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Predestination, Foreshadowing and Audiences’ Expectations

May 9, 2008

Working through a variety of texts with students over the past year has made me appreciate the importance of an audience’s expectations when speaking of predestination, freewill, determinism and the like.

In traditional tales the audience undoubtedly knows the end before the action begins. This is as true for Hector and Achilles as it is for Moses and Pharaoh. In these scenarios, foreshadowing of events takes the form of prophecy.

Authors turn common knowledge into the inescapably inevitable and set their characters lose in a world that they cannot control. For example, everyone knows that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother; what makes Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyranus a great play is how the characters react in this unchangeable situation. Similarly, everyone knows that Moses and YHWH will free the Hebrews from slavery, what matters is the ritual retelling of events to inculcate a new generation with the full story. A modern example would be Titanic — the destruction of the ship is portrayed as inevitable, what happens to the characters in the midst of the predestine situation is what’s interesting.

Into this situation, the question that nags me is can we turn this around? Does the lack of predetermination in the plot line of an ancient text indicate that the author is taking liberties with the story? Injecting something new into the traditional material? Sophocles does this in his Theban plays. He inserts new twists in the plot, novel material that he uses to knock the audience about and dissettle them even more. Aeschylus does this as well with his play The Eumenides in The Oresteia.

Can we then infer a similar procedure in other ancient texts? What about Gilgamesh? If we look at the OB version(s) and at that of Sin-liqe-unninni, can we see places where the latter is doing something new and different with the traditional material? For example, perhaps Tzvi Abusch is right in seeing the inclusion of the journey to Uta-Napishti as a unique change to the epic; perhaps Siduri is Gilgamesh’s initial goal. Does this lack of heavy-handed predetermination indicate new material in a traditional story?

While I don’t plan any time soon on using the absence of prophetic predetermination as a metric for discovering novel elements in ancient texts, the possibilities are definitely interesting.

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