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The Oral Aesthetic and the Bicameral Mind

Carl Lindahl
Oral Tradition, January, 6 (1).
Reprinted in Gilgamesh: A Reader, ed. John Maier. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci. 1997, pp. 328-36.


Ancient epic presents worn faces, but seldom shows the minds they hide. In the world's oldest story, emotions surface visually, unaided by revelations of the characters' thoughts: "tears streamed" on the face of Gilgamesh as he mourned his best friend. The hero wept "six days and seven nights” until his face, "weathered by cold and heat," became "like that of a man who has gone on a long journey" (Gardner and Meier 1984:166, 168, 210, 212). Ancient epic depicts gigantic actions without naming their causes and motivations. "Like a lioness whose whelps are lost," grieving Gilgamesh "paces back and forth"; "he tears off. . . and throws down his fine clothes like things unclean" (ibid.: 187-88). In the Iliad, written down a thousand years after Gilgamesh, grieving Achilleus groans like "some great bearded lion when some man. . . has stolen his cub" and dirties his clothes, scattering "black ashes over his immortal tunic" (Lattimore 1951:18.23-25, 318-23).

Throughout the first millennium of surviving literature, epic explained love, death, strength, and suffering as the products of monstrous gods - present sometimes as voices, sometimes in the full vision of their godhead. Such descriptions and images lead Julian Jaynes - in his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) - to posit that the ancients could describe their own bodies, but could not examine the content of their own minds; that they performed actions without knowing their motivations; that, because of the dual nature of their thought processes, they habitually hallucinated the voices and forms of the gods that directed their actions. Such poems as Gilgamesh and the Iliad are therefore the literal records of what ancient people experienced - accounts little altered by fiction, faulty memory, theology, imagination, or artistry. ...