I was recently rereading this ancient epic and reconsidering my original interpretation of it. When i first read it, i was 18 years old, i had just read beowulf, i was reading the iliad and the fairie queen, and had earlier that year read hero with a thousand faces, by joseph campbell. Naturally, i read the epic as campbell had, as any starwars enthused teenager would; i read it as a hero’s journey. A man with great gifts confronts a variety of trials and interacts with gods to return with a boon. Nevermind that gilgamesh didnt’ return with a boon, was no hero, and only laterally interacted gods. I was convinced, and didn’t really think about it. but age has a way of whittling away a lot of what we think when we are younger. It pears off our opinions as easily as it does our dreams and ideals. And then, on the toilet, you read a passage in gilgamesh, and you realize you had it all wrong.
For those of you who need a quick synopsis, here goes. Gilgamesh is a king, with a god to king ratio of 2:1 (meaning he’s 2 parts god, one part man). He’s the strongest man in the world, he’s lusty, loud, obnoxious, and above all, talented. He’s skilled. He has made Uruk the city of “the strong walls”. He, infact, had those walls built himself. he participated in it. he held off the enemies and so on so fort, and then, naturally, everyone hates him. Because, having no more wars to fight, he’s a neussance. he drinks a lot, picks fights with people, constantly tries to get laid (and always succeeds one way or another). So the miserable people cry out to An, the god of the sky, “send is some one to kill this guy!” So, An decides to oblige them, and he creates a man called Enkidu, who ends up running wild with the animals in the forest, in the nude. This is terrible, since he doesnt’ seem to have any interest in killing gilgamesh. So they send a prostute to find him, and do what women do. Ruin him. After a few nights of sleeping with him, he finds he knows how to speak, wears clothes, enjoys bread and beer, and the animals no loner accept him as one of his own. It’s obviously the source of the adam / eve story.
Anyhow, Enkidu arrives in Uruk, and he confronts gilgamesh, and gilgamesh basically goes “gtfo” and knocks him down. but during the one sided beating, he realizes that Enkidu came the closest to actually standing up to him, and so, despite his clear failrure, he falls in friend-love with him. they hang out and go on some adventures. When the Urukians need cedar, why, they go and kill a monster on the cedar mountain to get some wood. When the goddess Ishtar wants to marry gilgamesh because he’s so impressive, he and Enkidu enjoy bitchslapping her and calling her a slut. Then when she sends the bull of heaven down to destroy uruk, they take turns tearing of its legs. Then when the gods get mad that they killed the bull of heaven, who was a pretty good bull underneath his gruff exterior, i suppose, they decide someone has to die. They chose Enkidu.
Gilgamesh mourns and is basically all wet with tears and his beard is tugged alot and he puts dirt on his head. This is how they grieve in iraq. Finally, he decides he’s not going to put up with this shit anymore. This shit is over. he climbs into space itself, journeys to a star, i think Sirius, where the abode of te gods is. He goes into some tavern, hitches a boatride to an island in heaven where Utnapishtim lives. Utnapishtim is a man who, when the gods flooded the earth, put all the animals on a boat and saved all the species (no unicorns, no micro-pigs). THe obvious origin of the noah myth. Anyhow, he tells Gilgamesh “you think you wanna live forever eh?” And gilgamesh is all “yes” and utnapishtim is all “well, the gods let me live forever, but i dont’ think you can handle it. You cant’ beat death, my friend.” and gilgamesh is all “i can do anything.’”
So utnapishtim tells him “then dont’ sleep for 7 days. Sleep is a little death, if you can beat that little death, you get my magic secret.” So he falls asleep almost immediately, and in order to prove to him that he slept, since he could wake up and say “i never slept” as sleeping is a void of all consciousness, Utnapishtim’s faithful wife bakes a loaf of bread and puts it next to him. Every day. for 7 days. Gilgamesh wakes up, and theres a lot of shitty bread sitting around him, covered in mould and flies, and he says “Yuck, good thing i never fell asleep” and they go ‘these shitty loaves prove you slept.”
“Boo hoo” cries gilgamesh, and Utnapishtim says ‘aw shit playa, just playin.” he then tells gilgamesh where to get this watercress stuff. So he goes back on the baot and ties a rock to his legs and jumps in the water and gets this magic watercress that lets you live forever. he brings it back to Uruk, almost. He stops when he’s about a day away. He takes off his kicks and sleeps. Naturally, a snake shows up and eats his watercress. And then the snake sheds its skin and, thus, lives forever (?). Gilgamesh sits down, sobbing, looking at his empty watercress shaped void and says “what the fuck. What was the point of all of this? This was the hardest thing i ever did, in my entire life, and i accomplished absolutely nothing.” At which point, the boatman, who had accompanied gilgamesh back to uruk, says “well, i mean. You are still basically the king. And you did build those fine walls in uruk. I mean. In your life, you’ve done some nice things, isn’t that right big guy?”
It ends with gilgemsh sitting outside uruk, weeping, comprehending ultimately that all his dreams are futile, that death robs us of our friends, and that piece by piece, the universe attempts to remove from us any sense of ability, and any talent we might have.
Here’s my interpretation.
Gilgmesh at the beginning: Capable, superhuman, confident, and fun loving.
