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Symbol and Metaphor in the Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about the fate of man and, more specifically, the nature of his accomplishments in the context of impending death. It is a battle between the virtues of civilization and the virtues of man in his natural, “savage” state. Hence, the products of civilization are on trial here. The society of Mesopotamia at the time was highly advanced, urban and possessed of technology and science.

Hence, it seems only natural that questions of civilization, and the sacrifices necessary to bring it about and maintain it, would be a central concern for the region. It seems that the gods, who play a substantial role in this epic, are just as human as the human beings in the drama. Typical of the pagan mentality, the gods are actually human beings with extraordinary powers, not different from the modern superhero (rather than the God of the Hebrews or Christians). Gilgamesh himself is one third divine, as he descends from the mother goddess Rimat.

But this is precisely the problem–being partly divine (or heroic, to be more accurate, since our concept of divinity is much different from theirs), he is capable of ruling, building and maintaining advanced civilizations whose power can rival the gods themselves. Like the story of Prometheus, this seems to be the motive force for the later flood: the semi-divine status of human beings that had “broken their bonds,” or, more cynically, had forgotten their place. Man, with a soul, stands midway between the world of matter and the world of divinity, hence, they can go either way.

What is worse (especially from the point of view of the gods) is that the forces of the impulse, and the forces of the mind, may join forces and dominate all in their paths. Of course, death and dissolution will destroy everything in the end. The gods seem arbitrary, and no ultimate reason for the flood is given (though one can speculate on the power of man being a threat, etc). The gods view each other as equals, as they meet in an assembly (cf Tablet XI). Ishtar is sensual and emotional, and is likely the patroness of the temple prostitutes. Shamash is solicitous of Gilgamesh and gives him hints for success along the way.

Rimat is motherly, and truly loves and wishes the best for her son. All of these qualities are familiar to anyone interested in Greek or Roman myths. The fact that the city of Uruk is so advanced gives pause to the gods. And this is why death came into existence, to control human beings and their development of an urban life whose power would attack and surpass that of the gods themselves. The very fact that Ishtar is interested in being Gilgamesh’s lover (and that she has had many other mortal lovers in the past) proves the basic equality between gods and men, in everything but that of eternal life (Tablet VI).

In the very beginning of Tablet I it is read: “Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all. He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of (the time) before the Flood. ” What is this information? It makes sense to hold that it is the information of mathematics, science, political theory, all the necessary knowledge of creating civilization, and, more specifically, mastering nature, with all its negative consequences. The point of the creation of Enkidu in the first place was to control the dominion of Gilgamesh. Enkidu is the “natural man,: hunter and gatherer, not good, not bad, just human.

Enkidu is not an animal, but he is happy with the simple things provided free of charge by nature. He is strong, but the nature of civilization has made him physically weak(er), and this specific benefit of civilization is the commodification and ritualization of sex, which takes advantage of otherwise natural urges for the profit of the temple. But this lack of physical strength that comes with the more sedentary life of urbanity, is replaced by its knowledge–the knowledge of the sciences, astronomy and alchemy, the mastery of nature but through brute strength, but by the knowledge of nature as a whole.

The main themes of this Epic, then, are the domination of man over nature, symbolized nicely by the desire, without apparent real cause, to destroy the cedar forest guarded by the daemon Humbaba. Death, and the real purposeless of civilization, is the dominant theme, but it attacks civilization in that the works of men will all perish, nothing will remain but memories. Utnapishtim says to him: “You have toiled without cease, and what have you got! Through toil you wear yourself out, you fill your body with grief, your long lifetime you are bringing near (to a premature end)!

Mankind, whose offshoot is snapped off like a reed in a canebreak, the fine youth and lovely girl. . . death” (Tablet X). But what is more is the dual nature of man, represented by the Greeks in the dialectic between Apollo and Dionysus: the man as animal, Enkidu, and man as reason and ruler, man as Gilgamesh. Enkidu has no knowledge of geometry and the sciences of technology, but it remains clear that, when he is fashioned and bought to earth, he is not unhappy. Simple things can satisfy him. He is the counterpart of Gilgamesh.

Once cannot defeat the other, they exist in a basic state of equilibrium, hence, they must become friends, since they are mirrors of each other. But this is exactly the point: all civilization requires sacrifice, the huge urban civilization of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Greece is dealing with these sacrifices that come with the development of urban life: commercialization of life creates classes, rich over poor; growth of urbanization creates a growth of desires, which in turn, create wars and expansion.

