I hope I am asking this question on the right site as it may be a cross-over question, or too specific - if that is the case I understand. However, I'm hoping that a bunch of History buffs would want to share their knowledge with the kids in their lives and would have already thought this through. It may look as though I am asking for a recommendation, but while that would be nice, I'm also wondering about considerations for similar future "epics encounters" as well.

A little background: I homeschool my daughter and she LOVES history! So I am doing my best to learn as much as I can (I am a former science teacher) as quickly as I can in a subject I know very little about. I am constantly striving to find great resources to challenge her as well as broaden her exposure in this category at a level right for her. We are currently using, "The Story of the World" as a jumping off place, but only as a place to start. My kid can handle a lot more depth than SOW offers. Since we are religious (but very liberaly so) I'm not afraid to speak with her about things from a more scientific standpoint (like I believe in evolution and I see the Bible as more of a collection of stories on ethics and living than I do as a historical document) which means some of the SOW stuff is not as accurate as I would like it to be (Like presenting the story of Joseph and his coat or even the exodus as though it is actually history supported with cooroberating evidence - for example).

Right now, we are studying mesopotamia with her cooperative and ran into the story of Gilgamesh meeting Enkidu and the story of Gilgamesh and his efforts to become immortal. While the epic of Gilgamesh is more of a literary piece than pure history, obviously, Gilgamesh was an important cultural component (if not King) to the Sumerians and must have remained important to succeeding cultures in some degree or another as well. I thought it would be fun if there was a good translation for kids to read it with her and have her sort out the "myth" and legend from the real history as a research project. She is seven, but has a 12th grade vocabulary and reads at an eighth grade level. We actually studied ancient civilizations in a briefer way when she was five as well (and then ancient Rome and the Early Middle Ages when she was six, so the stuff covered by her class is old hat to her.

As a response to comments, I'll clarify that in general, as we study history we also use videos (mostly from the BBC, National Geographic etc. - The History Channel is overly dramatic and not all that accurate all the time either), elementary and middle school books, she reads related books from the Magic Tree house series and other similar fictions as well as Non-fiction from National Geographic, Eyewitness books by DK Publishing etc. But she enjoyed reading Black Ships before Troy (a child-minded and modernized version of the Iliad) and has really enjoyed what little of Gilgamesh we did encounter through SOW. We build models, she does claymation animations of different events and processes, we've even had feasts (Roman, Egyptian and Pre-European Contact Nez Perce) where we make the foods as authentic to the time period we are studying as we are able in a modern kitchen.

As someone reletively new to getting serious with studying history, I am really wondering how to go about finding translations and how to weed out the "good" from the "bad" if and when I do find them. I'm hoping for some ideas that can apply not only to our current Gilgamesh search, but also to future searches (such as an appropriate translation of the Aenid and/or the Odyssey or even Beowulf when the time comes for her as examples).

What should we consider from a Historian's standpoint, when choosing translations to study of great epic pieces that represent a culture from history?


What kinds of questions should we ask as we read to best use these epic pieces as a way to understand the culture that created the story/stories?

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    Whoah. That "Story of the World" was very bible-centric. And then, BAM! Marvel-Super-Hero King Narmer shows up!?! There has to be better history books for kids than that? Anyway, most ancient literature like the Gilgamesh epic is pretty boring to read. They hadn't invented pacing, character-building and cliff-hangers yet. ;-) Oct 23, 2013 at 19:36
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    Generally you want University Press commented translations from the last thirty years. Penguin can also be good. But you might want to chop down the volume of primary source reading and mix with secondary sources. Oct 23, 2013 at 21:39
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    THank you @Sammuel Russell I actually have a lot of education in Biblical History itself and we aren't using it as a primary source - we aren't really using it other than the stories she has to read for SOW - , nor am I using mostly primary sources with my daughter - in fact none really so far unless you count a few of AeSPOps fables. I do think Primary sources as a focus when she is older IS a good way to go however - and that would not include the Bible (or even most of its books) as any solitary primary source). Good heads-up for other readers though. Oct 23, 2013 at 21:57
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    I would like to BEGIN to use translations/adaptations from stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh with her as a way to broaden and intensify her experience in both History and Literature. Oct 23, 2013 at 21:59
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    To clarify what I said to Lennart, I am speaking more about taking the "moral" of a story as a lesson in what important values may have been held by a specific group of people at the time the oral tradition of the story began, not a literal, scholarly look in depth. I believe in God and I am a Christian, but FAR from being a literalist when it comes to the BIble - Just the changes made at the time of Constantine in the Christian faith alone is enough to show how it has been affected by politics let alone time, translations, writing centuries after the fact, re-writings etc. Oct 23, 2013 at 22:12

1 Answer 1


Excellent question. I don't feel qualified to answer, but I'm a chagrined by the lack of answers so far. I'm going to take a pass on your first question (I think @Coelacanth has a good start in the comments).

In college our first classroom discussion of Plato's dialogues, started when the professor made us stop reading after the first page and challenged us to spot the glaringly obvious cultural assumption that we did not share. We probably spent 15 minutes groping around and finally had to admit defeat. The professor pointed out that someone asks a question of a slave - something that would never happen in our lives. (one hopes). Seems trivial, but it changed the way I read historical texts.

For the second question, I think the most interesting questions are: - How did the protagonist's solution to the problem differ from the one you would have chosen? - Why did the protagonist select that strategy over the one you recommend? - What assumptions do you make that the protagonist did not? - What assumptions did the protagonist make that you think are flawed? (e.g Gilgamesh can set aside his responsibilities of government to wander around for a few weeks). - What cultural artifacts & institutions are portrayed that are alien today? (e.g. slavery, temple prostitution, the importance of funerals, etc.) - What cultural institutions are present, but are very different today? (e.g. government, marriage, economy, treatment of minorities and strangers, friendship, clan, etc.) - What function do those artifacts/institutions fulfill in the society? - What analogous artifacts/institutions do we use today to fulfill those functions? - What images/adjectives/attributes are used to convey cultural assumptions? (Why is Enkidu hairy? What does that say about hygiene? What does his diet say about the culture? What does it mean that Enkidu is "seduced into civilization"?

At some level I admit I'm asking how my culture is different from the one portrayed; I'm trying to decompose culture into a set of interrelating components and study how they fit together for the inhabitants.

The other concept I might introduce is emic and etic.

  • From our point of view, what is the point where you want to reach into the epic and slap the character upside the head and say, "YOU IDIOT!"
  • Operating entirely within the context of the epic, making the same assumptions as the inhabitants of the culture in question, what did the protagonist do that was clever, and what did the protagonist do that made things worse?

Those questions can be trivialized. But the practice of fitting myself inside someone elses cultural limitations and then examining my own cultural limitations from an external view point is, I think, generally useful.

  • Very funny about ignoring taking off for a few weeks and ignoring government responsibilities here in the US. Oct 24, 2013 at 22:26

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