Ancient History & Civilisation

7. The Story

Although the gods play a great part in the Epic, in its later form at least, Gilgamesh appears to have been as much a secular poem as the Odyssey. There is no suggestion that it was recited as part of religious ritual, as was the great Babylonian poem of Creation, theEnuma Elish, though it contains quasi-religious material in the laments over the dead, and in the set pieces of ‘Wisdom’. It is a secular narrative, divided into loosely connected episodes covering the most important events in the life of the hero.

These poems give to Gilgamesh no marvellous birth and childhood legends, like those of the heroes of folk-lore. When the story begins he is in mature manhood, and superior to all other men in beauty and strength and the unsatisfied cravings of his half-divine nature, for which he can find no worthy match in love or in war; while his daemonic energy is wearing his subjects out. They are forced to call in the help of the gods, and the first episode describes how they provide a companion and foil. This was Enkidu, the ‘natural man’, reared with wild animals, and as swift as the gazelle. In time Enkidu was seduced by a harlot from the city, and with the loss of innocence an irrevocable step was taken towards taming the wild man. The animals now rejected him, and he was led on by stages, learning to wear clothes, eat human food, herd sheep, and make war on the wolf and lion, until at length he reached the great civilized city of Uruk. He does not look back again to his old free life until he lies on his death-bed, when a pang of regret catches hold of him and he curses all the educators. This is the ‘Fall’ in reverse, a felix culpa shorn of tragic development; but it is also an allegory of the stages by which mankind reaches civilization, going from savagery to pastoralism and at last to the life of the city. It has even been claimed from the evidence of this story that the Babylonians were social evolutionists! Recently Professor G. S. Kirk has made an interesting attempt to interpret Enkidu, his birth, his seduction and the fight with Gilgamesh, along lines of Levi-Straussian structuralism; with Enkidu representing ‘nature’ opposed to Gilgamesh as ‘culture’, the purpose of the story being to mediate the contradictions and so to resolve tension. While this may be one of the threads in the story, I do not think it is the most important. It implies a baseless identification of civilized man with disease and natural man with health and well-being; while to equate the literate and sophisticated milieu of second millennium Babylonia, and early first millennium Assyria, with the simple world of Homer’s or Hesiod’s Greek contemporaries, let alone that of Levi-Strauss’s Amerindians, is highly misleading. It seems, in any case, that Enkidu is far from being a mere ‘type figure’. Professor Gadd, introducing the latest translated fragments from Ur, has drawn attention to the conversation between the doomed and dying Enkidu and the Sun God, in which it is implied that he had been living happily in the plains with his wife ‘a mother of seven’. Professor Gadd sees in his story a threefold tragedy: that of the husband seduced by meretricious charms to take up a life of which he soon tires, that of the nomad taken to the city and lost in it, and lastly the ‘noble savage’ tempted by a woman and winning through her a knowledge that brings him only unhappiness.

The great friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu that begins with a wrestling bout in Uruk is the link that connects all the episodes of the story. Even in a dream, before he had seen Enkidu, Gilgamesh was drawn to him by an attraction ‘like the love of woman’. After the meeting Enkidu becomes ‘a younger brother’; a ‘dear friend’, though in the Sumerian poems, in which there is no early history of Enkidu, the master and servant relationship is stressed to a greater degree. It is Enkidu who brings news of the mysterious cedar forest and its monstrous guardian, the encounter with whom is the subject of the second episode.

The journey to the forest and the ensuing battle can be read on different planes of reality, like medieval allegory. The forest is an actual forest, sometimes the Amanus in north Syria, or perhaps in Elam in south-west Persia; but it is also the home of uncanny powers and the scene of strange adventures like those of Celtic heroes and medieval knights; and it is the dark forest of the soul. On the first level, the historical, the need of the cities for timber is the motive for the whole expedition. Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk, wishes to display his power and ambition by building great walls and temples, as did Sargon of Agade and Gudea of Lagash. But strange tribes lived in the mountains who would resist any attempt at removing the cedars by force. There must be fighting before the valuable commodity can be shipped away, and in battle the gods of the forest tribes would fight behind their own people: therefore it was essential to enlist against them some one of the great Mesopotamian gods, and use his stronger magic against their magic. Shamash is won over with promises of a new temple to be built in his honour, and he gives his special protection to the enterprise. Among the terrors of the mountains were earthquake and volcano. A geological fault runs across Anatolia and through Armenia, and volcanoes may still have been active as late as the third millennium B.C., a fact which adds interest to the accurate description of a volcano in eruption which is contained in one of the dreams which comes to Gilgamesh on the Cedar Mountain.

