Fantastical Space and Heroic Journeys in Mesopotamian Literature

Gina Konstantopoulos

ISAW Visiting Assistant Professor

Sumerian literary texts from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1800 BCE) are often stories with larger-than-life protagonists, featuring warriors, heroes, and kings – and occasionally individuals who manage to be all three at once. While many texts, such as those concerning the warrior Gilgamesh, are centered around a climatic battle or other martial events, they also incorporate a journey into the structure of the narrative. These journeys, a common feature of both literary texts and royal inscriptions, allow the narrative to transition to a more fantastical setting, and thus better accommodate the expanded heroic actions of the narrative. The distant and faraway nature of these spaces, however, is more complicated, as the more fantastical depictions of these locations must also exist within the framework of the real interactions that are also depicted within the cuneiform record. Thus, while the Cedar Forest may have existed as a set piece for the combat between Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the monstrous Huwawa, that literary battle is forced to overlap with facts of trade and military conquest. In this case, this tension is centered on the region's eponymous cedars, used in the building of temples and which Gilgamesh, as well as the more historical kings of Mesopotamia, campaigned or traveled to possess. In other locations, we see a similar intersection between the literary use of distant lands and their more historical realities.

Gina Konstantopoulos holds a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan (2015), where she also received her MA, and a BA in Asian Studies from Mount Holyoke College (2007). She is a two-year Visiting Assistant Professor at ISAW. Her doctoral dissertation, “They are Seven: Demons and Monsters in the Mesopotamian Textual and Artistic Tradition,” examines the place of a particular group of demons, the Sebettu or the Seven, over the course of their attestations in Mesopotamia, set against the larger framework provided by comparative demonology. Her Assyriological work centers philologically on Sumerian, with a focus on literary and incantation texts, as well as the themes of religion and magic.

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