GILGAMESH: Language, culture, nature, life and death
At the very first glimmer of a brightening dawn
there rose on the horizon a dark cloud of black,
The stillness of the Storm God passed over the sky,
and all was bright then turned into darkness.
He charged the land like a bull on the rampage,
he smashed it in pieces like a vessel of clay.
For a day the gale winds flattened the country,
quickly they blew, and then came the Deluge.
Like a battle the cataklysm passed over the people,
One man could not discern another,
nor could people be recognized amid the destruction.
The godess cried out like a woman in childbirth,
Belet-ili wailed, whose voice is so sweet:
It is I who give birth, these people are mine!
And now, like fish they fill the ocean!”
In the beginning, only gods populated the earth. Like humans, they too had to sow and reap, to use animals and crops of the soil for their sustenance. It was tiring. The gods who took care of the earth lamented and in the end they refused to work. The Divine Assembly decided to create servants who became entirely dependent of the gods. The god of freshwater, Ea, created together with the mother goddess Belet-ili, a thinking creature. Belet-ili shaped man from clay and through blood from a sacrificed god Ea provided life to the contraption.
Unfortunately, the sacrificed god, Kingu, was not a perfect being. He had been a dragon god, like his mother the saltwater monster Tiamat, who, by the way was mother of all gods. Kingu had been Tiamat's vizier and warlord, though his name means "ignorant worker" and he had been endowed with a belligerent and violent character.
The people now cultivated the land, cared for and slaughtered the cattle. They did everything believed to favour the gods. However, Kingu's blood flowed in their veins, meaning they were not entirely manageable. Furthermore, like gods they did not age and could thus not die of old age. The easily annoyed storm god Enlil found the noise of humanity intolerable and also considered that humanity took up too much space. Three times, Enlil tied to decimated their numbers – first by plague, then through drought and crop failure and finally with the help of starvation. Unlike most of the other gods, Enlil was an active being, constantly in motion. He did not mind hard work and thus assumed that people were entirely unnecessary creatures. More troublesome than beneficent. It was Enlil who succeeded in persuading the gods to wipe out humanity through a Deluge.
As a matter of fact, it was only the creators of the humans Ea and Belet-ili who nurtured any warmer feelings towards humanity. The other gods considered the only function of earthlings was to be a source for their sustenance and well-being. If the human midges tried to assert themselves or obstructed work and functions, they could stomp them out as if they were a horde of ants
Some gods entertained themselves with the humans, though their feelings for them were not much warmer than a child has for its dolls. The Mesopotamian gods could maybe be likened to the old god in the Swedish author Bo Bergman's poem The Marionettes:
You ancient old lord up in heaven’s hall,
when will you finally tire?
The puppets´ dance in spring and fall
displays the same lack of desire.
A jerk on the string – and everything’s gone
and all humans may sleep on, and on
while sorrow and evil rest from endeavour
in your great toy-box for ever.
(based on a translation by John Irons)
Approximately 8,000 years BCE, people living by the rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris began to settle in villages and with the help of canal systems and hoes they cultivated the surrounding land. Five thousand years earlier they had begun raising sheep and goats. Three thousand years later than that, they were domesticating bulls and cows, as well as raising pigs.
Every farmer knows that no matter how well organized his/her business is, how much s/he can count upon the help of neighbours and superiors, how much success s/he has in managing domestic animals and the land, with the help of refined seeds, ploughs and irrigation systems, s/he is nevertheless exposed to the capricious favours of weather gods – sun, rain, wind, sweet water and drought. At any moment s/he and his/her family may suffer from illness, plague, war, flooding and miscarriage. How could s/he, his/her family and neighbours be able to please the powers/gods? Make them benevolent and not constantly threaten the precarious existence of humanity?
Peasants seek refuge in order, in repetition. They follow paths trampled by their ancestors. The Sumerians had bred animals to adapt them to human needs. Plants had been refined, becoming more appetizing, more nutritious and full-flavoured. By jointly disciplining nature through irrigation systems and farming methods human existence had become more predictable.
If humans could prove they could take good care of themselves and the earth, wouldn't the gods become grateful? If the human creeps could show the gods their reverence by demonstrating their determination that even gods had to enjoy the same order and security they were trying to obtain? To that end, the Sumerians built magnificent palaces for their gods and served their images in the same way as they served the lords they had chosen to organize their societies – they brought them food and drinks in the form of sacrifices. They provided them with servants, luxury and concubines. Temples of the gods became copies of the palaces underlings had constructed for their earthly rulers. Stories evolved around the gods, similar to those told about powerful people, lords and kings.
If order ruled life on earth, would it not also prevail in Heaven? Equal creates equal. Good people deserve fair and gentle treatment. Did not the gods then assume it would be decent to behave in an affable manner towards those who served them well and demonstrated their appreciation? ”What is below is like what is above and what is above is like what is below.” Maybe the gods did not exist, but nonetheless there appeared to exist some kind of cosmic order, a natural balance that could be dangerous to upset. When we exploit and abuse nature, a deadly imbalance arises which ultimately might affect and even destroy the entire humanity. Chaos is constantly threatening our fragile order, our Cosmos. This is told in one of the oldest stories ever told – Gilgamesh. However, before I embark on retelling it, let me examine the phrase ”as above, so below”.
Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In this Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy he provided an account of the laws of motion and attraction, the composition of light, geometric concepts such as tangents and auras, the movements of celestial bodies, ebb and flow, the ellipticity of the globe and many other things that could be derived from the law of gravity, discovered by him. An astonishing genius of a man who constantly sought the eternal laws of the Cosmos.
This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. […] This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκράτωρ [Pantokrator], or Universal Ruler. […] The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect;
Among Newton's left behind papers and books a number of alchemist writings were found. There was for example his own English translation of Tabula Smaragdina's Latin text. The Emerald Tablet is an alchemical text supposedly written by a mythical Egyptian called Hermes Trismegistus, though it probably finds its origin in Mesopotamia. The tablet described how The Philosophers´ Stone could be created. This ”stone” is a fictional substance with miraculous properties – it was assumed to transform common metals into precious ones, cure all diseases and prolong life.
The first sentences of the Emerald Tablet read:
This is true without lying, certain and most true. That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of One so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The tablet’s text consists of just fifteen sentences and they were for certain not written by any Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-greatest Hermes, a composite of the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, and the Greek god, Hermes, messenger of the gods. These gods were related to the power of words, to magic and secrets. Thoth had created language and knew ”the words that bind and those that dissolve”, ”those that opened and those that closed.” Hermes was a threshold deity, resident between two spheres and roamed freely between them, united or closed them. While doing so he became the god of roads, friendship, hospitality, love making, trade, games and theft, as well as he accompanied the dead to the Netherworld. Hermes could decide whether something would be kept as a secret, if it was going to be ”hermetically sealed”. The sign for remaining silent, or to keep a secret, generally consisted of holding a finger to your mouth.The Greeks assumed that the Horus child, who was depicted as sucking a finger, in reality hold a finger in front of its mouth. Under the name of Harpocrates this child became the god of silence and confidentiality, and the fact that he kept an index finger in front of his mouth was interpreted as a sign of silence and secrecy. A sign that since then came into general use. Now everyone knows that an index finger in front of the mouth means silence.
- However, it is not silence that is the main tool of communication. God created heaven and earth with words and Thoth had done the same. Words create order and the word of God is Law. In Nordic, medieval ”landscape laws” it was stated that ”Land is built by law” and Sumerians would have been in complete agreement. Most of them assumed that human laws should be compatible with the laws of nature. It is believed that Hermes Trismegistus conveyed such an insight. The sky was always close to the Mesopotamian riverland and it was assumed that the movements of celestial bodies and seasonal change indicated the rules that govern our entire existence.
