Textbook Leftovers

“The First Great Heroic Narrative”

Posted on: January 31, 2011

If I’d been randomly choosing a place to begin an adventure through world literature, I could hardly have chosen a better outset than Gilgamesh.

Reaching all the way back to practically the dawn of civilization, the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk (in modern-day southern Iraq, on the Euphrates) in about 2700 BC. That’s about 5000 years ago. The epic narrative of his exploits was in development for thousands of years in the oral tradition, and was luckily recorded on clay tablets before the entire thing was lost to the sands of time. It remained lost until around 1870 AD when it was accidentally rediscovered by archaeologists.

Due to the length of this narrative, I’ll be dealing with it in segments. Today, we confront the Prologue and Part One.

The narrative begins with praise to what seems to be a bad king (I hesitate to call him evil, but he’s painted in pretty harsh colors). His people call out to the gods in their oppression, and the gods confer amongst themselves. They decide that man is not meant to be alone, and they create a soulmate for him: “…now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.”

This creation of Enkidu is a beautiful moment in the history of friendship. The very human need to have a true friend is given paramount importance by the gods, and the goddess of creation, Aruru, is the very one who provides this essential part of Gilgamesh’s life. Let nobody say that people can live happily without a friend, for the gods themselves disagree.

It is interesting to note that Enkidu is actually nothing like Gilgamesh at first. Gilgamesh is a cosmopolitan king, fifth in a dynasty. Enkidu is a wild man who is raised by the animals and lives as one of them still. While Gilgamesh is famous for his lust for power, wealth, and women, Enkidu is an early eco-crusader. He rescues animals from traps, fills in unnecessary holes that have been dug, and is completely unacquainted with women.

Enkidu causes trouble for a local huntsman, whose father suggests persuading the king to distract this wild man with, of course, the most distracting thing that a man can behold: a woman. I don’t know if this should be interpreted as “woman as a stumbling block” or “woman as an essential civilizing influence.” Maybe both?

In any case, Enkidu’s human instincts take over, and for some reason the animals reject him for this. Sex makes a man impure and unwelcome in the purity of nature? Humans are the only ones capable of intimate connections with their sexual partner, therefore Enkidu can no longer be content as an animal, having known this pleasure? Again, who knows?

Enkidu is now wise, but also weak. I am reminded of that old fable of the animals choosing their weapons, and the human choosing no physical weapons and gaining the immense power of the mind. The woman invites him to come with her to Uruk to see Gilgamesh, and Enkidu agrees, for “he longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart.” His confidence has not suffered – Enkidu is sure that he is the mightiest man, and decided to “challenge the old order” and bring justice back to the kingdom.

Meanwhile, in Uruk, Gilgamesh is having prophetic dreams of the coming of Enkidu, who in the dream is declared to be Gilgamesh’s brother. Gilgamesh’s mother is described as “well-beloved and wise,” and she earns her title well. She has seen her son’s need and is glad to know that finally he will be joined by his soulmate. “When you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you.” Leaving aside any discussion of sexuality here, the Queen Mother has elevated the bromance close friendship to rival the importance of a marriage.

Gilgamesh relates another dream, and we return to Enkidu. The woman has clothed him and brought him to a town, apparently. He is taught how to eat and drink as a civilized person; he takes up responsibility as a protector and watchman.

The narrative here is confusing, because it seems to be taking place in the past and present simultaneously. At any rate, Gilgamesh is oppressing his people again. It seems that he’s doing that thing that happened in Braveheart, where the king gets to sleep with the bride before the bridegroom does. Enkidu is outraged and rides to Uruk to challenge this injustice. The peasants rejoice (and lay wagers on the epic battle to come, no doubt).

The epic battle happens, with the two strong men breaking doorposts all over town. Gilgamesh is the victor finally. Enkidu surrenders graciously and somehow this means the two of them are now BFF. I guess it’s a man thing. “So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.”

Come back next time for more epic journeys and adventures!

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