Monday, December 28, 2015

TFBT: Random Notes on Gilgamesh, Part I

 Hour 25 will host a book club discussion on Gilgamesh. An audio recording is available on YouTube.  The discussion will be on January 26, 11:00 a.m. EST via Google+ hangout.

I’ve been reading the ancient Babylonian text in preparation for the discussion.  I read slowly so as to not let my assumption run rough shod over the tale. Even then I can only interpret the story based on my training in Ancient Greek and Indo-European traditions about heroes.   Here are a few random notes. 

"I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh." Who is speaking?  Does the Hero Gilgamesh have his Homer? 

"a tale from the days before the flood"   So I assume Bronze Age.  Then we read, “…he engraved on a stone the whole story.”  So  Gilgamesh is the Muse of the tale and author.  Hmm a Bronze Age hero who can write. 

Interesting how love humanizes god-like Gilgamesh and lust humanizes animal-like Enkidu. 

Enkidu's experience reminds me of Adam and Eve's in the garden.  There  is a theory that Adam&Eve weren't actually human in physical form until they put on clothes (animal skins). Enkidu, eat bread, it is the staff of life; drink the wine, it is the custom of the land.' So he ate till he was full and drank strong wine, seven goblets. He became merry, his heart exulted and his face shone. He rubbed down the matted hair of his body and anointed himself with oil. Enkidu had become a man;

Enkidua seems to meet all the requirements to be a therapon;
·      "create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self; stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.'  
·      "Enkidu was pleased; he longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart."  
·      " I made it for you, a goad and spur, and you were drawn as though to a woman.
·      This is the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in his need. ".
·      "I loved it like a woman and wore it at my side.' Ninsun answered, ‘That axe, which you saw, which drew you so powerfully like love of a woman, that is the comrade whom I give you, and he will come in his strength like one of the host of heaven. He is the brave companion who rescues his friend in necessity.'  

"In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men.’ So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.  I find it interesting in this text that Enkidu (the bride) waited for (the bridegroom) Gilgamesh to come to the house.

 Gilgamesh replied: 'Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind”  For some reason this reminds me about Glaucus’ (Iliad 6.145-9) and Apollo’s (Iliad 21.462-66)  comparison of men to leaves.  As to Gilgamesh’s rhetorical question ;  the answer is Bellephron.  No rhetorical question is ever 100% rhetorical.  Is there some myth that Gilgamesh was thinking about? 

Looks like Enkidu has a mission in life;
·      "I am the strongest here, I have come to change the old order, I am he who was born in the hills, I am he who is strongest of all."'
·      "I will challenge him boldly, and I will cry aloud in Uruk, "I have come to change the old order,"

This star of heaven which descended like a meteor from the sky  This line reminded me of Hephaestus and Chrysaor, but I see no connections.

“Then if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures; men - will say of me, "Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba." Long after the child has been bony in my house, they will say it, and remember. “  Looks like Gilgamesh, like Achilles, wanted unwilting glory!

 Gilgamesh performs a sacrifice to the sun god Shamash.  He seems to pray in a way we are familiar with; invocation, mentions their relationship (kind of) prayer and promise of rewards afterwards. But his mother Ninsun dresses for prayer like Hera arming for battle on Mt Ida and is kind of bossy in her incense prayer. (Oh wait, she is a goddess.)

How shall I answer them; shall I say I am afraid of Humbaba, I will sit at home all the rest of my days?' Like the choice of Achilles

They took each other by the hand as they went to Egalmah. I cant think of anything comparable to this in Greek myth

Lugulbanda, your guardian god,   Gilgamesh's father

"Hold close to me now and you will feel no fear of death; keep beside me and your weakness will pass, the trembling will leave your hand."  Sort of like Achilles to Patroclus

Gilamesh to Ishtar “as for making you my wife - that I will not. How would it go with me? Your lovers have found you like a brazier which smoulders in the cold”  Apparently Gilgamesh shares Anchises concerns in bedding a goddess.   So Gilgamesh refusing Ishtar is like Hippolytus refusing love (Aphrodite).

 Ishtar threatening Anu. "refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.'" Sort of like Helios threatening Zeus.

The mistress who taught you to eat bread fit for gods and drink wine of kings? She who put upon you a ‘magnificent garment, did she not give you glorious Gilgamesh for your companion, and has not Gilgamesh, your own brother, made you rest on a 'royal bed and recline on a couch at his left hand? He has made the princes of the earth kiss your feet”  Great response!

Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning
I weep for my brother.
O Enkidu, my brother,
You were the axe at my side,


  1. ""a tale from the days before the flood" So I assume Bronze Age."
    Most scholars commenting on Hesiod say that his Ages myth is of Eastern (Messopotamian) origin, but nobody gives an exact quote or even names the source. I did a search some time ago and found nothing. Except that Atrahasis describes periodic decimation of mankind, but no metals.

    1. Maya,

      Many scholars commenting on Hesiod's stories say they are of Eastern origin. Only the stories they compare Hesiod's with, don't exactly match up.


