A fatal over-reach: Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull from Heaven. Credit.
Before the invention of a written script, legends, fables, religions, history, laws, and all other records of human transactions were relegated to art forms such as memorized epics sung or recited by bards, scratching or painting on walls and other surfaces, carvings of reliefs and statues, and other even less effective efforts. With the development of the cuneiform script, which evolved to record sounds, various Mesopotamian languages began to be recorded.
The word “literature” encompasses all scripted recordings, whether mundane or imaginative. A mundane record might describe a transaction, while an imaginative record might cover an epic poem.
The epic of Gilgamesh is the first essentially complete epic poem we have for Mesopotamia, or the world for that matter. The poem provides a profound insight into many pre- and post-Deluge legends, myths, religious artifacts, graphic art, excavated city ruins, and much more. It also provides a second source ratifying the listing of the name “Gilgamesh” as a post-Deluge king in the Sumerian Kings’ List, which is yet another example of early literature – one which also purports to bridge the antediluvian, Deluge, and post-flood periods. From these, recorded history snowballed into the mass we have today.
Let’s be specific about our claims to important insights gleaned from the Gilgamesh epic, before we hear it read to us in an audiobook far surpassing the quality of the prior version I shared in a post two years ago. Here is a list I have gleaned from listening to the poem read aloud to me over the link I include below. If you have the game to listen to the entire poem (imagine the voice as an ancient bard) for two hours and seven minutes (I strongly urge you to do so) you’ll discover embedded in the epic the first written records of the following issues which are still germane to life today:
- The setting is after the flood, but includes a Mesopotamian version of the Flood Stories, which is the earliest recorded version known.
- In the beginning, the tale introduces the pantheon of Uruk-Sumerian gods and their roles. These are immortals, mostly gods of nature e.g. sun, moon, storm, sky, sex etc. They are rulers of mankind, promulgating mores and laws for mankind to obey. These “gods” sired or birthed mortal demigods back then, as they did in the Greek classics and legends, and in the Bible.
- The story introduces the classic and long-lasting heroic formula, a divine parent, great beauty, invincibility, arrogance, lust, impulsiveness, and lethality for the prototypical hero Gilgamesh. He is the King of Uruk, lacking in self-discipline regarding mores and laws of mankind and the gods. He is running amok over Mesopotamia and particularly over Uruk and its people. He is without excuse. People cry out to the gods for relief from his depredations.
- The gods decide to create a counterbalance to Gilgamesh in a near peer named Enkidu, who is fashioned out of clay, is “Innocent of mankind” i.e. a noble savage ignorant of, thus not guilty of breaking man’s and the gods’ laws. Enkidu co-existed among the wild animal herds as an equal.
- The innocent Enkidu interfered with a hunter, using his ingenuity to thwart the killing of wildlife. The hunter’s father suggested “let the woman’s power overpower this (innocent) man,” so wildlife will reject him as their peer. The hunter arranged through Gilgamesh to provide a naked woman from the temple to entice the innocent man, so that Enkidu lost acceptance among wildlife and they fled from him. He chased after them but found he could no longer keep up with the herd, stops, “thinks like a man” and returns to the woman, asking what he should do. She says, “You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god.” This sounds similar to Genesis chapter 3: “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Wow! So Adam and Enkidu ate the “apple,” and they both died.
- The poem records that Gilgamesh claimed the Droit du seigneur, which was part of the complaint of the people of Uruk to the gods, which is by far the earliest recognition that such a “right” has been claimed by tyrants from now back to the dawn of history. That’s why I shot the out-of-control Gilgamesh in my fanciful story in Post 17.
- “I have not stamped my name on bricks,” said Gilgamesh to Enkidu. Kings stamped their names on bricks throughout Sumerian history, and stamped bricks have been found worldwide ever since.
- Gilgamesh decided to attack Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forests, after commenting on the prevailing evil throughout the land. In fact, Gilgamesh was a big piece of the prevailing evil. This incident is the earliest example of a ruler trying to distract the people from his own domestic evildoing (or failures) by creating a foreign or ethnic enemy, much like Islamic leaders have done for 1400 years toward East and West, dhimmi in their midst, and worldwide Christians and Jews.
- For the first time in history, we hear in Gilgamesh exhorting Enkidu to risk their lives to kill the formidable Humbaba because they, as mortals, have no other way to make their names known down through the ages, “a name that endures”—even if the they die doing it. This reasoning is very similar to that of Achilles during the siege of Troy 2,000 years later, and of how many heroes since? In this way in our time, the U.S. Marines name camps after fallen heroes, such as Camp Schwab, Okinawa, named after Albert E. Schwab who was killed in the conquest of Okinawa in World War II. I have remembered Schwab’s name since I served on Okinawa, eons ago.
- After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh, finally considering his inevitable death, sought out Utnapishtim (A.K.A. Noah and Atrahasis) who had been raised from mortality to immortality by the gods after the Flood. The inclusion of the Flood in this poem was a great surprise in the last century when virtually everyone recognized the Gilgamesh flood story as another and earlier version of the Biblical Flood story.
- Gilgamesh finally was told by Utnapishtim that a plant growing on the bottom of the Persian Gulf would provide immortality if eaten. Gilgamesh dived down and retrieved the plant, but while he rested on land, a serpent came and ate it. This was Gilgamesh’s final comeuppance. But, what we see is another fragment of the earlier cited 3rd chapter of Genesis, where here and there a serpent (figuratively) steals the leaves of a “Tree (plant) of life” (immortality) from the man who has it in his grasp (as did Adam). This story’s serpent links to the other account. Intriguing.
Well, there is plenty more gold for you, if you listen carefully to this beautifully spoken, incredibly free Audiobook of this 2015 poetic translation by Andrew George as read by Richard Pascoe. Please do give it a try, if only to hear the poetic structure spoken as well as I can imagine. With no more wheedling (but see caution below), here’s the link. And, no, you cynics, I don’t have any relationship with either of the two artists or their publisher, and least of all do I seek profit in promoting it. I simply want you to enjoy this treasure while you can, for good things disappear off the web every day. Carpe diem!
CAUTION FOR PARENTS. You parents should listen first, before you recommend this audiobook to your kids. It’s not made raunchy at the translator’s discretion. This is a 5,000-year-old morality play. Today’s GP movies, primetime TV, and certainly Cable expose children to much worse. But I don’t want you, still a stranger to me, to set your children down to listen to it along with you, before you decide if it’s acceptable.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke