Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Oldest Story in the World and the Very First Hero With A Thousand Faces

The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Oldest Story in the World and the Very First Hero With A Thousand Faces

I blame Harlan Ellison. I first learned of the epic of Gilgamesh—the oldest story in human history, and one of the most significant—when I watched a rerun of Harlan’s classic Outer Limits episode, Demon With A Glass Hand starring the talented Robert Culp as Trent around 1965, at the age of ten. At the beginning of the show, the series narrator, Vic Perrin (known as the Control Voice), intoned: “Through all the legends of ancient peoples—Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic—runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the one who has never tasted death…the hero who strides through the centuries…”

Naturally, I was fascinated by this figure of the immortal hero striding through the centuries—what imaginative ten-year-old wouldn't be?—and I had to learn more. Thus began my lifelong fascination with Gilgamesh, the first hero in recorded history. My fascination with the figure of the hero and with hero worship as it has changed through the ages has remained with me my entire life.

(Demon With A Glass Hand, by the way, is well worth watching—it’s one of the finest SF stories ever produced on television, and readily available on videotape and DVD—and it was also one of the direct inspirations for the Terminator movies. Harlan sued James Cameron for plagiarism and won—the settlement was astronomical—and now at the end of The Terminator, during the end crawl of the credits, you can read the caveat, “Acknowledgement is made to the works of Harlan Ellison…” To cobble together The Terminator, Cameron also liberally pillaged Harlan’s other classic Outer Limits teleplay, Soldier, starring Michael Ansara as Quarlo, the tragic soldier from the future.)

Thanks to Harlan’s artistry and willingness to send kids like me to the encyclopedia (today unthinkable in TV writers), I was into Gilgamesh before being into Gilgamesh was cool, as the kids like to say today.

Today his name is well-known, but back then he was an obscure mythological figure, like Race Williams or Demosthenes. Now Gilgamesh is the basis of a graphic novel, several novels, numerous translations (including a definitive one, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts by A.R. George, published by Oxford University Press in 2003), and even a trendy, overpriced nightclub and restaurant in London with a Cecil B. DeMille Babylonian theme!

As a teenager, I haunted the libraries of my hometown, Wilmington, Delaware, doing research on Gilgamesh and devouring every translation I could find. As a high-school senior in 1972, I was thrilled when I came across Herbert Mason’s brilliant, highly accessible 1970 free verse translation in paperback—but imagine my astonishment when I entered Princeton in 1973 and learned that Professor John H. Marks, who was teaching my Ancient Near East class in my first semester, was the very same John H. Marks who wrote the foreword to the Mentor paperback edition of Mason’s translation!

I thought he was cooler than George Peppard (a major hero of mine at the time—see PJ, House of Cards, and The Groundstar Conspiracy, all forgotten suspense classics now.)

P.J. (1967): George Peppard as the ultra-cool private eye P.J., with the delectable Gayle Hunnicut

House of Cards (1968) : George Peppard battling the feared and powerful O.A.S., the terrorist French Secret Army, which murdered over 1.5 million innocent Arabs and Frenchmen in French Algeria when France refused to leave its imperalist colony in the early Sixties

Professor Marks became a friend of mine and mentor my freshman year, and he always welcomed me to his office when I dropped by unexpectedly. He was one of the nation’s leading authorities on the ancient Near East—the foundation of human civilization, after all—and he was incredibly generous in sharing his time, knowledge, ideas, and insights with me about the dawn of human civilization and consciousness. He was a fascinating man—he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he was also half-Jewish and he detested Christian fundamentalists for their naiveté, narrowness, and simple-mindedness.

I originally wrote an earlier version of the article below in January 1974 as an anthropology paper for a class in folklore given by the terrific Professor Peter Seitel, then a very young academic, who now works at the Smithsonian and is highly esteemed for his folkloric search. Prof. Seitel illuminated for me a lot of the foundations of folklore and mythology—two topics that have fascinated me from a very early age, as they have for most imaginative, creative people.

Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking study The Hero With A Thousand Faces had recently created a sensation among young people in the early Seventies. It was also a sourcebook that all of us young storytellers devoured, as George Lucas can attest—he drew heavily on it in constructing the plot of Star Wars (and later repaid his debt to Campbell by producing the PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth while the great scholar was dying of throat cancer).

