08 August 2008

The Epic of Gilgamesh


Today’s trip into mythology goes a little further afield than I’ve gone before. Today, we’re headed to Mesopotamia.

First, the geography lesson. The heart of Mesopotamia lies between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. What we call the “Cradle of Civilization.” The Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires were all Mesopotamian. Currently, that area belongs to Iraq, but all those ancient empires – kingdoms from Biblical times – lived and died around those two rivers.

Mesopotamia holds many treasures for us, mythologically speaking. The greatest of which is an epic tale of love and friendship, pride, sacrifice, sorrow and death. The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh was a real king of Uruk. Tales about him began to surface around 2100BC. A warrior, a diplomat, and a religious leader, the real Gilgamesh appears to have possessed genuinely heroic qualities. He is described in the poem as being “one-third human, two-thirds divine.”

Strong, sophisticated, powerful and beautiful, Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk well, but he had one weakness – women. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too interested in whether they really wanted him back, and their annoyed cries reached the ears of heaven. The gods looked down and said that they would create someone who would distract him and leave the women of Uruk in peace.

And so they took a lump of clay and created a huge, shaggy wild man named Enkidu. He roamed the forests with the animals, even saving them from the snares and traps of hunters. They finally got fed up with not catching anything and approached Gilgamesh, saying that they were too afraid of Enkidu to catch him themselves.

Gilgamesh, knowing his own weakness, decided that Enkidu might be the same. He told the hunters to take a harlot named Shamhat out to the forest where she could tame the wild man.

Apparently, they set the forest rockin’. Afterwards, however, Enkidu discovered that she had weakened and humanized him enough that his animal friends no longer welcomed him. A tough lesson in judgment, but Shamhat helped him out. She told him to go to Uruk where he might find a true friend in Gilgamesh.

He set out for the city, but upon his arrival, discovered that Gilgamesh was up to his old tricks. He was preparing to exercise his right to sleep with a bride on her first night with her husband. This struck Enkidu as barbaric (does anyone else see the irony here?) and he and Gilgamesh fought a mighty battle through the streets of Uruk.

Enkidu, though no longer as strong as his animal companions, was still more than a match for Gilgamesh and he defeated the king. However, Enkidu’s humanity and humility were the perfect foil for the “two-thirds divine” king’s selfish pride. Instead of becoming rivals, they became inseparable companions.

The epic tells of many adventures, but it hinges on the defeat of one Humbaba (or Humwawa – transliteration is an imprecise thing.) Humbaba was the forest guardian and servant of the god Enlil. Gilgamesh and Humbaba fought and Gilgamesh won. However, he went too far. Despite Humbaba’s pleas for mercy, Gilgamesh and Enkidu both participate in his execution.

Filled with pride at his victory, they return to Uruk. There, the seductive goddess Inana propositions Gilgamesh, but he refuses her. Not only that, he insults her, throwing in her face all the lovers she as ruined and all the gods she has scorned.

You know that saying about the fury of a woman scorned? Inana was furious. She went to the gods and demanded revenge. This insult, combined with the death of Enlil’s servant, compelled the gods to send down the Bull of Heaven to defeat Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

The gods really don’t seem to have grasped the power of the heroes that they themselves created. Gilgamesh and Enkidu not only defeat the Bull of Heaven, they throw one of its bloody limbs in Inana’s face.

It’s an unpardonable offense and someone has to pay. The gods decide that Enkidu will bear the punishment. Over twelve days, Enkidu wastes away from a debilitating illness and Gilgamesh is forced to watch his dearest friend in the world die. It changes him more than anything else by bringing his own mortality to his attention.

Gilgamesh is a shadow of his former self. He abandons his city and travels to the Underworld to seek a way for him to become immortal. He is terrified of death. He meets Ut-napishtim – a Mesopotamian version of Noah – and asks him for the same immortality that he has achieved. After many trials, Ut-napishtim finally tells him to take a fruit of a tree.

Here, the story diverges a bit. In one version, the fruit will grant Gilgamesh the immortality he seeks. In another, Ut-napishtim tells him that everything must die, but the fruit will bring back his friend, Enkidu.

In any case, as Gilgamesh travels back to Uruk, he falls asleep by a stream and a serpent steals the fruit. Now he has neither unending life for himself or a new life for his friend. He returns to Uruk and spends his last few years grieving and brooding in the city.

It’s a tragic tale, to be sure. None of the happy endings that we’re used to as romance fans. But it has great power, even in its sadness. Not to mention that it provides us much inspiration for brooding heroes and a glimmer of possible redemption. After all, weren’t Gilgamesh and Enkidu reunited in death? Granted, that’s not how we want our books to turn out, but the possibility exists.

I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into Mesopotamian mythology. There are many other tales of gods and goddesses and all their tricks, but I’ll save them for another time. The story I told was synthesized from three sources:
Wikipedia: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth & Storytelling
Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies
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