Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1, lines 199-203

So, I'm sick of seeing Sarah Palin at the top of my page, so here's something from the earliest epic tradition in world literature...well, the end product of that tradition at least. So, here, from the Standard Babylonian Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the quote of the day:
Enkidu had defiled his body so pure,
his legs stood still, though his herd was in motion.
Enkidu was weakened, could not run as before,
but now he had reason, adn wide understanding.
(Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1, lines 199-203; trans. Andrew George)

Enkidu, created directly from clay, a replica of the original human, was a wild, animal-like man. At the same time, he was powerful, the only match in strength for the two-thirds divine Gilgamesh (how he's two-thirds divine, I have no clue...and no specialist's answer has been satisfying to my mind). This replica of the original man is also Gilgamesh's mirror, his alter-ego, a second self. In this scene, the wild animalistic man, who communes peacefully with the animals, and even protects them from hunters and trappers, loses his communion with animals because he discovered sexuality. Shamhat from Uruk, the city ruled by Gilgamesh, has come out and through sexuality has civilized Enkidu. Sex as a civilizing force rather than a naturalizing force is particularly interesting here. But, by doing so, she has weakened Enkidu. He no longer has his animalistic power. Yet at the same time he remains Gilgamesh's equal in the later bout they have in the city. Moreover, this sexual experience, which lasted six days and seven nights by the way, has awakened Enkidu's mind. He now has reason. He has understanding--wow, this sounds familiar (anyone for some Gen. 2-3?). Yet, as line 214 tells us, he has not completely lost his INSTINCT. Understanding, reason, and instinct (as well as a powerful physique) appears to be an unbeatable combination. Yet, unfortunately, Enkidu will die. His death, in a way, foreshadows Gilgamesh's. Or, more accurately, it creates an awareness in Gilgamesh of his own mortality that he never had before. It creates a fear of death in Gilgamesh that forces him to look to the ends of the cosmos to find the one man who had gained immortality Uta-nipishti (sometimes Utnapishtim and other times Atrahasis). He is the Babylonian Noah, the man who survived the Deluge and was granted immortality. But those were unrepeatable conditions. No one else will other achieve immortality. And Uta-nipishti gives Gilgamesh a lesson he needs to hear. It is a lesson about how to be a good king and about how to accept one's mortal limits. One of the lessons of the epic, if not the central lesson, is that all must die, and coming to terms with one's own mortality is the foundation of human wisdom. It allows one to make the best of one's time on this earth, in this short lifespan (in antiquity, a much shorter lifespan). Ecclesiastes has a similar overall message.


Kenniston said...

As far as the "two-thirds" divine, it is speculated that it was his belief that he could not die, because of his supposed genetics, that caused him to do amazing things that his people (and himself) thought godlike. In other words, he thought himself so divine that he actually became that extra part divine. There are allusions that say Naramsin, Achillies, and Heracles all had this character trait.

Jared Calaway said...

Yet at least with Herakles and Achilles, they are half and half with a divine parent and a mortal parent. Two-thirds is bizarre. Perhaps the best explanation I've heard on that is that the divine parent so overwhelms the mortal parent's contribution that it is worth twice as much. But all sounds like special pleading.