Settled agriculture leads to slavery and serfdom, as the rich institutionalize their domination over the poor. These are all sacrifices that come with the benefits fo civilization: one might make a cogent argument that they cancel each other out. The role of women in this story is generally a positive one, reflecting the nature of the feminine everywhere. Ishtar acts and behaves like any attractive 16 year old: arrogant, sensual, demanding, jealous, and, importantly, imperious, using sex as a weapon.

Woe betide anyone who rejects her or forces her to take responsibility for her previous actions, especially of a sexual nature, as Gilgamesh tries to do. On the other hand, her counterpart is Rimat, the maternal figure, the older, mature woman who has children, and hence, under normal circumstances, must moderate her behavior and be more mature. She worries and frets about the weird scheme to cut down the cedars and the subsequent battle, and generally behaves like the classic maternal figure. They are paralleled in Greek mythology with Aphrodite and Hera/Juno.

Just as interesting is the role of the “animal” (both literally and figuratively), in the work. The animal usually represents a force of nature, something that needs to be reckoned with in man’s assault of nature for the benefit of the urban elite and commercial class (using the term “mankind” here is a mystification, the benefits of modern science go to the elite and their servitors). Enkidu is a primary example, as the animal side to human nature, at war with the rational, governing side of human beings.

The daemon Humbaba is also an “animal” type force, as he is in charge of guarding some of the most attractive plants of nature: the beautiful and sweet smelling cedar forests. Like the later flood, this destruction of the cedars (Tablet II) is motivated merely by an excess of power, and excess of the animal that has been joined to the rational. Enkidu is sent by the gods to control Gilgamesh, but in reality, the two of them together are an invincible force, since the impulsive and wild side of humanity has now been given a rational and intelligent guiding force.

Hence, even though Enkidu is afraid to take on the guardian of the cedars, the two of them together are more than a match for the demon. Of course, the only thing the two of them cannot defeat is death. Hence, one can summarize the themes of the book in the following way. The primary thrust of the work is the relation of man to “nature,” this word being defined as the uncontrolled, wild, “virgin,” element of the natural world, as opposed to the rational world of geometry and law, natural and civil. These two elements exist among the gods, they exist among men, they exist within each person.

They must exist in some kind of equilibrium, since, as the original fight (Tablet I) suggests, one cannot defeat the other, and, hence, they must come to some understanding with each other. The gods are not gods in the more Christian or Hebraic sense of the term: hero is a better term. They are supermen, rather than gods. They are human beings that have extraordinary powers, but like man himself, contains the wild elements of nature, the arrogance and arbitrariness that all humans suffer with. Sex plays a huge role in this Epic, as it is one of the means whereby the animal is civilized.

At least, in its urban, commodified form, then and now. It is a form of control, and, there even might be a hint that civilization has one of its roots in the desire of men to keep the attractive women handy. The very fact that Enkidu is entrapped by such wiles shows this strongly: sexuality in its wild and unrestrained form is traded in (involuntarily) for the knowledge of domination. But domination is the steady theme: whether it is the domination of base desires or the domination of mind over matter, control exists in both cases.

But the unsystematic control of the desires is traded in for a more systematic form of control over nature and people as a whole, and this system comes to be known as science, something the Babylonians knew very well, particularly in mathematics and astronomy, as is well known. But ultimately, death wins. But if death wins, then the work of a genius like Gilgamesh will soon totter. The work that he and his forebears put into civilization, the sacrifice that civilization demands inherently to itself will all disappear, all swallowed up in human death and the ever changing nature of the material world. Death cannot give life.

Hence, civilization cannot give life or happiness. Civilization is built on death: deaths in wars and accidents, but also in the less direct forms of death such as serfdom and slavery, the worship of money (or the worship of dead matter more generally) are all marks of death and decay. Not to mention the broader fact that the whole concept of civilization is to control what cannot be controlled: the natural order. But part of the natural order is that civilizations come and go, are born and die, the individual human being is rarely remembered, his days on earth are few. Civilization is ultimately pointless.

It is based on death. Enkidu was no more happy in civilization than in his wild state. It is a different thing altogether to say that he was more powerful in his civilized state. But that’s just the point: his power did not bring happiness. Civilization again, is self defeating. Ultimately, then, all is sublimated under the idea of civilization and sacrifice. The life of the natural man knows no slavery, no serfdom. The natural man, represented by the pre-sexual Enkidu, is happy with the simplest of things, and roams the wilderness freely, not afraid of the animals, but acting as a brother to them.

Nature is not fallen to the natural man, it only appears hostile to the civilized man, the man whose physical strength and extraordinary sensate capacity has been diminished by the ritualized, bureaucratized and stratified world of the city. The Translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh used in this piece was translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, made into electronic format by Wold Carnahan in 1998 and can be found at electronictexts. org, part of The Academy for Ancient Texts, founded in 2001.

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