11 November 2011

New interpretation of 'Epic of Gilgamesh' - Among the World's oldest surviving texts

Gilgamesh, a new interpretation

This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

The Sumerian story known today as the Epic of Gilgamesh is among the world's oldest surviving texts, commonly dated to the seventeenth to eighteenth century BC, though the earliest Sumerian poems can be traced to the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC). The Akkadian version, consisting of twelve tablets edited by the scribe Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC, was rediscovered in 1853 in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Sin-liqe-unninni conflated several much more ancient stories to create the Epic of Gilgamesh we know today, and he is also the oldest known 'author' in history, being the first to sign his name to his work.

At heart, Gilgamesh combines two stories, that of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and later, Gilgamesh's odyssey in search of immortality. Here, we will examine the first part of the epic: the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, "two-thirds god and one-third human... terrifying" in his perfection, and his "noble" companion Enkidu, the domesticated savage, his name literally meaning [the god] Enki's creation, formed of "a pinch of clay, let fall into the wilderness."

Such primal word pictures indicate that Gilgamesh is much more than a mere work of fiction; it is clearly a myth: a story that encodes, preserves and transmits truths about the origins and prehistory of humanity in allusive form.

We know today that we are actually a hybrid species: ancient homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals until their extinction some 30,000 years ago. Our Neanderthal genetic inheritance ranges from 1% to 5% of our DNA, with the highest percentages found in modern Europeans. With this in mind, the story of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu takes on an entirely new meaning and is, I believe, in great part a parable recording ancient man's cohabitation with Neanderthals and their subsequent extinction.

Let us first consider Gilgamesh's attributes:
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man...

...none can withstand his arms. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people? His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble.

All this is very clear: Gilgamesh is the "perfect" man, his parentage two-thirds from the gods and the rest from earlier men, with massive strength and lust to match. His fecundity was so boundless and disruptive that the gods needed to quell it by creating "his equal, like him as his own reflection, a second self" as a counterbalance to Gilgamesh's "stormy heart."

That task fell to Araru, goddess of creation, apparently bidden by Enki (above, who also created mankind to serve the gods and saved them from the flood):

She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created... There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself. His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman's; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Samugan's, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land... Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.

Well, this is all quite obvious, really: Enkidu = Neanderthal. But Enkidu, the wild man, was causing civilized men great trouble by interfering with their hunts. A trapper recounts, "there is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills... He fills in the pits which I dig and tears up my traps; he helps the beasts to escape and now they slip through my fingers." So a clever plot is hatched by the trapper's father; Enkidu will be seduced to sleep with a whore, and once tamed, he will "change the old order" and put King Gilgamesh in his place.

[The whore] was not ashamed to take him, she made herself naked and welcomed his eagerness; as he lay on her murmuring love she taught him the woman's art. For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills; but when he was satisfied he went back to the wild beasts. Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.

Interbreeding with ancient humans has civilized the Neanderthals, but also weakened and deracinated them, estranging them from nature. Indeed, the process is cast as a seduction and wisdom a degenerative corruption perpetrated by a whore (the whore of civilization, who will later reappear as the Biblical whore of Babylon, and their "six days and seven nights" of fornication will echo in the creation story of Genesis. Likewise, Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge proffered by Eve also finds a thematic foreshadowing.)

The whore then convinces Enkidu to come to Uruk (above, the city's legendary brick ramparts today), to meet Gilgamesh:
Enkidu was pleased; he longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart. ‘Come, woman, and take me to that holy temple, to the house of Anu and of Ishtar, and to the place where Gilgamesh lords himself over the people. I will challenge him boldly, I will cry out aloud in Uruk, "I am the strongest here, I have come to change the old order, I am he who was born in the hills, I am he who is strongest of all."'

But the whore knows already which man will dominate; Gilgamesh, whose mind is more variable, who is more perfect, stronger and wiser and with greater intuition. And after all, it is Gilgamesh who is king:

"O Enkidu, you who love life, I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of many moods; you shall look at him well in his radiant manhood. His body is perfect in strength and maturity; he never rests by night or day. He is stronger than you, so leave your boasting. Shamash the glorious sun has given favours to Gilgamesh, and Anu of the heavens, and Enlil, and Ea the wise has given him deep understanding. I tell you, even before you have left the wilderness, Gilgamesh will know in his dreams that you are coming."

