This article addresses a problem that is rapidly advancing to the status of a new Homeric question: the relationship between Greek epic and the narrative traditions of neighbouring Near Eastern cultures. The present situation recalls the debates that raged over the issue of oral poetry not so long ago. The formula used to be the central object of contention, now it is the ‘Near Eastern parallel’. Today there are so many parallels on record that it is hard to keep track. Yet, as with the formula, the number of known parallels seems to bear little relation to their usefulness. Now as then, problems of the most basic kind abound. What, for a start, is a Near Eastern parallel? And why should we care if someone pointed one out to us? Questions such as these are only just beginning to be asked in earnest.
As with the oral-traditional hypothesis, the Near Eastern hypothesis concerns the whole of Greek literature. But the problem has crystallised around epic, and so it is epic that concerns me here. In the first part of my paper, I sketch out briefly what I see as some of the parameters of the present impasse. In the second half, I suggest a framework for future study that enables us to see what we have come to call ‘Greek epic’ as one regional offshoot of the broader Near Eastern genre of cosmic history. In order to illustrate my claim, I look at one of the more notorious parallels between Greek and Near Eastern literatures: the problem of mortality as developed in the Iliad and the Poem of Gilgamesh. I argue that the full implications of the issue are better understood within the overall framework proposed in this article.