I’ve tried to set aside my Saturdays for blogging. Unfortunately, I’m moving this weekend and haven’t had any time for my second Gilgamesh post. Eventually I would like to get to the point where I’m posting every day or every other day. Until then, I wanted to post something to keep things going. So, I give you Gilgamesh summarized by none other than Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Enjoy!
In 2800 BC, tyrannical king Gilgamesh rules over the city of Uruk. Two-thirds divine, Gilgamesh exhausts his people with his lust for sex and war. They pray to the gods to send him a companion. The gods form Enkidu out of the earth to be Gilgamesh’s equal. Together they go on a great journey to seek a name for themselves, killing the guardian of the cedar forest and the Bull of Heaven. These acts of hubris anger the gods, and as punishment, they kill Enkidu. Because of this, Gilgamesh becomes overwhelmed by the reality of his own inevitable death and begins a futile quest to find immortality.
Before starting The Great Conversation, I had no prior knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like most people, I was familiar with the epics of Homer and assumed they were the first of their kind. However, Gilgamesh originates more than a millennium before The Iliad.
I assumed going into it, that a 5000 year old epic would be far removed from any modern relevance. However, its themes are so universal that I had no difficulty identifying with the plight of Gilgamesh. His is a story about the fear of death. It is also about accepting one’s lot in life. Although Gilgamesh’s quest is ultimately unsuccessful, he is bettered by it. He comes to terms with the limitations of his own humanity and learns the importance of living rightly.
Gilgamesh is essentially a two-part story: The heroic exploits of a king, and his quest for eternal life. In this post I will be covering the first half.
How The Epic of Gilgamesh came to us is as enthralling a story as the epic itself. Around 2700 B.C., the historical king Gilgamesh ruled in Uruk. His larger than life exploits were so legendary that they were passed down from generation to generation until written accounts were created in 1600 B.C. As each new conquering nation took over the land, the story was appropriated into the new culture. It was passed down from the Sumerians, to the Akkadians, to the Babylonians, to the Assyrians, until finally the poem disappeared with the Persian empire. It wasn’t seen again until 1853, when an excavation team found it on cuneiform tablets in the ancient library of Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. It was deciphered twenty years later by self-taught linguist George Smith of the British Museum. Upon discovering a flood account similar to that in Genesis, Smith famously stripped off his clothes in excitement.
“This is the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in need. He is the strongest of wild creatures, the stuff of Anu; born in the grass-lands and the wild hills reared him; when you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you.”
– Ninsun, The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first buddy adventure in literature. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, although never sexual, is one of deep love. From their first encounter, they are inseparable friends. Gilgamesh often describes his love for Enkidu like the love for a woman. In fact, Gilgamesh loves him so dearly that after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh holds his corpse until maggots fall from his nose.
This great love comes from the fact that the two compliment each other so well. When they first meet, they are both untamed men. Gilgamesh is more divine than human and Enkidu is more animal, than human. It is through their friendship that they both find their humanity.
The Civilized vs. The Wild Man
Over the course of the story, Enkidu goes from wild man, to shepherd, to city dweller. It is a parable for humanity’s own transition from wilderness into civilization. But Enkidu’s progression is bittersweet.
In the beginning, he lives in total harmony with the animals. This changes after an encounter with the harlot, Shamat. She has sex with him and feeds him wine and bread. After that, the animals no longer recognize him as one of their own. He leaves them to become a shepherd, where he kills the animals he once lived with.
It is interesting to note the marks of being civilized. Shamat is a temple harlot. By having sex with her, Enkidu is essentially worshipping the goddess, Ishtar. He then eats bread and drinks wine, man-made food and drink. Organized religion and manufactured foods were exclusive to city life.
At his death, Enkidu is filled with regret. He curses the harlot for the loss of his connection with nature. The god Shamash reminds him that although he did lose his bond with nature, he gained a bond with humanity, through the friendship of Gilgamesh and the love of his people. Ultimately, his conversion was for the better.
Sorry for the unexpected leave of absence. This week has been very eventful and unfortunately the blog was put on hold. Over the last several days my roommate got married, I transferred from freelance to a permanent position at work, and I got engaged. Needless to say, my days have been full. But don’t fret. I’ve finished my Gilgamesh post and am hard at work on the Iliad. Expect to see something in the next day or two (once things die down). In the meantime, I wanted to show off how I proposed to my fiancé, as it is book-related.
I cut out a secret compartment in an old, leather-bound book. The back pages were glued together so that I could cut a hole for the ring. I gave it to her under the guise of a birthday present. Giving books as gifts is a long-running tradition in our relationship. When we first started dating, we exchanged our favorite books with one another. It may seem backwards, but I gave her The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and she gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. So naturally, this seemed the most fitting way to propose. It turned out to be a huge success. Here’s a photo of the inscription:
If anyone is interested, I found the instructions at one of my favorite blogs, The Art of Manliness. I highly recommend this site.
My Epic of Gilgamesh post is imminent.
Until then I wanted to mention two articles that recently appeared on Wired magazine’s blog The Frontal Cortex on the subject of reading in the digital age. In “The Future of Reading” and “The Educational Benefit of Ugly Fonts”, blogger Jonah Lehrer discusses how the convenience of e-readers could be detrimental to our overall engagement with books. He hypothesizes that the growing clarity of e-ink combined with the ease of devices such as the kindle are creating mindless readers. Because we no longer face troubles with the mechanics of reading, there is less need to stop and understand the text on a deeper level. Things like smudged ink and bad fonts can actually drastically improve comprehension and retention because it forces the reader to slow down and take part. It wakes them up, essentially.
Lehrer makes some interesting arguments, many of which I have been mulling over lately. I have to admit, I love using the kindle app on my iPad. Having an easily accessible dictionary and highlighting functions are great. However, finishing a book always feels like an incomplete experience. Something indescribable is missing. Maybe it’s that loss of conscious effort that Lehrer is describing.
‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.’
– The Epic of Gilgamesh (N.K. Sandars translation)
This is pretty impressive. Artist Kris Martin transcribed Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot by hand, replacing the main character’s name, Myskin, with his own. The 1500 page manuscript was created for his art show ‘Deus ex Machina’ in Berlin. No explanation was given as to why he chose this specific book. Whether you think this is a valid expression of art or not, you have to admire the dedication it would take to complete such a task.
Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!
– The Epic of Gilgamesh, Lines 29-32