1992-02-22: Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh (1200 BC)

translated and annotated by John Gardner and John Maier (Vintage Books, 1985), from the text ascribed to Sin-leqi-unninni

Gilgamesh naturally illustrates aspects of the world-view of its time.  Some of these are self-evident to the casual reader; others are pointed out by scholars.  This is a late text, reworked significantly from earlier Gilgamesh works, and given a coherent artistic structure by a single poet.

Some of the themes of the work include friendship, achievement, death, grief, the quest for immortality, the realization of the futility of this quest, and the hope for a sort of immortality in the form of the memories left after one’s death.  Two others are the civilizing of humankind, and the civilizing of the pantheon.

The opening part of Gilgamesh shows the transition from animal-like man to human-like man in the creation and taming of Enkidu.  The humanizing characteristics introduced in the transition are recreational/social sexual intercourse, speech, wearing of garments, eating cooked food, drinking wine, intoxication.  These are commonly taken to be distinctive human traits, and each could be written of at length.  The particular view of the ancient writer(s) shows an attempt to understand (or at least depict) the difference between “primitive” and “modern” humankind, three thousand years ago.

The simple fact that this was a concern indicates the gulf between the primitive and civilized states of humans.  There is no sign that the writers recognized any good aspects of the primitive human, that might have been lost or suppressed in the civilizing process.

This question has become even more important today, when the near total dominance of the planet’s systems by humans is creating conditions which cannot be predicted, and may well be disastrous to humans themselves as a simple consequence of that dominance.  Certainly one of the most important driving forces of this dominance is the sexual drive to reproduce in numbers greater than can be adequately supported by the existing systems.

The scolars point out the mixture of attitudes toward the gods, how these have changed over time, and how the Gilgamesh text (in the late version used by these translators) contains different attitudes from different times.  The most primitive view has the gods representing the forces of nature (sun, wind, rain, growth, earthquake, flood, motherhood, etc) in a more or less anthropomorphized, and uniform, way.  Later, certain gods become dominant over others, and have particular influence in and attachment to certain human groups or places.  The raw nature-force aspects of the gods become overlaid with more human characteristics, as the relations between gods take on aspects of the relations between humans, with pleasure and conflict, jealousy and anger.

Unlike humans, who change throughout their lives, the gods in any given story, or version of a story, do not exhibit growth, or the maturing process characteristic of humans.  However, in the course of a literature, a set of related stories with common characters developed over a long time by many authors, the natures attributed to the gods do change.  Such a meta-story reflects the change in the human attitudes of its creators.  For example, Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk is particularly identified with Ishtar.  Ishtar is the Great Goddess, one of the Four who have much greater powers than the hundreds of other gods.  Yet Gilgamesh’s actions are more determined by Shamash, who represents the sun; in this scheme, the sun was a minor god.  Part of Gilgamesh can be seen as depicting, implicitly, the background shift of importance from the female Great Goddess to a dominant male god, which took place throughout Western cultures.

This shift has been interpreted as a shift of influence from the feminine aspects of humankind to the masculine.  Typical feminine aspects are fruitfulness (as in agriculture and childbearing), and the imaginative, intuitive approach to incorporating experience into a usable structure of memory, belief, and desire.  Typical masculine aspects are toolmaking (physical and verbal), and the logical, rational approach which narrows the realm of useful experience to that which can be manipulated logically.

Both of these themes can be seen as facets of the evolution of human culture over a few thousand years, and both contribute in the same direction, to a culture which promotes exploitation of the planet’s systems for a perceived benefit to humankind at the expense of perceived competition from nonhumankind.

Other works referenced in the notes to Gilgamesh include:

Man and His Symbols, C.G. Jung (particularly the essay on Man and Myth).

The Greek Myths, Robert Graves.


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