does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Hero's Journey - Gilgamesh: The Original Literary Hero

The following selection from The Epic of Gilgamesh was etched onto stone tablets about four thousand years ago:

"Now there is a sound throughout the land
that can only mean one thing.
I hear the voice of grief and I know that you have been taken
somewhere by death.
Weep. Let the roads we walked together flood themselves with tears.
Let the beasts we hunted cry out for this:
the lion and the leopard, the tiger and the panther.
Let their strength be put into their tears.
Let the cloudlike mountain where you killed
the guardian of woodland treasures
place grief upon its sky blue top.
Let the river which soothed our feet overflow its banks
as tears do that swell and rush across my dusty cheeks.
Let the clouds and stars race swiftly with you into death.
Let the rain that makes us dream
tell the story of your life tonight.
Who mourns for you now, Brother?
Everyone who knew you does.
… a cruel fate robbed me
of my dearest friend too soon.
What state of being holds you now? Are you lost forever?
Do you hear my song?"

Written well before Homer’s Odyssey, this epic poem might represent literature's first treatment of a hero. Margaret Atwood has said, “It all started with Gilgamesh.” The poem’s events unfold in what is now Iraq. They recount the tales of demigod King Gilgamesh and his half-wild best friend Enkidu as they undertake dangerous quests and face issues of immortality, love and sensuality, power and greatness, the battle between our mythic and ordinary selves, and the nature of grief.

The poem, first discovered by westerners in 1849, also describes a great flood and an “ark” whose common elements with the Biblical story electrified the western world of the late 1800s. The Epic of Gilgamesh, though, was written about 1500 years before the similar tale told in Genesis. It also predates other Greek et al. recountings of the destruction of humanity through flood. Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, the poem is believed to have been inspired by the real-life King Gilgamesh who ruled circa 2700 BCE.

Because the tablets are fragmented, translators since the late 1800s have struggled to provide meaningful translations. Not only have they had to fill in the gaps of missing sections, but they have also been challenged by differing versions of the epic found in the ongoing series of discoveries.

All of the above would be interesting enough on its own. What brings me to write about The Epic of Gilgamesh here is that I was so struck by the sophistication and beauty of a poem which antedates us by four thousand years, long before Plato, the Enlightenment, and modern psychology. This is a wonderful piece of literature about profound transformation brought about by hardship and loss. King Gilgamesh evolves from a despot into a compassionate leader as a result of his friendship with Enkidu, their challenging adventures, and finally Gilgamesh’s desolation after Enkidu’s death. Rather than continue his search for immortality and dwell on his grief, Gilgamesh was encouraged to do the following:

“What is best for us to do
is now to sing and dance.
Relish warm food and cool drinks.
Cherish children to whom your love gives life.
Bathe easily in sweet, refreshing waters.
Play joyfully with your chosen wife.

“It is the will of the gods for you to smile
on simple pleasure in the leisure time of your short days.”

That still sounds like great advice. If you find an opportunity to read this seminal work, I think you might find it both startling and rewarding.

The above selections from The Epic of Gilgamesh are from the Danny P. Jackson translation.

Other posts in the A Hero's Journey series:


Sheila Deeth said...

I've read segments of this before and I really love it. Always a delight to be reminded of it.

Judith Mercado said...

Sheila,I'm glad it was a delight. It was a great surprise for me who had never read it before.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love the Epic of Gilgamesh! My students read it as freshmen and most of them end up really liking it (especially the boys). Of course, they have to read the version without the temple prostitutes. ;)

Judith Mercado said...

Stephanie, high school freshman English never included the likes of Gilgamesh, probably because it would have required heavy censorship. Too bad, I would have enjoyed it. After all, I did enjoy the Song of Solomon and that was available at church! :)

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for this post because I'd read a little bit about Gilgamesh many years ago and I'd alomost forgot about it.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.

Mohamed Mughal said...

As old as it is, the imagery in Epic of Gilgamesh still resonates today. I remember a passage where the chief G-d decides to destroy the world in a flood and he's angry, so angry, in fact, that the other g-ds "cower like dogs." Being a dog lover, I had to chuckle. Whoever wrote that had to have a pet dog to know the image well enough to include it in his or her literature.