- In the town of Kufa on the banks of the Euphrates lived in the 7th century CE Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyān. Like Isaac Newton, he was a scientific Jack of all Trades, constantly in search of the laws of existence. Jābir ibn Hayyān was head chemist of the legendary Harun al-Rashid and left behind so many writings on alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, mysticism and religion that his existence has been put in doubt.
- Quite a number of Arabic manuscripts bearing Jābir ibn Hayyān´s name can be found in libraries in Leiden, Paris and London, while several Latin translations of his writings are stored in the Vatican and Oxford, among them are seventy books, which were translated during the Middle Ages. They carry names like the Book of Venus and the Book of the Stones. There are also ten books which together form the corpus of The Books on Rectification, interpreting the world on the basis of theories presented by philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The most important of Jābir ibn Hayyān's writings are the so-called Books on Balance and especially the one called Theory of the Balance in Nature, which claimed that everything in nature through constant transformations act in different ways, but emanates from a basic substance and it is actually through change that balance and harmony are maintained.
- Abū Musā Jābir ibn Hayyān's books are obviously compendiums of all kinds of knowledge, interpreted through a filter of complicated expressions and letter magic. Jābir ibn Hayyān, or Geber as he was called by his medieval interpreters, wrote:
- One must not explain this art in obscure words only; on the other hand one must explain it so clearly that all may understand it. I therefore teach it in such a way that nothing will remain hidden to the wise man even though it may strike mediocre minds as quite obscure; the foolish and ignorant, for their part, will understand none at all.
- Jābir ibn Hayyān claimed to have written 1,300 books on the Art, a term that seems to denote the manufacture of machines, automata and chemical equipment. It is maybe Jābir’s reputation as some kind of ancient Gyro Gearloose that made Marvel Comics´ author Jonathan Hickman portray Jābir ibn Hayyān as a superhero, a member of a secret organization named S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage and Logistics Directorate) told to have been created in ancient Egypt by Imhotep, who among other things was heading the construction of the first pyramid. The Organization initially had its headquarters in the catacombs beneath Rome, but now it hovers high above the earth's surface within the flying battleship Helicarrier. A number of famous scientists and artists have throughout the years been active in the S.H.I.E.L.D., which consider it as its duty to protect the world before the realisation of the Ultimate Destiny of Man. Unfortunately, it has been proven that the brilliant scientists and inventors active in S.H.I.E.L.D. not always have been immune to power struggles, jealousy and forgery. For example did Isaac Newton kill Galileo Galilei and other scientists who opposed his desire for supreme power and leadership of S.H.I.E L.D.
- In his time, Jābir ibn Hayyān was supreme leader of the Brotherhood of the Shield and then constructed a machine that was intended to absorb the dreams, inspiration and desires of a thousand powerful men and pass them on to one single man. Unfortunately, the machine turned out to be uncontrollable and ultimately destroyed the men whose power it was to exploit.
S.H.I.E.L.D. and Habibi, an acclaimed comic book by Craig Thompson where Jābir ibn Hayyān also appeared, may be considered modern myth-making and especially Thompson's work are to be found within a Mesopotamian fantasy universe where both Gilgamesh and Arabian Nights find their origins. Jābir ibn Hayyān also seems to have been an integral part of this powerful, extremely imaginative and at times thought-provoking flora of legends and fairy tales. It is in one of his many books that Hermes Trismegistus´s Emerald Tablet made its first appearance.
In Jābir ibn Hayyān's Kitab Ustuqus al-Uss al-Thani, The Second Book of the Basic Elements, the Emerald Tablet is said to have been discovered by a man named Balinas, hidden within a secret vault beneath the Temple of Hermes Trismegistus in Tyana. Something that brings us into the mysterious traditions of the Christlike figure Apollonius of Tyana, whom I have written about in a previous blog. Balinas told how he had wrestled the Emerald Tablet from the dead grip of a mummy who had been placed on a golden throne.
During the eleventh century, the Emerald Tablet was translated into Latin by the Spanish priest Hugo of Santalla. It was this translation that was included in Crysogonus Polydorus´s book De Alchemia, which was printed in Nuremberg in 1541 and subsequently ended up with Isaac Newton in London. Crysogonus Polydorus was a pseudonym for Andreas Osiander (1498-1552), an evangelical Lutheran theologian who popularized Copernicus’s epoch-making theories about the sun as the centre of our planetary system and later came into conflict with his brethren about Luther's doctrine of “salvation through faith alone.”
It is not particularly remarkable that a polyhistor like Andreas Osiander was interested in alchemy. He lived during an epoch that Marshall McLuhan has called the era of the Gutenberg Galaxy, when the entire world was transformed by the enormous impact of book printing. Already in 1962, McLuhan saw where humanity is heading, that the time of the Gutenberg Galaxy had already begun to be replaced by computer technology:
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrinian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.
During the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg had devised a method for printing books with movable, reusable types. Between 1455 and 1458 Gutenberg printed a Latin translation of the Bible – 45 copies on parchment and 135 on paper. Accordingly, it took him three years to complete an edition of nearly 200 books, which were partly hand-coloured, the same amount of time it had previously taken to print a single book of the same size as his Bible. Soon there were printing presses in all of Europe's major cities. It was a revolution, Europe was fundamentally changed. The printed book has been called the most useful, versatile and most enduring technology in world history. What happened in the 16th century may be compared to the recent decades' electronic information explosion with its avalanche of social media, which is also the result of rampant technological innovations.
The printing press procedure was an alchemical process by which matter was miraculously transformed into a means of change of thoughts and reality. The printed book was indeed a Philosophers´ Stone. Behind each printed word were letters manufactured when a 1110o F fire had converted the exact proportions of lead, antimony and zinc into a metal type, which was placed in a wooden letter case to be loaded in a composing stick and joined with other letters in a galley placed in a forme that was placed on a flat stone. The text was coated with ink made permanent by resin and soot and spread with two pads, made of dog leather, since it has no pores. A damp piece of paper was placed on a tympan and hold in place by small pins. The impression was made with the help of a screw pressing down the forme on the paper. Printed pages were dried, tied to books and spread to readers hungry for learning and/or entertainment.
The fact that each printed word was composed of letter units joined in a mind-altering unit made several philosophers and theologians ponder about the creation of languages. An alchemist tried to break down our entire and utterly complex existence into small, individual fragments, which could then be re-joined to reshape, or recreate, existence. Similarly, linguists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who generally were alchemists as well, studied the smallest units of language and tried to puzzle them together in attempts to reconstruct the language through which God, or the gods, had created the universe. According to the alchemists, nature was a great melting pot, their art was about discerning its details and turning small ingredients into a refined unit.
The Bible told us that God had created everything through his words alone. The question was which language he had used. Just as the Philosophers´ Stone was assumed to have the ability to turn common metals into precious ones, God's original language could possibly transform the world, or perhaps even create something new. Was there a divine language preceding our current human tongues? The Bible told that before the humans began to build the Tower of Babel, they all spoke the same language. Could it be the same language that God spoke?
Some alchemists assumed that Hermes Trismegistus had indicated the path to a solution to the thorny issue about God’s language. In his writings the assumed Egyptian sage had explained that the “original language” had been written down in Egypt. The signs used to depict God’s words were by the Greeks called hieroglyphs, sacred engravings. According to the Bible, Moses had brought the People of Israel out of Egyptian bondage and from Mount Sinai he had brought down the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God. Could they possibly have been written with hieroglyphs? The People of Israel had been in Egypt and many of them could probably read hieroglyphs. As we have noted Hermes Trismegistus was assumed to be an incarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth, the god who created the hieroglyphs. Scribes and priests were Thoth's servants.
