The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous (trans. Herbert Mason)

(Originally re-read and wrote this post August 20th 2008)

The Western Canon begins with The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is one of our oldest workers, predating the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. It was originally written in the Sumerian language and adopted by the Assyrians and Babylonians as they came to power in the Mesopotamian region. Most of the available sources are later Babylonian adaptations of the story from which scholars sometimes try to reconstruct and speculate on what the original Sumerian epic would have looked like. Its presence and popularity in the Ancient Near East can be attested by the discovery of fragments of the story at Megiddo (Ancient Israel), Ancient Syria and Ancient Turkey. Its popularity then and now should not be surprising as it is a timeless classic about friendship, death, and the pain of loss.

The narrative opens with Gilgamesh, a man who is two-thirds god, ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. He sleeps with all the newly wedded brides before their husbands and forces his subjects to work on laborious building projects, such as constructing a new wall for the city that he never bothers to finish.

The narrative also introduces us to Enkidu, who is a wild man, living on the Steppes outside of the city-state where he spends his time cavorting with animals and freeing them from the traps of hunters. These actions irritate the hunters, so they hire a prostitute from the city to sleep with him, which causes the animals to abandon him. Now that Enkidu has been “civilized” by the prostitute, he heads to the city where he meets Gilgamesh. A friendship blossoms between the two after they wrestle each other and find themselves to be equals.

Gilgamesh decides to hunt Humbaba, a monstrous fire-breathing servant of the gods, despite Enkidu’s protests that it is a bad idea and they will die. They manage to kill Humbaba, but Enkidu is critically injured in the process. They return to the city where at first it seems Enkidu might recover.

Ishtar, the goddess of lust, comes down and asks Gilgamesh to become her lover.  He rebukes her on the grounds that all her former lovers always end up suffering horrible fates. In anger she sends down the Bull of Heaven to destroy Uruk. Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeat the bull, but the gods grow angry because they have now killed both the Bull of Heaven and their servant Humbaba. The gods declare one of the two must die as punishment; they choose Enkidu.

Torn with grief over the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find a way to bring his friend back from the dead, despite being told again and again that it is impossible. He wanders the desert for awhile where he ends up meeting a barmaid. She sleeps with him to try and help him overcome his grief, but Gilgamesh doesn’t want a lover as a replacement for Enkidu. He then heads down the Road of the Sun towards the darkness away from the light (symbolizing the movement from youth to old age and death). He meets the Scorpion people at a sacred mountain whose peak touches heaven and whose roots descend all the way down into hell. The Scorpion man also tells Gilgamesh that he cannot grieve forever and must abandon his quest so that he can move on emotionally. Gilgamesh again ignores the advice. Gilgamesh next heads out to meet Utnapishtim, the survivor of the flood. To reach him, Gilgamesh crosses the lake of death, which rots the wooden poles he uses to row himself across. Utnapishtim recounts the story of the flood, the ark he built at the command of the gods, and how he gained his own immortality. Gilgamesh falls asleep during the telling, which causes Utnapishtim to grow angry and dismiss Gilgamesh.

Utnapishtim comes to regret his lack of empathy for Gilgamesh shortly after his outburst and tells him about a flower at the bottom of the river which grants immortality. Gilgamesh finally has what he needs to bring Enkidu back to life, but a snake comes and gobbles up the flower. Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk where he finds that his people have been working all this time on the wall and have now completed it. He stares at the wall in awe and for a moment forgets his grief. So ends The Epic of Gilgamesh.

A lot Biblical parallels can be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. We have the interpretation of dreams similar to certain scenes in the Bible (Joseph and Daniel narratives especially), the flood narrative of Utnapishtim is similar to the story of Noah’s flood, and even the snake who eats the flower cannot help but remind the reader of the Adam and Eve story where the snake convinces them to eat from the tree of Knowledge. The snake eating the fruit here functions as a convenient etiological myth that explains why snakes shed their skin.

The Sumerian King List, which gives us our primary historical information about Sumeria’s rulers, hints that a real Gilgamesh may have once existed. However, it is impossible to know whether the King List records earlier mythical kings alongside real kings, and if a real Gilgamesh did in fact exist, it’s even more futile to attempt separating the biographical Gilgamesh from the legendary one

Gilgamesh as a character is narcissistic and full of hubris. In the beginning, he rules over his subjects anyway he pleases. It is not about the good of the city, but it is about what pleases him. After befriending Enkidu, he ignores his friend’s pleas not to hunt humbaba. He ignores everyone who tells him his quest to resurrect his friend, whose death was caused by his own pride, is futile. His pride prevents his from listening to the wisdom of others. Yet, Giglamesh’s grief over his friend’s death is genuine and the most powerful quality of the text; the tale forces us to commiserate in his pain. His time with his friend was far too short.

It seemed for a moment he could almost touch his friend, could speak to him as if he were there: Enkidu. Enkidu. But suddenly the silence was deeper than before in a place they had never been together.

