, with some exceptions written in prose. The literary epic in verse is known as ‘epic poetry’.
  • Share common character tropes in the epic is the presentation of mythological figures who achieve fantastic feats and interact with deities. Hence, the supernatural qualities of most epic heroes establish and reaffirm the epic as a text that also folds in scripture – to imagine gods who interact with humans.
  • Are relevant to their cultures and peoples.

That is to say, through its storyline, plot development and characterization, as well as its creative array of literary merits – like foreboding, symbolism, evocation of the gods, and presentation of a hero’s journey, the epic teaches social norms and values, while it reveals challenges about sustainability, either in urbanization or natural resources, for example.

Close-reading Exercise on the Epic

GOAL: To build textual analysis on the epic and to build ‘interpretive’ approaches as learner’s gain familiarity with its form. This short writing activity also builds on critical reading and thinking skills.

INSTRUCTION: Read the opening lines of Tablet 1. Note the praises by an omniscient narrator of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. This heroic epic opens to address the attributes of its central hero Gilgamesh and sets up the ‘conflict’ of the plot. Identify the characterization of Gilgamesh. Then, identify the source of conflict in this epic. What pushes the plot? *Note: These deities are also mentioned in Enheduanna’s hymns.

OER Translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh by Kovacs 1998

How do the Maya Express Cosmic Representations of Nature?

The Maya creation mythological story the Popol Vuh is part of their Almanac, a tome of works utilized to educate the working classes with narrations on health and medicine, political and social history, the status of exhausted natural resources, and a calendar to predict astrological phenomena. These texts would theorize how to be human. Early Maya poets also believed that their poetry itself came from the cosmos.

From within the heavens they come,

The beautiful flowers, the beautiful songs.

Our longing spoils them,

Our inventiveness makes them

lose their fragrance.

(León-Portilla, Broken Spears 1980)

What are the Narrative Elements of Literary, Written Epics?

While early, ancient epics from oral traditions are tales and stories that come from various different religious cults that are woven into a sequential episodic cohesive plot, written literary epics reflect modern technologies in their composition. Yet, they also share similar narrative elements from the oral epic, like literary tropes, the archetype, epithets, symbolism, and theme, among others.

The Roman epic The Aeneid, El Cid in Spain, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) are examples of written literary epics. Their storylines involve the founding of recent civilizations and empires and pay homage to the oral epic tradition in form and storytelling tradition. Milton’s epic poem is one example; another is Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (1322); and, of course there are mock epics that satirize a culture’s social norms – like Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan (1637), which satirizes Puritan belief, and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712), which mocks the values of contemporary English aristocracy.


GOAL: To become familiar with literary forms and its variations, like the epic

DIRECTIONS: Compare with the opening lines from Epic of Gilgamesh at the beginning of this chapter.

THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid.

All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky….

The face of the earth has not yet appeared.

Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky.

There is not yet anything gathered together.

All is at rest. Nothing stirs. (Popol Vuh, p. 67)

How Do Epics Inform on Modern-Day Sustainability?

Ecocritic and world literature scholar Dr. Puchner revisits the epic to address our current climate crisis also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a concept coined in 2011 by German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab (Brookings Institute). Puchner’s purpose in placing the epic within the context of our present climate and sustainability challenges is to propose new efforts in literary studies to engage and interpret the literary works of world literature, including ancient epics, to gain new insights from their storytelling that reveal their interactions with the natural environment. For example, the hero’s journey intersects with the culture’s exhausted use of nearby natural resources in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Hesiod, an early Greek writer of Greek oral tradition near the time of Homer, evoked the Muses as the narrator of Greek mythology. Witness both the invocation of the Muses and the epithet attributed to Aphrodite.

From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis-holder, and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals, and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athena, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth holder who shakes the earth, and revered Themis, and quick-glancing Aphrodite. OER Hesiod’s Theogony

Topics relevant to twenty-first century sustainable goals from the epic like those outlined by the United Nations (UNSDG) include Life on land and below water, gender equality, reducing inequality, sustainable communities and cities, quality education and peace and justice.

Photo of temple made of earth materialsbroken statue of a female missing the headillustration of Mansa Kanku Musa (r. 1312-1337 CE) who ruled the Mali Empire in West Africa.Mosque's tower and wall build from earth materials

Sankore Mosque 1100s (left), Mali Sculpture, Mansa Musa Mali Ruler, & Djenné Mosque, 1200s (right)

On the Epic of Sundiata by the Malinke

If you currently reside on the African continent, you are most likely familiar with the oral traditions performed to this day but rooted in thousands of years of history. And for those of you who are from West Africa, you’d also know the tradition of the djeli – the multigenerational storytellers known to Westerners as ‘griots’, a term coined by French colonists. Like other oral traditions, the stories by the Malinke, the Mali of West Africa, are memorized and performed in ritual and festivals by djelis, along with musical accompaniment. Djelis play an important role in their society and culture and serve in many of its facets – as historians and political advisors, in addition to sustaining the oral tradition. Yet, this epic does not practice what is known in Greek myth as in medias res. Events in Epic of Sundiata operate within the ideology of the Malinke culture; historical events happen simultaneously; the past, future, and present occur all in the same space of time. This can be witnessed by its hero’s affiliations with both Islam and Alexander the Great.

