Monday, January 10, 2011

Gilgamesh: The Art of Becoming Civilized

The epic of Gilgamesh begins with a scene describing the wonder that is the city of Uruk.

Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
...walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, 
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.

Then the reader is told to take out a copper box, unlock it and open its lid, and remove the tablet of lapis lazuli to reveal the story of the great king Gilgamesh.

Our hero is one-part human and two parts god.  (Did the creators of this story know more than we do about the mysteries of the gods, or less than we do about genetics?)  This makes him a glorious hero, large in stature and shining with powerfulness--"surpassing all kings, powerful and tall beyond all others, violent, splendid, a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader."  As the text says, "Who is like Gilgamesh?  What other king has inspired such awe?"

At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical ruler who sees himself as superior to everyone around him.  He abuses his subjects by being the first to have sex with young brides, etc.  The people of Uruk cry out to heaven for relief from their king--and the gods answer the call by creating a friend for Gilgamesh--a "double" or "second self" for Gilgamesh, as Stephen Mitchell says in his translation.  That friend, Enkidu, is designed to distract Gilgamesh from his abusive ways. 

When we meet him, Enkidu is a wild man, covered in hair and living with the animals in the woods.  Gilgamesh decides it is essential for the safety of his monarchy to civilize the wild man, so he sets forth a plan to turn Enkidu into a human man.

How do people become civilized?  I think we imagine inviting the hairy beast to tea, reading him Shakespeare and playing CDs of Bach, perhaps teaching him to read the Bible.  But Bach and the Bard were not yet around.  Gilgamesh even predates the Bible by at least a thousand years.

So how does Gilgamesh plan to civilize Enkidu?

He sends a temple prostitute deep into the woods to have sex with Enkidu.  Mitchell's translation says that Shamhat "use[s] her love-arts" shows Enkidu "what a woman is"--and they lie together for seven days (constantly).  After they are finished (or rather, when "he had had enough") Enkidu can no longer bound after his animal friends.  He does not have the energy, and they no longer see him as one of them.

But the civilization process is not yet over.  Not only must he have sex but he must get drunk.  After Enkidu "drank seven pitchers of beer, his heart grew light, his face glowed, and he sang out with joy."

And with that he has become fully human.  He gets his hair cut and he bathes: "Shining, he looked handsome as a bridegroom."

I won't go into all the details, but during the civilizing process Enkidu goes from living with animals in the wild and eating off the land, to controlling animals on the pasture, to the city.  His journey replicates the progression of human civilization.

Simhat brings Enkidu to Gilgamesh and each knows that the other will become the true "companion of [his] heart."  They will love each other with an intensity that will outstrip the men's relationships with women.  While it is not completely clear that the love between the men is erotic and sexual, the implications are high.  For a further discussion of their relationship, check out Trisha's excellent post on Eclectic / Eccentric.

Of course, in a totally testosterone-laden scene, their deep friendship begins with a brutal fight.  Gilgamesh eventually wins, but the two acknowledge each other as peers worthy of one another.

The two men leave Uruk to have adventures together.  First on the list is killing Humbaba, a "monster" who is isn't threatening anything but merely protecting the cedar forests.  Then the goddess Ishtar makes advances on Gilgamesh--and he rejects her.  Her rage at the rejection--and possibly the gods' anger about the slaughter of Humbaba--leads her to send down the Bull of Heaven.  Without divine assistance, Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull.

Enkidu has a series of dreams filled with what he assumes are bad omens.  Eventually he realizes that the gods have decided that one of the two men must die for killing the Bull.  Enkidu knows that he is the one who will be sacrificed.  His health declines over the course of the next few days, and eventually he takes his last breath.

Gilgamesh, the man who started the book as a selfish tyrant, mourns deeply for Enkidu.  He tears his hair and clothes, cries out to nature to mourn with him, and considers his own mortality.  He wanders in the wilderness, weeping because of the loss of his friend.  Be sure you don't miss Jenny's beautiful post at Shelf Love which highlights the power of the portrayal of grief.

Gilgamesh is alone now and goes alone into the great empty, on a dangerous quest for eternal life--which he comes to realize he cannot have.  I'll talk more about the human desire for immortality and the acceptance of mortality in my next post.

