Tablet XI, Column i, The Epic of Gilgamesh
Aside from historical and biblical scholars, not many people know about The Epic of Gilgamesh, though my research suggests that the character seems to be somewhat of a subterrannean cultural icon and is referenced quite often in the arts; those that do know the epic, came to it not as a classic in its own right but because they heard or read that it provided one of the first independent written records of The Flood (a fact not as startling as it may seem, since many creation myths from around the world have a destruction of man by gods in a titanic cataclysm as one the central theses).
But like Moll Flanders, the Ramayana, Huck Finn or The Tale of Genji, it shares a unique genealogy: it is among the first of its kind, if not the first. It may be the oldest tale ever written, and the earliest work of literature known to man.
The Epic is a Mesopotamian myth; it is a series of short episodic poems from the proto-kingdom of Sumer, which flourished around four thousand years ago (divorce and property rights were developed here, for the trivia nuts reading this). It describes the adventures of the King of Uruk, and his best friend Enkidu (in this it parallels the Kyrgyz hero-myth of Manas and his best friend Almanbet, though the legends are not strictly comparable), and is inscribed on twelve stone tablets found at the city of Nineveh, once part of Babylon, in 1849. Various interpretations suggest that the oldest part of the tale is from Sumer itself, but later Akkaddian additions created the famous 12 cuneiform tablets which form the basis of most modern translations.
In the first part of the Epic, Gilgamesh is a king, two thirds god, one third man, who oppresses the citizens of Uruk by – among other things – indulging himself in the droit de siegneur (the “prima nocte” made famous by Braveheart). They cry out to the gods, whose create a primitive man of the same power as Gilgamesh; he is Enkidu, covered in hair and living in the wild, until found; seduction by a temple prostitute is the first step in his civilization (an interesting twist on Rousseau’s thesis that it is civilization that corrupts the Eden-like state of primitive man). He goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh and after a titanic battle, they become friends
The next tablets tell the various adventures the two friends have: the slaying of the demi-god Humbaba; the encounter with the goddess Ishtar after returning to Uruk, and Gilgamesh’s refusal of her advances (Ishtar is part of the the prototypical triumvirate of elder gods, corresponding to the Sumerian Innana, Egyptian Isis, semitic Astarte…and the (downgraded) greek and roman goddess of love); her petulant plea to her father Anu to avenge her humilation by sending the Bull of Heaven to wreak destruction on Uruk. The heroes slay the bull, but the gods decide one must die for this affront to heaven, and after a short illness interspersed with many vividly recounted dreams, Enkidu dies. Mad with grief, Gilgamesh seeks to find a legendary man called Utnapishtim who may be able to to provide him with the secret of immortality and of regenerating life…since he has been alive since the Great Flood.
And here we come to it. Try and imagine the impact such a statement on a four thousand year old tablet must have made on a mostly secular but still religious culture which had not yet been exposed to Darwin. The description Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh corresponds very closely with the Flood Myth of the bible (and with many other myths in world culture, but I won’t go into that here), most particularly how one family was given advance warning to build a boat to ride out the flood, and then, after the waters began receding, released a bird to see whether it returned.
In the event, Utnapishtim instructed Gilgamesh how to find the sacred flower that provides immortality, but after Gilamesh discovers and picks it, the bloom is stolen while he bathes by….what else? A serpent. (I just love this stuff…even a modern novelist can hardly better this one)
Gilgamesh is one of those stories at the root of our memories and culture, so basic that we can’t see its murky outlines underneath our common notions of storytelling. Much like Robert Johnson’s primitive licks which whisper from under the bedrock of current rock music, Gilgamesh is one of the prototypical tales without which none of the others can be properly understood. He is the first Nietzschean superman, the most basic wandering hero like Rama, Hercules, Manas or Conan. He calls to our unconscious mental picture of a Jungian first man with correspondences in Aboriginal, Lakota, semitic, Hindu, Greek, Inca, Polynesian and shinto mythology. He is the first recorded attempt in world letters to nail down the concept in a permanent form. The epic dealt with sex, religion and flawed beings in a realistic way not found again for literally millenia, questioned dogma and the gods themselves, and told a coherent story that actually had a point (though scholars feel it is still incomplete and not all tablets have been recovered)
And for a legend this old and this dusty, it’s actually still referenced a lot in modern art and historical forms. Consider: Atlantis theorists refer to the Epic constantly as a secondary source for the Flood Myth they claim underlay the sinking of that fabled isle; Phillip Roth wrote a novel abut a baseball player Gil Gamesh, whose story arc followed the epic; it has been translated into Klingon for Star Trek fans (along with Hamlet) and been the focus of at least one episode in The Next Generation; at least three operas of that name have been written in the latter half of the 20th century; perhaps due to its oral backgrund, a variation of the legend has often been performed in theatre; and Japanese anime references it in Sword of Uruk and in Gurren Lagan (there’s this mecha called Enkidu…); even Hercules: The Legendary journeys, an American TV series, had Gilgamesh make an appearance. Think this is all? In the Final Fantasy video games, there is usually a boss called Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu; in Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, there’s a Viraxo ship named Enkidu; in Civilization IV Beyond the Sword expansion pack, the leader of the Sumerian civ is called Gilgamesh.
Joseph Campbell’s powerful work “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (which helped George Lucas fashion Star Wars, by the way) probably comes closest to allowing us to understand the peculiar longevity of a character in myth mostly forgotten and rarely read. The Hero on a Quest holds a fascination for us all because it is embdedded in our subconscious, part of our race memories of a wandering past. We seek the unattainable both within and without our physical selves, seek a state of grace and strength over and beyond the mundane lives we live. Gilgamesh, strong, kingly, flawed, who lost his best friend and gained knowledge if not enlightment, speaks to that part of us that rises above the petty considerations of our world and searches for a more sublime state of mind.