The Neanderthal extinction

As "servant" of King Gilgamesh, Enkidu weakens living in the city:
The eyes of Enkidu were full of tears and his heart was sick. He sighed bitterly and Gilgamesh met his eye and said, 'My friend, why do you sigh so bitterly? But Enkidu replied, 'I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.'

Gilgamesh, seeking both challenge and renown, decides that together they will kill the evil Humbaba, "a great warrior, a battering-ram... the watchman of the cedar forest who never sleeps." They set off on their quest to the cedar-forested mountain and are ultimately victorious in battle, capturing Humbaba. Gilgamesh, swayed by Humbaba's pleas for mercy, considers sparing him, but Enkidu urges his death, warning of future treachery, and Humbaba curses Enkidu, saying, "May he not live the longer of the two."

They cut off his head; trees were felled, including the Great Cedar whose crown scraped the sky. From its timber a door was made—72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide and one cubit thick—for Enlil's temple in Nippur. Gilgamesh and Enkidu: their names will now be remembered by posterity, and by the gods.

Upon their return, the goddess Ishtar, "queen of Heaven," proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, who rejects it, citing her inconstancy and the horrible ends met by her discarded lovers. Enraged, she demands that her father Anu set the bull of heaven (the constellation Taurus) to wreak havoc upon Uruk, but together Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaughter the bull, and Endiku mocks Ishtar by tossing its severed leg at her. (The thigh of the bull was an important constellation to the ancient Egyptians, appearing countless times in their texts, and is assumed by Egyptologists to refer to the "imperishable stars.")

These killings enrage the gods (the bull Taurus was often depicted accompanying man's creator, Enki) and Anu passes judgment upon Enkidu, who sickens and dies over 12 days, and in his delerium curses Enlil: "what ingratitude for the sake of a door!"

As Enkidu slept alone in his sickness, in bitterness of spirit he poured out his heart to his friend. "It was I who cut down the cedar, I who leveled the forest, I who slew Humbaba, and now see what has become of me."

The bull of heaven episode can be understood as a marker for the actual zodiacal age when the epic was composed, the Age of Taurus, which spanned from circa 4300 BC to circa 2150 BC. However, if we accept that Enkidu = Neanderthals, then it appears that the bull story, which leads to Enkidu's death, is more probably encoding the time of the Neanderthal extinction.

To reach that prior Taurean Age requires the completion of a full cycle of precession of the equinoxes, a "Great Year" or "Great Return" of nearly 26,000 years, placing the Neanderthal extinction some 32,000 years ago—exactly in line with current estimates.

According to those who interpret myth in relation to ancient astronomical knowledge, massive trees such as the Great Cedar often symbolize the earth's polar axis and are markers for information about the Great Year—the earth's long, slow axial "wobble" through the twelve houses of the zodiac.

72 (the height in cubits of the temple door hewn from the Great Cedar) is the pre-eminent number in this numerical encoding, since 72 is the closest whole-number value for the number of years (71.6) required for a precessional shift of one degree along the ecliptic. (In Egyptian mythology, for example, Osiris is killed by 72 lackeys of Set.)

Twelve, recurrent in the text (most notably as the number of days of Enkidu's sickness) along with its double 24 (the width of the temple door), is of course the number of constellations in the zodiac, and the linkage of 72 with 24, not 12, may very well have been employed to indicate the second, earlier Age of Taurus. 30, appearing in the text as 300, the number of citizens of Uruk killed by the bull (100 then 200), is the number of arc-degrees each constellation occupies along the ecliptic. Thus 72 years x 12 constellations x 30 degrees of arc = 25,920 years, or one Great Year.

The prologue that begins this post is apparently quite literally true: Gilgamesh did indeed know secret things and brought us a story from a time before the flood (i.e., the end of the last ice age), preserving our earliest history in stone.

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