Gilgamesh at the end: Totally broken, sees all activity as futile,
The process which brings him there is thus: At the beginning, he’s loved when he builds the strong walls and kicks the foreigners’ asses, but as soon as the same qualities people love about him are unleashe don his own population, they beg the cosmos as a whole to topple down on the poor guy’s head. And the cosmos obliges, creating an entirely new life form, JUST to fuck up this one person, whose only real crime is that he’s way better than everyone else. He’s stronger, smarter, lustier, and never goes to sleep.
Then they send this guy, and this guy can’t beat him, but gilgamesh makes his mistake. he befriends him. He starts caring about soe other guy’s take on life. he second guesses himself, increasingly, little by little, and listens now to what this Enkidu guy is thinking. Then they wipe out Enkidu.
Suddenly, Gilgamesh, who let himself be taken in by this man’s rugged charms, tastes of death for the first time. This is the first time he’s lost ANYTHING. And it breaks him in half. The gods did this to him. Not because how he behaved was wrong, but because a snotty 16 year old prom queen type goddess moaned to her daddy to “get that man”. And he obliged her.
So gilgamesh then is essentially ruined, until he conceives of a great enterprise. At this point, despite his sorrow, he still thinks big, plans big, goes big. he decides a quest, and undertakes it. he believes he can accomplish it. So despite his weakning neurology and his increasingly outwardly localized self schema, he’s still able to formulate his own goals and attempt them.
So then he goes through the trouble of journeying into the ocean of space, doing some impossible tasks, which he can’t do because they’re rediculous (do a really big workout, then dont’ sleep for 7 days, standing on one leg). But nonetheless, he gets the goods, and they are stolen from him. And he breaks. That’s it. From that point on, you get the sense that gilgamesh is no fun anymore. he’s just an administrator. he’s a principal of the uruk collegiate environment. He’s just a pencil pusher. Everything that made him capable of greatness has been killed. He doesnt’ dream big, instead, he dreams small. His goals are practical ones. how do i weigh in on this lawsuit, how do i maintain equitable borders with neighbouring cities, etc. He’s basically dead. He’s no a function of the state, not its master.
This is ultimately what the poem is about. little by little, we become shitty. We become boring. We get kicked repeatedly in the face until we crawl around on all fours, being meekly praised for our former glory. Every child starts off an individual, and all, even a king, are punched in the teeth a thousand times until finally they just cry.
I think this poem’s popularity in a state where half the population were lowly Ird, and the rest, the awilams, were just twats, if their law code is any indication of all the rough and tumble activity they got up to. (in the hammurabi code, you basically find out how many people are sleeping with their mothers, neglecting their ditches, and defrauding their customers, and in what astonishing variety these crimes are being carried out) is that you could not rise to any position. You could not leave your class.
In the middle ages, the stories that were most popular, or so we typically think, were legends of charlamagne and king arthur, of courtly love and other nonsense. But in reality, the most popular stories weren’t recorded in print, because they were the stories of the peasants. An entire CLASS of literature went almost unrecorded, because the people telling it could not rise to the class where they had access to scribes. Fortunately, many “fabulous” tales, (or fables) got recorded in france, and influenced up and comer “boccaccio!” in his pornographic epic “the decameron” and ultimately, through him, Chaucer. That means we can catch a glimpse of the kinds of things ordinary people thought and did. And we find the same sort of stuff. The most anyone hoped for was a pretty girl to have sex with them, or a robbery to go well enough that they could get some gems and move to an area with pretty prostitutes.
It’s a bleak vision of life, ultimately, despite the prostitutes, becasue it bespeaks a sedentary classification of humanity, and a total ignorance of individual potential. In the story of gilgamehs, he’s not just a man of great potential, fortunately born into the position of king, he’s the BEST MAN IN THE WORLD, who could do literally anything. he could have united sumeria under one ruler, forged an equitable empire, faced off against a relatively weak egypt, conquored the upper euphrates and pushed into the medterranean, setting the stage for a sumerian naval empire 2000 years before carthage and the pheonicians! But instead, as he’s getting things rolling, EVERYONE begs to heaven to have his testicles cut off, and have him reduced to meaninglessness.
The moral of the story is, if you have any talent at all, you have to remain totally self centered in order to exploit it. The moment you look outside yourself for answers, listen to anyone else in any way, or care about other people, you die.
Now, in the field of politicis, we can see this amply explored. What do people who don’t think want? A strong leader. What is a strong leader? Someone who doesnt’ give in to pressure. or persuasion. or reality. Someone who steadfastly choses a course of action, and then never wavers from it. Especially if it turns out to be wrong. A legend is unaware of being wrong. A legend just goes forward, and the world is drawn into their wake, and is sucked into the engine of their boat, and spit out in chunks.
Essentially, gilgamesh is letting you all know that if you ever want to do great things, you cant’ really have friends and family. You really get basically one shot, and the moment you screw it up, its gone forever. You have to remain ignorant, pushy, and supremely confident. You have to be a douchebag.
To not be a douchebag, is to fail at life.
This is sad to me, but also, i think its true.
Also, that if you stop being a douchebag for a single moment, everyone will fuck you up.
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