In Sumer, by 2600 BC, Gilgamesh has become a legend
BARELY A HUNDRED YEARS after his death—at the same time that the kings of Egypt were struggling to establish their own divine authority—the Sumerian king Gilgamesh had become a legendary hero. He had killed the Giant Hugeness, done away with the Bull of Heaven, turned down the romantic advances of the goddess Inanna, and made his way into the garden of the gods, where the smell of his mortality startled the sun-god himself. Because of the Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest epic tale we know of), the personality of the historical Gilgamesh still echoes down to us, five thousand years after his death.
The relationship between the literary and the historical Gilgamesh is not unlike that between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Maormor Macbeda who paid with his life in 1056 for murdering his king and kinsman. The real life provides a kind of springboard for an enormous, larger-than-life tale; the core of the man himself survives, magnified, distorted, but essentially true.
It’s considerably simpler to isolate the historical echoes in Macbeth. For one thing, the details of Maormor Macbeda’s actual life are described by other sources. Outside of the Epic, though, Gilgamesh’s life is chronicled only by a couple of inscriptions, the Sumerian king list, and a poem or two. The story of Agga’s fruitless peace-mission to Gilgamesh, quoted in the last chapter, is one such poem; it is written in Sumerian, and was likely told orally for some decades (or centuries) before being written down on clay tablets. The copies we have come from sometime around 2100 BC, when the king of Ur assigned a scribe to write out the tales of Gilgamesh. This king, a gentleman named Shulgi, wanted to keep a record of the great king’s life because he claimed Gilgamesh as his ancestor (which, in all likelihood, means that Shulgi was a usurper with no relationship to Gilgamesh at all).1 These poems date to within striking distance of Gilgamesh’s lifetime, so we can (carefully) theorize that they do indeed convey some of the facts about the historical king’s actions.
The Epic does as well, but sorting them out is a much more complicated matter.
Glance through a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh in your local bookstore, and you’ll see that the Epic is made up of six linked tales, like related short stories that together make up a novel. First comes “The Tale of Enkidu,” in which Gilgamesh makes a friend of the monster sent by the gods to tame him; second, “The Journey to the Cedar Forest,” in which he defeats Humbaba; third, “The Bull of Heaven,” in which Gilgamesh irritates the goddess Inanna and Enkidu suffers for it; fourth, “Gilgamesh’s Journey,” where he reaches the land of the immortal Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah-figure, who has lived here ever since surviving the Great Deluge; fifth, “The Story of the Flood,” told to Gilgamesh by Utnapishtim; and sixth, “Gilgamesh’s Quest,” in which Gilgamesh tries, fruitlessly, to find eternal life—or at least restored youth—and fails. A brief postscript then laments Gilgamesh’s death.
This neat, six-chapter version of Gilgamesh’s adventures is more than a little deceptive. The Epic was copied numerous times onto clay tablets, which, as clay tablets do, broke into bits. The bits, scattered across the ancient Near East, are written in an array of languages, from Sumerian to Assyrian, and were made anytime between 2100 and 612 BC. The oldest Sumerian copies, dating from the time of Shulgi’s scribe, contain only the first two tales and the ending lament. It is impossible to know whether the other four stories were part of the cycle early on and were then lost, or whether they were added later. Parts of the third and fourth tales, “The Bull of Heaven” and “Gilgamesh’s Journey,” begin to appear on clay tablets, along with the first two, sometime between 1800 and 1500 BC, translated into Akkadian (the language which followed Sumerian, spoken by the people who occupied the river plain as the Sumerian cities declined). By 1000 BC or so, pieces of all four tales appear along the Mediterranean coast and scattered through Asia Minor. The story of the flood, which existed in a number of different versions well before 2000 BC, was likely shoehorned into Gilgamesh’s story, as the fifth tale, at least a thousand years after Gilgamesh’s death; it is clearly independent from the rest of the epic. (“Sit down and let me tell you a story,” Utnapishtim orders Gilgamesh, and launches into the tale as though he’s had little opportunity to tell it since getting off the boat.) And all we can say about the story of “Gilgamesh’s Quest,” in which he finds and loses the Plant of Youth, is that it had become attached to the rest of the Epic by 626 BC.
