Gilgamesh and Civilization

For months now I’ve been intending to publish this essay to coincide with the exhibition of Mesopotamian antiquities at the Royal Ontario Museum. (http://www.rom.on.ca/en/mesopotamia/home) Unfortunately the Lemon Creek jet fuel spill happened this summer so I didn’t get to Ontario to see it. However, I was privileged to to see these treasures in the British Museum in London when Anne and I visited England in 2009. I felt like a kid lost in a candy store. Since I was about 10 years old I’ve had a fascination with Mesopotamian archaeology and I recall writing one of my first school reports on the topic. As an adult writer its mythological themes have proven even more fascinating to me—particularly the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is humanity’s oldest extant hero tale and forms the template for the many that followed. For years now I’ve been struggling to write it in novel form but have so far failed. Meanwhile, if you can make it to Toronto before January 5th, I strongly urge you to visit the exhibition.

These cylinder seals and clay impressions (right) are an example of fabulous Mesopotamian antiquities in the British Museum collection. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

These cylinder seals and clay impressions (right) are an example of fabulous Mesopotamian antiquities in the British Museum collection. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Gilgamesh is the great universal story. And just as the old adage says, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’ This story was written 3,500 years ago yet remains as relevant as ever. And in fact it’s the perfect allegory for where we are now as a civilization.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh we see the whole cycle of a civilization played out—starting with the strength and exuberance of youth and the gradual buildup of infrastructure and culture; the sudden blow to young naïveté when the first hints of mortality are brutally brought home; the frenetic attempt to perpetuate oneself through work and achievement; and finally to the down cycle, the inevitable decline. Since civilizations are human constructs, they follow a similar trajectory as individuals through the various life cycles from birth to death.

Might the prototypical Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh have looked like this? Image: public domain

Might the prototypical Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh have looked like this? Image: public domain

In the first part of the Epic, Gilgamesh as King of the city of Uruk is abusing his powers and the gods seek a match for his strength to restore balance. This is found in the wild man Enkidu, who sleeps and eats with the animals of the field. After an initial confrontation they become not just friends but soul brothers. It’s an apt metaphor for ‘civilizing’ vs. wild nature, the duality inherent in us all. Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to venture into the cedar forest where they must kill the Forest Guardian Humbaba in order to gain access to the trees. Partly their quest is sheer masculine bravado, the urge of young men to prove themselves. And partly it’s the city’s need for raw materials to continue its expansion.

Our civilization—like the many that have gone before it—has already gone through this initial phase of expansion and development through uncontrolled exploitation of resources. Just as with the young Gilgamesh—or any hormone-addled adolescent—we assume the world is there for the taking. But then one morning we wake up and realize the party is over. We begin to be adults and realize that the world is not our oyster and resources are not unlimited. As apart from nature as we may think we are, we are bound by its limitations, including mortality. For Gilgamesh this realization occurs when his soul brother Enkidu dies prematurely. Having tamed this symbol of wild nature—a necessary aspect of creating a ‘civilized’ culture—he has also lost something precious. It’s the great, unsolvable conundrum of civilization. In order to advance technologically and culturally we must bend nature to our aims, yet in so doing we risk our very souls, our intimacy with the planet. Our connection with nature becomes tenuous, open to abuse.

Gilgamesh is said to have wrestled lions – and won. From a detail of a Mesopotamian antiquity, British Museum.

Gilgamesh is said to have wrestled lions – and won. From a detail of a Mesopotamian antiquity, British Museum.

When Gilgamesh finally recovers from his epic grieving for Enkidu, he sets out on a quest to discover the secret of immortality, said to be a plant found on the Isle of the Blessed, where the Sumerian Noah, Ziusudra, has lived since the Great Flood with his wife. (In the later Akkadian texts Ziusudra is known as Utnapishtim.) He claims that his urge to perpetuate himself is a kind of homage to his fallen friend. How often do we hear corporate exploiters of resources make a similar claim—that it’s all for the greater good of society? Clearly the human capacity for rationalization hasn’t changed much in four millennia.

The quest for the Plant of Immortality (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the Biblical Tree of Life) has all the earmarks of a good road movie—mystery, discovery, unexpected allies and enemies, and obstacles to be overcome. Things go wrong for Gilgamesh immediately, as if the gods were punishing him for his hubris. In one version of the tale, he loses a boat and its entire crew soon after setting out. He meets Siduri, a seductive innkeeper, who offers more clues to finding the fabled Isle of the Blessed—and a little sensual relief. Gilgamesh must dodge death-ray spitting guardians, cross a small ocean, endure hunger and thirst in the desert, and persistent angst and self-doubt.

