Literary Traditions, Essay Example

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Introduction

The theme of competition is far more wide-reaching, or expansive in scope, than is generally believed. For many, competition exists chiefly as a form of human contest, in which one faction seeks to overwhelm, or attain greater success than, another.  In this meaning, however, lie multiple aspects of humanity itself. What triggers any such contest, for example, is frequently as important as any outcome, in that desires and ambitions define the nature of man. Then, a competition inherently draws out from individuals abilities and inclinations typically unseen. This goes, then, to competition as a source for human evolution, both in terms of the individual and society.  All such aspects are particularly represented in the great epics of literature, as the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Genesis gain vast import through the processes occurring within their respective arenas of competition. They reveal as well how competition may be enormously reflective of human behavior in exercises of it both intimate and grandiose. Ultimately, the three classic works demonstrate that competition is not so much an activity, but a sphere in which humanity continually struggles against itself, evolves, displays weakness, and expresses its most emphatic needs.

Mortal Competitions of Various Kinds

While the epic and classic nature of the works to be discussed invariably relies on divine and human interactions, there are ample opportunities in each for witnessing how a competitive spirit in men alone may take on extraordinary scope.  Perhaps no more ancient example of competition, nor one more known or iconic to Western civilization, exists than that between Cain and Abel, as presented in Genesis. The circumstances are both mythic and simple; the two sons seek to honor God through offerings, and Abel’s sacrifice of a good portion of his herd is more favored by God than Cain’s tribute of crops.  Cain then famously slays his brother, but what is most notable in the tale is that the competition itself is presented as a natural part of existence. It is as though a basic formula were presented: God must be honored, two sons seek to honor Him, and that each must produce an individual offering virtually creates the competitive element. Competition, it is seen, depends upon comparison.  It is also evident here that, when the comparison is to be assessed by so great an authority, suffering from it generates intense anguish, if not murderous ambitions. So, too, does the tale of Cain and Abel reveal another dimension within competition. There is no indication in Genesis that the brothers regarded one another with anything but deep affection, yet the single incident of competition eclipses any fraternal feeling. Consequently, and from the beginnings of the world, it appears that competition is equipped to overshadow man’s better nature, and render friendship and affection meaningless.

The divine is so consistently infused in Homer’s Iliad that virtually no event or action is unaffected by the influence of the gods.  Nonetheless, and distinct from Genesis, the Greek and Roman deities were very much representations of humanity, so examining how competition is demonstrated in the epic poem is essentially centered on human efforts, ambitions, and consequences.  As with Genesis, in fact, competition lies at the heart of the story’s commencement.  The noble youth Paris, son of Troy’s King Priam, is literally appointed by Zeus, king of the gods, to judge a beauty competition between three rival goddesses.  The decision was, not unexpectedly, difficult, as the ferocity of the competition encouraged Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite to assume their most lovely aspects.  In this, the mortal component is blatant, as only extremely human “goddesses” would require such a validation.  Moreover, further evidence of human applicability is in the bribery each goddess offers to win the title.  Aphrodite, offering Paris the prize of Helen of Sparta, wins the competition, setting the stage for Paris’ abduction of her and the onset of the Trojan War.   An immense and violent competition, then, ensues from a minor one.  More importantly, the universality of competition itself is further exposed in the process.  Bitter rivalry confined to three goddesses, and focused only on the physical attractiveness of each, becomes a rivalry in which civic and regal honor, strength, and the lives of thousands hang in the balance.  Competition is then revealed not so much a specific mode of interaction, but a field upon which all human aspirations are exercised.  In this instance, too, lies yet another interesting element.  Love, as in Paris’ desire for Helen, typically seen as existing outside of the realms of competition, may be greatly instrumental in its presence.