Unfortunately, Renaissance scholars could no longer read hieroglyphs. Some of them, such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, were nevertheless gifted linguists. All three could read and to some extent also speak Greek, Latin and Hebrew. However, they did not assume that any of those languages could be God's language. Hermes Trismegistus/Thoth had once in the past claimed that his writings were doomed to be
entirely unclear when the Greeks eventually desire to translate our language to their own, and thus produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity […] The very quality of the speech and the [sound] of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.
The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), who worked at the Jesuits' headquarters in Rome, was fascinated by Hermes Trismegistus and his indications that hieroglyphs could mirror God’s language. To that end, Kircher learned Coptic, the language still spoken by Egyptian Christians. Through his knowledge of Coptic, Kircher then tried to interpret the hieroglyphs. Athanasius Kircher has been called a Baroque Leonardo da Vinci or Master of a Hundred Arts. He could benefit from the information his missionary brethren had gathered in different parts of the world – Latin America, Congo, India, Japan and China. He compared their stories with his reading fruits and developed a method meaning that he compared what he read and heard in order to try to build a system that could explain the structure and function of the universe – all in accordance with the Jesuit motto Ad maioren Dei gloriam, To the greater glory of God.
Athanasius Kircher failed in his interpretations of the hieroglyphs. In fact, he was wrong about most of the things he wrote about, but that doesn't hinder his writings from being both fascinating and imaginative. However, Kircher was on the right track when it came to Coptic as an important step towards the interpretation of hieroglyphs. It was first after the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion learned Coptic that he realized that hieroglyphs were in fact a combination of image - and phonetic writing, where most of the characters represented a consonant, or a consonant combination. Thus, in 1822 Champollion was able to find a system that solved the riddle of the hieroglyphs.
Kircher's writings constitute a confusing combination of facts and wild speculations. He was a convinced alchemist and his reading of Hermes Trismegistus writings made Athanasius fascinated by Hermes´s caduceus, the god's winged heraldic rod with its two coiled serpents. Quite correctly the Jesuit perceived the serpent rod as a fertility symbol associated with both the earth, snakes were considered to be underground creatures, and the birds in the sky. By sloughing off their skin, snakes stand for transformation and renewal, while the winged birds, like the angels, constitute a contact between earth and sky. Snakes are abundant in the Egyptian art, which Athanasius was well acquainted with. Furthermore, he observed that Moses used a rod entwined by a copper serpent to drive out poisonous reptiles that attacked the People of Israel in the wilderness. A similar rod was the symbol of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, while Athanasius' Jesuit brethren could tell him about Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec's winged swerpent and the Indian king Ashoka's snake rod.
Athanasius Kircher was also well aware of the fact that the first conversation recorded by the Bible occurred in the Garden of Eden between Eve and the serpent, “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” The snake asked Eve:
“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
However, Athansius Kircher was once again mistaken. Had he studied his Bible more closely, he might have been ended up on the right track. The Bible claims that after the Deluge people settled in Shinar, where began to build a tower that would reach Heaven. At that time they all spoke the same language. To put a stop to their crazy endeavour, God made people speak in different languages and then dispersed them across the globe. In the Bible, God does not tumble the tower, since for him it was sufficient that it could not be completed due to the linguistic confusion.
Shinar is the Hebrew name for Mesopotamia and it probably originates in Shene Neharot, two rivers. Kircher could maybe also have been inspired by the fact that the oldest known representation of a rod entwined by two snakes was the symbol of the Sumerian god Ningishzida, ruler of trees, guardian of the gates to heaven and god of medicine. Furthermore, it could have been illuminating for Kircher to realize that the Sumerian cuneiform writing, which came into use during the latter part of the fourth millennium BC, was slightly older than the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The snake obviously had some connection with knowledge. Jesuits who returned from China could tell Kircher about Fu Xi, assumed to have invented the Chinese writing characters and who had written a Serpent/Dragon Book, ”dealing with mathematics and astrology.” When they presented Athanasius Kircher with Chinese writing, as well as also a picture of Fu Xi and his twin brother Nüwa, portrayed as a pair of intertwined snakes, Kircher was convinced that Chinese writing must have a connection with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Hermes’s serpents.
According to Kircher, since the two written languages, i.e. Coptic and Chinese, were so geographically separated this could be an indication that they actually reflected a divine and universal language. He identified at least a hundred Chinese characters as being derived from the forms of ”living snakes and dragons” taking the shape of ”the vast variety of things they signify". Fu Xi is identical to Fuxi/Fu Hsi, also known as Paoxi, who according to the legends was the author of the much-revered I Ching, the Book of Transfiguration, a title worthy of an alchemical manual.
However, Athanasius Kircher was once again mistaken. Had he studied his Bible more closely, he might have been ended up on the right track. The Bible claims that after the Deluge people settled in Shinar, where began to build a tower that would reach Heaven. At that time they all spoke the same language. To put a stop to their crazy endeavour, God made people speak in different languages and then dispersed them across the globe. In the Bible, God does not tumble the tower, since for him it was sufficient that it could not be completed due to linguistic confusion.
Shinar is the Hebrew name for Mesopotamia and it probably originates in Shene Neharot, two rivers. Kircher could maybe also have been inspired by the fact that the oldest known representation of a rod entwined by two snakes was the symbol of the Sumerian god Ningishzida, ruler of trees, guardian of the gates to Heaven and god of medicine. Furthermore, it could have been illuminating for Kircher to realize that the Sumerian cuneiform writing, which came into use during the latter part of the fourth millennium BCE, was slightly older than the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Martin Luther also wondered if there could not be an older language than Hebrew, which he nonetheless assumed was one of the two languages God preferred to express himself:
Not for nothing did God have His Scripture written down in these two languages alone: the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. The languages, therefore, which God did not despise but chose above all others for His Word we, too, ought to honour above all others. And let us be sure of this: we shall not long preserve the Gospel without languages. Languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained. They are the case in which we carry this jewel. They are the vessel in which we hold this wine. They are the larder in which this food is stored.
We now know that Hebrew is akin to the Akkadian (with sub-dialects such as Babylonian and Assyrian) which after Sumerian (of unknown origin) for thousands of years was spoken in Mesopotamia, before it eventually was replaced by Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus.
During the fifteenth century, the Venetian traveler Giosofat Barbaro had seen strange writings engraved on ruins around the Persian city of Shiraz and also brought with him clay tablets engraved with the wedge-shaped signs. Another Italian, Pietro Della Valle, had in 1621 brought with him to Rome a number of transcriptions of wedge-letter characters, which he had copied during a trip to Mesopotamia. Several theologians now began to speculate whether those signs could possibly have a connection with the lost “original language”, i.e. God's own speech, for they were becoming more and more convinced that the Garden of Eden must have been somewhere in Mesopotamia.
The interpretation of the cuneiform script was initiated through the efforts of two adventurers; Paolo Emilano Botta (1802-1870) and Austin Henry Layard (1817-1894). Botta was born in Italy but studied botany in Paris where he in 1826 was asked by August Nernard Duhaut-Cilly if he, as a medical doctor, was willing to sail around the earth onboard his ship Le Héros. In the mid-1829, Le Héros returned to France, after making long stopovers in California and on Hawaii. Botta had obtained a taste for adventure and after his return to France he travelled to the Middle East where he spent several years studying botany, until in 1842 he was appointed French consul in Mosul. He returned to France only to die there in 1870.
During his spare time in Mosul, Botta collected alabaster figurines he bought in the villages surrounding the city, or managed to dig up by himself. One day a couple of men turned up and told Botta that they knew of a place where there were sculptures several times larger than the small statuettes Botta was collecting. They took him to Korsabad, just north of Mosul, where Botta was confronted with the remains of Sargon II's palace, with its magnificent reliefs and huge sculptures. Botta wrote:
What can all this mean? Who built these structures? In what century did he live? To what nation did he belong? Are these walls telling me their tales of joy and woe? Is this beautiful cuneiformed character a language? I know not. I can read their glory and their victories in their figures, but their story, their age, their blood, is to me a mystery. Their remains mark the fall of a glorious and a brilliant past, but of a past known not to a living man.
