The Epic of Gilgamesh: Sex, Violence, and Death

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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28 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    The bartender’s speech is one of the best in literature. I have a soft spot for it’s opening:

    Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh… wither goest thou?
    The life that thou dost seek, thou shalt not find,
    when the gods humanity did make,
    for humanity did death determine,
    but life held in their own hands.

    The sadness in these words followed by some pretty decent advice culminating in “For this is the task of man” holds wisdom that we still have not yet managed to internalize.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      There’s also an essay out there called “The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Teachings of Siduri and How Siduri’s Ancient Advice Can Help Guide Us to a Happier Life” (it’s a PDF else I would link to it) that has some interesting takes on Siduri (the bartender).

      The gods aren’t necessarily hands-off. There are takes on the story that say that Siduri was the grandmother goddess. In that interpretation, this is a story about a god coming down and telling mankind how to be happy.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      I have to run at the moment- running a music show tonight and all day has been spent dealing with musicians, another sort of primordial chaos!!

      But this reminded me that Brad DeLong posted this way back when we first discussed the Epic:

  2. Glyph says:

    Great post Rufus!

    Animals fear pain, but cannot conceptualize that they will one day cease to exist. Only humans live with this steady knowing until the day they cease to know.

    I’m…not sure about this, actually, particularly the farther up the intelligence ladder you move. Wouldn’t shock me at all to find this knowledge amongst elephants or whales, say.

    Hell, for all I know, that look of melancholy in my dog’s eye might not just be boredom; in some doggy way, he may be contemplating the passage of time.

    Seems to me that any being that has to find food to survive, has an instinctual understanding that nothing persists forever.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

      I think a lot of recent science does demonstrate that animals have emotions but it’s also a highly contested field. There is a big debate among scientists over whether dogs love humans like humans love dogs. Many scientists say that evidence shows that dogs have the same love of their owners that a small child has got it’s patent. Other scientists think this is wishful projection.Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I’m not talking really about emotions, which almost everyone agrees (most) animals have roughly analogously to humans (certainly, fear and contentment at the least; affection and anger also).

        I’m talking about awareness of the possibility (inevitability) of non-existence. I’m not getting on Rufus specifically, because this is a common anthropocentric thing, but we know elephants communicate; we know they appear to grieve their dead; we know they have intelligence and memory (even if it’s not the prodigious one of myth but just regular memory); we know they do not respond well to confinement and isolation; why would we assume they have no understanding of mortality?

        It just seems egotistical in the extreme. Sure, they don’t have written language (and neither did we, for a long time, and in a few places still) and we don’t understand what they are saying to each other; but I see no reason to assume that they don’t know a lot of what we know, and go through a lot of what we go through.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I get it now.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Other scientists think this is wishful projection.

        Attributing the emotion of love to other humans is wishful projection.

        Science has all this stuff completely but hopefully irrevocably reversed.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Attributing the emotion of love to other humans is wishful projection.

        Maybe, when we use the word “love”, the referent is analogous to humans and our sweet kitties who wish to jump in our laps for some petseses and nose kisses?

        Even if we agree that the thing that we call “love” isn’t there, the thing that we’re mistaking for love might be.

        It’s not obvious to me that animals don’t have similar things to this thing that humans mis-identify.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think animals are aware as they get closer to death and they do grieve the dead, but I don’t know that they make the connection when a companion dies that they will too one day. They do seem to have a better memory than I’d always heard. When I visit my ex-wife, our cat acts annoyed that I was gone so long and then treats me like she always had- generally, she hates everyone but me and my ex.Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @rufus-f – obviously we can’t talk to an elephant to settle the bet, but I am curious as to what makes you so sure. Again, they don’t have written language, but neither did/do we in all cases.

        So what makes you think that an animal with demonstrated intelligence, apparent emotions, apparent “spoken language”, memory, and somewhat similar behavior to ours in the face of encountering impending or recent death, can’t or doesn’t reach similar understandings about what that means (All elephants are mortal; Jumbo is an elephant, therefore…)?