The twin spirits of friendship and competition mark the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and present increased evidence of the adaptability of competition to accommodate, and be spurred on by, human behaviors. The tale is centered on the loving, fraternal relationship between demigods Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the latter created by the gods to temper Gilgamesh’s despotic rule of Uruk. This is a friend destined for him, yet the bond can only be achieved through the settling of a competition. Enkidu prevents Gilgamesh from forcing himself upon the new bride of another, the demigods battle, and Enkidu eventually admits to Gilgamesh as having the greater strength. By this admission, the friendship is bound, and it dictates the lives of the two afterward as potently as any romantic attachment between a classic hero and maiden. On one level, then, it may be argued that this competition, while savage, was akin to a sport rivalry between men; that it ends as it does implies as much, as sports competitions usually exist only to determine greater ability. As Homer’s goddesses engaged in a distinctly and traditionally feminine rivalry, Gilgamesh and Enkidu similarly must compete to assess each other’s worth as a man.  Unlike the goddesses, however, competition here is a beneficial process, in which primal exchanges must be undergone before affection can be created.  The Iliad and the above story, then, illustrate that, just as competition – certainly in the ancient works – occurs between humans and gods, so too is it practiced by men and women.   More exactly, competition is never defined by who takes part in it, or even for what reasons. These are the components that actually create the competition, and thus may be anything at all with which humans concern themselves.  Consequently, competition is as inspirational or as destructive as the impetus forging it.

The Divine and the Mortal

As Genesis greatly relies on a presentation of a binary universe, so directed to exist by God, there is an intrinsic quality, or foreshadowing, of competition throughout. First and foremost, and despite occasions where no overt rivalry is declared, there is a fundamental competition occurring between God and the humanity He created. Challenges are exchanged, which form the foundations of competition as strongly as they point to its imminence. More specifically, divine and human competition is displayed in the episode of God’s destruction of the tower of Babel. Humanity, finally unified, seeks to perpetuate the achievement through the tower, which will act as a monument to guide strays back.  In Genesis, this act is an outrageous affront to God, in that He perceives it as a challenge to His authority, and the competitive element here is, in essence, no contest. What is critical, however, is that the theme of competition is present. There can be no true rivalry between God and the people, of course, yet God feels himself threatened, at least in some sense, and a settling of greater power is necessary. This is competition wherein a match of strength is not amicably intended, but to establish implacable sovereignty. More precisely, as there is no true competition, this is a show of strength, to render pointless any competition.  Given the scope and majesty of God’s actions here, it may also be reasonably assumed that this competition was inspirational, as extreme proof of the divine presence.

Returning to the Iliad, there is no end to the interactions of the gods during the Trojan War, who appear in battle and behind the scenes as frequently as the human protagonists. This is a competition composed of a vast array of competitions, and the actions of the gods display an interesting quality of competition; namely, that often those removed from it, and largely unconcerned with the results, willingly take some part to further agendas removed from the main conflict. The gods, as noted, are more human in essence than they are divine, and decidedly human weaknesses seem to most motivate them. They do not, in fact, ever directly compete; rather, they instigate, abet, or hamper those mortals engaged in the struggle. Zeus encourages the competition when a truce is achieved, by indirectly wounding Menelaus; Aphrodite saves Aeneas from Diomedes, even as Zeus periodically commands the gods to cease interfering.  What this divine interaction suggests may be a metaphor for the gradations of interest and power surrounding competitions. The gods have their individual, and usually spiteful, reasons for siding with either the Trojans or the Greeks, so they exploit the lesser humans to obliquely compete with one another. Most evident in this regard, and in all three great epics, is that godlike competition, either created or transcribed by man, is as active as that between human beings.

Conclusion

If the Iliad, Genesis, and the Epic of Gilgamesh reveal anything of consequence regarding the theme of competition, it is in how expansive a theme it is. From the stark simplicity of the rivalry between Cain and Abel, to the primal, mutual testing of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, to the complex and ongoing machinations of competition engaged in by mortals and gods in the Iliad, competition is revealed as, not a thing or single form of activity, but as a broad canvas upon which any number of human – and divine – ambitions and aspirations may be conducted. If men engage in it for traditionally masculine pursuits of assessing the power of another, or to achieve standing and honor, women bring their own motivations to the arena because competition relies on no single gender, but only human need. Anything a human desires or requires may generate competition, and spite and envy may as easily serve for a basis as a noble struggle to oppose an enemy and strengthen the state.  This is the reality of competition exemplified in the oldest and most revered stories known to man. The three classic works of Genesis, the Iliad, and the Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrate that competition is not so much a distinct activity, but an arena in which humanity perpetually struggles against itself, evolves, vents weak impulses, and altogether expresses its most emphatic needs.

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