On the second level this episode is an adventure. Two young heroes set out to win fame; the mountains and the cedars, with their guardian, are the challenge beyond the horizon of the everyday world. They go armed but alone, and alone they meet the giant Humbaba, who has been variously identified as a North-Syrian, Anatolian or Elamite god, according as to whether the journey is visualized as leading to the northern or the eastern mountains. He protects the forest with various enchantments; though the enchanted gate which Enkidu is supposed to open, to his hurt, may be a misunderstanding. When it reappears later, in his death-bed conversation, it is a gate in Uruk that is meant, the wood of which has come from the forest. Then there is a mysterious sleep which overcomes Gilgamesh as soon as he has felled the great cedar; and when at last Humbaba is tracked down in the deepest part of the forest, he almost overwhelms Gilgamesh with his ‘nod’ and the ‘eye’ of death. He is only subdued with the help of Shamash and the eight winds. These are a very potent weapon, for it was with the winds that the god Marduk overcame the primeval waters of chaos in the battle at the beginning of the world, as told in the Enuma Elish.

There is a third level also, for Humbaba is ‘Evil’. The first time he is referred to it is simply this, ‘Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil’ ; so Gilgamesh plays the part of the knight who kills the dragon. Although in the conflict the two companions triumph, because they have taken sides amongst the gods using the weapons of Shamash to destroy the protégé of Enlil, they have incurred the anger of the quick-tempered, rancorous storm-god, and for this they will suffer later. In one view, indeed, the whole forest episode is a cruel trap set by Enlil in order to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

The forest is ‘the Country of the Living’, or simply ‘the Country’, lying somewhere on the outer bounds of earth and reality. In the middle of it is the mountain, which is both a seat of the gods and the underworld, the sender of dreams. But the forest is also related to that ‘Garden of the Sun’ which Gilgamesh will enter on a later journey, to meet again the great sun god, not in a dream, but face to face, for ‘the Country belonged to Shamash’. The forest is oddly familiar, so is its guardian. ‘Thou shalt see a vale like a great water-way and in the middle of the vale thou shalt see a great tree with the tips of its branches greener than the greenest fir-trees. And under the tree is a fountain.’ So Cynon is directed by the keeper of the forest in his wanderings, ‘through the world and its wilderness’ as told in the late Welsh romance from the Mabinogion. There he found ‘the fairest vale in the world, and trees of equal height in it, and there was a river flowing through the vale and a path alongside the river’. Although this is twelfth-century Welsh it describes what Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw when they entered the cedar forest in almost the same phrases: the cedar in front of the mountain, the glade green with brushwood, and the broad way where the going was good.

The guardian of the forest in the romance had power over animals, which grazed around him in the glade, and the guardian of the cedar forest in the Semitic poem could ‘hear the heifer when she stirred at sixty leagues distance’. This Humbaba is the perennial Monster Herdsman, like the ugly man with a club whom Cynon met or the Green Knight of the northern romance; he is a divinity of wild nature who would not alter through centuries any more than the forests themselves; but in the Sumerian poem he has a fiery aspect as well, perhaps connected with the volcano.

After what appeared to be a successful conclusion of the forest episode there comes a great act of glorification of Gilgamesh the King: robed, crowned, and in almost divine beauty, like Odysseus after his ordeal with the waves when Athene gave to him godlike beauty. At this moment the goddess Ishtar sees and desires him in love; she tries to woo him with tempting promises, after which comes a remarkable passage: the taunting of the goddess by a disdainful mortal. There is something here of Anchises, the herd-boy on Mount Ida, who in the Homeric Hymn was wooed by Aphrodite to his hurt, for ‘He who lies with a deathless goddess is no hale man afterwards’, or proud Hippolytus, or Picus and Circe in Ovid. So Ishtar is accused by the memory of her unfortunate lovers who survived miserably, one as a bird with a broken wing, another a wolf or a blind mole; for this Ishtar has the power of Circe, and these seem like fragments from some once popular Babylonian ‘Metamorphoses’.