Under Prof. Seitel's direction, we dissected James Bond as an archetypal hero, and Prof. Seitel imparted a very important insight—don’t get fooled by the oversimplications of Jungian narrative analysis. It’s easy to spot parallels between heroes—but remember, every culture (and era) is different. These differences are crucial, and the exact meaning and importance of each hero is determined by these cultural and historical differences, not their surface similarities. Is Sherlock Holmes the same as James Bond? Is Philip Marlowe the same as James Bond? Is the Lone Ranger the same as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry? In the immortal words of Keith Richards, I think not.

In this fairy tale, From Russia With Love, Red Grant (Robert Shaw) is the evil giant, while Rosa Klebb (Lotte Leyna) is the wicked (lesbian) witch

There's never a bad Englishman in a James Bond story: Red Grant (Robert Shaw) is an ex-Sinn Fein (IRA) killer, an avowed enemy of the British Empire

In one of the greatest fights in screen history, the Good Knight (James Bond) defeats the Dark Knight (Red Grant)

Trapping the witch

Freudians, take note: a classic Ian Fleming attempted castrationall Bond stories are classic Freudian adventures, where the youthful hero battles a tyrannical father figure and tries to take an attractive young woman (a mother figure) away from him

Magic at work: in Goldfinger (1964), a 20th century knight (Bond) uses a form of modern wizardry known as electricity to defeat the terrifying ogre (Oddjob)

Let’s take an example. Facile parallels are often drawn between the Hebrew hero Samson in the Old Testament Book of Judges and the wildman character Enkidu in the epic of Gilgamesh. Some say that Enkidu is obviously the inspiration of Samson. (Theodore Gaster’s monumental study Myths and Legends of the Old Testament is an engrossing exploration of how Biblical stories may have been influenced by other cultures and how they’re echoed in other cultures. Incidentally, Gaster is an astonishing scholar—he writes beautifully and lucidly, and what he has to say!—and his New Golden Bough has to be read to be believed; his updated compression of Sir James George Fraser’s classic is the Bible of folklore. His study The Dead Sea Scrolls is also a must-read for Biblical scholarship.)

Sure, Enkidu and Samson have surface similarities. They’re both strongmen who live in the wild (Enkidu runs with the beasts of field, Samson slays lions).

Both are betrayed by women—Enkidu is seduced by a harlot who shaves his body, thereby civilizing him, Samson is seduced by a harlot who cuts his hair, thereby robbing him of his legendary strength. But Delilah’s seduction of Samson is a symbol of Hebrew anxiety that Jewish true believers would be seduced away from Jehovah, culturally and religiously, by pagan culture. Enkidu’s shaving has no such political significance. And where the Sumerian gods strike down Enkidu to punish him and Gilgamesh for slaying the ogre Humbaba (who is favored by the gods the same way the Greek gods favored the Cyclops in The Odyssey), Samson’s death is very different—he dies because he is captured by the Philistines, blinded horrifically, and brings down the house by shoving the pillars of the temple, thereby destroying his enemies and tormentors along with himself (in one of the most emotionally satisfying scenes in all of human storytelling).

These differences are major. Where Enkidu’s death is punishment for hubris, Samson goes out in a blaze of glory as a champion of the Lord. Samson is a heroic avenger for a monotheistic religion (the Book of Judges is full of these violent, righteous Hebrew avengers—see the stories of Eglon and Ehud, and Jael and Sistera, they’re like Mickey Spillane in sandals), and Samson’s dramatic act of self-sacrifice (he’s a kamikaze suicide bomber, let’s face it) is a lesson to the Hebrews that yes, if you stray from the Sinai storm-god Yahweh, you’re going to be ruined—the pagan harlot Delilah will rob you of your strength and the Philistines will gouge your eyes out—but in the end, the Lord will infuse you with superhuman (spiritual) strength that will enable you to overcome and destroy your enemies. (Samson’s captivity may well have been a reference to Hebrew enslavement by the Philistines, similar to the Babylonian Captivity.) That’s a hell of a difference between the two stories.

Speaking of Enkidu, noted biologist and cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson had a fascinating theory, expressed in his book Things (Paperback Library, 1968). In his chapter on the figure of the hairy European “wildman,” the Wudewasa, he speculates that maybe Enkidu was a Neanderthal—one of the prehistoric apemen who were the contemporaries of our Cro-Magnon ancestors and who maybe (just maybe) still survive today in the obscure places of the world, known variously as the Yeti (Himalayas), Sasquatch/Bigfoot (North America), Yeren (China), Alma (the Urals), and Orang Pendek (Indonesia). He describes Enkidu as a “Wildman” like Esau, Jabob’s hairy twin brother in Genesis who had an alarming habit of playing with the beasts of the field, who accepted him as one of their own, instead of fleeing a human intruder. Many have speculated that possibly Esau was a Neanderthal survival (“there were giants in those days”). But Jacob and Esau are brothers. Are Jacob and Esau Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, respectively (the two species living side-by-side originally and interbreeding), or are they Conradian alter egos, the type we see in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park? Sometimes folklore isn’t so easy to categorize—once you look at some of things these stories are saying.

Another aspect of Enkidu’s story is certainly open to interpretation. In his dying words to Gilgamesh, he blames his death on the fact had sex with the harlot. Is this implying that he died of venereal disease (similar to syphilis or AIDS)? Or did he die because the sexual act granted him consciousness and sexual knowledge? It’s been speculated that the true meaning of the story of Adam’s Fall in the Garden by partaking of the Tree of Knowledge is a parable of the fact that Neanderthal man lost his innocence at the moment that he evolved into a Cro-Magnon—he was no longer a dumb animal, but now a homo sapiens (thinking man) who was aware of himself, could speak, and understand right and wrong, and once he became self-aware, he was expelled from the Garden (the rainforest, or the African savannah of Louis Leakey). The Serpent is a symbol of sciencia, consciousness. Is the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh implying Enkidu’s sexual experience was his partaking of the Tree of Knowledge? (Animals rut; humans make love. There’s consciousness involved.) Or if we say that Enkidu was really a Neanderthal, a wildman, does he die as a punishment from the gods because he overstepped his biological boundaries and engaged in interspecies sex? Folklore isn’t always so cut-and-dried, and it’s full of ambiguities.

Recently there’s been a school of thought that argues that Gilgamesh and Enkidu enjoyed a homosexual relationship. I think this is a total fabrication.

The story is very explicit about sex—it’s made clear that Enkidu has sex with the harlot, and that Gilgamesh is traducing every pretty girl in Uruk that he can lay his hands on, preferably on their wedding nights, so why wouldn’t the story be equally explicit about sodomy between Gilgamesh and Enkidu?

(The Mesopotamians, unlike us Judeo-Christians, weren’t prudes.) It reminds me of all the schoolboy giggling about Batman and Robin.

I’ve always thought that Fredric Wertham’s hysterical assertion in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin portray an idealized homosexual relationship—they live together in a beautiful house, they have an elderly British butler, and my God, there are a lot of fresh flowers and beautiful artwork around in stately Wayne mansion!—is patently ridiculous.

Everyone knows that the comic book hero whose sexual problems we have to worry about is Superman. With his uncontrollable super-strength, who can he have sex with, without killing them involuntarily? If Lois Lane ever performs oral sex on him, he’ll clearly blow the back of her head out when he achieves orgasm—don’t tell me he has that much self-control, no guy does (“faster than a speeding bullet!”).

If he can only have sex with another Kryptonian, does that leave only Supergirl (his cousin!) and Krypto, the Superdog, as viable partners? Is the entire story of Superman therefore transparently an implicit encouragement of blatant incest and bestiality? I think this calls for a Congressional investigation. Shame about Mark Foley, by the way.