Austin Layard was born in France, though he spent most of his childhood and youth in Italy. His father had been employed by the British colonial administration in Ceylon. At the age of twenty-two, Layard wanted to become an employee in the Ceylon administration as well and decided to travel there by land. However, after getting acquainted with members of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe he spent several months wandering around with them through northwestern Persia. Layard abandoned his Ceylon plans and instead devoted himself to exploring the Middle East. He applied for a job with the British ambassador to Constantinople and after working for a couple of years in the European part of Turkey, he succeeded to convince the ambassador, Stratford Canning, to give him permits and support to investigate the Assyrian ruins that had been discovered in and around Mosul. Layard then spent several years exploring and documenting the remains of the city of Nineveh. Layard's investigations and the excellent drawings he himself and others made on site and the reconstructions they elaborated in London, were collected in a lavishly illustrated book, which became highly influential and much appreciated.
In the ruins of Nineveh, Layard had in 1849 unearthed the remains of King Sennacherib's (705-608 BCE) library containing numerous fragments of clay tablets, filled with cuneiform inscriptions. Three years later, his Assyrian-Christian co-worker (adherent to the Chaldean Catholic Church) Hormuzd Rassam found the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal's (668-627) extensive library, where a huge amont of clay tablets had been preserved, amomg them the story of Gilgamesh and the Mesopotamian Deluge.
The cruel, but at the same time intellectual, Ashurbanipal could both read and write Sumerian, by his time an already classical, extinct language, like Latin or Sanskrit are nowadays. He sent scribes and courtiers throughout his empire to collect as many texts as possible so that he, as he wrote, could ”obtain rites and enchantments that might be crucial for the preservation of my royal power.” Several scribes worked within his palace copying and in some cases even rewriting the collected texts. Large quantities of clay tablets from Nineveh's libraries were brought to the British Museum where the fragments are still sorted out and assembled. More than two thousand tablets have so far been reconstructed, but at the time Layard and Rassam brought them to London, no one could read what was written on them.
Seventeen-year-old Henry Rawlinson was in 1835 stationed in the city of Kermánšáh in western Iran, or Persia as it was called at the time. The British intended to counter the southern expansion of the Russian Empire and did to that end support the Persian Shahs against the Russians, among other things by training their officers. The stationing of young Rawlinson in Kermánšáh was part of that programme. However, after two years Shah Mohammad Qajar expelled the English, though they soon returned. The decision of the British Empire not to try to conquer Persia was probably due to the fact that this big nation and its relatively strong army would have been too costly to subdue. Furthermore, the British needed the Persian Empire as a buffer zone between their Indian Crown Colony and the Russian Empire, which was equally militant and expansive as the British one. Had the Brits at the time realized the future importance of the Persian oil fields, their ambitions would certainly have been different.
The village of Bīsotūn is not far from Kermánšáh and on a cliff wall just outside that village is a huge relief that the Persian Shah Dareios (522-484 BC) had ordered to commemorate events connected to his ascension to the throne of the Achaemenid Empire, the largest and most successful to that date. Dareios was a skilled administrator and under his rule the mighty empire was divided into 23 satraps, overseen by men with personal ties to the Shah. The different parts of this vast reign were connected by an efficient and well maintained road network. Most important of all these routes was the Royal Road, which stretched from Sardis (near present-day Izmir on the Turkish west coast) across Mosul and Babylon down to Susa, Dareios’s capital. In Susa, the Royal Road turned north-east in the direction of Ekbatana, former capital of the Medes, where it linked up with the legendary Silk Road.
It was on a rock face of the Zargos Mountains by the road between Sardis and Ekbatana that Dareio's huge relief with accompanying texts had been carved, one hundred meters up on a vertical mountainside. During Rawlinson's time in Kermánšáh it was extremely difficult to access the relief. Dareios had, after the impressive work of art had been cut, ordered the removal of the entire mountain slope in front of it. Only a twelve-inches wide ledge ran beneath the relief. Dareios had probably taken the drastic measure to remove masses of stone and gravel partly to make the engraving as visible and impressive as possible, and partly because no one would be able to hack away, damage, or change the relief. The extensive text, which encloses an image sequence depicting how Dareios punishes alleged "traitors and conspirators", is written in ancient Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian and impossible to make out from ground level.
The curious, young Henry Rawlinson could not refrain from climbing up the cliff wall and balancing on a ladder he managed to copy a large part of the ancient Persian cuneiform writing, which was inscribed at the lowest part of the relief. By comparing the cuneiform characters with the letters of a Persian king list that the historian Herodotus had written in Greek not long after Dareio's death, Rawlinson managed to decipher several of the cuneiform characters.
Having learned ancient Persian, Rawlinson was soon able to read the entire Persian text, though he had had to wait patiently for six more years until 1843, when after being stationed as an officer in Afghanistan, he was able to return to Bīsotūn, obtain a longer ladder and with great difficulty succeeded in copying the Alamite and Babylonian inscriptions as well. A life-threatening endeavour that could have ended very badly since the ladder slipped on the narrow cliff ledge and Rawlinson entered a free fall towards a certain death. Luckily a certain death was prevented when, as if by a miracle, he ended up on the narrow ledge and the riddle of the cuneiform could thus come closer to a solution.
When Rawlinson had returned to London he corresponded with an Irishman, Edward Hincks, and they had soon succeeded in interpreting and identifying 200 cuneiform letters from Rawlinson's copies of the now famous Behistun Inscriptions. In 1851, they met with a German - and an English linguist who had applied Hincks and Rawlinson's cuneiform keys to clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform texts written in Elamite and Babylonian. Shortly thereafter, the four researchers declared that the riddle of cuneiform writing finally had been solved.
Now Layard and Rassam could begin to piece together the clay tablet fragments they had brought with them to the British Museum. Soon they obtained help from even more skilful and patient cuneiform experts. Foremost among them was George Smith, who in 1872, with rising wonder on a pieced together clay tablet read the text I cited as an introduction to this essay. Deeply fascinated, Smith continued reading and discovered that he had found a long, and largely coherent text telling how a certain Uta-napishti by the god Ea had been commissioned to build a gigantic boat to save his ”kith and kin, the beasts of the field, the creatures of the wild, and members of every skill and craft” and thus salvage them all from a Deluge through which the gods intended to kill all humanity. The similarities to the Bible's flood story and Noah's ark were evident. Smith was captivated and in his boundless enthusiasm he did not know what he was doing and cried out aloud: "I am the first to read all this after two thousand years of oblivion!" and to the great amazement of people around him, he got up from his chair and began to undress.
When Smith in front of an enthusiastic congregation in 1873 read aloud the "Babylonian Flood Myth" and declared it was just one part of a great Mesopotamian epic about an ancient hero called Gilgamesh, the general exhilaration knew no bounds. The Daily Telegraph offered British Museum the large sum of 1,000 guineas to send Smith to Mosul and resume Layard's and Rassam's excavations of the clay tablet libraries. Unfortunately, Smith was shortly after his arrival lucky enough to find yet another virtually intact clay tablet, which in even greater detail reproduced the entire Flood Myth, after this great success the expedition was immediately interrupted, before Smith had managed to find other equally intact tablets reproducing the Gilgamesh story.
Nineveh was for the most part located under the multi-million city of Mosul. Excavations of ancient Nineveh have mostly taken place on the hills of Koyunik and Nabi Yunis. This is where the remains of the cuneiform libraries were found. However, large parts of Nineveh are still unexplored.
When ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, conquered Mosul on July 10, 2014, a group of its warriors plunged into the city's museum where they were filmed while destroying the priceless Mesopotamian world heritage with sledge hammers and pneumatic drills. In a few hours, an almost three thousand years old and extremely rich culture was totally destroyed. If the ancient gods had existed they would undoubtedly have crushed these villains, who apart from destroying their holy effigies had murdered, executed, and taken as sex slaves those whom they referred to as ”God Deniers”. I do not understand why this kind of murderous fanatics always abide to what is evil and reprehensible within any religious doctrine. Is it general idiocy, or just inhuman insanity? Did not these brutal maniacs realize that their venerated prophet was a result of the culture they so enthusiastically crushed with their sledge hammers?
“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.” Muhammad, the seal of the prophets, was well acquainted with the cultural environment of his time and was probably familiar with the traditions connected with Hermes Trismegistus as well. For example, the Qur'an mentions Idrīs twice as one of the Prophet's precursors:
Also mention in the Book the case of Idrīs: He was a man of truth [and sincerity], [and] a prophet: And We raised him to a lofty station.
And [remember] Isma´il, Idrīs, and Dhul-Kifl all [men] of constancy and patience;
We admitted them to Our mercy: for they were of the righteous ones.
Idrīs? Traditionally, he has been identified with the Bible's Enoch, who was said to have ”walked with God for three hundred years,” but it is equally likely that Idrīs is more or less identical to Hermes Trismegistus. Legends state that Idrīs was born in Babylon and was a companion to Adam's son Seth. In those days Babylon was a sinful nest and the Prophet Idrīs brought with him the righteous Babylonians to Egypt. Standing on the banks of the Nile, Idrīs raised his hands and paid homage to Allah with the word Subhanallah, Glory to Allah. Commentators of the Quran attributed Idrī's with ”great wisdom and great knowledge.” Several traditions consider him to be the inventor of writing and that he was the ”first to observe the orbits of the stars and determine the proper value of weights and measures.” This has made several Muslim theologians and writers to identify Idrīs with Hermes Trismegistus and the Egyptian Thoth, a tradition which apparently was particularly common among the Sabians of southern Arabia. Muhammad obviously did not regard them as Muslim believers, but nevertheless accepted their beliefs and in three places the Qur´an states that the Sabians have nothing to fear on the Judgement Day:
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.
Now, let us leave Hermes Trismegistus and alchemy aside and devote ourselves to Gilgamesh. We find us around 2,800 BCE in the southern part of Mesopotamia. A flat and warm landscape with swamps and plains, very fertile if drained and irrigated by canals and ponds, but apart from date palms virtually without timber, metals were also lacking and had to be imported. Most of the inhabitants were farmers who lived in fortified cities. Out of reach from the irrigation systems, the fertile fields were replaced by a more hostile terrain where herds of sheep and goats were grazing. Their shepherds had constantly be on the watch out for wolves and other predators. Further afield, there was a vast wilderness. There, the few inhabitants were not organized within any fortified cities and villages, but sustained themselves with hunting and fishing, or as bandits. Several day trips to the north and the west there were uninhabited mountain regions and forests with huge cedar trees. Most impressive of them all was the sacred Cedar Forest where some claimed the gods had their abode. It was guarded by the monstrous Humbaba, protected by seven deadly auras.
For there it was not only a concrete landscape that surrounded the Mesopotamians. They also lived within a mythical sphere where the distant Father of All Gods, God of the Sky, Anu, in solitary majesty resided in his heavenly palace, far above his mighty kingdom. The god of winds, Enlil, was on the other hand constantly present in the space between earth and heaven, and also within temples erected by his fearful believers. The wise and thoughtful Ea lived in his freshwater daomain beneath the earth's surface. Ea usually acted as a friend and protector of the human race, but could nevertheless turn into a fearsome creature. Most of the gods were unpredictable. They could at times prove to be benevolent, but just as often cruel and ruthless. Enlil's majestic son, Sîn, the Moon God, whose son Shamash, the Sun, was the companion of lonely wanderers but nevertheless he did also have his wicked traits. Shamash's impulsive sister Inanna (Ishtar), was the goddess of war and love. Beneath Ea's watery domain, deep down in the Netherworld was Death's bleak kingdom ruled by the bitter Ereshkigal, who was Shamash's sister as well. There she lay stretched out in perpetual wailing, waited upon by her minister, the eerie Namtar, and other demons of her awe-inspiring household.
Like in so many other places in the world the concrete landscape of Mesopotamia was covered by a mental one and it is there the stories about Gilgamesh are played out. Myths and legends, just like our own lives and thoughts, are not one-sidedly simple, but multi-faceted. They include concepts and imaginations that have developed over time and space and can thus be interpreted and understood at different levels. One approach need not exclude another.
For example, the strange stories about the adventures of the god Ea. His sexual exploits with young virgins and mature matrons may be amusing, or disturbing, fairy tales, though at the same time they may also be metaphorical descriptions of intricate irrigation systems, seasonal change, precipitation, the flow of rivers, the fertile power of springs and groundwater, ebb and flood, drought and inundations. Likewise, Inanna's love for the young and sadly deceased shepherd Dumuzi (Tammuz) may be considered as a moving story of love and passion, betrayal and death, though at the same time it is a depiction of nature's death and resurrection, fertility, capricious passions, sorrow, life and death, and much more. Not the least may the intricate story even constitute a detailed, allegorical description of how to make milk, cream and butter. ”As above, so below.”
The Gilgamesh epic is the world's oldest, preserved literary work and our second oldest religious text, after the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Gilgamesh's literary history begins with five poems about Bilgamesh, King of Uruk. Texts that originated during the third dynasty of the city of Uruk (c. 2100 BCE. Stories that more than a thousand years later were used as part of the source material for an epic written in Akkadian in Babylon. Author was a scribe named Sîn-liqe-unninni and his epic has now been traced to 73 ”manuscripts”, i.e. collections of clay tablets, 35 of which were found in the remains of Ashurbanipal's library in Nineveh.
There is still no intact version of Sîn-liqe-unninni's ”manuscript” called Sha naqba īmuru, He Who Saw the Abyss. All versions are composed of assembled clay tablet fragments. It is estimated that one third of the text is missing. Most Assyriologists agree that the missing fragments are to be found somewhere among the large amount of clay tablets stored in museum magazines around the world. It will take a long time before we have the entire Sha naqba īmuru. The Assyriologists who systematically and patiently work their way through piles of broken clay tablets are a dedicated, but very small group of people.
Let us now travel more than four thousand years back in time and meet people who lived in the mythical, Mesopotamian world.
He who saw the Deep, the country´s foundations.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace.
and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
of holy Eanna [Temple of Ishtar], the sacred storehouse.
See, its wall like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none could copy!
Take the stairway of a bygone era,
draw near to Eanna, seat of Ishtar, the godess,
that no later king could ever copy!
See the tablet-box of cedar,
release its clasp of bronze!
Lift the lid of its secret,
pick uop the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out,
the travails of Giglamesh, all that he went through.
Gilgamesh was a lugal, an autocratic ruler of Uruk and thus in possession of a complete power over his subjects. Blinded by boundless authoritarianism he forced his underlings to perform exaggerated day labour while he had sex with the wives of his worn-out workers. Becoming desperate by their ruler's abuse of power the people of Uruk prayed to the Ruler of Heaven – Anu: "a savage bull you have bred in Uruk-the-Sheepfold, he has no equal when his weapons are brandished.” Gilgamesh was a ruthless tyrant whom no one was safe from, neither virgins nor young men. Through his strength and superior skills, Gilgamesh humiliated and oppressed everyone. He thought himself to be unique, invulnerable and sovereign. The people asked Anu to create someone who was equally strong and powerful as Gilgamesh. Someone who could vanquish him and make him human and empathetic.