This is the date of the oldest surviving copy of the entire six-story Epic. It comes from the library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king with the soul of a librarian. Ashurbanipal became king in 668. During the thirty-odd years of his reign, he destroyed Babylon, killed his own brother (who had become Babylon’s king), and was annoyed by a Hebrew prophet named Jonah who insisted on bellowing that Nineveh, Ashurbanipal’s capital, was doomed. By the time he died in 626, Ashurbanipal had also collected twenty-two thousand clay tablets into the world’s first real library. Twelve of these tablets hold the Epic of Gilgamesh in more or less its current form.
Only the first two tales, then, can be placed, with any confidence, within striking distance of Gilgamesh’s life. The trouble that Gilgamesh’s tremendous energy brings on his subjects, and his journey north to the cedar forest, and his funeral lament: these can be treated as reflecting, however distorted, some historical truth.
More than that, they serve as the undoubted center of the world’s first epic, in which death comes both as devastation and as deliverance.
IN THE FIRST STORY, “The Tale of Enkidu,” the king of Uruk runs roughshod over his people, until they begin to mutter:
Gilgamesh sounds the war-call for his own amusement,
There are no limits to his arrogance,
neither by day nor by night:
He takes the sons from the father,
although a king should be his people’s shepherd.2
The kingship given to Sumer by the gods, the strong authority which helped the cities survive, has tipped over into tyranny. Uruk’s citizens appeal to the gods for deliverance. In response, the gods make a creature named Enkidu from clay and set him down in the wastelands of Sumer. Enkidu
knows nothing of cultivated land,
nothing of civilized men, their ways of living,
nothing of the walled cities that have become the center of Sumer’s culture. He looks like a strong and godlike man, but acts like a beast, roaming through the plains eating grass and living with the animals; he is, in fact, a caricature of the nomads who have always been at odds with the city-dwellers.
When Gilgamesh gets word of this newcomer, he sends a harlot out into the wilds to seduce and thus tame him. (“She made herself naked,” the poem tells us.) Conquered by this fairly straightforward strategy, Enkidu spends six days and seven nights in carnal satisfaction. When he finally rises and tries to return to his life with the animals, they flee from him; he has become human.
Enkidu was lessened,
grown weak, and the wild creatures fled from him;
but also he was broadened,
for now wisdom had come to him,
now he had the mind of a man.
Now that he has the mind of a man, Enkidu must go to the city, the proper place for him to live. The harlot offers to take him to “strong walled Uruk, where Gilgamesh lords it over his people like a wild bull.”
When they arrive in Uruk, Gilgamesh is in the middle of disrupting a wedding with his claims of droit du seigneur, which he has been exercising on a lavish scale for years: “The king of Uruk demanded to be first with the bride,” remarks the Epic, “as his birthright.” Enkidu, indignant over this abuse of power, blocks his way to the bride’s bedchamber. The two wrestle; it is a close contest, closer than Gilgamesh has ever known. And although the king wins, he is so impressed by Enkidu’s strength that the two swear a bond of friendship. This tames Gilgamesh’s tyrannical impulse. The people of Uruk take a deep breath, as peace descends on their streets.
The wrestling match, of course, is more than just a wrestling match. Threaded through this whole story is a Sumerian ambiguity about kingship. Kingship was a gift of the gods for man’s survival; kings were supposed to bring justice, keep the strong from driving the weak into poverty and starvation. Clearly, a king who had to enforce justice had to be strong enough to carry out his will.
Yet this strength was also dangerous, giving rise to oppression. And when that happened, the fabric of the Sumerian city began to twist and fray. In Uruk, the king was the law, and if the king himself became corrupt, the nature of law itself had been distorted.