However, we can see parallels between Gilgamesh and Oedipus—both are culture heroes who embody the values of their individual cultures. Both are kings (and tyrants) who embark on journeys of self-knowledge. But where Gilgamesh finds knowledge, enlightenment, and spiritual resolution at the end of his quest, Oedipus’ quest ends in horrific self-knowledge, symbolic self-castration (when he gouges out his eyes), and a substantial career for Sigmund Freud. The tragedy of Oedipus Rex embodies the exquisite new self-consciousness and self-awareness of Hellenic civilization, Greek man’s understanding that we are a party to our own self-destruction. Where Gilgamesh seeks eternal life, Sophocles is telling us, through the tragedy of Oedipus, that we’re killing ourselves.

* * * * *

Mass murder in Mesopotamia (a.k.a. Iraq, 600,000 and growing), thanks to our own Oedipus Tyrannus, President George W. Bush


"The epic of Gilgamesh is, beyond doubt, the greatest literary masterpiece that has come down to us from the ancient Near East," (1) Theodor Gaster wrote. Originally composed in the third millennium, it is also the world's oldest work of literature. As John H. Marks noted, "Albert Scott remarked in the preface to his German translation of Gilgamesh that wanting to plumb its meaning is like seeking to understand the world. We do not know what ancient tellers of this poignant tale intended." (2) Of the versions of the epic that have been discovered, the Sumerian is the original, followed by the Akkadian, the Babylonian, the Assyrian, and the Hittite, and to some degree all conflict and are mutilated and incomplete. In producing Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamians were the first to ask the question that has always plagued humankind: what is the meaning of life and death? This epic contains their answers.

It begins with an account of the invasion of the city of Uruk. (3) In the next tablet, Gilgamesh appears, ruling the city as king. Since his name, meaning "seven-fold hero" or "hero par excellence," (4) is Cassite and foreign to Uruk (5), he must represent the foreign Cassite invader. Because his mother is the goddess Ninsun, he is two-thirds a god. Historically, in the Sumerian king lists, a king named Gilgamesh ruled Uruk in the First Dynasty in the third millennium. (6)

The story of Gilgamesh is an account of the humanization of an arrogant man, of how a cruel king learns to be a human being. Once king of Uruk, Gilgamesh quickly establishes himself as a tyrant, an abuser of power. When he conscripts the young men of the city to build fortifications to protect Uruk and forces the young women of the city to join him in the royal bedchamber by imposing the droit de seigneur, the people of Uruk appeal to the gods to end his oppression. Believing his tyranny stems from loneliness, the gods create a being named Enkidu, half-man, half-animal, to be his friend. A hunter spots Enkidu running wild in the steppes with the beasts of the field and reports him to Gilgamesh, saying the wild man has been destroying his traps. Gilgamesh sends a temple harlot from Uruk to seduce Enkidu in the open fields.

After she does, the animals will no longer run with him, sensing he has now changed, and the harlot takes him to a farmhouse, where she shaves and clothes him. Now he has become like a man. The story of a primitive man created from clay and seduced and civilized by a woman resembles the Hebrew story of Adam and Eve. (7) However, "...whereas in the Babylonian tale the woman is the medium leading man to the higher life, in the Biblical story, the woman is the tempter who brings misfortune to man." (8) Hence the parallels to Samson, who is destroyed by the harlot Delilah.

After the harlot brings Enkidu to Uruk, Enkidu meets Gilgamesh, who is about to enjoy his droit de seigneur with another man's bride. Outraged, Enkidu fights him. After each tests the other's mettle in combat and is surprised to discover an equal, the two heroes stop fighting and shake hands. Becoming fast friends, they grow to love one another like brothers. But restless Gilgamesh, not content with ruling as king, wants to accomplish a glorious feat that future generation will remember him for as a hero. He wants to be immortal—as a figure in an historical legend, as a character in a story (which, in terms of metafiction, he is already). When he asks Enkidu to help him slay Humbaba, an ogre who guards a sacred cedar grove, Enkidu, familiar with Humbaba, warns that the mighty giant can kill them easily.

Why are you worried about death?
Only the gods are immortal anyway,
Sighed Gilgamesh.

It is significant that Gilgamesh goes to the cedar forest to slay Humbaba. "The name of the enemy is Elamitic.... If Gilgamesh, as seems certain, is a Cassite, the conflict between him and Khumbaba would represent a rivalry between Cassite and Elamite hordes for the possession of Uruk and of the surrounding district. While the Cassites do not come to the front till the eighteenth century [B.C.], there is every reason to believe that they were settled in the Euphrates Valley long before that period." (10) "So Gilgamesh's expedition, stripped of its legendary trimmings, simply commemorates the first expeditions of the inhabitants of Babylonia, who, lacking wood and stone in their own land, ascended the Euphrates valley in search of those materials which they finally found on the wooded slopes of the Amanus." (11) Like Jehovah, Humbaba himself is a storm god. "His voice was a tempest, his mouth was the mouth of the gods, his breath was a wind." (12)

Yet as a giant ogre, Humbaba is the first in a long line of fearsome, outsized antagonists in heroic literature, stretching from the Cyclops in The Odyssey, to Grendel in Beowulf, to the Giant in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, to Oddjob in Goldfinger—even the towering Voltaire, the agent of Michael Dunn’s dwarf Dr. Miguelito Loveless, memorably played by Richard Kiel in The Wild Wild West in 1964-65.

Out of friendship, Enkidu accompanies Gilgamesh to the grove, but when Enkidu pushes the gate open, paralysis strikes his hand. With Enkidu's help, Gilgamesh slays Humbaba. But as they prepare to return to Uruk, Ishtar the love goddess, admiring Gilgamesh's might and handsome looks, offers herself to him. He spurns her, pointing out how she has wronged all her previous lovers, who were brave soldiers and great heroes (which may have been the Mesopotamian way of pointing out how love ruins fighting men).

In revenge she asks her father, Anu, king of the gods, to send the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu. He does, and after the Bull of Heaven, a symbol for the storm (13), charges out of the sky and kills 200 men with two snorts, the two heroes dispatch it duly. When Enkidu rips off the Bull's thigh (or phallus, depending on the translation), and hurls it into Ishtar's face, she demands that the gods kill the two for defiance. Not only did they deliberately slay Humbaba, the divine guardian of the grove, they slew the Bull of Heaven and obscenely insulted a goddess. The gods decide it will be Enkidu who dies, since Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine.

Enkidu dies a long, lingering death (which Herbert Mason identifies as possible cancer). In his last words, he curses the harlot who seduced and civilized him.

Because of her. She made me see
Things as a man, and a man sees death in things.
That is what it is to be a man
. (14)

Shamash the sun god reproaches him.

Why, O Enkidu, cursest thou the harlot-lass,
Who made thee eat food fit for divinity,
And gave thee to drink wine fit for royalty,
And clothed thee with noble garments,
And made thee have fair Gilgamesh for a comrade?

When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is stricken with rage, grief—and fear. Even he, a king and two-thirds god, has a third that can die. To forestall death, he strikes out in search for the secret of immortality.

Rejecting civilization because he believes it caused Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh sets out into the wilderness in a rite of passage—a heroic quest in search of the secret of immortality. (16) Just as Homeric scholars have been able to trace the journal of Odysseus in The Odyssey using internal clues, Sumerologists have been able to trace Gilgamesh's journey. They have placed his encounter with the scorpion men at Mount Mashu (perhaps a symbol of a Cassite expedition into that region) and identified the sea he had to cross as the Arabian Sea. (17)

In the course of his journey, Gilgamesh stops at the inn of Siduri the alewife, who asks him:

Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?
The life thou pursuest thou shall not find.
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they set aside,
Life in their own hands retaining.
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly.
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance thou and play.
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,
Let thy spouse rejoice in thy bosom!
For this is the task of mankind!

But Gilgamesh rejects this vision of hedonism, hygiene, and happy domesticity and pushes on in search of his dream. At last he finds the only living immortals, Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, and his wife. When the god Enlil planned to drown the city of Shurrippak for disobedience, just as God wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah (19) and drowned the world in the Flood, the god Enki warned Utnapishtim and his wife, who built a great ship, thereby escaping the Deluge when the rains got out of control and inundated the world. After the waters subsided, Enki awarded Utnapishtim and his wife immortality for their righteousness. Besides symbolizing the overflow of the Euphrates, the Mesopotamian Deluge story demonstrates that Enki is a good god who aids mankind, while Enlil is a bad one who strives to destroy it. The two cults were rivals. (20)

Out of pity, Utnapishtim informs Gilgamesh he can discover the plant of rejuvenation growing on the river bed. Thanking him, Gilgamesh hurries off, and at the riverbank, he dives to the bottom, where he locates and plucks the herb. Back on the bank, he sets the magic plant down a moment while he rests, when along slithers a snake that swallows it, causing the serpent to shed its skin as it crawls away. As in the story of the Garden of Eden, a serpent bests the hero.

