Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Epic of Gilgamesh

N.K. Sandars (translator)
The Epic of Gilgamesh (1960, material from 13th to 10th century BC)

Possibly an odd choice to be reviewed alongside such unimpressive offerings as the Star's Bottom cycle of Flanberry Beavis and Nobby Beverage's Doctor Who and the Terrific Award Winning Doctor Who Adventure, but I've just read it so here it is.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably the oldest surviving story on record, or at least the oldest story surviving in a form other than hopelessly fragmented; and I believe it survived as cuneiform script on clay tablets from various locations in and around Sumeria - modern day Iraq - which, so far as we can tell, seems to be where the first cities were founded back in the fourth millennium BC. Whilst we're here, I suppose it depends upon how geographical you like your definition of Muslim culture, but regarding Richard Dawkins' assertion that Islam has produced little of value in global terms, I would argue that cities and written script might be worth thinking about, but I digress.

I have no significant investment in Sumerian culture and therefore approach this one as a poorly informed outsider, so for anyone with any deeper understanding of those Mesopotamians, you might like to stop reading now because you'll probably just find the rest irritating. I have a reasonable understanding of the much later but developmentally parallel cultures of central Mexico, and so have attempted to appreciate Sumeria by similar terms with the assumption of its society having developed in pursuit of similar ends. It has been noted how both South American and North African civilisations built pyramid structures and might be deemed to have certain features in common. Conspiracy theorists tend to cite this common factor as evidence of ancient transatlantic contact, mistaking superficial resemblance for evidence and ignoring the detail of there being no archaeological support for the idea and, more significantly, that the notion of ancient transatlantic contact does not serve to explain anything requiring an explanation. Put simply, limited to certain materials and working at a comparable level of technology, early buildings founded upon a rectangular base will tend to be pyramids wherever they're built, that being the most logical structure for those working with similar and relatively limited means. Given that human societies tend to be formed from people sharing the same basic needs - food, shelter, security and so on - regardless of geography, I suggest that the cultural or philosophical structures they build as stories and theology will tend towards certain common forms, the philosophical equivalent of pyramids; and so, hoping there's something in this idea other than it being a string of pretty words, I read on and hope to understand something without too much contaminating bias.

Gilgamesh delineates the arguably spiritual journey of a culture hero who may be roughly identified with the fifth king of Uruk reigning around 2500BC, although as with the Mexican Quetzalcoatl, there doesn't seem to be any real way of telling whether the man inspired the legend or vice versa. The narrative describes how Gilgamesh battles and befriends Enkidu - a man of the wild possibly representing the natural and uncultured as distinct from the urban Sumerian-about-town. The two then embark upon a series of allegorical adventures, battling the Bull of Heaven - apparently symbolising drought, tempted by the treacherous Goddess Ishtar, and finally venturing into the underworld where Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, a survivor of the flood who will almost certainly become the Biblical Noah in more recent traditions. As one who has spent a lot of time obsessing over the Mexican stories that may be considered roughly parallel to this kind of tale, I am struck by both the overarching pessimism and similar narrative details. The former can almost certainly be attributed to the lack of security associated with life in the earliest cities, society being a new and conspicuously fragile structure dependent upon a lot of goodwill and the success of the harvest - conditions which no doubt also informed early Mexican society with the added emphasis of their world being one conspicuously at the mercy of the volcanoes. It is therefore logical that people living under such conditions should tell themselves stories which reflect this, and specifically stories which focus on the frailty of existence.

Gilgamesh is fascinating in this respect because, although one might argue a case for his being the first superhero - he has musclebound adventures and is described as two thirds God and one third human, however that's supposed to work - he is a superhero for the sake of contrast with a fleeting existence, the inevitability of death, and a death which in Sumerian lore did not appear to prefigure an afterlife so far as I can tell. Gilgamesh journeys to the underworld in search of immortality, only to learn that even he is himself both mortal and vulnerable to the unseen forces which define his world; and so he becomes a hero not because he stands above the rest of us, but because he is very much like us in all senses that matter.

The Epic of Gilgamesh isn't necessarily an easy read, but it's short, and very, very rich in detail, and amply rewards whatever effort the reader chooses to invest. Furthermore, as our oldest story by some definition, it informs more or less everything that has come after to a greater or lesser degree - at least with regard to western culture - not least the great Abrahamic holy books, the first seeds of which are to be found herein - serpents, temptation, men building big boats full of animals in order to survive a great flood and so on. So if it isn't obvious what I'm saying here, if you haven't read this, it really is worth your effort.


  1. "regarding Richard Dawkins' assertion that Islam has produced little of value in global terms, I would argue that cities and written script might be worth thinking about, but I digress."

    To be pedantic, the Sumerians predate Islam by some margin. But then 'Muslim' is so frequently used as a not-so-subtle euphemism for 'dark-skinned folk' you're still kind of right.

    1. Yes, which is why I attempted to legitimise my admittedly absurdly broad generalisation with "depends upon how geographical you like your definition of Muslim culture" but I probably could have found a better way to suggest long term cultural continuity in that part of the world, or at least the idea of the same.

  2. I gave up on the Illiad and like my stories to have a bit of a plot so probably won't read this but even so I REALLY enjoyed this essay! Feel free to keep writing about this sort of tangential science fiction...
    As for Dawkins, I think he's best ignored on the subject of faith. I'm an atheist but whenever I hear him talk, it makes me want to pick a religion at random and follow it devoutly just to annoy him

    1. Okay, I will - I have Beowulf sat waiting to be read, so that will probably be the next one of this general kind. I do quite like Dawkins on the whole, particularly his science writing, but yes, I hear you. Sometimes his views on religion are spot on, but at other times he just comes across as a bit parochial.