In Further Praise of Gilgamesh

Read this ancient epic with a bunch of 8th graders, in a slightly scrubbed version as discussed here. We read the first half 2 weeks ago, and the second half last week.

Gilgamesh, Enkidu, lions, and some cuneiform text.. Or so I’m told by Wikipedia.

I had to share with these very bright kids the wisdom of one Robert Bart, a tutor (professor) at St. John’s College: Great books are not children’s books. He was saying this to a bunch of 18 year olds (I being one at the time. Printing had been invented, just barely). I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to reread much of the Great Books in the intervening years, and can confirm: while you have to start somewhere, there’s a reason Aristotle recommended (but, of course, did not follow) that one delays the study of philosophy until age 50. Same goes for epics and classics of all sorts. Get a lifetime under your belt, and the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, the Book of Job, Dante, and all the others are a LOT different experience.

The kids were universally disappointed with the way Gilgamesh ended. I tried to tell them that, at +/- 13 years old, grasping how life looks to an old man is going to be – difficult. I, on the other hand, was almost brought to tears.

Both the solemnity and wackiness of the adventures are taken up several notches after Enkidu dies on Tablet 5. The mythic pair of wild man (Enkidu) and over-civilized man (Gilgamesh) took on classic forces of nature and heaven, defeating the monster guarding the forest with the help of the gods, then killing the Bull of Heaven sent as vengeance. The pair shook, as it were, a manly and even kingly fist at the eternal forces – and so had to pay the price. The wild man loves civilization, but must die for city living to continue. The civilized man has lost what he most loved, that aspect of manhood that provided the test and vigor to his life. After inordinate morning – the body of Enkidu is allowed to corrupt well past its bury-by date so that Gilgamesh can mourn over it -he is willing to abandon the city so as not to suffer the same fate as his friend. He seeks the secret of immortality from the one man – Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim – to whom the gods have granted it. He lives now forever on the other side of the Waters of Death.

On his journey, he confronts nature at its wildest and most beautiful – a pride of lions – and slays them all, and wears a skin as a cloak. The skin of the king of beasts merely hides a civilized man trying to escape, without passing on to him any of Nature’s native power or glory.

He must pass through darkness, after getting past the scorpion men, a bizarre human/creature blend who bar his way at first, then let him pass. Twelve leagues of the deepest darkness later, he passes through the Garden of the Gods.

When he reaches the coast, the theme of women/bread/wine as the gateway to civilization first encountered with the literal seduction of Enkidu by Shamhat followed by the wild man’s introduction to the signature victuals of civilization – fruit of the earth and vine, the work of human hands. Gilgamesh, however, does not encounter the beautiful and brave temple prostitute, but rather a giant barmaid – Siduri, who flees from the wasted wreck that mourning and hardship have made of Gilgamesh. She eventually warms to him, serves him some very civilized food – and tells him to give up on seeking immortality, and instead seize the day. He should return home, get married, and raise some kids.

Unlike Enkidu, Gilgamesh doesn’t need the comfort of women to civilize him, but rather their wisdom. Which he promptly rejects. He wants to know how to get across the Waters of Death. He’s passing out through the gateway of civilization – wine, women, and song, as it were – and into the afterlife, or at least trying to.

Siduri directs him to the Sumerian Charon, Urshanabi the Ferryman. Gilgamesh finds him painting his boat on the shore, and attacks the ferry, as if it needed to be defeated.

The boat is death, it is what happens to souls at the end of life. By attacking and damaging the boat, he makes his quest to cross over the Waters of Death much more difficult. Gilgamesh has destroyed the magic that guides and propels the soul from this life to eternity.

