Views of Epic Transmission in Sargonic Tradition and the Bellerophon Saga
Polsley, Cynthia Carolyn
University of Kansas
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One of the most memorable tales in Homer's Iliad is that of Bellerophon, the Corinthian hero sent as courier with a message deceitfully intended to arrange his death. A similar story is related in the Sumerian Sargon Legend of the eighteenth-century B.C.E., which tells of how Sargon of Akkad seized the kingdom of Uruk by divine aid. The motif of a treacherous letter is not the only similarity between general stories regarding Sargon and Bellerophon. Other shared themes include blood pollution, interactions with a queen, divine escort, and a restless wandering. Tales about Sargon and Bellerophon are disseminated across cultures. Sumerian and Akkadian texts describing Sargon's exploits have been found in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia, while Bellerophon's adventures are described by storytellers of Greece and Rome. Beginning with the Sargon Legend and Homer's Bellerophon, I explore the two narrative traditions primarily as case studies for epic transmission. I furthermore propose that cultural interaction and a complex network of oral and written storytelling contributed to the transmission of the traditions and motifs. The Bellerophon saga as a whole is particularly suggestive of Near Eastern sources and cultural interplay: Homer's reference to writing is strikingly Near Eastern, as is the beastly Chimaera slain by Bellerophon. However, the tradition is layered with Indo-European poetic language as Bellerophon carries out tasks assigned to him by the Lycian king. Finally, I note that several of the stories' motifs appear together in later literature as diverse as the Iranian Shahnameh and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Observing Sargonic tradition and the Bellerophon cycle unfold over the years, we are able to see how the stories and their themes are treated by new storytellers, and to discuss the possible influence that these narratives have on each other and on other cultures.
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