However, the text also suggests that his intense grief is a part of his narcissistic character. After all, everyone must die. Why is Gilgamesh’s grief worse than others? Why does he mourn for so long? Is he being melodramatic? Is he being selfish?

The text provides some hints to answering those questions. We are told repeatedly that Gilgamesh is a burden to other people. Nobody wants to be around him since the guy is miserable all the time. The barmaid that he first meets tries to help him get over his grief, offering herself in marriage to fill the void, but he rejects her and even she gets tired of his endless mourning. Almost everyone Gilgamesh meets tells him his quest to bring back his friend from the dead is futile.

His mourning is described as childish and immature. In the section with The Scorpion man, the creatures responds to Gilgamesh “as if in anger with a child who had not reached the age of reason.” This motif of Gilgamesh having the mentality of a child and lacking reason because of his intense grief and refusal to accept his friend’s death is another repeated description. You can’t bring the dead back to life, and alas we are all eventually going to die. An adult realizes this and must attempt to move on from their grief, and try to live in the moment, despite the fact that our loved ones die around us and it is a painful experience, but an inevitable one.

For an epic poem that only takes 104 pages it sure packs in a lot of a story. Many elements of the story are clearly symbolic. Enkidu represents humanity before civilization, outside the walls of the city-state, wild, and living among the animals as an equal. In contrast, we have a civilization ruled by the tyrant Gilgamesh. It is civilization that separates us from the animals and gives us protection, symbolized by the wall, but the price of civilization is that you must surrender your liberty to the whims of a powerful ruler. Notice the similarity of this theme in one of the oldest works of literature with The Scarlet Letter. This is what people mean when they talk about “universal” themes. There are certain problem or issues that continually come up in human experience.

Enkidu’s dalliance with the prostitute (a woman from the city) ends up bringing him into civilization’s fold. His true equal isn’t the animals, but Gilgamesh, which he discovers during the wrestling match. Gilgamesh’s tyranny is also curbed when he discovers a friend. The narrative is suggesting true friendship is the union between two equals.

Later, after Enkidu’s death, the barmaid in the desert tries to make him forget his grief and find a replacement for his friend in love. This, too, is meant to show that erotic and intimate love between man and women can be a replacement for a deep friendship. It also reiterates that civilization helps us face the inevitable: death. The barmaid scene is reminding us that death is inevitable part of life and human experience, so better to move on from our grief with new friendships, while we still can.

Other symbolic elements is the Road of the Sun where Gilgamesh walks away from the light into darkness representing walking away from life towards our death. The lake of death that he must cross in order to find Utnapishtim (who is immortal and therefore has crossed the “lake of death”) literally rots the very oars, the tools created by human ingenuity, he uses to cross it, implying that all our intelligence and ingenuity cannot conquer death in the end. Immortal like the gods, Utnapishtim forgets human limitations and grows angry that Gilgamesh cannot stay awake. By becoming immortal, Utnapishtim has stopped being human. The narrative here is suggesting that our mortality is what makes us human and makes our grief (like what Gilgamesh feels) matter in the end.

Gilgamesh returns to find the wall completed. He comes full circle from the beginning. It is the wall he could never finish now completed right before his very eyes, while he wasted all this time trying to bring back his friend from the dead, despite everyone telling him it was impossible and a waste of time. The statement made by this powerful symbol is multifaceted. The building of the wall is the epitome of living in the moment. The city lives on without him and builds a wall, a productive activity, while he wasted all this time with his grief that ultimately accomplished nothing. The parallel between the end and the beginning of the narrative brought together by the imagery of the wall is striking. The narrative hints that had Gilgamesh not gotten caught up in his grief and wasted all this time, he too could have done something spectacular and built a glorious wall. The wall is the boundaries of civilization itself. Even as we inevitably die and are forgotten by those who succeed us, civilization lives on.

Despite the inevitability of death, it is our works on earth, the products of civilization and of good governance that might survive and grant us a type of immortality. While exploring the genuine grief at losing loved ones that is an inevitable part of life and even showing that civilization brings with it its own set of problems, the story also ends up showing the limitations of human beings before all-conquering death and serving as a defense of civilization.

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4 thoughts on “The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous (trans. Herbert Mason)

  1. I’m scheduled to read this book in October, I think, so your review was very timely for me and I was able to glean some good insights! Thanks!

    The Sumerian kings list becomes problematic too, because, I believe, many of the kings are listed as ruling often for about 2500 years …… each!

    Gilgamesh always reminds me of the Star Trek the Next Generation espisode “Darmok”. The story of Gilgamesh is used as a parallel for the Tamarian’s metaphorical story. I think it’s my favourite episode. 🙂

    • Glad my review could be helpful. What translation are planning to use?

      I am more of Star Wars fan myself. I’ve always had trouble getting into Star Trek. Some of the movies are okay, though. But it is always interesting to see how popular media incorporates the classics.

  2. Pingback: Bible as Literature: The Flood Story | The Consolation of Reading

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