The Epic of Gilgamesh

Yet again, the next few posts will be pretty short – It’s the holiday season and I’m moving into a new apartment next week.  I promise I’ll try to get some novel-sized novels in next year.  This time around, though, I’m tackling The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is a delightful 3000-year-old romp through ancient Mesopotamia.  Tragically, some of the good bits have gone missing from the poem over the years, but we can still read between the lines.  (Fun fact: The lines between the lines seem to indicate that our hero is a little bit gay.)

Our eponymous hero is a warrior king named Gilgamesh, who built the walls around the city of Uruk-Haven and rules over it all.  He also happens to be two-thirds god and one-third human, which I am still trying to work out mathematically.  Gilgamesh, it so happens, has the habit of sleeping with women before they marry their fiancés, citing the ancient laws of “I’m king and I do what I want.”  After awhile, though, the gods get sick of hearing complaints about it, so the sky god Anu tells the mother goddess Aruru to make Gilgamesh a counterpart so the rest of the city can get some peace.

Aruru complies and makes Enkidu, who turns out a little… unexpected.  Specifically, he is a man-beast covered in shaggy hair who eats grass with the gazelles while wearing a cowhide.   A trapper encounters him briefly one day, and realizes that Enkidu has been freeing all the animals from his traps.  The trapper goes home to complain to his dad, but his dad just sends him to Gilgamesh (whose job it is to fix this kind of thing, I guess).

The trapper tells his story to Gilgamesh, who sends a sex priestess named Shamhat to tame Enkidu.  (I’m not making this up.  According to my Ancient Lit professor in college, the priestesses were considered manifestations of the love goddess Ishtar, and sex was considered a sacred healing thing they do.  I’ve noticed a lot of translations prefer to call her a harlot or a courtesan, but this is my summary and I think this version is more interesting.)  When Shamhat meets up with Enkidu, they go at it for six days by the watering hole, and by the time he’s done (ahem), the animals are so scarred that none of them will talk to him anymore.

Now that Enkidu has been enlightened by humanity and civilization (sure, we’ll go with that), Shamhat takes him to the Holy Temple.  On the journey there, Shamhat tells him all about King Gilgamesh – namely the fact that the king has been dreaming about embracing Enkidu as a wife and that the king’s mother is their #1 supporter.  Shamhat teaches him how to be civilized, which apparently consists of eating bread, drinking beer, and having more sex (as one does).

After Enkidu has a bath and puts on some clothes, Shamhat drops him off at a shepherd’s hut and he takes over the job of protecting the sheep.  He sees a man walking by on his way to a wedding, who explains that he’s the caterer and complains about Gilgamesh’s established habit of Prima Nocta.

Enkidu gets very angry at this and marches into the city of Uruk-Haven, where he blocks the doorway of the marital chamber so Gilgamesh can’t get in.  Gilgamesh is not happy with the cockblocking, and the two duke it out awhile before they finally give up, kiss, and become friends (as one does).

We aren’t allowed to call this story an epic without a few foes, so one appears in the form of Humbaba, a large monster who is protecting the Cedar Forest.  Gilgamesh plans to cut down the Cedar with the assumption that it will make him famous forever (I would like to know how, exactly…).  He tells everyone who will listen about his great plans, while Enkidu meanwhile begs the Elders to convince Gilgamesh otherwise.  They try to explain to Gilgamesh that Humbaba is simply protecting the forest, like a Lorax on steroids.  Eventually, they just give up and tell him to use Enkidu as a human shield.  Enkidu is thrilled, I’m sure.

When Gilgamesh tells his mom Ninsun that he’s leaving, she goes up on the roof and prays to the sun god Shamash, puts a pendant around Enkidu’s neck, and has everyone declare loudly that Enkidu will protect his friend Gilgamesh and make sure the king returns home.

No pressure, Enkidu.

The two walk fifty leagues a day for a month or two, and end up near Lebanon.  Gilgamesh makes a libation for the sun god Shamash and hopes for a dream.  He gets ones – but in his dream, a mountain falls down on him.  Enkidu interprets his dream, saying that the mountain was Humbaba.  The next time Gilgamesh prays for a dream, he dreams of grappling with a bull and losing, only to be given a drink of water.  Enkidu interprets the bull as Shamash and the water bringer as his personal god.  Gilgamesh prays for several more dreams and gets several more nightmares (You think he’d learn his lesson by now), but Enkidu is always there for spin control, turning bad omens into good ones.  Unfortunately for us in the real world, these scenes exist only in fragments, with many of the conversations missing.  (If only libraries and archives were treated as universally sacred temples throughout history, we wouldn’t have these problems.  Alas.)

They eventually reach the forest and its guardian Humbaba, whose first instinct is to insult them, calling Enkidu a “son of a fish.”  (This is actually a pretty great phrase I plan on using in the future.)  Humbaba’s face starts changing and this alarms the two warriors to the point of fear.  There is a battle in which the sky god Shamash ties Humbaba up in the thirteen winds (and why didn’t we just let Shamash do that in the first place?).  Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to be Gilgamesh’s servant and cut down trees and guard other forests and whatever he wants, really.  Gilgamesh is tempted but Enkidu keeps him on track, telling him to pulverize the monster.  There is, presumably, an awesome battle here.  We get one line: “They pulled out his insides including his tongue.”  The rest is gone.  I tend to imagine that at one point back in the day, the Mother’s Association of Mesopotamia thought the scenes were unsuitable for children and had the violent and naughty bits sanded off the stone tablets.

With the Lorax defeated, Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the cedar forest, and Enkidu tells Gilgamesh to make a big door out of it.  He does so, leaving us to ponder why on earth he needs a giant door.  They get home by raft, with Gilgamesh carrying Humbaba’s head.  After a shower and a change of clothes, Gilgamesh is ready to be king again.

