Textbook Leftovers

Fighting Giants and Gods

Posted on: February 4, 2011

Part 2 of Gilgamesh picks up without interlude after the fight and conciliation of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. One assumes that time has passed, because they seem to have developed a deep friendship. Gilgamesh has a dream and Enkidu interprets it. Gilgamesh’s dream enforces the gods’ desires for him to rule Uruk (mandate of heaven), but that he is not destined to acquire everlasting life. The phrasing in this translation seems to imply that maybe some people are given this destiny. Finally, Gilgamesh is encouraged to not abuse his power.

More time seems to pass, and Enkidu has a complaint. All play and no work has made him unhappy and weak. In answer to this, Gilgamesh decides that now is a good time to head to the Country of the Living, also called the Land of Cedars. My assumption is that this is a poetic name for Lebanon, well known in ancient times for their cedar forests.

Gilgamesh waxes eloquent about his ambitions to attack and destroy Humbaba, a gigantic creature who guards the Forest. Enkidu has misgivings (he’s terrified, actually), and Gilgamesh insists. Their frank discussion serves as an example of friendship – two men honestly offering viewpoints and discussing them. Gilgamesh eventually “wins” the discussion (although really it seems like Enkidu gives in).

A lot of preparing takes place – sacrifices to gods, making of weapons, telling big G’s mom… This passage in particular really fills out the ballot on “comparing to Biblical language” for me. Many phrases, especially phrases of description, feel like they exported directly from Exodus. There are a few passages that I started looking for verse numbers.

I’m sure there’s a lot of controversy on the subject of Gilgamesh and the Bible, but I think I can settle it. See, this tale was part of common culture centuries before the Bible was written (before most of the stories ever happened). And Abraham, a major figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was originally from a city named Ur, which is only a short distance from Uruk. My theory is that the tale of Gilgamesh, and more importantly the language that was commonly used to tell it, was known to Abraham when he was only Abram, when he migrated to Palestine. Through him, the poetic descriptive tradition was passed down to his descendants (and maybe some of the tales, as well, as we’ll see later).

Gilgamesh’s mother has somehow become a goddess (or maybe that was just a poetic exaggeration). She is described as “wise with deep knowledge,” and while she must be relatively old, she is very beautiful and treated with much honor. She prays for protection for the two men, and declares Enkidu to be her adopted son (a bit of validation for blended families, perhaps?). The men now set out on their grand adventure.

Enkidu is still afraid (he actually comes off as a coward), but Gilgamesh encourages him: “hold close to me now and you will feel no fear of death.” They reach their destination and have a round of sacrifices and dreams. They taunt Humbaba, and Enkidu once again expresses his fear. For a final time, Gilgamesh encourages his friend: “Today, give me your aid and you shall have mine: what then can go amiss with us two? … If your heart is fearful throw away fear; if there is terror in it throw away terror. Take your axe in your hand and attack. He who leaves the fight unfinished is not at peace.”

This speech, worthy of the Ride of the Rohirrim, finally stirs Enkidu, and he in turn encourages Gilgamesh as Humbaba appears. The fight ensues. Gilgamesh strikes the first blow, Enkidu the second and third, and Humbaba falls. They despoil their enemy while Enlil (one of the gods) rages. Enlil takes the Seven Splendours of Humbaba from the two heroes and gives them to others – a relatively empty victory.

This tablet of the story ends with a ceremonial conclusion – in the flourishing style of a court minstrel, perhaps.

Part 3 opens with the goddess Ishtar proposing marriage to Gilgamesh. He refuses, giving quite a few good reasons. She has apparently been a dangerous woman to love – all her lovers find ruin at her hands.

Ishtar, in a brilliant role as a spoiled little rich girl, runs to her father Anu, and demands that he let her kill Gilgamesh, or else she will lay waste to the world. Anu, apparently knowing his daughter, reluctantly agrees and she takes the Bull of Heaven to Uruk.

To her dismay, Gilgamesh and Enkidu attack and defeat the Bull, but Enkidu suffers some kind of wound. Strife occurs in the heavens over the fate of the two, and it is declared that one of them (Enkidu) will die.

Die he does – slowly. He does not go gentle into the night – he goes kicking and screaming and cursing everyone in sight. He is ill for a very long time, and Gilgamesh is with him all the time. When finally Enkidu succumbs, Gilgamesh mourns bitterly. The song of mourning seems to have lost some poetry in translation, but is still moving:

I weep for Enkidu, my friend,
Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning
I weep for my brother.
O Enkidu, my brother,
You were the axe at my side,
My hand’s strength, the sword in my belt,
The shield before me,
A glorious robe, my fairest ornament.

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