8 Epic Journeys in Literature

From Electric Lit:

The journey story, where the hero must venture out into the world for reasons not necessarily entirely of his/her own devising, is likely as old as recorded literature.

Of course the journey story can also be understood as an allegory of the self, or soul, and its evolution in a lifetime, for storytelling is always an act, as Ann Carson says, “of symbolization.” In this sense, the journey story not only narrates the material events of a life, but the interior transformations an individual undergoes.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, or He Who Saw Deep

The epic poem, one of oldest works of world literature, was composed in its earliest versions over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and written in Babylonian cuneiform on clay tablets. Much of the reason it is lesser known than the younger works of Homer is because the epic itself was not rediscovered until 1853, cuneiform was not deciphered until 1857, and it wasn’t well translated until 1912. Fragments of the story on stone tablets continue to be found in modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

The basic story follows the King Gilgamesh of Uruk (modern-day Warka, Iraq) and his friendship with the wild man Enkidu. They undergo various battles including fighting and defeating the bull of heaven. Later, upon Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh journeys to the edge of the earth where he goes in search of the secret of eternal life and, not finding it, returns home to Uruk having in some manner, in spite of life’s sorrows and travails, made peace with his own mortality.

“Ever do we build our households, ever do we make our nests, ever do brothers divide their inheritance, ever do feuds arise in the land. Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly floating on the water. On the face of the sun its countenance gazes, then all of sudden nothing is there!”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

When I think of Hurston I recall her description in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” of the “cosmic Zora” who would emerge at times as she walked down Seventh Avenue, her hat set at a certain angle, who belonged “to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” In Hurston’s extraordinary novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the eternal and timeless qualities of imaginative literature are on full display in the very specific groundings of place and time, spoken language and culture. The book opens with Janie Crawford recounting her life story to her friend Pheoby upon her return to the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida. The book, set in the 1930s, follows Janie’s narration of her early life, her three marriages (the last for love), and the many trials she undergoes including the death of her beloved during her travels, before she finally returns changed, wiser, independent. “You got tuh go there tuh know there…Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit