ANOTHER LOOK AT THE "MYTH OF GILGAMESH"
Sep 5, 2007
Pirayeh Yaghmaii - Persian Journal
Originally published on Jul 14, 2005
Far, far beyond,
Where the confines of time are lost,
There is one that keeps telling us:
The mountain was formed
With the first boulder
And mankind was created
With the first agony of existence.
The myth of Gilgamesh, reportedly the most ancient one in record, is said to be around four thousand years old. It is the saga of the evolution of mankind and how he attains the heights of suffering and emptiness.
The feature that makes this myth superior to, or at least distinct from others of its kind, is the more powerful philosophic tempo of the work that captures the soul with varying momentum, as each episode unfolds. Otherwise, the story flows with a simple texture and, in common with any other work of epic, tells the reader of extraordinary and incredible adventures of fantasy and heroism.
Gilgamesh is a man-god creation with two thirds created by God and one third by the human being. It could be claimed consequently, that Gilgamesh is a medium, a bridge way, between God and man. This creature rules the land of Uruk with despotic cruelty, with an iron fist. Knowing nothing other than eating, drinking and indulging in sensual desire and acts of lust and savagery, he handpicks all the pleasant things exclusively for himself. He thus usurps girls and women from their fathers and spouses and brings chaos, doom and sorrow upon the families. His excesses drive the folk in Uruk to the verge of intolerance. So much so that they appear in God's presence and plead with him to create another being that can protect them against Gilgamesh. God concedes to the people's wishes and brings into creation another human form called Enkidu and lands him upon Uruk. At first encounter, Gilgamesh and Enkidu engage in combat. The battle is mighty and fierce, but soon, the two shake hands and are bound in eternal friendship, never to part again. So, it happens that they merge in one another like one soul in two bodies.
With the passage of time, Gilgamesh influenced by Enkidu, that has a temperate passionate soul, discards his cruel stature and decides to embark on a fight, at the side of Enkidu, against a vicious monster named Humbaba who has long been plaguing the land and bringing terror and death upon the residents. On the way back after defeating and killing the monster, Enkidu gets sick through a curse placed upon him by Ishtar, a villain in the minor episodes. As a result of this malady, Enkidu dies, after a few days, at the height of great agony. Following the death of Enkidu, the first experience in pain and agony for Gilgamesh, who has now acquired a human nature, the man-god becomes aware of the reality of mortality. He then turns eyes upon the pain and misery of the wise human being.
Thus, while never unconscious of the pain brought about by the loss of his twin alter ego whom he laments and edifies in momentous sorrowful hymns, Gilgamesh sets out in search of immortality and eternal life. He embarks on numerous quests and reaches a variety of life forms whom he asks about the secret of immortality. He is told that death is the certain end to life and that, instead of his obsession with the prospect of such doom; he may as well seek joy, and happiness in his remaining time while he still lives. Impervious to all advice, Gilgamesh remains determined to press on in his quest. Eventually, guided by inspirations from an old sage, who is possessed of the secrets of immortality, he treks through the dreadful deadly marches across the waters of death and gets his hands, at the bottom of an ocean, on the plant that gives everlasting life. However, he does not consume the plant after he emerges from the abyss but decides to take it to Uruk and to share it with the people of his land.
Unfortunately, a serpent, taking advantage of one moment of distraction on the part of the demigod, grabs at the herb and swallows it instantly. The serpent then sheds skin and becomes young. (Hence the reference, in folk cult, to the snake as the symbol of immortality.)
Exhausted, churning in the anguish of emptiness and replete with the pain in the aftermath of this futile expedition, Gilgamesh makes the trek back to Uruk. The demigod, disillusioned with the search for immortality and eternal suffering of life, has now found the truth. He then goes to the gatekeeper of the realm of death, the Netherworld, and asks for a look at Enkidu so he could ask the latter about the secrets of death, a destiny he has accepted and embraced as the ultimate truth. The gatekeeper shows him a ghost, a shadow of what was once Enkidu who then recounts to Gilgamesh, in an unintelligible language, the mortal nature of the human being and how he is destined to ultimately turn into dust. With this revelation and his own already complete inclination, the hero has now reached the acme of his emptiness and is ready to succumb to his fate. He lies down on the ground in the keep and hastens towards death.
The general consensus, among religious schools, psychologists and scholars of mythology, whose disciplines are, in a way, interconnected, is that the human form that first emerged from the wellsprings of life was hermaphrodite. Plato, in his Symposium, noted that God first created mankind in the form of a sphere where the feminine half was separated from the masculine hemisphere. That is why every individual is wandering in search of his or her missing half and as he or she is finally confronted by a man or a woman, he or she gets to entertain the belief that it is his or her missing half. In Talmud of the Old Testament, it is implied that God created mankind with two faces in a formation where the man and woman were placed at the two ends of a spectrum. God then cut into halves this creation of His. In ancient Iranian myth also, Man and Woman (Mashy and Mashyaneh) formed the root of a certain shrub. As the seed sprouted out of earth and grew tall, the stem branched into two similar ones, each representing one of the genders, Mashy and Mashyaneh. Karl Gustav Jung, too, has hinted expressly, in his works on Psychology, at the hermaphrodite nature of the early human being. Even in prehistoric times, it was predominantly believed that the early human being was bisexual in build, both male and female. In folk cult, the male psyche is called [Anima]; while the female one is referred to as [Animus]. Jung believes that Anima and Animus are among the most important archetypes in the development of the psyche. According to him: In the final analysis, the kind of human being that can attain the height of humanity is the one whose Anima and Animus achieve perfect fusion and total merger.
