Monday, September 21, 2009

In Death is Wisdom: Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes

I am about to teach the Epic of Gilgamesh again. My students read the Standard Babylonian version, basically since it is the best preserved. This version transforms the earlier epic versions into something of an epic wisdom text, particularly regarding the Utnapishtim's speech at the end. This speech and the Standard Babylonian version as a whole remind me of Ecclesiastes in many respects. They both concern themselves with the inevitability of death and, in a way, the meaninglessness of much of life. Coming to terms with both aspects leads to wisdom. Nonetheless, they approach this whole coming-to-terms-with-death-is-the-foundation-of-wisdom in different ways. Of course, one is narrative and couched in conversation between Gilgamesh and Utnapisthim. The other is a more wisdom text--a radical one, in fact--but appears more in the form of a treatise as the "Preacher" goes through all aspects of life to show how they are all a "chasing after the wind."

The Standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh would have been known by its first line: "He who Saw the Deep." It reads:

He who saw the Deep, the country's foundation,
[who] knew..., was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country's foundations,
[who] knew..., was wise in all matters!
(1.1-4; all translations by Andrew George)

In the subsequent narrative, Gilgamesh does not act very wise at all. In fact, he acts rather stupidly and is depicted as a horrible tyrant who will only be tamed by Enkidu. It will only be after Enkidu's death and after Gilgamesh's journey to the end of the world where the only immortalized human, Utnapisthim who survived the flood, lives. Gilgamesh's failure at immortality will coincide Utnapishtim's advice to the king. Ultimately, the lesson will be that immortality will be gained through one's constructive acts--such as rebuilding the walls of Uruk. This is quite a different response than the Iliad, for example, where undying glory is attained through destruction. Yet, ultimately, Gilgamesh will become, we presume, the wise king who "saw the deep." Having seen the deep things of the world, he will understand how ephemeral his own existence is.

Yet the attainment of wisdom by seeing the deep is set up as an impossibility in the late biblical wisdom traditions:

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Eccl. 7:23-24; RSV)

In Gilgamesh, wisdom was garnered by journeying to the end of the earth and investigating the deep things by his superhuman, heroic strength (he was 2/3 divine, 1/3 human after all). He could bound in a few days what for others would take several months to journey. The author of Ecclesiastes also puts these foundations "far off" and in the "deep." But these places can not be found by any normal human being. We are not all Gilgameshes. No one really is. So how can we find this wisdom? We can't. But the Preacher does not give up because it is impossible, but merely recognizes it as another "chasing after the wind." Instead, the Preacher comes to wisdom (that there is no wisdom) not by superhuman feats of strength, but by observation of the surrounding world.

Wisdom from both is the inevitability of death for all--not matter who you are, no matter how good or bad you are. Utnapishtim says to Gilgamesh:

No one at all sees Death,
no one at all sees the face [of Death]
no one at all [hears] the voice of Death,
Death so savage, who hacks men down.

Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.

Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!

The abducted and the dead, how alike is their lot!
But never was drawn the likeness of Death,
never in the land did the dead greet a man.

The Anunnaki, the great gods, held an assembly,
Mammitum, maker of destiny, fixed fates with them:
both Death and Life they have established,
but the day of Death they do not disclose.

This is probably my favorite passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The repetition of the first parts of the lines of "no one at all" and "ever do we" build up rhythm and suspense until "death so savage, who hacks men down" and "then all of a sudden nothing is there." I always like to say "all of a sudden" quickly and then pause, slowing down on "nothing." The point of the poetry is abundantly clear. Death is invisible but is ever-present, and ready to take us down. While death awaits, we "ever do" so many meaningless things in our daily lives, at least from the perspective of our own inevitable yet unknown deaths.

Ecclesiastes 9:3-12 makes the exact same point, but, I think, less poignantly:

There is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of the men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more forever any share in all that is done under the sun.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish which are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Again, death is the fate of us all, and we do not know when it will come upon us. Moreover, we all have the same lot in the afterlife, where there is no memory, no thought, no wisdom, and no knowledge. It is much like the Greek afterlife. In fact, the line about it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion also reminds me of Achilles in the Odyssey, where he tells Odysseus he would rather be the lowest of peasants on earth than the greatest among the dead in the underworld. Much like Gilgamesh portrays death as abduction, Ecclesiastes portrays it as capture in a snare, an evil net. The suddenness of death equally features in both as well. Once one comes to terms with these aspects of death--its inevitability, its suddenness (it can come upon us at any time), and that the afterlife is undifferentiated--then we can finally achieve a modicum of vain wisdom in our vain life: to enjoy life, enjoy eating, enjoy drinking, enjoy the person you love, take pleasure in your work, for there is nothing else. If all is impermanent, one might as well enjoy those impermanent things by taking pleasure in the passing moment. If you fail to do this, death may spring on you at any time and your chance of enjoyment will be gone.

