The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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  1. Avatar Louis B.
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    In order to occupy him, the goddess Aruru decided to create a companion for Gilgamesh; from clay, she sculpted the wild-man Enkidu. Also huge and covered with hair, Enkidu lives in the woods and represents the first narrative of wild humanity being tamed by civilization. In this case, he’s civilized by the harlot Shamat who risks life and limb to couple with him. They have sex for seven days and seven nights and Enkidu is left physically weakened but has been given the gift of reason. I love that sex brings enlightenment in the epic!

    I don’t think we’re talking about sex leading to enlightenment as much as a degenerate coming to terms with society by being loved. It seems to me that the harlot (a somewhat degrading term for her line of work, as she does not merely perform sexual favours) is asked to empathize with Enkidu rather than passively let him desecrate her:

    She was not restrained, but took his energy.
    She spread out her robe and he lay upon her,
    she performed for the primitive the task of womankind.

    Still, there is none of the shame and taboo that surrounds sex in the modern age.

    Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
    examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
    Is not the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick,
    and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?

    I love the genuine wonder and admiration for the gifts of civilization on display here. It’s as if these people realized the extent to which they had freed themselves from the life cycle that had held thousands of generations before them captive.

    In terms of modern relevance, I chuckled at this bit where the young trapper is describing Enkidu:

    He filled in the pits that I had dug,
    wrenched out my traps that I had spread,
    released from my grasp the wild animals.
    He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!”

    Ah, the first environmentalist…

    For the work of primitive court intellectuals, this is surprisingly immersive. I would not have expected such a thing to appeal to me, but it does.

    It makes me wonder: how many such treasures have we lost because they did not accord with the whims of bronze-age bureaucrats?Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Louis B.
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      says:

      I think that’s what it is- maybe we’d call it “sex positive” now! The attitude of the story strikes me as being that there’s something noble about our common humanity. In a sense, I think Gilgamesh has to come to terms with being human- which is definitely hard- but it also seems to celebrate human nature in the end. A line that I found especially charming was the barkeep’s suggestion to Gilgamesh that it feels good to bathe and he should just enjoy doing that.Report

  2. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    I remember reading Gligamesh as a kid in primary school. (It may very well have been some abridged version) I remember one part where after Enkidu had died, Gilgamesh had a dream where he sees Enkidu, but no Enkidu has become a monster with talons and a beak and feathers.
    What struck me was the injustice of the whole thing. I dont remember Enkidu doing anything that deserved that. (Which is probably one reason why I never re-read Gilgamesh. That itself is one squick no 8year old has to endure)Report

    • Avatar Rufus in reply to Murali
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      No, I don’t think he did anything to deserve it. It’s especially tough because he just recently became civilized, so there’s still much that’s childlike about Enkidu. It’s really easy to see why Gilgamesh rages against the dying of his light!Report

      • Avatar Antonia in reply to Rufus
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        says:

        For me there is another layer to the story of Gilgamesh which could have been explored in your review, and it is that Enkidu was created not only as Gilgamesh’s complete opposite in every way (dark, hairy and wild where Giggamesh was fair, smooth of skin and cultivated etc), but to serve as Gilgamesh’s ALTER EGO! On all their exploits Gilgamesh and Enkidu ‘debate’ with each other and no matter what one says, be it positive or negative, the other finds an argument for or against which symbolizes the inner struggle of all humans (as much then as today), to do what their conscience dictates — for better, for worse, be it right or wrong. For example: With the killing of Humbaba there’s a whole dialogue as to whether they should or shouldn’t and for every ‘pro’ or ‘con’ that one of them comes up with, the other finds the counter-argument. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh feels the loss of his friend and Alter Ego most keenly but finally he is forced to stand alone, be his own conscience, make his own judgements, conquer his morbid fear of death and — being only a demi-god — come to terms with his own mortality. As the result of having lived this intimate relationship with his Alter Ego, Gilgamesh reforms his tyranical ways and ultimately becomes a better and much revered king! Antonia S-C.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    What I love about all of these is the whole “why is the world the way it is?” thing.

    Genesis, the Bhagavad Gita, Gilgamesh… they all explain things from the trivial (so, like, why do women hate snakes?) to the Big Questions (so, like, why do we spend so much time killing each other?)

    We have people who sit down and explain “this is the way the world works, and here’s why”.

    My problem with Hinduism/Buddhism is the whole “the point is to stop existing” thing. Yes, you have to do what you have to do and you want to become enlightened but learn detatchment because the point is, eventually, to escape the cycle of re-incarnation.

    Judaism, by contrast, came out and said, like, in the first couple of verses “this is Good”. Creation is *GOOD*. Light, water, night/day, animals, even Man! GOOD! By the time we get to Jesus, we can even live *FOREVER*. Existence itself is a positive good! It’s so awesome, we never want to stop! At the very least, it’s better than having flaming pineapples shoved up your nose for all eternity which is the other option.

    Both of those views strike me as missing a great many somethings (yes, I know I grossly oversimplified) that Gilgamesh happens to catch:

    Hey. We’re only here for a minute. Enjoy it. We have food, and nice clothing, and women and children (be nice to them!). This is what you get.

    I suppose that all of these things are Rorschach tests and, yeah, I just described what I see rather than what’s actually there and I’m sure that others could just as easily oversimplify with their own interpretations to make Hinduism make the most sense (or Christianity).

    Yet Gilgamesh does, it seems to me, the best job of explaining why things are the way they are.

    Because this is what we get. Try to enjoy it. (Be nice to them.)Report

  4. Avatar Rufus
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    says:

    I usually find the minor rules amusing. It might not be appropriate but one of my favorite Biblical rules is the one about not eating owls. Given the time and the place it was probably good advice to give the Israelites. I also liked the rule (I think in Deuteronomy) that, if two men are fighting, and the wife of one man grabs his genitals to stop the fight, you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy. Danged if I can think of a modern application for that one.

    The larger rules are, I think, why ancient wisdom literature still speaks to us. Because death is still something that sucks and we have to come to grips with, however we do it. I too like the advice to enjoy your time here and know your limitations.Report

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