Jung has called this phenomenon of the union between Anima and Animus the Magic Marriage Although in the myth of Gilgamesh the reader is faced, on the surface, with two separate characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, we can safely assume, in the light of what has been said, that those two are nothing other than one being. They are twins, a duo that complements one another. Gilgamesh represents the male half or the masculine psyche while Enkidu stands for the female half or the feminine psyche. In the story, it has been manifestly hinted at the feminine personality of the female psyche of Enkidu in appearance as well as in acts and deeds and outlook. In the story, we read: Enkidu, like a woman, is endowed with long tresses that, like those of Nisaba, goddess of corn, keep on rippling in the wind. When Enkidu dresses himself for the first time, it is in a woman's attire. (A female whore shares her clothes with Enkidu) Enkidu symbolically appears in Gilgamesh's dream for two nights in succession, before the two meet for the first time. Gilgamesh consults his mother, who knows about the mysteries and secrets of dreams, about this happenstance. The mother, in her interpretations of the two dreams, then promises Gilgamesh of the advent of one who is faithful and whom Gilgamesh will adore like a woman. In the first dream, Gilgamesh has seen that a star has descended upon him and he has felt he is attracted to the star, as he would be to a woman. The mother says, in interpretation, that someone will make his appearance in Gilgamesh�s life that he will adore as much as he would adore a woman. The second time, Gilgamesh dreams of an axe appearing on his lap. He tells his mother that he loved that object just as if he were a woman. The mother answers, [The axe that was so powerfully drawing you to itself represents an ally that will come to you and whom you will love like you would love a woman]. At the time Gilgamesh and Enkidu are setting off to fight Humbaba, Enkidu is afraid. Trying to calm him, Gilgamesh says, I will go first and you are to follow me, because I am your master. [In general, in the Eastern way of thinking, men are always the leaders and women their followers]. In this same episode, Enkidu many times addresses Gilgamesh as his lord. This title is among the terms that women in the East used to enhance their men.
After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh covers him with a piece of lace cloth, the kind of lace that brides are clothed with. The name Enkidu� actually reflects this feature: it comprises three elements, En (meaning god), Ki (meaning earth) and Du (meaning creation of God). In reality, Enkidu symbolizes earth. In the lore of symbols, earth, because of its fertility, patience, fecundity, compassion and modesty, are the symbol of the woman. The sky, because of its thundering, pounding and indomitable power, has come to be regarded as the symbol of the man. Molana Jalal-e-Din-e-Rumi has also made oblique reference to this in one of his poems:
The earth, like a wife,
The sky, like the husband,
Would, in a behavior like that of a cat,
Eat their offspring.
I do not understand such a woman,
I do not understand such a spouse.
I do not understand.
(Verse 1449 from the Divan of Shams)
Gilgamesh is an incomplete being before his encounter with Enkidu. After he has met Enkidu, he finds his missing half. The congruity between these two is so striking that, when the pair appears among the people in the cities of Uruk, even the common folk notice it and are astounded. They murmur among themselves, What a perfect match those two make! Has Gilgamesh ultimately found his mate?� After their furious combat, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu extend a hand of friendship towards one another, they are, in fact, the two halves born together, that have attained absolute unity. In the words of Jung, they are the Anima and the Animus that become one and the same and the magical marriage is thus consummated. After this oneness, Gilgamesh ascends on the path towards human perfection and even achieves the stature that urges him on to go and fight, with aid from Enkidu, an abominable demon that he has known for years but has ignored its existence. This demon is simply his own other wicked inhuman side which he now rises to destroy. In fact, Gilgamesh revolts against himself and refines and cleanses that self of all wickedness and depravity. It is at this time that Enkidu falls sick and Gilgamesh, now back to proper human stature, comes to understand the bitterness of human agony and the implacability of death. Afraid of this knowledge, even hoping to deny it, Gilgamesh goes on a search for everlasting life. He even weeps and mourns, with pain, the death of his other twin part and sings sorrowful songs in his eulogy. From then on, it is a philosophic outlook that dominates and characterizes the life of the hero. He addresses a lot of questions that are plaguing his mind. At this juncture, his interminable wanderings start. He goes on the quest for the herb of immortality that he is seeking not only for himself but also for all his folk. He is intent upon bringing the herb to Uruk to plant and propagate it there in the hope that he might be able to save the elderly from death. Once he reconciles the emptiness of life with the doom of inevitable death, he swings his obsession from the eternity of life to the eternity of goodness. He has now espoused the ideal of spiritual eternity, of leaving a lasting legacy of fine reputation. While everlasting life is not his destiny, Gilgamesh will leave behind him a name that endures. With the evolution to humanity now complete, the tired hero has finally reached total emptiness that is the lot ordained for the humankind. The now mere ordinary man thus surrenders to unavoidable death.
The epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded tragic saga, in spectacular proportions, of the humankind. It depicts the horrendous sorrow of man who is embroiled in a tangle of doubts, cynicism, bewilderment and earthly agony while, at the same time, he is paradoxically obsessed with the desire for lasting life. The human mind is incessantly wandering in the losing strife to achieve eternal goodness. Gilgamesh is the embodiment of total loneliness who, of his own free will, abandons his godly claims and pretenses and condescends to wander towards the ultimate in humanness and to the final destiny, death. In fact, Gilgamesh experiences the reality of emptiness and puts to test the philosophy of despair and hopelessness of mortal life long before Omar Khayyam, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and many other philosophers recognized such a plight allotted to man and theorized on the pain and emptiness of existence. *Like Alexander the Greek, Gilgamesh had a dual personality, the mythical and the historical. The name is attributed to a king whose grave has been discovered in Iraq.
Note: This article was originally written in Persian. The English version now appearing was prepared by "Mr. Ghafour Memarzadeh", who holds MBA from the University of Oklahoma, Norman Oklahoma.
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