Now the myth comes to reflect the contradiction between what the Greeks called physis, nature and nomos, law/tradition, and perhaps also what the ancient Romans called cultura, i.e. culture. In ancient Mesopotamia there was a boundary between fertile plains and the wastelands; densely populated, walled cities and sparsely inhabited wilderness. A contrast that is often personified in the Bible; Abel and Cain, Jacob and Esau, or John the Baptist. About Adam and Eve's sons it is said that "Abel became a herder of sheep while Cain was a tiller of the soil", and ”Cain said to Abel his brother, ´Let us go out to the field,´ and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.” Isaac had two sons, one
was red-haired, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau [Īsaw, hairy/rough] The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Jacob deceived his brother and took his power away from him. About John the Baptist the Bible says:
A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. [He said] the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In Gilgamesh, Enkidu emerges, an individual who united the qualities that the biblical figures above seem to imply. Like Abel, he was not a farmer, but lived outside the cultivated sphere. The peasant Cain regarded Abel as a threat and killed him. Like Esau, Enkidu was shaggy and spent his time in the wilderness, an innocent creature who had no idea about the falsehood of settled and cultivated humans. Like John the Baptist, Enkidu was also a prophet who came from the wilderness and brought change to the ”civilized world”.
By bringing the savage Enkidu into Gilgamesh's ”cultured” existence the autocrat changed and became a better person. However, to achieve that Enkidu also had be changed, the wild man had to be civilized. It was a woman who defeated him. A woman who represents home, motherhood, security and desire. It was she who through her love for Enkidu, combined with her alluring sensuality, managed to curb the savage’s wildness and through his sexual desires succeeded, at least to some extent, to enslave him. A hunter had got annoyed by Enkidu´s presence:
Coated in hair like the god of animals,
with the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game by the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water.
But not only did Enkidu behave like a wild animal, he also protected the wildlife by destroying the hunter's traps and refilling his pitfalls. The frustrated hunter went to Uruk to seek the advice of the dreaded Gilgamesh, who despite his brutal reign was regarded as a wise man. Gilgamesh advised the hunter to go to Ishtar's temple and from there bring with him a temple prostitute out into the wilderness. If Enkidu fell victim to a woman's attraction, the animals would turn away from him. They would come to realize that he was a human being after all.
The hunter brought the beautiful woman to the water hole where Enkidu used to hang out and explained to her:
This is he, Shamhat! Uncradle your bosom,
bare your sex, let him take in your charms!
Do not recoil, but take in his scent:
He will see you, and he will approach you.
Spread your clothing so he may lay on you,
do for the man the work of a woman!
Let his passion caress and embrace you,
his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.
For six days Enkidu stayed with Shamhat, but when he had become “fully saturated” he wanted to return to his wild life, though to his great dismay he found that his friends the gazelles fled from him and the lions roared when he approached them. Enkidu also felt that his stamina had deteriorated and that he had begun to think differently from what he had done before. After some time in the wilderness, Enkidu felt alone and abandoned, gave up and returned to Shamhat, who knew how to take care of him.
Shamhat let a barber shave Enkidu's body, lubricated it with fragrant oils, and cut his hair and beard. She dressed the former savage in beautiful clothes. Enkidu, who neither had tasted bread nor drank any beer, ate and drank with relish. After seven cups filled to the brim, he felt comfortable and began to sing. After a while, Enkidu realized that he was stronger and bolder than any other man, while he at the same time understood that he would never be like the animals again. Instead of protecting them from the hunters, he now defended the herdsmen and their sheep from the predators, killing wolves and lions.
Enkidu now identified himself with the humans and just as he previously had been the friend and protector of the animals, he now became upset by injustices affecting the weak and the poor. When Shamhat told him that Gilgamesh relished the jus primae noctis, the right of the first night, which meant that he allowed himself to make love to the bride before the groom, Enkidu became violently upset and went to Uruk to make a halt to the dictator's sexual abuse.
Coming to Uruk, Enkidu witnessed a wedding procession and how Gilgamesh brutally snatched the bride away from her groom and forcibly brought her to the “wedding house”. The enraged Enkidu placed himself in the doorway and when Gilgamesh tried to push him aside the huge, former savage threw himself upon the king and a violent fight ensued. Finally, Enkidu got Gilgamesh down upon his knees and the defeated dictator saw no other resort than to extend his hand to Enkidu. The triumphant Enkidu magnanimously embraced the humiliated king. Gilgamesh became transformed. He had found his pal, a young strong man who, just like him, was brave and clever. Neither Enkidu nor Gilgamesh were alone anymore – Enkidu as a stranger and Gilgamesh as ruler. They were now a couple, a team.
Gilgamesh had come to power when he was far too young and accordingly suffered from a severe Peter Pan complex. In Enkidu, he thought he had found the perfect companion. Not long after they had become the best of friends, he suggested that he and Enkidu would embark on a great adventure. They would head to the Cedar Forest, a vast woodland that was also called The Place of the Living, maybe because it was assumed that gods dwelt there. However, Enkidu knew better - the forest was up in Kur, the land of the mountains, though Kur was also the name of the Netherworld, the Kingdom of Death, from which no one could return alive. Enkidu had also, like the natural child he was, met with the monstrous guardian of the Cedar Forest, the horrifying Humbaba, Enil's servant. Enlil, the storm god who hated humans.
To Gilgamesh, the entire endeavour appeared as a brilliant adventure, a youthful defiance of the gods. With the strong, confident child of nature, the mighty Enkidu by his side Gilgamesh felt invincible. Furthermore, if he could bring the cedars down to Uruk it would be a means to win Uruk's residents' favour and appreciation. He presented his plans to the Council of the Elders and explained that if he and Enkidu could vanquish the forest demon Humbaba, chop down the valuable cedar trees and bring their timber down to Uruk, built only by bricks, then their brave enterprise would make Uruk more beautiful and powerful than any other city on the face of the earth. Despite some doubt, Gilgamesh finally won the Council's trust and consent, perhaps the old men felt reassured that Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s departure would mean a respite from the violent and powerful youngsters. If they were to die in their battle against Humbaba, it would actually not be a great loss. If, on the other hand, they were to succeed with their reckless mission, the huge cedar trees would be an excellent addition to Uruk's economy and prestige. Gilgamesh was overjoyed at the support he found, but as he enthusiastically prepared for the adventure, he found that his friend Enkidu was unusually gloomy. Why did Enkidu hesitate to embark on such a great adventure and the possibility of ridding the world from the despicable monster like Humbaba:
I will conquer him in the Forest of the Cedar
let the land learn that Uruk´s offshoot is mighty
Let me start out, I will cut down the cedar
I will establish forever a name eternal.
Enkidu considered the endeavour in completely different light. To him it was an unforgivable assault on nature, a childlike defiance of the divine powers, a disdain for everything that he once been a part of. At the same time, Enkidu did understand that there was no turning back from the path he had taken after losing his virginity to the harlot Shamhat and after Gilgamesh had become his best friend. Enkidu knew he could not possibly convince a gung-ho adventurer like Gilgamesh, though he nevertheless tried to make his friend realize the great dangers lying in store. The young, passionate Gilgamesh could not understand who, or what, Humbaba really was, a force of nature protected by seven divine ”auras”. Enkidu had met him, he knew the monster:
This Humbaba, his voice is the Deluge,
his speech is fire, his breath is death!
He hears the forest murmur at sixty leagues´ distance:
who is there who would venture into his forest?
Adad [the Hurricane] ranks first, and Humbaba is second.
However, Enkidu could not endure his friend's mockery while he stated that Enidu spoke like a spineless tenderfoot. Where did this miserable fear come from? Enkidu's great courage had been tested in battle. Any man fled in panic from this savage's unchecked anger. He could with his bare hands strangle a fierce lion. Why did a giant like Enkidu tremble at the mere thought of Humbaba? The only thing a man could do during his short lifespan was to try to make a name for himself. ”As for man, his days are numbered, whatever he may do, it is but wind,” it is only through superhuman accomplishments your name can live on.