Finally, the "ever do we" lines of Gilgamesh recall, to me at least, the repetition of "a time to" in Ecclesiastes.

Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.
(see above)

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
(Eccl. 3.1-4)

And it keeps going. The difference perhaps is that the Epic of Gilgamesh emphasizes the constant drum of the same activities, whereas the the Ecclesiastes passage emphasizes the appointment of times for different activities, although these activities, too, are recurrent.

While Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes are very different texts, different genres even, set at different times (vastly different, in fact), and written in different places, they show a great deal of the same imagery and concerns. They both claim that wisdom is coming to terms with death. Death is sudden, it is pervasive, everyone must succumb to it, and don't count on the afterlife to make up for this one. The wisdom is that death comes to call and at any time without us knowing it; thus, we must live our lives in the moment for any moment could be our last.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I much more like this idea, than that we sacrifice our present for future rewards.

Wisdom is using time wisely, as we never have the day back. Nor can we have this moment again with those we love. Some believe that enjoying life's gifts is "pleasure seeking" which is in opposition to "living worthily". Poverty and sacrifice is some sort of viruous living.

Jared said...

I've always liked Ecclesiastes. It is probably my favorite biblical book at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Australia.

Please check out these references on Death & Wisdom by Columbia's most Illustrious graduate.

The first reference contains the most extraordinary set of words ever written or spoken about death

The particular extract is taken from this book. A book which says everything that all the classic texts have ever said, and much more too. The author knows exactly and precisely what He is communicating.

Plus a unique Understanding of The Symposium (and the heavy taboo against ecstasy at the root of Western "culture" too)

Also on the same theme of the intrinsic heart-motive/urge to find happiness (and the taboo against it)

ChessNovice said...

Ms. Van De Merwe, I am inclined to agree your point reminded me of Proverbs 27:1 Boast not of tomorrow, for you know not what any day may bring forth.

John Hobbins said...


Thanks for this. In an ideal world, the text would be readily available in Akkadian online, so that the poetic features of which you speak could be savored with precision in the original, in a bilingual presentation perhaps.

kolhaadam said...

Jared, do you have an opinion regarding Shiduri's advice to Gilgamesh, the one that nicely parallels Eccl 9:7-10? I am particularly interested in the final line, "For this is the task of [mankind]"? Tigay and others argue the word should be [woman], thus implying the antecedent to "this" is the previous line, not the advice in it's entirety. When reading the ANET translation ([mankind]), I was struck by the similarity in this and the epilogist's use of the כל־האדם phrase. I am in the early stages of a term paper in my Old Testament World course this semester and am striving after the wind for a thesis. Any thoughts?

Jared said...

Could you tell me exactly what line and in which version (Standard, Old Babylonian, etc.? I am not finding it quickly.

Joseph said...

It is in the Old Babylonian version. I don't know what line. My books are at the library and I likely will not be dropping by today. A translation of the text can be found here:

I am referring to the end of section I according to this website that is translated: "for this too is the lot of man."

Jared said... I see. I'll give my two completely un-authoritative cents:

If it were reconstructed as "woman," it might create a nice enclosure from the beginning of her speech to the end: this is the lot of man (at the beginning) and this is also the lot of woman (at the end). So it would would not just be a matter of finding the antecedent in the previous line, but showing that human fortunes are the same for men and women.

If it is "man" or "mankind," then it is doing something different. The last man would not refer, in fact, to the whole speech, but only to the second half of it. The first "lot" of man is death. But eating, feasting, being merry, holding your child, and embracing your wife is ALSO the lot of man.

In the first reconstruction the emphasis, the "also," refers to the person; in the second, it refers to the allotment of bad and good things.

In this context, I find the second--the reconstruction as "man/kind" the more compelling.