Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Drawn from ancient Sumerian stories, the epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) dating from approximately 2000 BC.

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The king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, was a powerful man who lacked compassion. The gods created the wild man, Enkidu, to be his companion and divert the king from his evil deeds. The two went on dangerous quests and killed monsters. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh was stricken with grief and went on a quest to achieve eternal life, but eventually came to accept his mortality.

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Gilgamesh, 2/3 god and 1/3 man, is introduced as the mighty king who has built the great walled city of Uruk. However, he oppresses the citizens, i.e. raping young brides on their wedding nights. The people call out to the gods for help and the gods create an equal to Gilgamesh to distract him from his misdeeds.

The primitive man Enkidu is as powerfully built as Gilgamesh, covered with hair and living with the wild animals. A trapper, whose livelihood is threatened by Enkidu’s persistence in destroying the traps and freeing the animals, reports him to Gilgamesh.

Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has dreams foretelling the arrival of a new companion, and sends the temple prostitute, Shamhash, to have sex with Enkidu for seven days. As she “civilizes” Enkidu, she brings him to a shepherd’s camp, where he is introduced to a human diet. Enkidu is outraged to learn of Gilgamesh’s treatment of his subjects and goes to Uruk to confront the king.

They meet and have a wrestling match, but Enkidu is unable to prevail over Gilgamesh, however, they do become friends. Gilgamesh proposes a journey to the Cedar Forest to slay the terrifying monster, Humbaba. Enkidu begs Gilgamesh to abandon the dangerous mission, but failing that, accompanies the king out of loyalty.

On the long trip to face Humbaba, Gilgamesh has five terrifying dreams that Enkidu interprets as good omens. The confront and capture Humbaba. When the monster pleads for its life, Gilgamesh feels pity. Enkidu insists that they kill the beast. Humbaba curse them both and Gilgamesh kills the monster with a blow to the neck.

The two friends cut down giant cedars and build a raft to return home along the Euphrates, where they are greeted by the seductive goddess, Ishtar. Gilgamesh rejects her advances, by reciting the unfortunate fates of her previous lovers. For revenge, Ishtar brings the bull of heaven to Uruk where it causes mass destruction. Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack and kill the bull. While the city celebrates, Enkidu has an ominous dream - that he must die for killing Humbaba and the bull of heaven. Enkidu curses those who brought him out of the wilderness, he becomes sick, and after twelve days, dies.

Mourning the loss of his friend, Gilgamesh dons animals skins and roams the wild. He decides to find Utnapishtim (a survivor of the Great Flood, who was granted immortality by the gods) to learn the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh endures a long, perilous trip to reach Utnapishtim, who chides him for resisting the inevitable fate of a human being. Utnapishtim tells him the story of the Great Flood, and that the gods gift of eternal life would not be repeated.

As he prepares to return to Uruk, Gilgamesh is offered a parting gift - a plant that restores men to their youth. He retrieves it from the bottom of the sea, and starts home. Stopping to bathe, Gilgamesh carelessly leaves the plant unattended and it stolen by a snake which sheds its skin. Gilgamesh weeps at the loss of what he thought was one last key to immortality. He returns to Uruk, accompanied by the boatman who took him to Utnapishtim. Echoing the opening lines of the poem, Gilgamesh points out the splendor of the walled city and invites his guest to admire the great works that he has done.

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Sources for my reading: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George, Penguin Classics edition, and Gilgamesh, A New English Version, rendered by Stephen Mitchell.

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