The goddess Ishtar notices that he cleans up nicely, and demands he become her husband, offering him plenty of fruitful plants and animals in return.  Gilgamesh, to his credit, doesn’t run away from the goddess screaming.  He tries to compliment her, saying he’s a humble man, with nothing to give her in return, and then he lists off her past lovers who have all met terribly gruesome ends.  Gilgamesh, you could probably have handled that better.  (Apparently back in the day, it was the duty of kings to indulge in hierogamy with Ishtar in order to ensure good crops, so really, this is just him neglecting his office.)

Ishtar is furious and goes to her dad, Anu.  She asks to borrow the Bull of Heaven so she can smite Gilgamesh, and threatens to smash down the gates of the Netherworld if her dad doesn’t let her.  Her dad tells her that if she takes the bull, she has to do all her chores first – namely, collecting grain and growing grasses for the animals because there’s going to be a seven year period of barrenness in the land.

She complies and takes the bull down to Uruk.  Whenever it snorts, a pit opens up and a hundred men fall in.  Enkidu lets this go on thrice before grabbing the beast and holding on to it while Gilgamesh butchers the thing.  They offer its heart to Shamash.

Ishtar walks along the wall and whines, “Woe unto Gilgamesh who slandered me and killed the Bull of Heaven!”  Enkidu throws a bull leg at her and threatens to drape the innards over her arms.  When living in the ancient days, one really should learn not to upset the gods – but then again, Enkidu is not the brightest guy who ever lived.

Ishtar assembles the women to mourn over the bull’s hindquarter (it was an offering to the goddess, after all) while Gilgamesh has the horns hung in his bedroom.  He marches through the town singing his own praises and holding a party for himself.  He’s not the brightest guy either.

Enkidu has a dream in which the gods are having a conference and decide that Enkidu should die for the murder of the bull and Humbaba (because apparently Gilgamesh is too pretty to kill).  When he wakes up, Enkidu starts yelling at the Cedar door they made, angry that it is not able to understand him.  Gilgamesh tries to comfort him (and presumably get him to stop talking to inanimate objects).

Enkidu then curses the poor trapper who found him and the priestess he first slept with.  He would probably go on to curse everyone he’s ever met, but Shamash shouts from the sky, telling him to button it.  I really do love gods who interact with mortals like this.  Shamash tells him to be grateful to Shamhat because she made him fit for Gilgamesh, who is going to give him an awesome funeral and go feral with grief.  Apparently that makes everything better.

Enkidu repents and turns his curse of the priestess into a blessing, wishing all men would drop their pants and fall at her feet.  How… thoughtful of him.  He later has a dream of death, in which he enters the House of Dust (which is a hardcore name for the afterlife, to be honest).  He becomes sicker and sicker and wastes away in bed, with Gilgamesh at his side.  Gilgamesh tells him about all the people and things that will mourn him and on that cheerful note, Enkidu passes away.

As promised, Gilgamesh shaves his head, rips off his finery, and has the artisans of the city make a statue of Enkidu.  He does what every sensible king in mourning does and stops bathing, choosing instead to roam the wilderness wearing a lion skin.

Realizing his own mortality after the death of his life-partner, Gilgamesh fears death and decides to stop that nonsense once and for all.  He travels to Mount Mashu and asks a nice scorpion couple if they can point him in the direction of his ancestor Utanapishtim to find out about life and death.  They inform him that mortals aren’t able to cross the mountains, but fortunately for him, he’s two-thirds god.  He gets them to open the gates and goes through a long dark cave before uneventfully popping out the other side.

Once on the other side, he stumbles across a tavern-keeper, who bolts her door because he looks like a bedraggled murderer. He shouts a little louder, introducing himself as Gilgamesh, killer of various things, which doesn’t really help his case.  She asks him what’s up, and he spills out his fears of death to her, along with a long lament over Enkidu’s death.  She tells him that he will have to visit Urshanabi the ferryman, who gets him across eventually (after Gilgamesh smashes his oars and has to remake them).

Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim, who makes the mistake of asking what’s up, and Gilgamesh starts to relate his whole tale of lament over again.  (Seriously, it’s like a page long.)  Utanapishtim tells him that no one can see death and nature is all about the changes of comings and goings.  Gilgamesh misses the point entirely and asks Utanapishtim how he came to be immortal.

Utanapishtim tells him that long ago, the gods invoked a flood (out of boredom, mostly).  Not wanting everything to perish, the god Ea secretly instructed Utanapishtim and his family to build a boat and put a bunch of animals on it.  (Wait a second, this story sounds familiar.)  The storm rages for a week, and when it’s over, the humans have all turned to clay and the boat is stuck on Mt. Nimush.  Another week passes and Utanapishtim sends a dove out, which comes back.  He then sends a swallow, which also comes back.  Finally, he sends a raven, which doesn’t come back, either because it found dry land or it collapsed from exhaustion.  Then he sends out all the animals except a sheep, which he sacrifices to the gods, who agree not to flood the world like that again and make Utanapishtim and his wife immortal as an apology.

As a parting gift, Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a thorn that will restore his youth.  Gilgamesh finds the plant, but before he can eat it, a snake comes along and carries it off, shedding its skin as a taunting reminder of its craftiness.  (That sonuva fish!)  This is just about the final straw for Gilgamesh, who starts to whine and cry over the loss like the majestic hero he is.  Urshanabi accompanies him home, and when they finally arrive back at Uruk-Haven, Gilgamesh tells him to inspect the brickwork of the city walls he built way back in the beginning.  It’s a bit of an odd note to end on, but I guess we should be used to Gilgamesh’s eccentricities by now.

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