This gorgeous headdress made of gold and gems was likely worn by a Sumerian noblewoman or queen. British Museum, photo by Sean Arthur Joyce

This gorgeous headdress made of gold and gems was likely worn by a Sumerian noblewoman or queen. British Museum, photo by Sean Arthur Joyce

When Gilgamesh finally arrives on the Isle of the Blessed, he meets Utnapishtim and his wife, but before learning the secret of the Plant of Immortality must patiently observe the social customs due an elder of such stature. Gilgamesh drifts off to sleep but when he wakes (or is he dreaming it all?) Utnapishtim tells him that the Plant of Immortality can be found at the bottom of the bay on this very island. Depending on the version—the Epic has come down to us from unearthed clay tablets so it’s literally fragmented—the plant is described as having broad, sharp leaves or with rose-like thorns. Gilgamesh ties rocks to his feet, dives down and grasps the plant, which cuts his hands. Making his way back to the surface, he collapses of exhaustion on the beach. While he is passed out, a snake (yep, the old serpent) comes along and eats the plant. When Gilgamesh awakes, he is distraught—all this life-threatening effort for nothing!

The writer(s) of the much later Genesis account would transform the serpent into the quintessential symbol of evil based on this source material. But in fact, in ancient cultures the snake was a symbol of life, of immortality due to its ability to slough off its skin regularly, thus renewing itself. To this day the medical symbol of the caduceus—two snakes entwined around a pole—commemorates this ancient symbolism. If you believe speculative ‘historians’ like Zecharia Sitchin, it could also be a pictorial symbol of DNA. That is, assuming as Sitchin does that the gods were really extraterrestrials with the science of genetic engineering who spliced their DNA with that of apes to produce modern humans.

This ancient Sumerian lyre may have been strummed while the tale of Gilgamesh was recited as poetry. British Museum, photo Sean Arthur Joyce

This ancient Sumerian lyre dates to 2600 BC and may have been strummed while the tale of Gilgamesh was recited as poetry. British Museum, photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Thus, the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh brings us back where he—and we—started: mortality. Gilgamesh is, after all, only half-god—a kind of Mesopotamian rock star. No matter that he has the strength of 10 men, is physically beautiful, and can probably play a mean lyre. Gilgamesh arrives back where he started in the city of Uruk—as a mortal. True, he has achieved a fame that will lead to a kind of immortality, but he will still die like the rest of us. He has no choice but to accept it. Earlier in his quest, the tavern-keeper Siduri tries to make this point: “Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek. When the gods created mankind, they also created death, and they held back eternal life for themselves alone. But until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, not despair. Savour your food, make each of your days a delight… let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace. That is the best way for a man to live.” (Gilgamesh, A New English Translation by Stephen Mitchell, Free Press, New York, 2004, pp. 168-69)

The hero's helmet? A reproduction of an exquisite gold helmet, circa 2600, grave of Meskalamdug. British Museum, photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The hero’s helmet? A reproduction of an exquisite gold helmet, circa 2600, grave of Meskalamdug. British Museum, photo Sean Arthur Joyce

As an allegory for civilization, the Epic of Gilgamesh is therefore apt. No civilization will last forever, any more than any individual will. The course of wisdom is to learn how to accept the fact, not to resist reality. We can continue to pour the lion’s share of the planet’s resources into a game with a dwindling payback and a wicked backlash, or we can grow up, admit defeat and move on. The three hardest words in the English language to say are, “I was wrong.” Yet every civilization follows the same predictable pattern. Read your Jared Diamond. (Guns, Germs and Steel; Collapse) Sadly it seems that few civilizations so far have taken heed of the impending signs and stepped back from the brink. Just as Gilgamesh obviously ignored Siduri’s wise advice and pushed himself to the limit. Humans are great at assuming that they’re smarter than all previous generations.

Stories like Gilgamesh don’t last for thousands of years for no reason. As Carl Jung observed, they are archetypes—a fundamental part of the architecture of human psychology. And it’s far more than merely the lure of the story rocking us gently to sleep. Myths like Gilgamesh slap us awake with their unexpected endings. Who would have predicted the great hero fails at his quest? So many of today’s hero tales miss this point. The point is not to show how superhuman the hero is, but to show how human he or she is. The point is not to show how the hero’s strength and wit gets him what he wants but how it doesn’t—at least, not always. Allegories are dressed-up reality. They are there to teach us what’s real, not what’s fantasy. The whole point is to show that the hero is capable of learning something from experience and modifying behaviour accordingly.

And that, to me, sounds a lot like wisdom.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
This entry was posted in Civilization, History, mythology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gilgamesh and Civilization

  1. Carol Hand says:

    Sean, this is a powerful story, eloquently written, with crucial relevance in contemporary times.

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