Next follows the killing of the ‘Bull of Heaven’, a monster that personifies the seven years’ drought which was sent by the angry goddess in punishment for her rejection by Gilgamesh. Anu at first refuses to create the bull, but when Ishtar threatens to break in the doors of hell and bring up the dead to eat with the living, he acquiesces, for this is not an idle threat, but was actually accomplished, as told in another poem. The acrobatic feat by which the bull was killed is like that performed in the bull games of Crete.

It is through hubris that disaster comes. Enkidu refused the prayer of Humbaba for mercy, and he insulted Ishtar. Gilgamesh seems less guilty; he was moved by Humbaba’s prayer, though when they had killed the bull and the young men and singing girls crowded round to admire him, he let them cry, ‘Gilgamesh is most glorious of the heroes, Gilgamesh is most eminent among men.’ So retribution falls first on Enkidu. He is warned by a dream. He sees the gods in council and we hear the ominous question ringing out, ‘Why do the great gods sit in council together?’ Anu pronounces impartially, as is fitting in so lofty and remote a person: ‘One of the two must die.’ Shamash comes to defend them, but the quarrel between Shamash and Enlil, as though between sun and storm, breaks out again, and Shamash can only save one, Gilgamesh, his special protégé: Enkidu must die. In the night Enkidu has a vision of death which is one of the main sources for our knowledge of the Babylonian after-life. Another is contained in the independent Sumerian poem ‘Enkidu and the Netherworld’ and its Akkadian translation appended to the Gilgamesh Epic as Tablet XII of the Ninevite recension. Enkidu goes down alive into the Underworld in order to bring back a mysterious and perhaps shamanistic drum and drumstick that Gilgamesh has let fall into it. In spite of warnings he breaks all the taboos and is held fast, ‘for the Underworld seized him’; but a hole is made in the earth’s crust so that he (or his spirit) may return and describe what he has seen.

With the death of Enkidu more than half the story has been told. The companionship is broken and Gilgamesh is left alone; after having known the joy of an almost perfect friendship, he must learn to live without it; but this is more than he can bear. The knowledge that death is inevitable had earlier proved a challenge to bold undertakings and to victorious action; but now it stultifies action and brings the new experience of defeat. The great king is after all an ordinary mortal. In this crisis he thinks of his forefathers, and in particular of Utnapishtim, who, it was rumoured, found everlasting life, having entered the company of the gods. He was the survivor of the flood, another Noah, whom the gods took ‘to live at the mouth of the rivers’, and he is called ‘the Faraway’. Then follows the search for ancestral wisdom which takes Gilgamesh to the limits of the earth, as did Odysseus’s journey to find Teiresias. This second journey is not a repetition of the other to the Cedar Mountain. It can be based on no historical event; the topography is other-worldly in a manner which before it was not. The planes of romantic and of spiritual adventure have coalesced. Although clothed in the appearances of primitive geography it is a spiritual landscape as much as Dante’s Dark Wood, Mountain, and Pit. As far as is known at present there is no Sumerian counterpart to this episode, unless it is to be found in the unpublished Lugulbanda cycle.

After long wanderings through the wilderness, living like a poor hunter and wearing the skins of animals, Gilgamesh arrives at the mountain passes where he kills lions which he sees playing in the moonlight. This short episode is introduced almost casually, but it probably had a significance which is lost to us now, for on a great number of seals a figure, generally supposed to be that of Gilgamesh, is shown in combat with lions; and for the rest of the journey, until he reaches the Fountain of Youth, he wears the lion’s pelt. The heraldic group of a warrior flanked by two lions rampant has passed into the iconography of the classical, medieval, and modem worlds, and is called even now ‘the Gilgamesh motif’. We know that the lion which met Dante on the mountain’s lower slope, ‘Head held aloft and hunger mad’, was the sin of Pride, while the panther carved on a medieval choir-stall may be the symbol of Christ, seen as the panther that killed a dragon, slept for three days, and then sweetened the world with its breath. But how should we understand these figures, which were commonplace to our Saxon and Medieval ancestors, without the researches of medievalists to explain them? It is not surprising that we have no clue now to the real significance of this lion combat. Only in the Hittite version there is a hint of some special connection between the lions and the Moon God.