Heartbroken, his quest a failure, all his rigors for nothing and doomed to die, Gilgamesh trudges back to Uruk. But standing before its gates, he notices the walls, the walls his people slaved to build, and

He looked at the walls,
Awed at the heights
His people had achieved
And for a moment—just a moment—
All that lay behind him
Passed from view.

"Beginning and ending with a view of 'ramparted Uruk’ the story seems to emphasize a man's work as his glory and only hope for immortality. That hope may not have satisfied Gilgamesh, but with it he is forced to be content." (22)

Three strong themes run through the epic: the joy of friendship, culture versus nature, and life versus death. The epic suggests that Gilgamesh became a tyrant because of loneliness, which is cured by the friendship of Enkidu. Without a doubt the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is one of the great male friendships of the literature of the ancient world, reminding one of Achilles and Patroclus, and David and Jonathan.

Achilles and Patroclus: Spartan love

Enkidu risks his life helping Gilgamesh slay Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Ultimately he loses his life because of aiding his friend. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes temporarily mad with grief. With his final breath, Enkidu delivers a bitter pronouncement about the painful loss of a loved one. (Herbert Mason’s translation possesses incredible power.)

You'll know
When you have lost the strength to see
The way you once did. You'll be alone and wander
Looking for that life that's gone or some
Eternal life you have to find.
He drew closer to his friend's face.
My pain that is my eyes and ears
No longer see and hear the same
As yours do. Your eyes have changed.
You are crying. You never cried before.
It's not like you.
Why am I to die?
You to wander on alone?
Is that the way it is with friends?

Although, while dying, Enkidu curses civilization, he realizes it has still brought him benefits. Gilgamesh rejects civilization as the cause of his friend's death and undergoes a rite of passage—in the form of a heroic quest—to renounce it. But in the end, Gilgamesh accepts civilization as an accomplishment to be proud of and his only vehicle for immortality. (24)

Like all people, Gilgamesh wants to live forever. “Death is an evil—it is harsh as any punishment, is, indeed, the supreme punishment,” Thorkild Jacobson observed. “Why must a man suffer death if he has committed no wrong? In the old, arbitrary world this question had no sting, for both good and evil were arbitrary matters. In the new world of justice it became terribly urgent." (25) This exemplifies the psychological and spiritual contrast between Neolithic culture (which Sumeria had just emerged from) and the emerging urban culture of Mesopotamia.

Gilgamesh seeks fame and immortality by slaying Humbaba and thumbing his nose at the gods. (However, he is no victim of hubris. Although he defies the gods, it is Enkidu the gods strike down; instead, misfortune and random chance are his undoing.) But by killing Humbaba, Enkidu dies, and then Gilgamesh seeks literal immortality. However, in the end, blind fate snatches triumph and eternal life from his grasp. Yet all is not lost. He has his accomplishments, the accomplishments of his people, and perhaps now he will heed Siduri's advice.

G.S. Kirk commented: "The myth exemplifies, through a single legendary figure, the various attitudes to death that humans tend to adopt: theoretical acceptance (26), utterly destroyed by one's first close acquaintance with it in someone loved; revulsion from the obscenity of physical corruption (27); the desire to surmount death in one's own private case, either by means of a lasting reputation or by the desperate fantasy that oneself could be immortal. Finally a kind of resignation—but before that, perhaps, an attempt to delay death by emulating youth. (28)"" (29)

Through the epic of Gilgamesh, Mesopotamian culture expressed its ideas concerning life. To produce it, Mesopotamia drew on its history and its cultural background. In the depiction of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, we can see that these were warm people aware of humanist values and that they were asking questions such as, Is civilization worth it? and, What is the meaning of life and death? By studying the epic, we can come to know them; and ironically, as a result, Gilgamesh will live forever.

