For this review, I’m pulling a diminished Wuthering Expectations and splitting my thoughts into two parts. (Diminished because, unlike Amateur Reader, I won’t be spending the entire week on Gilgamesh, as deserving as it is of such treatment, and also because I know Amateur Reader, and Senator, I’m no Amateur Reader.) As I was writing, I realized that if I put all my thoughts on this work into one entry, it would be far too long — which might surprise you, but not nearly as much as Gilgamesh surprised me.
Gilgamesh opens with the people of Uruk complaining against their king, Gilgamesh. His power and rampant sexuality mean that he is no longer the protector and shepherd of his people. They beg for aid, and the gods listen, but Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man: only another man like him could possibly contend with him and hope to win. So the gods create Enkidu, a wild man who loves the animals and the wilderness. The people bring him to the city by the expedient of using a prostitute to ensnare him: once he’s lost his sexual innocence, the animals won’t come to feed from his hand any longer, and the prostitute is able to bring him where she wants him to go.
Once Enkidu meets Gilgamesh, the two men almost instantly recognize each other as brothers. It is clear that they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: both are strong and tall, but one is wild, the other civilized; one is a natural shepherd and protector, the other must be mastered in order to be any good to his people. I was expecting something more Gnostic, the way we see it repeated in so many novels today: one brother good, the other bad; one brother strong, the other weak. Instead, it was a far deeper psychological insight. We all have different sides to our personality, sides that must be snared or encouraged or reined in or even created — yet these are brothers of the same mother. They are not essentially different.
It seems obvious that the next thing these brothers must do is to turn their combined power to doing good. Gilgamesh and Enkidu go off to fight the evil demon Huwawa, and because of their different talents working together, they prevail: Gilgamesh has dreams that Enkidu can interpret; Gilgamesh can create weapons, but Enkidu knows where to find water in the forest. They win because of wildness and intuition, and also because of knowledge, connection, and created things, the two sides of the coin. When these two things are joined, nothing can stop them, not even the supernatural.
When the two men return, however, the tragedy begins. Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar (the goddess of love, the same as Astarte and Aphrodite.) He knows what kind of trouble he’d be in if he accepted her as a lover — the same trouble other men had been in before him.
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.
You are the door through which the cold gets in.
You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch
that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.
You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe
that pinches the foot of the wearer. The ill-made wall
that buckles when time has gone by. The leaky
waterskin soaking the waterskin carrier.
Ishtar is furious, and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh, but the two men together are too strong for it: they sacrifice it and eat the remainder. And this warns the gods that they have trouble on their hands. Gilgamesh and Enkidu pose a serious problem together, one that they might not have posed apart. So they decree that Enkidu, the wild man, must die, but that Gilgamesh, “the gifted,” must not die.
And again, I was blown away by the piercing insight: our bodies, our wildness, are mortal. To look at an even bigger picture, within a society, the wildness passes away as time goes on. What remains, what lives on, are our gifts and our created things: cities, monuments, roads, music, art, and (witness Gilgamesh itself) literature. These are two-thirds god, one-third man. But this work tells us that this progress is not all triumph. The death of Enkidu is still a death. And it’s that death, and the attendant grief, that I’ll talk about in the second part of my thoughts on Gilgamesh.
Note: I’m using a modern translation, or perhaps “rendering” would be a better word, in English verse, by David Ferry. It’s not a scholarly version or a transliteration. The poetry of it is incredibly striking, but he plays fast and loose with some of the more literal stuff. This doesn’t bother me because I am not a scholar of ancient Sumerian texts, but if it would bother you, there are a lot of versions out there.
Also, I didn’t do this on purpose, but I’m delighted to be posting this at roughly the same time as Lifetime Reader posts her thoughts on Gilgamesh. All Gilgamesh, all the time! That’s what I say.