Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh (about 2000 BCE)

(Welcome back to "Blogging the Canon"! For this installment, we jump back in time by more than a millennium and in space to ancient Iran.)

The Mesopotamians lived in a world that, at first, reminds one of the Ancient Greeks or even the Egyptians. There is the same interaction with a plethora of gods who guide men, but often remain indifferent to them. There is the same acceptance of hierarchy, kingship, and the priestly class as the natural social order and analogues to the Divine order. There is the same surprising acceptance of war and violence, and a taste for heroics. And there is the same world order that is both naively straightforward and surprisingly cruel.

Such is the case with The Epic of Gilgamesh, a story that was first recorded in Sumerian before 2,000 BC and in the most familiar Akkadian version about 1,000 years later, and which likely records the story of a real King from around 2600 BCE. And what a King! King Gilgamesh of Uruk was a huge and beautiful warrior who led the construction of the city walls; no small feat in Ancient Mesopotamia. We can assume this meant the use of conscripted labor from the citizenry and he soon earned the enmity of the people by his tyrannical ways. In desperation, they appealed to the gods to get him off their back. This, then, is an ancient story about good government, as well as a lesson for humanity. It suggests that the key to being both a good king and a good man is to know your limits.

The goddess Aruru decided to create a companion for Gilgamesh; from clay, she sculpted the wild-man Enkidu. Also huge and covered with hair, Enkidu lives in the woods and represents the first narrative of wild humanity being tamed by civilization. In this case, he’s civilized by the harlot Shamat who risks life and limb to couple with him. They screw for seven days and seven nights and Enkidu is left physically weakened but given the gift of reason. Sex leads to enlightenment!

Enkidu and Gilgamesh don't exactly "meet cute"; Enkidu is shocked to hear that Gilgamesh has been going to the wedding parties of his citizens in order to exploit his right as king to screw the bride before the groom (it's good to be the King of Ur, apparently) and chivalrously takes off to fight him. They clash, but as soon as it is decided that Gilgamesh is the alpha male, they become buddies. There are some who see this sort of warrior comrade culture as a euphemism for homosexuality; while others see it as the ultimate inoculation against feminizing man-love. I tend towards the former interpretation; harlots aside, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are emotionally devoted to one another.

The two heroes have adventures together, defeating the ogre of the cedar woods, Humbaba, and slaying the Bull of Heaven, sent after Gilgamesh rejected the sexual advances of the Goddess Ishtar. As punishment, the gods kill Enkidu, taking him to a bleak Netherworld. In general, the gods lives askance to humanity in the story, occupying palace-like temples and being treated as royalty, but playing less of a role than they would in religious scriptures. This is not a religious tale at all in fact.

It's more the story of human mortality and weakness. Gilgamesh is devastated by the death of Enkidu and rails against the unfairness of it all. Anyone who has lost a loved one can recall how unjust and inexplicable death is, how permanent and unyielding. The real success of the story, and probably why it's endured so long, is that, for all of its strangeness and extinct gods and goddesses, it's a story of friendship, love, and loss. Gilgamesh stays with his dead friend, grieving bitterly, until the maggots come forth from the body. Then, he sets out to find a way out of dying.

Gilgamesh sets out to find the legendary Utnapishtim and his wife, a couple who survived the Great Flood by building an ark and taking aboard animals of every species, before finally landing on the Mountain of Nimush and waiting until a bird returned with sign of dry land; in exchange, the gods granted him immortality. One might recognize (and many have recognized) the similarities to the Biblical story of Noah. It seems most likely that variations of the story existed for centuries, most likely referring to an actual flood in the region.

Gilgamesh eventually realizes that he will not be granted immortality and resigns himself to his eventual demise. As the story ends, we are reminded that he built the walls of Uruk, a task that will live on long after him.

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