This was frightening enough to be approached only obliquely. Gilgamesh fights, not with himself, but with a creature from outside the walls. The wrestling match at the bride’s door is carried out against his uncivilized mirror image; Enkidu, after all, has been created
as like him as his own reflection,
second self, equal to his stormy heart:
let them fight each other,
and leave the city in peace.
The tale of Gilgamesh’s journey to the cedar forest is not so very different. Again Gilgamesh shows a tendency to go bullheaded after his own desires.
I will conquer the Giant Hugeness,
I will establish my fame forever
he tells Uruk’s council of elders. They try to restrain his ambitions:
You are young, Gilgamesh.
Your heart carries you away.
The Giant is not like men, who die.
In the face of his insistence, though, the elders yield. Gilgamesh and Enkidu head out to fight the giant, with Enkidu charged by the elders with the job of keeping the king safe.
Gilgamesh’s journey north is driven by his desire for fame, the same longing that impels him to drive his people forward into war. But once again, the danger to Uruk’s peace is cast as an outside force. Evil lurks, not in the soul of the king, but in the forests to the north.
Another danger lurks there too. In this earliest tale, Gilgamesh is already troubled by death. Even before setting out, he muses on his own mortality. He sounds resigned to the inevitable:
Who can go up to heaven?
Only the gods dwell forever.
Men number their days.
But even if I fall I will win fame,
Fame will last forever.
But the possibility that he will fall in the battle grows in his mind. On his way to fight Humbaba, the Giant Hugeness, he dreams three times, each time waking to cry out, “A god has passed; my flesh shivers!” The third dream is the most alarming:
Daylight was silenced, darkness swelled up,
Lightning struck, fire broke out,
Death rained down.
He is frightened enough to turn back, but Enkidu convinces him to keep on. Then, on the eve of the battle with Humbaba, Gilgamesh falls into a sleep so deep that Enkidu barely rouses him in time to fight.
Despite the omens, death is averted. By the end of the tale, Uruk is safe, and the Giant Hugeness lies dead. But Gilgamesh’s admission that his days are numbered, and the fears that grow out of his mortality, become the core around which the rest of the Epic shapes itself. Whenever the rest of the tales were folded into the story, each shows a growing preoccupation with the descent into death, a growing determination to avoid it. Gilgamesh sets off to the garden of the gods in hopes that he will be able to somehow bring the fallen Enkidu back from the dead; he hears the story of the flood while searching for the causes of immortality; he manages to find the Plant of Youth, which will delay if not destroy death, but then allows it to be stolen by a water snake. In his fight to avoid death he schemes, he travels, he begs, he searches; but he never succeeds.26
This turns out to be a very good thing, as far as the Sumerians are concerned. The funeral lament that closes the Epic is part of the story from its earliest days. It isn’t included in Ashurbanipal’s copy; apparently the Assyrians found its finality too jarring, too unlike the quests for immortality that have come before. But the lament wraps the Sumerian worries about kingship into a single set of lines, approaching it more directly than anywhere else.
You were given the kingship,
everlasting life was not your destiny.
You had power to bind and loose,
supremacy over the people,
victory in battle.
But do not abuse this power.
Deal justly with your servants in the palace.
The king has laid himself down,
He has gone into the mountain;
he will not come again.
The enemy that has neither hand nor foot,
that drinks no water and eats no meat,
the enemy lies heavy on him.3
In Sumer, Gilgamesh was held to be a god startlingly close to his actual lifetime. But his godship, apparently earned by his enormous efforts on behalf of his city (after all, it was the function of both king and god to protect cities, to make them great) is still limited by death. Like Baldar in much later Norse mythology, Gilgamesh is divine, but this is not somehow coterminous with immortality.
As a matter of fact, Gilgamesh’s tremendous energies make death even more vital. Even had he remained evil, his power would have, eventually, come to an end. Even the strongest king of Sumer dies. The enemy without hand or foot limits that frightening power that could work either for or against his people. In the world’s first epic tale, as in Sumer itself, the king Gilgamesh defeated, or outwaited, or persuaded with rhetoric, every opponent except for the last.