Stephen Cullis and Simone Witney
It’s the distant past, about 4 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. You’re having a drinking session at mate’s house. Someone comes in from having a slash, screaming about a massive bull tearing up the garden. You carry on drinking, getting pretty tanked up – finally you storm outside with your best buddy, you tackle the slavering beast, and tear it to pieces, throwing a thigh way into the sky watching it arc its blood out of the outrageous delight of being at the height of your earthly powers! Just another Saturday afternoon?
No, it’s just one of the amazing feats of prowess of Gilgamesh and his faithful sidekick Enkidu, from the Babylonian epic poem recorded some 2,700 years BCE on clay tablets found in the ancient library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest example of heroic literature known to us, has the first metaphors and is the source for practically all the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean hero and myth cycles that came after it – detectable even in our modern heroes of screen and stage, its influences are wide reaching and manifold. From Homeric heroes, Achilles and Patroclus, right down to Batman and Robin, with the possible exception of the Chuckle Brothers.
But what marks it out as particularly special is its sophistication for such an early text, not only a deeply engaging narrative of adventure into strange and dangerous lands involving battle with magical beings, but also a work that poses enduring questions about the fundamentals of life – the limits of mortality, life after death, the very meaning and purpose of human existence with all its joys and woes.
Gilgamesh starts out as a king behaving badly: sleeping with new wives before their husbands; harassing his subjects. Displaying good psychological instincts, they ask the gods to find a companion for him. Enter Enkidu. the hairy one, leader of wild beasts. The harlot, Shamash, seduces him and after a week with her, he loses his power over the beasts and goes to the city to meet Gilgamesh. They fight, then become best buddies, Gilgamesh having had a dream telling him he will love Enkidu ‘like a wife’.(!) With a little help from the gods, they enter the cedar forest, defeat the monster Humbaba and kills some lions.
Gilgamesh does all the fighting, Enkidu spurs him on. This ruthlessness is Enkidu’s undoing as he falls ill and dies (There’s a wonderful John Cleese style passage in which he berates a wooden door for not protecting him). Gilgamesh is devastated: he’s lost a friend, realises it means he too will die, and so begins a journey to find the secret of eternal life from Uta-napishti, the Distant and survivor of the Deluge. What does he find at the edge of the known world? A pub, with a kindly landlady who helps him cross the Ocean of Death.
Of course the secret eludes him, but he returns a better person, for this story has its source in the succession rituals of kings and in maintaining the natural order of gods and men.
You should be saying by now, ‘Ok you’ve got me, how do I get hold of this amazing piece of literature?’ The latest Penguin by Andrew George preserves all the gaps and different versions. For one where the gaps have been imaginatively filled, there’s an earlier Penguin, by N.K. Sanders.
There’s a translation online here : eprints.soas.ac.uk
Cartoon by Stephen Cullis.