I am going to talk of Sundiata, Manding Diara, Lion of Mali, Sogolon Djata, son of Sogolon, Nare Maghan Djata, son of Naré Maghan, Sogo Sogo Simbon Salaba, hero of many names. I am going to tell you of Sundiata, he whose exploits will astonish men for a long time yet. He was great among kings; he was peerless among men; he was beloved of God because he was the last of the great conquerors. Right at the beginning then, Mali was a province of the Bambara kings; those who are today called Mandingo, inhabitants of Mali, are not Indigenous; they come from the East. Bilali Bounama, ancestor of the Keitas, was the faithful servant of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Epic of Sundiata is the only epic known today that has been continually retold since the 1200s. Or, if you are like me and reside in the U.S. with roots in the Americas and Europe, then you may have enjoyed aspects of the Malinke epic in popular films and theatrical productions like Disney’s The Lion King.

The Epic of Sundiata emerged from the Mali people whose storytelling culture has witnessed the history and changing dynamics of the region, including its empire building era in the 1200s and Islamic influences. “Sundiata retells the rise of a historical figure and narrates on the quest of a hero who matured and reached the status of a peoples’ king who ruled and consolidated to unite the region of West Africa and established an empire to last over four-hundred years.”Unlike epics of ancient times, Sundiata retells the rise of a historical figure and narrates on the quest of a hero who matured and reached the status of a peoples’ king who ruled and consolidated to unite the region of West Africa and established an empire to last over four-hundred years. To experience the role of music in storytelling traditions of West Africa, view and listen to musician Kadialy Kouyate, a great example of the richness of world music and the storytelling cultures of the West African people.

TED Kadialy Kouyate

The Epic of Sundiata focuses on a hero, as the founder of the Mali Empire during the 1200s.Storytelling in Western region of the African continent continue to engage in ritual - music, dance, storytelling; led by a senior Griot.The Festival of the Lion King is a live stage show featuring acrobatics and musical performances inspired by The Lion King. One actress dresses up with tusks.

W. African Mali Epic of Sundiata ritual is recited by djeli (1894 engraving) and inspires adaptations, like The Lion King CC

Stories are often concerned with safeguarding families and building social ties, and Sundiata is a great example of these domestic representations. The epic inspires readers to inquire about their own origins and the journeys of their ancestors. Other archetypal quest narratives of Theseus, Jason, and Odysseus.

How Does the Maya The Popol Vuh Reflect Aspects of the Epic?

mage shows the Maya Hero Twins, known from the Sacred Book of the Maya, the Poopol Wuuj: Junajpu and Xbalanq´e.Athena's aegis, with Gorgon, here resembles the skin of the serpent who guards the golden fleece (regurgitating Jason); cup by Douris, early fifth century BCSculpture of Santa Maria della Scalla.

Popol Vuh’s Twin heroes (left), Athena and Jason on Greek pottery (middle), and Roman Romulus and Remus (right) CC

Let’s proceed to work through the Popol Vuh. Review key features of the epic, then work on:

  • The twin heroes, on their journey to the underworld to restore order.
  • Begin to observe the characterizations of the twin heroes.
  • Keep track of their associations with immorality and morality.
  • And as a comparative investigation, close read how the life cycle is intertwined.
  • Make inquiries on how topics of sustainability enrich initial understandings of epics.

Topics relevant to twenty-first century sustainable goals from the Maya like those outlined by the United Nations (UNSDG), include Life on land and below water, gender equality, and from the Malinke sustainable communities and cities, quality education and peace and justice.

Key Points

  • On the Epic and Hero’s Journey
  • On the Epithets of an Epic and Literary Tropes
  • On the Ideology that the epic reveals through its religious doctrine and world views
  • On the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Mali of West Africa Sundiata
  • On the Popol Vuh by the Maya and Ecocritical readings of representations of nature in epics

Engage in Writing Assignments on the Epic & Compare Traditions

Activity: The Epic as an Informant on Sustainability

GOAL: To identify fauna and flora in the epic to read literal and its symbolism. This short writing activity builds on critical reading and thinking skills to succeed in the learning process of interpreting a piece of literature with theoretical approaches.

INSTRUCTIONS: 1) Work with The Popol Vuh, 2) Close read the passage below, and 3) Respond to the criticism on how the passage addresses aspects of the environment, 4) Apply the interpretative lens of cultural studies and ecocriticism to express your understanding of the role of agriculture to the first humans in the creation mythological story by the Maya. What do you learn? What are your inquiries?

“The making, the modeling of our first mother-father, with yellow corn, white corn alone for the flesh, food alone for the human legs and arms, for our first fathers, the four humans works. It was staples alone that made up their flesh.” OER Popol Vuh

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