Enkidu gave in and as when he left the forest he knew now that there was no return, he had to follow the commenced path to the bitter end, accept his destiny and fight against everything he once had belonged to. Enkidu was no longer a child of nature, now he was a civilized man. Nothing could be as it had been. You cannot twice descend into the same river. On the way to his meeting with Humbaba, Gilgamesh was haunted by terrifying dreams that warned about impending disasters. The closer they came to the Cedar Forest, the more Gilgamesh doubted the soundness of his whim. Instead, it was now Enkidu who urged him on.
As they faced the mighty Cedar Forest and then stepped in under its impressive canopies they knew they were on sacred ground and shuddered at the thought that they were going to defile it. Gilgamesh was overwhelmed by the forest’s vastness and beauty. They did also in the depths of the woodland come across paths broken up by Humbaba when he did his rounds, watching for intruders. The mighty macho Gilgamesh now hesitated even more and cursed his mindless daring. It was Enkidu who had become the driving force and who pointed out which trees Gilgamesh should cut down, soon the forest echoed from the axe blows and the cedar giants´ crushing to the ground.
Suddenly the trees trembled and the earth shook as the approaching Humbaba's auras of ice, fire and winds swept through the forest. Soon the monster revealed himself and let his fiery anger wash over the traitor Enkidu:
Come, Enkidu you spawn of a fish, who knew no father
hatchling of terrapin and turtle, who sucked no mother´s milk!
In your youth I watched you, but near you I went not,
would your poor flesh have filled my belly?
Now in treachery you bring before me Gilgamesh,
and stand there, Enkidu, like a warlike stranger!
I will slit the throat and gullet of Gilgamesh,
I will feed his flesh to the locust bird, ravening eagle and vulture!
The enraged and wounded Enkidu incited Gilgamesh to attack Humbaba and the young hero from Uruk cut off the monster's head, while Enkidu ripped out its lungs. Humbaba's auras swept through the air, while their radiation diminished, faded away and died.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu returned to Uruk bringing with them Humbaba's head in triumph. When the Cedar Forest had lost its guardian, the gods could no longer do anything to protect their sacred forest and huge quantities of priceless timber were dragged and shipped down to Uruk.
Ishtar, the capricious war- and love goddess, became captivated by the powerful and god defying Gilgamesh and could not abstain from making amorous approaches. Like so many other deities, Ishtar thought it was significantly more attractive and satisfying to seek lovers among mortal men and women than among other gods. Gilgamesh, who after spurning the gods and defeating Humbaba, felt invulnerable and thus had the audacity to repudiate the mighty and indescribably beautiful Ishtar. It had never happened to her before and in addition Gilgamesh had had the impudence to mock the goddess for her pathetic horniness and the perfidious love she had feigned while luring mortal men into her yarn, a passion that always ended badly for the lovestruck men, who had been turned into hapless prey or deplorable wretches, if they did not suffer horrific, and humiliating deaths. No, a hero like Gilgamesh would never fall for Ishtar's seductive love games.
He feared neither gods nor humans and beasts. The enraged and scorned Ishtar went to her father Anu, mighty ruler of heaven and earth and pleaded with him to let loose the dreaded Celestial Bull so it could gore and trample Gilgamesh and Enkidu to death. After Ishtar had threatened to ”let Death swallow up everything alive” Anu reluctantly released the raging bull.
But, like a couple of seasoned butchers, Gilgamesh and Enkidu were prepared for the Celestial Bull’s attack. Gilgamesh stuck his knife straight into the "slaughter point" between the bull’s horns, while Enkidu got it down on the ground by twisting its tail and putting one foot on its back.
An old cowboy trick that made me remember the two buddies Augustus ”Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, who in a TV series based on Larry McMurty's wild-west novel Lonesome Dove were played by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. They joined forces in a quite insane adventure involving the drive of a huge, mainly stolen, cattle herd from Texas to Montana. Gus was the stronger and bolder of the two, while Woodrow was more reserved and thoughtful. Gus was romantically inclined with an eye for beautiful women, whores as he called them. However, Gus treated ”his” women relatively well and admired them to some extent, though he refused to be sincerely engages in a relationship, constantly driven by his longing for the free life in the wilderness. Gus died when his legs were amputated and he was deeply mourned by Woodrow. Gus’s and Woodrow's friendship was like Enkidu´s and Gilgamesh´s – two self-indulgent men with opposite personalities, rivals in a constant battle with each other, yet united in joint, ”masculine” and daring adventures and a camaraderie that continued beyond the other's death.
After killing the Celestial Bull, Enkidu suffered from a deep depression. He felt that he had betrayed nature, the wild beasts and the gods by being instrumental in ravishing the sacred Cedar Forest and assissting in the killing of violent and primeval natural forces like Humbaba and the Celestial Bull. During nights, he walked down to the huge temple gates made from the Cedar Forest's mightiest tree. He leaned his head against the timber and complained loudly to the silent door ”as if it were a living man”:
Your tree had no rival in the Cedar Forest:
six rods is your height, two rods your breadth, one cubit your thickness.
Your pivots, top and bottom, are all of a piece;
I fashioned you, I lifted you, I hung you in Nippur [the site for Enlil´s temple].
Enkidu went to bed and did not rise again, complaining about the hunter who denied him his freedom and Shamhat who seduced him and brought him to Gilgamesh; it was through them he became excluded from his free life as part of nature, a traitor to his origins. Nature´s enemy and destroyer. Enkidu waisted away and died. Gilgamesh was inconsolable, left his palace, Uruk, his men and women. Gilgamesh forgot about his appearance, let his hair and beard grow long and unkempt, dressed in animal skins, and roamed the wilderness, not as a child of nature like Enkidu, but as a mad beast, a killer, and destroyer.
Shamash, the sun god, companion of solitary wanderers, who occasionally could be overwhelmed by compassion, saw Gilgamesh´s mindless rambling and cruelty:
Shamash grew worried and bending down
he spoke to Gilgamesh:
”O, Gilgamesh, where are you wandering:
The life you seek, you never will find.”
Shamash had understood Gilgamesh's problem. Like so many other immature youngsters before him, Gilgamesh was not able to understand that death was definitive and a part of human existence. That his friend Enkidu was gone forever and that he himself would eventually die. But, Shamash's revelation gave Gilgamesh an idea. He knew that the Sun God every night travelled through a long tunnel and then went to rest on the other side of the Eastern Ocean. There lived Gilgamesh's ancestor Uta-napishti, who with his ship had escaped the Deluge that killed all the animals and humans who had not found a refuge on his boat. The idea gave Gilgamesh a goal, he would go to Uta-napisthi and through him find the secret of life.
Between Mount Mashu's twin peaks was the Sun's tunnel, its gates were opened and closed by two Scorpion Men
whose terror was dread whose glance was death
whose radiance was fearful, overwhelming the mountains -
at sunrise and sunset they guarded the sun
Their looks were so abominable that Gilgamesh initially hid his face while he approached them, but when he took his shielding hand away and boldly looked the hideous monsters straight into their eyes, they became surprised by his bravery and allowed him to enter the pitch black tunnel.
Then Gilgamesh rushed hour after hour through the compact darkness, worried about not being able to get out before the sun entered, and through his concentrated heat would burn him to ashes.
After a night of a blind race against an invisible sun Gilgamesh, just before dawn, reached a paradisical garden, though he did not indulge himself in any rest but hurried on toward his goal. Soon he was standing on the beach looking out across the Eastern Ocean, which no mortal, except Uta-napishti and his wife, previously had set his/her eyes upon.
Now follows a strange episode. On the shore by the End of the World was a tavern – who could possibly visit such an establishment? People couldn't get there and why would a god frequent such a place? I wonder if Douglas Adams had had Gilgamesh in mind when he placed a restaurant by the end of the universe in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, that place was much livelier than the joint in Gilgamesh, where we find only the proprietor, a woman whose age we are not told, but I suspect she was young.
