Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the oldest work we’ve read in the Great Books program. It was as remote in time from Augustus Caesar as Caesar is remote from us. It even pre-dates the call of Abram by Yahweh. The story of Gilgamesh has a long ago and far away tone. And yet, for all its remoteness in time and space and language, the story has a distinctly “western” feel to it. Of course many of the ideas that we’ve come to embrace as westerners (monotheism, democracy, scientific inquiry for example) aren’t yet fully developed. That’s what makes it seem so long ago and far away. But the seeds of later western thought are already present in this long poem. The roots of the West are deeply embedded in Mesopotamian culture by 2000 B.C.

There are many examples connecting the story with western culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains a flood narrative, a couple of temptation scenes, a snake that steals the life-giving plant, interpretations of dreams and other stories that echo in the pages of Genesis, Exodus and other books of the Old Testament. But American culture also echoes some of the themes from Gilgamesh. Modern readers contemplating the friendship and adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu see the precursors of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When we read about Enkidu in the wilderness, we glimpse the western fascination for characters like Tarzan or the castaway Robinson Crusoe or the mountain man Jeremiah Johnson. When we read about Gilgamesh’s journey to the underworld we are reminded of the travels and adventures of Odysseus. And the slaying of the monster Humbaba brings the medieval legend of Beowulf to mind. So, many western archetypes are already present in this earliest of epic poems. We recognize them as we might recognize the photograph of some distant relative. They’re pale versions from the past being presented to us now in translation, somewhat like a shadow play or through a glass, darkly.

But even though it’s a story from 4000 years ago, modern readers can still identify with both the characters and the scenes. Gilgamesh, for example, is a city boy from Uruk. Uruk is a word that may look foreign to our eyes and sound foreign to our ears, but listen to a description of the city: “Enter Uruk…where costumes bright are worn, where it is always time to party, where merry music never fades, where graceful girls do ever play with toys and boys and men; for in the night these revelers do their best to rule the town.” Of course this is a translation meant to make sense to modern readers, but the message is clear in any language: Uruk is a party town (kind of like Las Vegas) and Gilgamesh is perfectly at home there. Enkidu, on the other hand, is a country boy, the innocent rural dweller minding his own business and living in harmony with nature. Until one of the Uruk girls gets to him. Using sex as a lure, Shamhat persuades Enkidu to leave his country-bumpkin ways behind and come live in Uruk. That’s where Enkidu meets Gilgamesh and that’s when the adventures begin. These weren’t ordinary men. Men like these were probably the ones spoken of in Genesis when it says “There were giants in the earth in those days…mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Gilgamesh and Enkidu became for Sumerian culture what King Arthur and Sir Lancelot later became for English-speaking culture – legendary heroes, perhaps real men once, but now forever lost in the mists of time.

However, to recommend this book merely as a prelude to the rise of western civilization would be a great disservice. It touches on most of the basic issues human beings face throughout all ages: love, sex, death, friendship, government, and nature in very few pages. For this reason alone, Gilgamesh is a masterpiece in its own right.

-- RDP


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