Eventually, Gilgamesh returns home alone to Uruk.  The loss of his friend has stripped the inhumane from him.  He has passed through the lands of solitary grief to emerge more fully human, more civilized through a process very different from Enkidu's.  Because of his own experience of pain and loss, he is now capable of great compassion.

He gazes upon the gates of his city Uruk, seeing through new eyes.  Earlier, the sight of the gates fed his own self-centered hubris.  Now, however, Gilgamesh feels both pride and responsibility for his community.  He knows that while he will not live forever, his name and memory can live on whenever people remember him as a good king.

The words from the beginning repeat exactly, this time carrying all the weight of his growth.  Amazed, I cried when I hit the final lines.  Nothing has changed, except everything is now different.

Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
...walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, 
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.

11 comments:

  1. You have gotten so much more out of this book than I did. I don't remember what I read at all, except that there was a big flood at some point. The idea of becoming civilized through means that our culture nowadays thinks causes you to get less civilized is interesting, though.

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  2. Amanda: The Mitchell introduction really helped me think deeply about this book. In addition, my partner David also read it and we had terrific, thought-provoking discussions. (BTW, I have a couple more Gilgamesh posts in the works and will talk about the flood next Monday, I think.)

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  3. I just finished listening to the epic today and am half way through Mitchell's essay. (I have a copy on hold at the library so that I can see if this essay, which takes up two of the book's four unabridged CDs, is really the intro about which you speak; on the CDs, it follows the text.) I was really interested to see that the first step to Enkidu's civilization is sex. The fact that a woman tempted a man into giving up his innocence seemed very Biblical to me -- even though Gilgamesh predates the Bible, as you say, by quite a bit.

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  4. I'm looking forward to seeing what you say about the audio! And the Bible connections are fascinating. I'm hoping to talk more about them on next Monday.

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  5. Further to Erin's comment, there are multiple points of contact between the "civilization" of Enkidu and the story of Adam and Eve.

    The story starts with a primeval man, uniquely created by the gods, living in the wild/a garden with the animals. He is tempted by a woman who tells him that he will become "wise" and "like a god", she introduces him to new food, they clothe themselves, and move irrevocably from one realm to another. Of course the motif of the snake who steals the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh at the end of the tale also recalls the Genesis story.

    The main difference between the stories is that the process in Gilgamesh is viewed in a very positive light, whereas the biblical framework is one of guilt and loss. This might suggest that Genesis is retelling the older tale in polemical fashion. Confirmation might be found in the story of the tower of Babel: here an adverse reaction to Mesopotamia's vastly superior and more sophisticated urban and religious culture is apparent. This is only to be expected from a people who experienced the great civilizations of the day as violent and destructive. At precisely the time when most scholars believe Genesis was put into its final form, the Jews were engaged in state sponsored agricultural and building projects as slaves in Babylon. The popular theological explaination was that the nation was being punished for disobedience.

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  6. Humbahaha: Thank you! Lots of food for thought. I'd never thought about how much the story of the tower of Babel teaches us--or at least suggests to us--about the cultures of the surrounding communities. Ideas of separation are so key in early Jewish texts that I had just taken the story as part of that framework. Very cool insight, H.

    The links between Gilgamesh and Genesis are so extensive and fascinating. I've been reading about it a little--although I'd love a recommendation for any sources you know about--and hope to post on Monday about what I've found.

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  7. Try "I studied inscriptions from before the flood" available in Google books preview.

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  8. Even though this doesn't sound like a book I would much enjoy, I did really enjoy reading your review.

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  9. Natazzz: Thank you very much. Gilgamesh is a short and wonderful book, but if you're more in the mood for something contemporary or smoothly plotted, it might not be the perfect read!

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  10. I think that Gilgamesh had to be some of the primal fodder that fed many of the myths of the ancient Greeks. For example, and broadly speaking, how can one not see the parallels between Gilgamesh and his quests with those of Heracles (especially his 12 Labors)? Slaying the lion (and wearing the skin), killing the seven-headed monster, visits the underworld, seeks the key to immortality. Amazing stuff to start 'seeing' and experiencing these connections. I'm really looking forward to exploring Stephen Mitchell's Gilgamesh, particularly now that I've just finished Robert Graves' brilliant book, The Greek Myths: Complete Edition (1955).

    Great postings, and I know that I'll be back to comment in more detail as I read Mitchell's interpretation over the next couple of weeks. Cheers! Chris

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