Neither does the story tell us who she was, or what her name was, nor did any of the books I read to write this essay. Nevertheless, I assume she was identical to Ishtar. She was certainly a mighty goddess of love and war, though she could nevertheless manifest herself as a simple prostitute, not only someone who lived in the temples, but one who frequented the simple taverns that farmworkers visited while returning from their daily chores.
When the tavern hostess saw the unkempt stranger, who with a ragged beard and ferocious appearance was approaching her establishment, she locked the door, leapt up to its flat roof and from there called down inquiring who the stranger was. Gilgamesh told her that he was king of Uruk mourning his friend Enkidu and that he himself was afraid of death. The innkeeper then let the haggard and tormented fellow enter her tavern. Ishtar knew quite well that he was the same one who had betrayed her love, killed the Celestial Bull and a multitude of lions, animals that were devoted to her. Still, if she now really was Ishtar, she did not seem to be angry with the downtrodden, pathetic Gilgamesh. She offered him beer and food while advising him:
The life you seek you never will find
when the gods created mankind
death was dispensed to mankind,
life they kept for themselves.
But, you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
enjoy yourself always by day and by night!
Make merry each day,
dance and play days and night!
Let your clothes be clean'
let your head be washed, may you bath in water!
Gaze on the child who holds your hand,
let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!
For such is the destiny of mortal men.
It was the privileged existence of a wealthy aristocrat that Ishtar described. A civilized, well-groomed man, not a savage. A gentleman capable of enjoying what he had accomplished. Why, then would Gilgamesh, in maddened sadness and despair chase after wind? Every man would die. However, Gilgamesh insisted with his wild goose chase and the wise Ishtar realized that only experience would change Gilgamesh. She told him that Shamash's ferryman Ur-shanabi could take him across the Eastern Ocean. If Gilgamesh could pass across The Sea of Death, which mighty currents pierced through the middle of the Eastern Ocean, then he could on its other shore meet with Uta-napishti and his wife, though he would never be deemed worthy of an eternal life.
Frustrated and disappointed, Gilgamesh walked down to the ocean shore. Imprisoned by his boundless annoyance he managed to kill the Stone Men he met on the beach, irritated by their silence and what he perceived as their refusal to take him across the sea. However, the slain Stone Men turned out to be Ur-shanabi's crew and Gilgamesh therefore had to, with great difficulty, punt Ur-shanabi's boat across the ocean, making use of three hundred, twenty-five metres long punting poles, which he lost one one after the other.
After reaching the other shore of the Eatern Ocean, Gilgamesh was welcomed by Uta-napishti, who told him the flood story that made George Smith to take off his clothes at the British Museum. That Uta-napishti was granted eternal life by the gods was due to them being grateful to him for their own survival. The thing was that when the gods unanimously had decided to exterminate humanity through the Deluge, the wise freshwater god Ea, the creator of human beings, secretly opposed their decision and contacted Uta-napishti who built his vast ark to rescue the animals, the seed and human craftsmanship from a sure extinction.
When the gods after the devastation had found that they actually had destroyed life on earth, they realized that they had to work hard for their own survival, if that actually could be done now when they so thoughtlessly had destroyed the prerequisites for a good, leisurly life. When Uta-napishti, after his successful rescue were sacrificing meat and fruits to the gods as an act of thankfulness for his rescue and the kindness they had shown him, the gods flocked to the sacrificial meal:
The gods did smell the savour.
The gods did smell the savour sweet.
The gods gathered like flies around the man making sacrifice.
The gods thanked Ea for his resourcefulness and were delighted that Uta-napishti, his fellow hiuman beings, the animlas and the seed had all survived and could recreate the wealth that previously had prevailedon earth. They decided to continue to preserve humanity, but in order to limit its numbers they decreed that women from now on had give birth to their children in pain and hardship and that all humans, if they did not die in battle, hardship, or sickness, would die from old age – with two exceptions, namely Uta-napishti and his wife, who were rewarded with eternal life.
Uta-napishti assured Gilgamesh that no man except himself and his wife could escape death. To alleviate Gilgamesh's horror of death, Uta-napishti immersed him in deep sleep, thereby proving that death itself is not painful – it just equals forgetfulness and emptiness, nothing else. A sleep you don't wake up from. It is life that counts, the memories you leave behind, and even they disappear over time.
Uta-napishti assured Gilgamesh that the purpose of his existence was to serve others through his leadership. Was Gilgamesh born and raised to become a brutal savage? No, he was a leader and a man of action. If he who now denied that role he would surely become a nullity, his death would be like a gust of wind in the desert. After Gilgamesh, through hard work and intimate conversations, had convinced Uta-napishti of his prowess and together with the ferryman Ur-shanabi was about to return to Uruk, Uta-napishti's wife said to his husband that he would leave a bad impression if he was to be remembered as someone who did not give their guest a farewell gift. Uta-napishti then told Gilgamesh of a place in the depths of the Ocean where a spiny plant grew, looking like a mixture of box-thorn and dogrose. If Gilgamesh cooked and ate it, he would become like he was in his youth and remain like that until his death.
The information enlivened Gilgamesh, although he was now absolutely convinced that death was inevitable, though a long life as a powerful and youthful man was certainly something to desire. When they had come out upon the open sea he wondered if the ferryman knew where the youth's plant was growing. Sure, Ur-shanabi knew that, but how would Gilgamesh be able to get hold of it? When they reach the spot where the plant grew, Gilgamesh let himself be lowered down into the sea with heavy stones tied to his feet. He managed to hold his breath for as long that he could pick one of the prickly plants and in joyous triumph he freed himself from the stone weights and swam up towards the sun-glittering surface.
However, during the journey Gilgamesh did not find an opportunity to cook and eat the prickly plant and had to wait until they arrived at Uruk. During one of the nightly sojourns when Gilgamesh had fallen asleep on the shore of an island, a snake came out of the sea and stole the precious Plant of Youth. When Gilgamesh woke up he was horrified by the theft, though he soon calmed himself down and smiled at the thought that he was on his way back to his former life, to his wife and children, and to the city he ruled over, which he had provided with such magnificent buildings. What was eternal youth compared to such achievements and the joy to know that you can love and be loved back?
As they along the wide river were approaching Uruk and caught sight of its sunlit, mighty walls, Gilgamesh exclaimed:
O, Ur-shanabi, climb Uruk´s wall, and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundation, examine its brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations?
Thus ends the epic about Gilgamesh, just as it began – with a tribute to Uruk and its mighty walls. A depiction of civilization's victory over nature – Uruk with its date plantations, brick ovens, walls and magnificent temple dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of love and war. However, as we have seen in the epic, civilization had been created at the expense of nature and it could not have existed without parts of nature being defiled and killed, as Enkidu was vanquished and died in agony, as the natural forces of Humbaba and the Celestial Bull were killed, as the mighty, sacred Cedar Forest were cut down and destroyed. In the epic of Gilgamesh death is constantly present, in symbiosis with life and creation, and it is always victorious.
I give the last word to the remarkable poet from Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke. He was a romantic and a dreamer and far from being a diligent reader of classics. Rilke willingly admitted that he just had read bits and pieces from Hamlet and Dante's Divine Comedy and not a line from Goethe's Faust. During the mass slaughter and general despair during World War I, Rilke was completely taken by Gilgamesh. In 1916, after reading a rather deficient translation of Gilgamesh, he wrote to a female friend:
Here we find a gigantic book in which there exists a force, as well as individuals I found to be among the greatest that the magic words have ever bestowed upon every imaginable age. Most of all, I would like to tell you that here we find an epic about fear of death, which in all human thought has emerged as an incomprehensible concept, unthinkable since the fact that a separation between death and life would be definite and catastrophic.
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