    2. Wikipedia compares Hesiod's Ages with the Yugas in Hinduism. There are 4 Yugas, each one worse than the previous one. We are now in the 4th Yuga. Exactly like the Ages, if we leave the Heroic Age out. Unfortunately, there seems to be no mention of the Yugas in the Rig Veda, the earliest Hinduist scripture.
      Pandora is made of clay by the gods for their purposes after the original generation of mankind - like Enkidu.
      The stories of Pandora and Eve are so similar. In both, the Fall is linked to the origin of agriculture. The first woman is both the vehicle of evil and an all-giving, all-creating force. Like Mother Earth. In painted vases, Pandora is indistinguishable from Gaea. At, there is a vase which shows either Pandora or Gaea, but nobody knows, because no name is inscripted. And Pandora is sometimes used as an epithet of Gaea.
      In both stories, the man is first a care-free forager, then becomes a sinner by stupidity and by association with a greater sinner and is sent to plow the Earth as punishment. Pandora is adorned with flowers and with a crown of moving animals.

  2. "Looks like Gilgamesh, like Achilles, wanted unwilting glory!"

    I also mentioned that in the dominant version Humbaba doesn't harm Gilgamesh and his people, and I remembered Achilles saying that Troyans live far away from his land and have never done anything bad to him.
    Poor Humbaba was just guarding the cedar trees, as Enlil had ordered him. But Gilgamesh wanted kleos. Why doesn't anyone tell heroes not to go hunting for kleos? Such enterprises never end well!

    "As to Gilgamesh’s rhetorical question; the answer is Bellerophon. No rhetorical question is ever 100% rhetorical. Is there some myth that Gilgamesh was thinking about?"
    The Bellerophon myth includes a writing tablet, a strong indicator of Near Eastern origin.

    1. Maya,
      Thanks for the reminder on Bellephron. Very Anatolian as I recall from Glaucus' genealogy.

      I'm glad Heroes go for glory and try to kick in the blue doors of Heaven. If they didn't what would be have to talk about?


    2. It is vital, however, how the concept of glory is defined within a culture.
      In my current culture, kleos is generally won by emigration. Young active people emigrate even if it is evident beforehand that they will not be happy where they are going. The result is a country full of old people plus a handful of disinterested youths looking for emigration prospects.
      Other poor countries suffer more or less of the same phenomenon. It contributes much to the current migration crisis in Europe, especially after Merkel's blunder. You may have heard complaints about why military-age men are so over-represented among migrants. There are several explanations, all valid to some degree, and I add my twopence that this demographics is at the forefront in any hunt for kleos.
      The previous generation of emigrants to the West found their kleos plus unhappy life as a bonus, and now some of their children flock to ISIS for kleos.

    3. From my chronicle of the Heroic Age Collapse:
      "Achilles stayed there (i.e. in Scyros) long enough to make one of the king's daughters love him and to conceive a son. However, his identity was eventually revealed and he was recruited. He could refuse, but unfortunately he suffered of the mental limitations typical for the entire Heroic generation and most likely planted by the gods. Namely, men of this generation valued honor and glory above everything, even above their own lives and the lives of their loved ones; and honor and glory, according to them, were best won by killing other humans. This mentality brought the doom of the generation."

    4. Maya,
      As to acheveing glory by emigrating, that is a common occurrence in my life. Many Mexican men come to the US to work in the summer, sending the bulk of their wages home. I remember my own father and msternal grandfather working construction in other towns while sleeping in their trucks,

      The author of the aheroic Age Collapse is being rather judgemental. Admittedly the ethic was planted in them fior their destruction, but still they ended up in paradise. So not a bad lifestyle. Even Cassandra ended uo there theoritically


    5. My narrator is Prometheus, who has invented the afterlife himself and so knows that such a thing doesn't exist.

      I was also thinking of Mexican emigration to the USA. I suspect that the Mexican (failure of a) government has successfully redirected the energy of too many people to the North: instead of thinking how to fix their country, they think how to cross Rio Grande, so Mexican rulers can indulge in corruption and incompetence as much as they want. This is of course just my opinion; I cannot check it, because I speak no Spanish and so cannot feel the Mexican psyche.
      Temporary relocation for work is, however, something quite different from emigration. It is the subject of one of the best known and beloved Bulgarian short stories.

    6. The story is "Mowers" by Elin Pelin, an author writing about the life of peasants. The 5th grade literature curriculum, generally devoted to mythology and folklore, includes "Mowers" to show why these thought constructs arise.

      The characters are men from North Bulgarian villages traveling to the South, where the grass grows earlier, to work temporarily as mowers. They have stopped by a river to spend the night and have kindled a fire.
      The oldest man, with a nickname meaning "Good lier", tells about a princess who was the most beautiful in the world, every man who looked at her fell hopelessly in love, but every time she married, her husband died - her kisses sucked his blood dry.

      A young newlywed man named Lazo (short for Lazar) asks the storyteller why he tells such a strange story that has nothing to do with reality. The Good Lier replies, "What use is reality to you? Should I tell you about our reality, how poor we are, to walk a week to Thrace to mow? Tales are strange but beautiful, you listen and forget yourself! This is why people have invented them, and the songs also. To take you out of reality, so that you understand you are human."