        I’m not claiming every animal is that smart (I’m not sure every human is) but it seems to me that there are several species where I’d be pretty surprised if they *can’t* make the leap.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Praying mantises, for instance. (“Wow, look at that thorax! Totally worth it.”)Report

      • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I like what you’re sayin. Personally speaking here, I think that if love is anything at all, it’s fundamentally an emotion, one which we overlay a bunch of conceptualizations and meta-analysis and ideological principles and etc. Seems to me that a dog isn’t gonna experience love (if it does at all) on the level of a meta-conceptualization based on contemporary liberal normative conceptual analysis.

        But in terms of behaviors, dogs seem to do all sorts of stuff that humans do. So if love is an emotion, then it seems to me that dogs and other animals are entirely capable of experiencing it. Humans just have a tendency to think when we do it, it’s something special.

        Btw, to clarify what I wrote upthread about projection and wishful thinking: if the projection of emotional content to others is based on our own subjective experiences, then attributing those emotions to others is pure projection since by definition emotional content is not directly observable on others. We base that attribution on the observable behaviors of others and gauge the degree to which those behaviors (including verbal expressions!) match our own.

        Animals exhibit lots and lots of the same observable behaviors. So limiting the expression of those behaviors to speech acts seems sorta question-begging to me. And just plain wrong, actually.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I agree with the spirit of @glyph ‘s question. I’ll change it a bit, though:

        If we agree that humans are different from animals in that way, why does it matter? Even if we disagree, why does it matter? We still have to deal with death and mortality and our fears thereof.

        I guess that it matters in some ways because it helps us illustrate our concerns about mortality by juxtaposing them against how animals feel or don’t about it. We can tell stories about how animals are so much better off because they don’t fear death, or about how animals’ spiritual lives are so impoverished and therefore unfulfillng because they don’t fear death. I suppose also there’s a natural curiosity we as humans have about our species and how we differ from other species and there’s nothing wrong with being curious.

        But at the end of the day, I have to deal with my mortality whether or not elephants do or don’t.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I find the things you’re saying pretty fascinating and I definitely can’t say for sure how my cat experiences the world. But, it still seems to me that being in the bloom of life but melancholy about one’s eventual demise is a really complex emotion requiring a level of conceptualization that, if my cat had, she’d probably not get her head stuck in so many bags.

        I do think they experience emotions that are similar to humans, but not the meta level of conceptualization about those feelings. I don’t think my cat wonders if I would have been better off with a different cat or how we will deal with it when she dies or any of the narratives that love evokes for me. Honestly, she might just see us as food-dispensing machines.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Science has all this stuff completely but hopefully irrevocably reversed.

        This. People want to claim that animals don’t have emotions, that “feelings” are some marvelous human distinction.

        It seems to me to be the exact opposite. Emotions are ALL that animals have. It’s cognition, symbolic representation, and in most cases at least, sentient self-awareness that is the unique province of human beings.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Glyph says:

      Hell, for all I know, that look of melancholy in my dog’s eye might not just be boredom; in some doggy way, he may be contemplating the passage of time.

      “Here I am, in the prime of my life, locked in a house with an owner who won’t let me chase squirrels all day or wrastle with my mates. Or storm thru the neighborhood with my pack. And death is just around the corner! So much lost! Maybe I should take up meditation to come to grips with all this….”Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    the ogre of the cedar woods, Humbaba

    Also known as Roger Craig.Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    There’s a pretty good book by Robert Silverberg that retells the story of Gilgamesh, and another that follows him into death and beyond. The second is a fixup from various short works, so some parts are much better than others. Also, Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel features a brilliant Babylonian-American pitcher named Gil Gamesh.Report

  5. DRS says:

    Which version are you using? I have the Stephen Mitchell one.Report

  6. Morat20 says:

    Gilgamesh was an absolute dick in Fate Stay/Night. Seriously, just a giant, pulsating, jerk.Report

  7. Burt Likko says:

    Gilgamesh and Enkidu become not just friends but sexual partners as well, no? I thought there was a passage in which Ishtar invited Gilgamesh to lie with Enkidu, and share love with him.

    The reference to Achilles and Patroclus seems particularly apt then, I should think.

    And aren’t there a number of parallel events between Gilgamesh’s story and the Genesis stories, beyond even the flood myth?Report

  8. LeeEsq says:

    Very good. I think the most touching death story in ancient literature is the death of Moses. It shows how even sne of the greatest are scarred of death and need comfort as death approaches.Report

  9. Will H. says:

    At last!
    I have discovered the key to civilization!Report