The Chronotope of the Threshold in Gilgamesh

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Sophus Helle



The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story full of thresholds, liminal spaces, and times of transition . This essay investigates the representation of time and space in Gilgamesh, employing Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “chronotope.” The chronotope is a methodological tool that Bakhtin developed to compare changing depictions of time and space across the history of literature, and I argue that the Epic of Gilgamesh employs what Bakhtin terms “the chronotope of the threshold.” I examine four aspects of this chronotope: the depiction of space, the depiction of time, the human characteristics associated with the chronotope, and its relation to the textuality of the epic . I argue that space in Gilgamesh is structured as a mosaic sequence of externally different but internally homogenous spaces, separated by highly symbolic thresholds . Likewise, the passage of time is repeatedly depicted as transformative, through such temporal markers as the “six days and seven nights,” or “the very first glimmer of dawn.” Further, it is shown that this particular arrangement of space and time, both in Gilgamesh and in Ishtar’s Descent, is associated with characters who are driven by powerful but obscure forces within themselves, crossing thresholds that lead to their undoing . The essay closes with a consideration of how the epic’s depiction of thresholds is related to the threshold of textuality itself, that is, the line that separates reality from representation .

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