‘Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land….’

April 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm (History, Poetry)

First, let me say:

I am deeply grateful to Osher Life Long Learning (affiliated with Johns Hopkins University) for making our classes available by means of Zoom technology.

The subject of one of my classes is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous translations of this work are extant; for our class, our instructor, Dr. Lederman, uses this one:

Herewith are the opening lines from Tablet I:

He who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
He it was who studied seats of power everywhere,
Full knowledge of it all he  gained,
He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,
He brought back tidings from before the Flood,
From a distant journey came home, weary, but at peace,
Set out all his hardships on a monument of stone,
He built the walls of ramparted Uruk,
The lustrous treasure of hallowed Eanna!

Gilgamesh, supposedly

This passage continues to limn the glories of Uruk; then we return to the subject of Gilgamesh the praiseworthy. Except that he actually isn’t very praiseworthy. He is, at least at the story’s  beginning not much more than an arrogant brute. He is cruel and rough with the young men of Uruk; worse, he exercises his “right of the first night” ( known also as jus prima noctis, or droit du seigneur) with every new bride, on her wedding night.

The people of Uruk cry out to the gods about Gilgamesh’s abuses, and they realize that a way must be found to inculcate civility into the wild ruler. The god Anu summons another god, Aruru, and more or less kicks the ball into her court. These are Aruru’s orders:

Let her create a match for Gilgamesh, mighty in strength,
Let them contend with each other, that Uruk may have peace.

So Aruru gets to work, and this is the result:

She created valiant Enkidu in the steppe,
Offspring of silence*, with the force of the valiant Ninurta.
He was made lush with head hair, like a woman,
The locks of his hair grew think as a grain field.
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
With wildlife he drank his fill of water.

*The footnote says of the phrase “Offspring of silence” that it may refer to the fact that Enkidu, having been formed of clay, did not enter into the world with “the tumult that normally accompanies childbirth.”

Is all of this starting to seem weird? Trust me, we’re just beginning.

Chief agent in charge of “civilizing” Enkidu is a harlot named Shamhat. She knows just how to proceed:

Shamhat loosened her garments,
She opened her loins, he took her charms.
She was not bashful, she took his vitality.
She tossed aside her clothing and he lay upon her,
She treated him, a  human, to woman’s work,
As in his ardor he caressed her.
Six days, seven nights was Enkidu aroused, flowing into Shamhat.

Well golly! You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather when I first read that. Pornography in an ancient Mesopotamian epic??!! And depending on the translation, this episode is rendered in even more explicit language. Click here for an example. And no, I’m not going to place the actual text here. This is, after all, a family friendly blog!

Now, as a topic of study, this epic is hugely complex and many-faceted. I don’t mean to be flippant and/or dismissive. People give their entire professional lives to the explication, translation, and study of the epic of Gilgamesh and its place in Mesopotamian civilization. And our lecturer, Dr. Richard Lederman, is himself a marvel of scholarship. In a recent class, he came out with a throwaway line which I will cherish: “My Akkadian is a bit rusty.” Oh and he is fluent in Hebrew and a scholar of the Old Testament as well.

So I have to say that for myself, from a purely esthetic standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit lacking. Here’s why I’m of that opinion:

1. Repetition. There’s too much of it. The first four lines of the first passage quoted above are typical. This may be due to the fact that at times, the story may have been presented orally.

2. The plot disjointed, not especially compelling, and sometimes just too strange to summon forth any empathy.

3. The same is true for the characters. I had a lot of trouble caring about what happened to them.

4. The writing, for the most part, is flat and uninspired. Admittedly, the exact language is dependent on the translation you’re reading. Nevertheless, I was hoping to encounter some of the literary devices that occur in the Homeric epics – you know, epithets such as “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “wine-dark Sea,”” bright-eyed Athena,” and the amazingly vivid extended similes and metaphors. They simply were not there.

Dr. Lederman recommended this video to us. I found it both enlightening and engaging:

 

 

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