From the pass where he killed the lions Gilgamesh came to the mountain of the sun with its awful guardians, part man, part dragon with a scorpion’s tail. This description may be intended to remind us that the man-scorpion was one of the monsters created by chaos at the beginning of the world, according to the Enuma Elish. The mountain is shown on seals with the sun disappearing into it. It is the western horizon beyond whose ultimate range Shamash disappears at sundown and from which he returns at dawn; it is at the same time the wall of heaven and the gate of hell. The Sumerians thought of the sun as asleep through the night in the bosom of his mother earth, but the Semites held that he continued his journey in a boat, passing under the earth and over the waters of the underworld, till he came to the eastern mountain, to rise up in the morning with his bride the dawn. Gilgamesh in his journey through the mountain called Mashu retraces on foot the sun’s journey; the twin peaks are both sunrise and sunset, and the goal at the end is the sun’s garden by the shores of Ocean.

This garden of the gods is not the heavenly abode, but rather an earthly paradise, the country of the dawn ‘Eastward in Eden’. But in contrast to the land of Dilmun, where the survivor of the flood was taken to live for ever, it is on this side of the waters of death. The episode survives, unfortunately, in a very fragmentary state, and the account of the wonders of the garden with its jewelled fruit is nearly lost; only enough remains to give us one of the rare hints of Eden-garden which survive in old Semitic. Here the sun walks in the early morning and sees Gilgamesh as an unkempt and desperate man; he remonstrates with him, but in spite of the god’s warning that his quest is certain to fail, Gilgamesh is driven on. In a house beside the sea he finds the woman Siduri with her vineyards and wine-vats. She is also called Sabit which once meant ‘barmaid’ before it became a proper name. There may also be a connection between this name and that of the Chaldean Sibyl in Berossus. She is an enigmatic figure never explained, but her language is like that of Circe, herself a daughter of the sun, whose island home lay in the sea, where east and west were confused, and which grew magic herbs and moly. Like Circe and like her son Comus, Siduri dispenses the ‘philosophy’ of eat, drink, and be merry ‘for this too is the lot of man’. Thefigure of the wine-bearer was still used by medieval Sūfī poets for whom it was the symbol of ‘reality revealed’. From Siduri, Gilgamesh received instruction how to cross the waters of death, much as Odysseus had directions from Circe for the way to Hades, across the ‘river of Ocean’. But Gilgamesh, unlike Odysseus, is alone and has no boat; he must find the ferryman, and the directions are doubtful. There is another great difference, for though it entails crossing Ocean and the waters of death, this is not an underworld journey, nor is the boatman Urshanabi a ferryman of the dead. It is still the journey the sun takes every night to ‘the place of transit at the mouth of the rivers’. To reach Utnapishtim ‘the Faraway’, Gilgamesh must cross the same Ocean which was the last boundary of the known or knowable earth to all the ancients, Greeks, Semites, or Sumerians. It was an impassable barrier because it communicated with the waters of death and with the abyss, ‘Absu’, the waters that are above the firmament. Even sophisticated Romans were afraid of the Atlantic; and Caesar’s crossing to Britain was considered an act of almost superhuman daring, because, unlike the Mediterranean Sea, the English Channel was the beginning of Ocean.

