The Culture is in the Details


Now that the semester is officially over, I am taking a brief hiatus from writing to have a breather and catch up on all the other life stuff that lived on the back burner during my last year–and particularly my last semester–of my graduate program (like making enough money to pay my bills).  As such, I don’t have much in the way of new news or ideas on writing, so I thought I’d share my final (and 48th, I can’t even believe I wrote that many) annotation.  I think the information is particularly useful if you’re writing about a culture that your readers may be unfamiliar with as might be found in a historical or speculative (especially fantasy) setting.  It could also be useful for stories set in the present world that you hope will be read in the future, or set in one culture that may differ from that of the anticipated audience, to ground readers who may not be familiar with the culture of the story.


“The Culture is in the Details”

The Epic of Gilgamesh* is a story found written in cuneiform on ancient clay tablets discovered in Nineveh during the mid 19th century (9).  It was written in the distant past by and about a people none of us today would know anything about, were it not for the endurance of ancient writings like these.  This story is a heroic epic that, in many ways, could sound like any other heroic tale from ancient history and many modern ones as well, except for the details that ground us in this particular ancient culture.  Many of these cultural details can be found in the introduction of Enkidu, who becomes close friends with Gilgamesh, the hero of this tale:

So the goddess conceived an image in her mind, and it was of the stuff of Anu of the firmament.  She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created.  There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself.  His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn.  His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle.  He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.  (62-63)

From this, we learn that in this culture, the act of creation may be done by a woman: the goddess Aruru (62, 120).  As so many cultures are patriarchal, it is an interesting glimpse into the perception of a woman’s responsibilities and value within this society.  Aruru creates this man from water and clay, reminiscent to the creation of Adam in Christian lore.  This would suggest similar influences to those of Christianity, but it is clearly not the same culture because the creator here is a woman while the god of the Bible is a man.  In this society, women are held with a certain amount of respect for their creative powers.  In this description of creation, there is also mention of Anu, the sky god (120).  From this we understand that this culture has multiple gods.  In this passage, we can see that there is a balance of male and female influence for the act of creation, which shows us that the reality of the human experience is reflected in the gods of this people.  It is also likely that they value the coupling of men and women for the creation of future generations.

This passage brings up Ninurta, the god of war.  War must be an important to these people as they have a specific god that represents it.  We assume that warriors are valued in this society because the storyteller points out the similarity between this man and the god of war and describes this similarity as “virtue,” so we see that being warlike is a positive trait for these people.

The passage describes Enkidu as having “long hair like a woman’s.”  This gives us a better picture of the people in this culture.  Women have long hair while men keep it shorter.  It is clear that the fact that this man has long hair is unusual, because the storyteller felt the need to point it out and also describe it as being similar to a woman’s rather than a subset of men in the culture.

We learn about Nisaba, the goddess of corn.  We know that Nisaba is a woman and that she wears her hair long as do the human women of this culture.  Corn is also an important good in this culture, because there is a goddess specifically for it, rather than one for all crops or all plants.  It could be that corn is their main crop, or it could be that all the other crops have gods or goddesses as well, but this particular one was pointed out because of the hair.  This small detail shows us a bit about this culture, but also makes us wonder about the bigger picture.

Samuqan is described as the god of cattle.  These people must raise cattle in addition to their crops, so we can begin to picture what their country may look like: a combination of fields and pasture for cattle.  We can assume that these people consume meat, either cows or a similar type of animal, because this is the most common reason for raising cattle.

In the final sentence, we see the divide between civilization and the wilds.  Enkidu is described as wild in appearance and now we can see that those living among beasts can be compared to them.  Men are not born civilized, but must learn to be tame.  These people consider themselves to be properly civilized and this is valued.

Just from this one passage, we can learn a great deal about Gilgamesh’s people.  Along with introducing a primary character of the story, it shows us the religious and industrial experiences of these people.  Using techniques such as these can help ground new readers in an unfamiliar world.  By using cultural details to describe this new character, we get a clearer picture of the person in question, but it also serves to bring us deeper into this new world in a straightforward way.  Following this example in our own work will allow us to use a simple character description to serve multiple purposes and quickly immerse our readers in the new and unfamiliar settings of a new world.

*The Epic of Gilgamesh. Trans. N. K. Sandars. London: Penguin, 1960. Print.


I hope some of you have found this post useful.  Along with my planned regular posting, I intend to start posting some of the annotations I’ve been working on over the past three years.  I’ll try to post the ones I think are more interesting or that are pertinent to what I’m working on at the time.  If any of you readers out there have questions about any particular aspect of the craft of writing, send them my way.  I bet you anything I’ve got an annotation that will apply.  If not, I’ll write you one.

Happy reading, happy writing, until next time,




2 thoughts on “The Culture is in the Details

  1. Joseph O'Connell

    So sorely lacking in talent to pen the word your thoughts made me think rather than pen. Thinking for me is a rare and wondrous moment of time and in this instance led to a questioning thought. How do you meld the conscious of ancient culture into technological fantasy without destroying the culture’s essence?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Read Lilith Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine series. It takes place in a future world after the Second Great Awakening during which they discover that the ancient pagan gods are all real, so it folds ancient religions and modern fantasy concepts into a future science fiction world. I quite liked the result.


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