After crossing the Waters of Death to Paradise Shore, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim and his wife, who are languid: what’s the hurry when one gets to live forever? He tells our hero he gained immortality after saving creation from the great flood. The creator god Enlil found people too noisy, and decided to drown them and all creatures right out. Through the machinations of a lesser god, Utnapishtim is instructed to turn his house into a huge square ark and thus saves creation. Eternal life is his (and his wife’s) reward. He repeats the advise Gilgamesh has repeatedly received on his journey: accept your mortal lot, go get married and father some children.

There’s an adventure where Gilgamesh retrieves and then loses a seaweed that grants youth to 100 o0ld men, but that’s a lost consolation prize. The message to him from beings natural, unnatural, and supernatural remains: it is your lot to die. Do great and memorable things, marry and father children – that’s the best you can do.

Gilgamesh returns to Uruk a different man. He finds the people have done just fine without him, and realizes their dread of his wars and building projects. He softens some. He does marry, and his first child completes his transformation into a truly civilized man.

A great story. A perfect example of what I was trying to get across to the kids: myths are how a people explain the world and themselves to themselves. The Sumerians had carved out a handful of towns and cities in a land that could be both generous and harsh. Nature could and routinely did wipe out what they had so painstakingly built, flooding and washing away their farms and villages. Further, they were surrounded by wilder peoples who wanted what they had. Finally, death was always there, ready to take you without warning.

Gilgamesh must deal with all these issues, and answer what it is that makes a man civilized.

(Aside: as long as I can remember, I’ve pronounced – in my head, because who says such words aloud? – ‘cuneiform’ “CUE-neh-form.” Now I hear, on some of the videos I’ve watched prepping for this class, ‘coo-NAY-eh-form’. To MAY to, to MAH to. I think I like my way better, but, while I sometimes argue (tongue in cheek, mostly) for multiple orthodox orthographies, using Chaucer as my hero, not sure I want to do the same for pronunciation. Communication being the goal and all.)

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “In Further Praise of Gilgamesh”

  1. coo-NEE-i-form.

    Pretty sure modern Greeks would pronounce their ancient king’s name as EE-dthi-pos.

    I never cared much for what is considered the classical pronunciation of Greek or Latin, although I think the case for the classical Latin is probably more compelling. I just can’t imagine a hard-ass like Caesar coming back from kicking Pontine butt and saying, in any language, waynee, weedy, weaky. And Erasmus just made up the pronunciations for Greek we use today, when he could have gone down to Greece (perhaps at the risk of his Catholic life) and learned from them. I figure, if there’s a society around actually using the language, pronounce it the way they do. Which frees me up to do anything I want with Sumerian.

  2. Great books are not children’s books, but I’m glad you’re not keeping them away from kids!  It’s true that you can’t fully understand these books when you’re young.  But you can enjoy them, and you can benefit from them.  
    My belief is that you can especially benefit down the line from having read them.  My older son adores his baby brother, and when I watch them play together I think about the innocence of it, how he has no idea that one day he could wake up to the news that his beloved brother is dead.  It makes their play bittersweet because I know that the innocence can’t last.  After all, his little brother is named for the little brother that I lost without warning in the prime of his life.  So on the one hand, I don’t want to take that innocence away from him. On the other hand, I want him to be prepared to confront the world as it is.
    I think great stories, great books, family stories, cultural legends, these are ways that we do that.  It certainly helped for me. The kids don’t fully understand them until they are older, but they provide a sort of road map for dealing with life, an assurance that you’re not the first to face this and you won’t be the last.  It’s like in the movies when someone gives the hero a mysterious gift and says something like “when the time comes, you’ll know.” And besides, the stories are enjoyable to the young as well.  Their appreciation of them just takes time to mature.
    On a related note, I liked old music from the Great American Songbook even before I fell in love, but once I did fall in love the songs made sense on a new level, and those old songs also gave me the sense that in falling in love I was doing what human beings had done since time immemorial, sharing in a universal experience.  Great stories can be like that, too.
    Happy All Saints and All Souls Day, may our faith in the Communion of Saints bring you consolation for the loss of your son.
    –Billy Jack

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