Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Gilgamesh discussion

Picture source
(which has additional online links)

I won’t go much into recapping the story since I think I’ve provided some summaries and study guides in this post.

So instead I’ll focus on a few of the points in the story that interested me. Upon first reading the story, I found parts of it contradictory at times. Finding out the history behind the epic, or rather the various stories combined into one, helped explain some of what I was seeing. For all that follows, I am using Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Some of the topics I found interesting:

  • Gilgamesh is recognized by the people as oppressing them, yet they also recognize his wisdom and leadership abilities. The trapper who asks his father what to do about the wild man (Enkidu) he has seen is told to go to Uruk. The leader there, Gilgamesh, “will know what to do.” The other interesting point was that some of the oppression, the ius primae noctis, was claimed to be ordained by the gods. The role the gods play in Gilgamesh in comparison to Greek mythology makes for a complex comparison and is worthy of a post or paper in its own right. For those new to the epic, look at the attitude the gods have toward humans, how interactive they are in their lives, and how the gods deal with a human’s fate in both approaches (for starters).
  • Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god. Such a fraction is never explained, but definitely causes a chuckle. The only thing I can figure is that his mother was the goddess Ninsun and his father was Lugalbanda, a human later turned into a god. Maybe that conversion factors into the ratio.
  • The civilization of Enkidu: who knew that sex civilizes? I guess not in the sense of Gilgamesh’s ius primae noctis though. The beasts that Enkidu had lived with rejected him after he had been with the priestess Shamhat. How does human sex civilize where animal sex does not? The approach raised more questions for me than it answered, although the key may be Enkidu’s consciousness appears to have been awakened at this point (“he knew that his mind had somehow grown larger, he knew things now that an animal can’t know”—an interesting comparison to Adam and Eve). A little clearer was Enkidu’s eating the bread and drinking the beer made by humans, consuming things that humans had achieved, in order to reach a civilized state.
  • After Gilgamesh and Enkidu become friends, Uruk finds peace because the two “balance each other perfectly”. There is something pre-Freudian regarding id, ego and superego and their balance in what they achieve.
  • Gilgamesh’s desire to go to the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba is to “drive out evil” even though the forest is sacred, as is the placement of Humbaba there. In debating Enkidu, Gilgamesh directly states “we are mortal men. Only the gods live forever [note: even though that doesn’t seem to be the case in other places]. Our days are few in number, and whatever we achieve is a puff of wind.” Recognizing that he will die does not bother him here, although it will later on. What he fears most is not realizing a hero’s death. In this respect, Gilgamesh echoes the concept of kleos seen over and over in Greek epics. Since Gilgamesh rebukes the goddess Ishtar’s advances later on, I think he makes it clear that dying at the hands of a sexually bored goddess does not qualify as a hero’s death.
  • Gilgamesh trying to twist Enkidu’s dreams of death into something heartening is a great touch. After the repeated translation by Enkidu of Gilgamesh’s dreams (dreams that seemed to portend an awful fate) into something positive, it was hard not to laugh out loud at his grasping for good news.
  • That the epic is a collection of stories seems apparent by the last section, Gilgamesh’s search for the secret of immortality. His reaction to his friend’s death is completely out of character with his earlier statements regarding being human. Of course, some of it may be that he is just seeing it up close and personal for the first time, but still it feels at complete odds with his earlier declarations. In addition, Enkidu "completed" Gilgamesh so it is like a part of Gilgamesh died. Utnapishtim is an interesting character and the parallel nature of the Great Flood with the Bible is striking despite some differences (the most notable being Utnapishtim and his wife being granted immortality).
  • Ultimately the most interesting thing to me are the topics this epic addresses. What does it mean to be human? What separates us from the animals? Since man must die, how should he spend the time he is given? What part does friendship play for people? What is the ultimate journey that man makes? No easy answers are provided, but that people almost 5,000 years ago were raising these questions and celebrating what makes us human gives insight into the human condition.

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