Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Gilgamesh is Stupendous"

Gilgamesh is often called the oldest work of literature. Oddly enough, this “classic” was lost to the world for more than two thousand years. Only when archaeologists discovered the clay tablets in the 19th century, and started deciphering the cuneiform did the great epic story get pieced together and brought back to the world. This “death and rebirth” is an amazing story that rivals the epic itself. For the archaeological mystery tale, I highly recommend this Smithsonian article by David Damrosch, “Epic Hero: How a self-taught British genius rediscovered the Mesopotamian saga of Gilgamesh after 2,500 years.”

An ancient story pre-dating even the earliest books of the Old Testament, Gilgamesh gives the reader plenty to consider. I interpreted the appearance of Enkidu as an opportunity for Gilgamesh to become whole, to incorporate the qualities of compassion that he lacked, but that Enkidu possessed.

On another level, the two represented a meeting of the civilized world and the primitive world, bringing up all the tensions that can arise from that clash of cultures.

The power and place of dreams in our lives is another thread from the story that would warrant further study.

The precursors to the biblical stories of the flood, Jacob and Esau, the tree of life, the serpent and the Garden of Eden are found in Gilgamesh.

And what makes the Epic of Gilgamesh a fresh and contemporary story is the king’s fear of death and his struggle to come to terms with his own mortality.

Given our current political climate, it is hard to overlook the themes in Gilgamesh that concern powerful rulers who lack a sense of justice and mercy.

I might have read Gilgamesh back in college, though if I did give it more than the usual cursory skim, it was wasted on me at that early age. Reading it now confirms that this endeavor to cruise through the classics during the coming year is a worthwhile project. I share Rainer Maria Rilke’s enthusiasm, when he wrote, "Gilgamesh is stupendous. I consider it to be one of the greatest things that could happen to a person."

For further consideration:

“The Wild Man: The Epic of Gilgamesh” in Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Hero's Journey,by Thomas Van Nortwick.

“A Brief Outline of Jungian Psychology with some Archetypal Images, Themes, and Symbols,” taken in part from The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature, by Clifton Snider

Gilgamesh: A Reader, by John R. Maier

Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic, by Theodore Ziolkowski

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