* * * * *

The Hero With A Thousand Faces from the Sixties

Napoleon Solo, the Indestructible Hero: the immortal hero who strides through the centuries (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., NBC-TV, 1964)

As Our Man Flint (1965), hipster James Coburn gives the U.S. military-industrial complex a piece of his mind at the outset of the Vietnam War


  1. Theodor H. Gaster, The Oldest Stories in the World (New York, 1952), p. 42.

  1. John H. Marks, "Afterword." Gilgamesh, translated by Herbert Mason (New York. 1972), p. 125.

  1. L.W. King, Babylonian Religion and Mythology (New York, 1899), p. 149.

  1. Morris Jastrow and Albert T. Clay, An Old Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh (New Haven, 1920), p. 27.

  1. Morris Jastrow, The Religion of the Babylonians and Assyrians (Boston, 1898), p. 480.

  1. Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, 1959). p. 66.

  1. Jastrow, p. 476.

  1. Jastrow and Clay, p. 44.

  1. Mason, Gilgamesh, p. 29.

  1. Jastrow, p. 480.

  1. Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, p. 68.

  1. Ibid., p. 68-69.

  1. Jastrow, p. 486. Gaster, p. 47.

  1. Mason, p. 92.

  1. E.A. Speiser, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," The Ancient Near East, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton, N.J., 1958). P. 57.

  1. G.S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1970), p. 149.

  1. Jastrow. p. 489-490.

  1. Speiser, p. 64.

  1. Jastrow, p. 498.

  1. Ibid., p. 494.

  1. Mason, p. 92.

  1. Marks, p. 122.

  1. Mason, pp. 49-50.

  1. Kirk, pp. 145-151.

  1. Thorkild Jacobson, "Mesopotamia," Before Philosophy, ed. Henri and Mrs. H.A. Frankfort (Baltimore, 1946), p. 223.

  1. See the quotation on p. 2 that endnote 10 refers to.

  1. Gilgamesh stops mourning over Enkidu's corpse when a maggot drops out of his friend's nose.

  1. A reference to the plant of rejuvenation.

  1. Kirk, pp. 144-145.


Gaster, Theodor H. The Oldest Stories in the World. New York: the Viking Press, 1952.

Jacobson, Thorkild. "Mesopotamia," Before Philosophy, ed. Henri and Hrs. H.A. Frankfort. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1946.

Jastrow, Morris, Jr., and Albert T. Clay. An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920.

Jastrow, Morris, Jr. The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria. Boston: the Athenaeum Press, 1898.

King, L.W. Babylonian Religion and Mythology. New York: Henry Frowde, 1899.

Kirk. G.S. Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Relation to Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.

Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1959.

Marks, John H. "Afterword. Gilgamesh. Translated by Herbert Mason. New York: Mentor Books, 1972. (Prof. Marks’ afterword was added to the Mentor paperback edition; the original hardcover edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1970.)

Mason. Herbert. Gilgamesh. New York: Mentor Books, 1970.

Speiser, E.A. "The Epic of Gilgamesh." The Ancient Near East, ed. James B. Pritchard. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.


Andy said...

Found your site randomly and by accident, but this was the coolest thing I have read in some time. I am South Korean in Seoul, so it reached around world!


Brian said...

What is your source for the page from the graphic novel? I have been searching for a version that actually relates to the ancient text(s).

R. T. said...


Still Struggling with Ceaseless Chaos said...

Wolcott - I think my first comment went 'poof', so a brief repeat:
What a great page to have found! And not only Gilgamesh, but appreciation for The Demon w a Glass Hand (TV etched for whatever reason directly onto my mind). I'll be following your blog and sending it on to my son who also shares some of your interests, I think.

Deva C. said...


I was struggling with Gilgamesh as an assigned work in an Near Eastern history course. Your passion for the epic has helped me fall in love with it as well. Thank you.

Bogo said...

I was assigned the Epic of Gilgamesh as reading for a biblical history class. I was frustrated trying to read the various translations. Thank you for putting it into everyday language. May the Lord bless you richly and overwhelm you with grace.