For the Sumerians, Ocean was somewhere out beyond the Persian Gulf, and there too was Dilmun, where the rivers ran into the sea, so that ‘the mouth of the rivers’ is exactly equivalent to the Greek ‘springs of Ocean’, there were the Elysian Fields and the blessed isles of Homer and Hesiod, ‘towards night, in the far west in a soft meadow among spring flowers’. Like them, Dilmun was not for the ordinary dead. Utnapishtim did not die, but was singled out to live there for ever like Menelaus among Greek heroes, when he was sent to ‘the Elysian plain at the world’s end, to join red-haired Rhadaman-thus in the land where living is made easiest for mankind, where no snow falls, no strong winds blow, and there is never any rain, but day after day the West Wind’s tuneful breeze comes in from Ocean to refresh its folk’. There is a very old account of Dilmun, written on a tablet from Nippur. It describes how, when the world was young and the work of creation had only just begun, Dilmun was a place where ‘the croak of the raven was not heard, the bird of death did not utter the cry of death, the lion did not devour, the wolf did not rend the lamb, the dove did not mourn, there was no widow, no sickness, no old age, no lamentation’.

That part of our texts which described the meeting of Gilgamesh with the boatman and their embarkation, in spite of recent publication of a little additional material, is still very defective. Certain seals show two figures, which may be Gilgamesh and Urshanabi, sailing in a boat with a serpent prow. This prow may explain the serpent which is referred to during the meeting between Gilgamesh and the Ferryman; but the nature of the ‘Things of Stone’, which Gilgamesh rashly smashes, remains mysterious and unexplained. All that can yet be said of them is that their destruction makes necessary the use of punting poles, and that they are connected in some way with ‘wings’ or ‘winged beings or figures’, but beyond this ‘they retain for the present most of their secrets’ as Professor Gadd, in a discussion of the new texts, wrote in 1966.

The encounter of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim ‘the Faraway’ begins with one of those set pieces of ‘Wisdom’, all of which, like Siduri’s exhortation to a life of carefree pleasure, while having a very pessimistic tone, seem intended to reconcile man to his lot on earth. It is followed by Utnapishtim’s account of the flood. This is the best preserved of all the tablets in the Assyrian version, with over 300 extant lines. I have already referred to the older versions unconnected with Gilgamesh: the Sumerian ‘Deluge’, in which Ziusudra stands in the place of Noah or Utnapishtim, and the old Babylonian Atra-hasīs. There is a remarkable resemblance between the story told in Genesis and the Gilgamesh tablet, but there are also striking differences. In Genesis the city is not named, but in the other versions it is usually Shurrupak, the modem Fara, and one of the first of the Sumerian city-states to gain a pre-eminent position.

The account of the eleventh tablet begins with a council of gods. Such councils never boded any good for men and this is no exception. There is no explanation of the immediate cause of the gods’ decision to destroy mankind. Probably it was much the same as in Genesis: ‘The earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was full of violence’, for later there is talk of ‘laying his sin upon the sinner’. In the Sumerian story the account of the flood follows that of the creation of man, vegetation and animals, the institution of kingship and of the proper worship of the gods. Then unfortunately there is a long break in the text, which has obliterated the cause of the gods’ wrath and their decision to destroy mankind by flood, It may be suggestive that the last decipherable phrase is connected with the cleaning and irrigation of small rivers. When the story does become intelligible the gods are divided much as in the eleventh tablet of Gilgamesh. Other flood stories were known in ancient Mesopotamia but the earliest Sumerian literary reference does not seem to be much older than the Old Babylonian Atra-hasis of the early second millennium. In this poem the flood follows pestilence, famine and drought, each designed to exterminate mankind. In the definitive edition of W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard these lines occur:

Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull,
The god got disturbed with their uproar.
Enlil heard their noise...

The description of the flood itself in Tablet III has so much in common with the language of Gilgamesh Tablet XI that it seems the latter must have been modelled upon it, or rather upon some lost Middle Babylonian recension.

In the Gilgamesh flood Ishtar, and Enlil are as usual the advocates of destruction. Ishtar speaks, perhaps in her capacity as goddess of war, but Enlil prevails with his weapon of the storm. Only Ea, in superior wisdom, either was not present, or being present was silent, and with his usual cunning saw to it that at least one of the race of men should survive.

The dreadful havoc appalled even the gods; for Enlil summoned to his aid not only the horrors of the storm, but the Anunnaki, gods of the underworld, whose lightnings played about the rising waters. The description of the storm is more elaborate and impressive than the account in Genesis. In order to find language comparable to that which describes the black cloud coming from the horizon, which thundered within where the god of the storm was riding, it is necessary to go to the Psalms - ‘... darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub and did fly; yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.... At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed hailstones and coals of fire. The Lord also thundered in the heavens.’

