Yesterday,  a colleague and I sat down to discuss The Epic of Gilgamesh before he teaches it to 7th and 8th graders. The basic purpose of the conversation was to consider some of the “bigger” issues of the text, and for each of us to share our interpretations of certain major events in the text. The purpose of this post is to give fellow educators and thinkers an insight into the process of choosing a Great Book to teach, and to observe the creative process by which consideration of seminar questions begins. Perhaps it will also inspire those who find this process interesting to read or re-read the work themselves. Or perhaps even enter argument with us. I will begin this brief conversation with some context on The Epic.

There was, supposedly, a very war-like Sumerian King of a near mythical city called Uruk around 2750 BCE. Another king, who closely identified with this king, this Gilgamesh, 600 years later had 5 tablets of stories inscribed which were somewhere between 115-300 lines each (I am indebted to Katherine King’s Introduction to Ancient Epic for much of this preliminary information.) which were later combined with oral tradition to create the “Gilgamesh” story. Around 1700 BCE, Sumerian was already a dead language, and the Gilgamesh epic was translated into the Babylonian language of Akkadian, and from this came the “Old Babylonian Version” of the Gilgamesh epic. 500 years later a scholar by the name of Sin-leqe-Unninni “reworked” the story and created what is known as: “The Middle Babylonian Version”, “The Standard Version”, or “The Eleven Tablet Version”, and was preserved in Babylonian script around 700 BCE (King). All in all, around 60% of the original 3000 lines still remain, and for the purpose of the conversation with my colleague, we used the somewhat creative and highly-readable construction-translation by Stephen Mitchell.

The basic story is that Gilgamesh is 2/3 of a god and that he is angering and annoying the citizens of Uruk whom he rules by sleeping with their wives (which is supposedly his right–“ius primae noctis“) before the first night of their marriage. Although this is his right, he is “ravaging” his flock, and the people cry out for a change, and the gods decide to do something about it. So, they create a man, more than half-way animal, named Enkidu who is meant to tame and to be tamed. He at first is “born” in a forest, and he is so fast that he can run with herds of animals and he eats grass and drinks water as a man. Eventually he will know woman, become civil, “wrestle” with Gilgamesh, become his friend and help kill a forest spirit Huwawa (Humbaba), defeat the Bull of Heaven, and then be cursed and die to teach Gilgamesh a valuable lesson about mortality and arrogance.

During our conversation, my colleague and I first focused on the differences between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is 2/3 divine, which I mentioned I liked more than the semi-divine figure of Achilleus from Homer’s Iliad, because in being “more divine” than human, I can understand a little better the troubles Gilgamesh has with “staying within the lines” of a normal man. And he truly is divine. According to ancient measurements, he would be about 15 feet tall, and he can punch through walls. He is a lot of god-man. He, however, does also use this divinity to the advantage of his people. He builds a wall around Uruk to keep not only other people’s out but nature and the wild itself. He was also responsible for building the temple to Ishtar, the love goddess, which may very well have been the first temple. But, as said earlier, since he does have enough humanity in him to make him subject to mortality and morality, he must learn to rule and live with his people, though he be much greater than they.

Enter Enkidu. Enkidu is more than half-beast, and he is in all ways uncultivated until he “knows” woman (for seven straight days–animal, indeed). Through her he learns language, first drinks beer (made by man) and eats bread (made by man), uses utensils (made by man), and guards the flocks outside of the house of the farmer with whom he first stays with a weapon (made by man). My colleague intelligently pointed out that whereas Gilgamesh had been ravaging his metaphorical flock, Enkidu’s first instinct, as sort of a cultivated animal, is to protect the actual flocks of the farmer who is hosting him. Enkidu is therefore more natural not only in his habits, but in his morals as well. This sparked a genuinely interesting conversation between Mr. B and me about what exactly is more natural: an ethic of protecting what is one’s own (essentially communitarian), or an ethic of taking what is one’s due (a justice based or individualistic ethic). Both are suggested as “natural”, but given the fact that the gods send Enkidu to temper Gilgamesh, the text weighs in on the side of more of a cultivated ethic where a man chooses not to fulfill all his natural rights (a great man, a king, at least) in order to protect or rule his people best.

A second major issue we considered was why in the usual story of Gilgamesh two plates are generally not considered: one features a defense of Uruk against an outside enemy, and the other features the death of Gilgamesh. Thematically, we agreed that though the historical Gilgamesh was a rather war-like and savage man, that the Gilgamesh of the story works better if he only kills divine monsters–this shows in him a certain magnanimity or disregard for purely human matters–in fact the only “human” he fights in Enkidu, and he spares him. But perhaps there is some other reason that Gilgamesh is never represented, at least in the “11 tablet version”, as not killing a man. The next plate, that of Gilgamesh’s death, might be considered to be left out because the subject of death is covered by Enkidu dying earlier, and it makes for a more cohesive text for Gilgamesh to first learn to be a better leader and human through the context of friendship, and also to experience the tragedy of a friend’s death and the realization of his own mortality through seeing the decaying of his friend’s corpse (he sees a maggot crawl out of Enkidu’s eye–creepy).

An issue that Mr. B and I then ran into is this: why does Enkidu die and not Gilgamesh, and we settled on this: Enkidu is necessary for cultivating and restraining Gilgamesh and serving to build and shape his kingship–but alone, Enkidu is not capable of the sorts of deeds of physical vigor (killing Humbaba) or cultural achievements of Gilgamesh (building walls, building Ishtar’s temple, and bringing back “ancient lore” from the Flood survivor Utnapishtim). Therefore, if Gilgamesh were to die, it is unclear unto unlikely that Enkidu would be as capable of performing the deeds of the “cultural hero” that Gilgamesh was destined for. Beyond that, it is fairly unclear that Enkidu had the same degree of existential sort of questioning that Gilgamesh did. For instance, Gilgamesh likely (though I cannot confirm this) built the walls of Uruk and the Temple of Ishtar as not only monuments to the gods but of reminders of his own excellence for after he died. His very reason for journeying to the forest of the “evil but necessary” forest-spirit-giant Humbaba is, “Since a man cannot pass beyond the final end of life, I want to set off into the mountains, to establish my renown there. (Translated and considered P. 220 of the Mitchell translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh). Therefore, Gilgamesh does much of what he does either in fear or resentment of the fact that he is mortal, though he is so much more than mortal. This struck as a very human emotion on his part, and a very modern one.

The last bit that we had time to cover in the conversation was Ishtar’s attempted proposal to Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh, possibly rightly, spurns her by listing off her countless lovers whom she tired of and who ended up worse off after her affections. This spurning led the Bull of Heaven being summoned and consequently destroyed by Gilgamesh, and then Enkidu soon thereafter grew sick and died. It is unclear, however, whether that was worse for Gilgamesh than what may have transpired for him after Ishtar’s love inevitably found its way to another man. She does, in that regard, very much resemble the capricious and quick to cheat Aphrodite from Homer’s Odyssey (the same Aphrodite that Hephaistos caught in an invisible web with her brother Ares in Hephaistos’ starry bed), and Venus from Virgil’s Aeneid who had the protagonist, Aeneas, out of wedlock while herself still being married to Vulcan. I suppose the point we got to in these brief comments is that love, well, love is many things.

This has been the first edition of our “Conversations amongst the Great Books Teachers” and “This Week in Epics.” Keep reading for weekly updates, and keep checking daily for content concerning seminars, the Great Books, and Educational Reform and materials.


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