      Then the Good Lier takes a "revenge". He asks, "Do you want to hear a song that is not strange at all?" He sings about a young wife whose husband is away and she meets an old suitor. The other mowers also taunt Lazo that his heart is dead to allow him to leave his wife a month after the wedding, she is beautiful and will find a lover, and this is exactly what Lazo deserves.

      Then, everybody rolls to sleep except Lazo, who broods over his comrades' words. It seems to him that even the crickets' song repeats his wife's name, and he asks himself what on Earth he is doing here.
      The next, concluding sentence of the story is, "When the mowers woke up in the morning, they saw that Lazo was no longer with them."
      Lazo's name is presumably chosen to hint at resurrection of humanity.

    7. Maya,

      Thanks for the Mowers. Wow! As to the story that Enkidu dissuades Gilgamesh from sparing Humbaba, well if it hadn't been that the gods would have got angry with them for something else. Heroes always push the limits.


    8. Glad you liked the story! Temporary work far from home is also the subject of many folk songs - all complaining of the practice. Here is the lyrics of one of them:

      "It’s raining small drops like precious stones,
      And my beloved is saddling his horse,
      To go to work in a land far-away.
      I’m talking to him, begging to stay:
      “Stay home, beloved, please remain here,
      Stay for this winter, stay for a year!
      Money at any time can be earned,
      But youth is only once in this world.
      Youth is like the dew, it passes soon,
      Here in the morning, gone before noon."

      (Sorry for the awkward translation.)

    9. Maya,

      When I was crew boss of the Santa Fe Hotshots many of the guys were Spanish-speaking from the very traditional northern part of New Mexican. They commuted a long distance and we were away from home for weeks on end fighting forest fires. A joking tradition there is the "pancho"; the back door man. Whenever one of the guys would sneeze everyone else would tease him that his wife's boyfriend had just entered the back door of the house. Ideal he enters the back door and the husband goes out the front door.


  3. Have you any explanation for these words of a local man to Enkidu:
    "Gilgamesh the king is about to celebrate marriage with the Queen of Love, and he still demands to be first with the bride..."

    What is this "marriage with the Queen of Love?" The proposal of the Queen of Love is much later, unplanned even by her, and ultimately rejected.

  4. Maya,

    My interpretation is that Giglamesh was not looking for the goddess of love and sexuality, but rather sex. It's all rhetorical. Marrying Lover herself, would co-opt her realm of responsibility and rights. He could demand all the "sacrifices" that were due her. I find it interesting that when Gilgamesh went to the bridal bed fit for the Goddess of Love, the bride he found waiting was Enkidu.


    1. Robert Graves would immediately jump to the conclusion that Sumerian kings were expected to marry the Goddess of Love and then have their heads chopped off. Victor Pelevin, a modern Russian writer, touches the same motif (and exactly with Ishtar) in his best known novel, Generation P.
      Normally, a king is expected to marry a mortal woman and conceive a heir. I've just checked that Gilgamesh was succeeded by his son. So, even if there had been a tradition of sacrificial kings, he put an end to it.

  5. There are different possible interpretations about the bride and the therapon/rival. I admit yours is valid, but I still see them as separate entities. To me, it is natural for the therapon, whom I see as the better self of the hero, to stand for defenseless women. I remember Patroclus being kind to Briseis and asking Achilles to marry her if they survive the war (as Briseis says after Patroclus' death).

  6. Maya,

    I have never understood the epithet of "kind and gentle". In Greek myth. Patroclus taunts dying men on the battlefield and is just a bloody as all the other myrmidons. Leto gets the same epithet, and she was not kind to mortals who got in her way once the twins were birn. I don't understand that


  7. I read somewhere that Hesiod, preoccupied by Zeus' power and glory, by "kind and gentle" means nothing more than Leto being no threat to Zeus.
    To me, she is probably most repulsive of all goddesses - submissive to Zeus, control freak to her children and merciless to the humans.

    It seems that Homer's heroes don't have any rules against taunting the dying and desecrating the dead, but the poet himself already has such a code.
    The gods don't mind desecrating a a dead warrior of the army they oppose, but seem to admit that there is some universal morality in which this behavior is bad.
    As for the heroes, they do such lowly deeds and then are hit by "cosmic justice". Patroclus does it to Hector's charioteer and soon dies, Hector does it to Patroclus and soon dies, Achilles does it to Lycaon and Hector and soon is to die.

    I am not sure Patroclus is generally "bloody". In his last day, he is not himself. He is larger-than-life, defeating an army all by himself, challenging Apollo. He is like possessed by a demon; I'd even say, like a zombie from a modern apocalyptic movie. And like these zombies, because he is no longer truly alive, he is very difficult to kill. A god and two mortals are needed to do the job (for Achilles, it will be a god and just one mortal).
    If Patroclus had been even remotely like this in his ordinary life, the Greeks wouldn't need Achilles! But, as far as I remember, he hasn't any reputation of being a warrior before his final day.

    Talking about the blood lust of the kind therapon, did you mention that Enkidu dissuades Gilgamesh from sparing Humbaba? I wonder what would happen if they had spared him.