In the Biblical story the same machinery is used: the building of the boat, the entry of the animals, the flood, loosing of the birds and the sacrifice; but while the god who ‘remembered Noah’ lives in awful isolation, in the Assyrian, as in the Sumerian stories, we are still in the world of factious, flustered, and fallible deities. There is real danger that the powers of chaos and destruction will get out of hand. Things do indeed go too far, and the gods are shocked by the results of their own action; but nothing shows more strikingly the difference in outlook and purpose than the conclusion. In place of God’s solemn pledge to Noah, ‘While the earth remaineth seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease‘, there is the nauseating picture of gods swarming like flies over the sacrifice. Instead of the rainbow pledge, there is only Ishtar fingering her necklace and exclaiming that she will not ‘forget these days’. But this is the word of the most notoriously faithless of all the gods. So, too, the immortality and semi-divine status which Utnapishtim, Atra-hasīs and Ziusudra win for themselves and their families is very different from the solemn covenant of the Bible, between God and a still entirely human Noah, through whom all mankind is given respite from anxiety. Part of the cause of the malaise present in the Mesopotamian psychology was this insecurity under which the people lived out their lives: the lack of a covenant.

The flood narrative is still an independent poem inserted into the framework of the Gilgamesh Epic. When it has been told we are back where we were; but it tends, like the other concluding incidents, to bring home to Gilgamesh the futility of his search. In spite of everything an obdurate hope remains with the hero; this must be crushed and shown for the evasion that it is. When challenged and put to the test Gilgamesh cannot even remain awake. At the Spring of Youth, where he receives the clothing which shows no sign of age, he experiences the irony of mere possessions outliving the body; while the plant of Youth Regained, brought with such difficulty from the sea’s bottom, is briefly possessed and then lost; and so in this way the lesson is learnt for the last time. The text here is again very defective, but the snake that sloughs its skin needs no other gloss; it is the symbol of self-renewal. There is also a linguistic connection between the name given to the plant and that for bark of cassia which is called ‘snake rind’, that is to say, the sloughed snake-skin.

Why does Gilgamesh not eat the plant at once and so regain his youth? Is it because of an altruistic desire to share it with his people and give the old men back their youthful strength? Is this just another trick of the gods? I do not think it is, nor that Gilgamesh is continually cheated of an almost attained immortality; but rather that the purpose of each of these incidents is cumulative, and is aimed at breaking down his refusal to accept human destiny. Gilgamesh’s search was not for any eternal renewal of nature, such as the goddess Ishtar might have given, nor for the mere escape from old age into a life of ease and idleness, such as Utnapishtim had been granted; but much more an earthly immortality with its opportunity for heroic action, and for glory on the earth like that of the gods in heaven. It needs the repetition of the lesson to drive home the truth that Gilgamesh, the king, is not different from other men. Only after the return of the snake to its pool does he at last accept the futility of struggling for what cannot be had, ‘searching for the wind’ as Siduri had said. The search is over, there is nothing more to do but go home.

The return is very summarily described and leaves much unexplained. It is like the breaking of a spell, when, at the end of trouble and search and with a prize almost won, everything suddenly returns to ordinary and we are back where we started, admiring the prosaic excellence of the city wall. All the fine things we had hoped to find - youth, eternal life, the dead friend - are lost. This ending has been described as ‘Jeering, unsatisfying, without tragedy or sense of catharsis.’ With this judgement I do not agree, for it is the true ending, it is what really happens, and in its way as tragic as the end of Hector under the walls of Troy.

The last act of all, the death of Gilgamesh, exists only in the Sumerian. It is a solemn lament; not so much a cry of individual sorrow, as part of a ritual, the elaborate burial of the dead. It is such a scene as the excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur has revealed with the mass immolations as well as the magnificent paraphernalia of the funeral: the gifts, banquets, robings, and the bread and the wine offered by the dead king to the gods of the underworld at his entry of the ‘Land of No Return’.

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