Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Epic of Gilgamesh

18th May 2011


Musings and rants

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I've been catching up on some old reading. And when I say old I'm talking about probably the oldest surviving written story yet found, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The legend was found in the ruins of the palace and great library of Ashurbanapal, written on tablets dated to around 2000 BC.

There's something about ancient writing on clay tablets that's guaranteed to send a shiver down my spine. Maybe it's the effect of watching too many Indiana Jones films, or every single fantasy I've read that features magic spells contained within really old texts. It's as though great age casts a spell because of our distance from the writer and their ancient world. If the space of a few years makes everything rose-tinted with nostalgia, perhaps this effect is multiplied over time until we get pure, concentrated enchantment.

Even unenchanted, there's no doubt in my mind that the Gilgamesh story still holds a lot of power. A lot is missing from the versions archaeologists have discovered, and in those days the writers were succinct because they had to fit it all onto tablets. So epic doesn't mean it's very long. But what does remain is surprisingly relevant to today, and even quite incendiary.

Enkidu Not

The story concerns Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. They were two similar-looking characters who do the usual heroic deeds: fighting, smiting, carousing and running around questing. They battle each other when they first meet, and then join forces to face Humbaba, a forest demon. Later, when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes on a journey in search of immortality. That's the gist, although there is of course more to it.

What's remarkable is the way their adventures contrast so much with later stories from the Bible and Greek myth. Most obviously, Enkidu is the anti-Adam. He starts off in a primitive state, running with the animals and sucking milk from the udders of cows to get by. At this stage he sports cloven hooves, horns on his head, and a body covered in hair. Sound familiar?

Enkidu changes his lifestyle when he meets a woman and she introduces him to farming, good food and the delights of civilisation. Whereas the Adam and Eve story is all about a temptress corrupting Adam with knowledge, Enkidu is elevated by the woman he meets. In the Gilgamesh epic civilisation is depicted as a step up from living like a beast.

The Biblical story paints original sin as a kind of Pandora's box of knowledge that can't be closed once opened. The state of innocence in Eden is a lovely garden paradise. It's basically anti-intellectual and anti-progress, and when you compare it with the story of Enkidu this difference is much more apparent. For Enkidu innocence and ignorance is savage and grim, and the place he inhabits is described as cursed ground. He then moves to the "fertile meadow" of the (civilised) sheepfolds as he learns to farm. When he got drunk "... he became hilarious. His heart became glad and his face shone." It's all very jolly.

Of course both views of civilisation are extreme simplifications, and the truth about cultural advancement lies somewhere in between these points of view. But we've been exposed to the fundamentally pessimistic myth of a perfect state of nature in our literature so often that it's high time for an antidote.

The Evolution of Myths

Enkidu isn't just similar to Adam. There are hints of the labours of Hercules when he slays a bull and overcomes lions, and he's described more than once as being god-like. Moreover, Gilgamesh "loved him as a woman", which lends the story a decidedly Greek flavour.

Throughout the epic there's evidence of the way later stories might have evolved from it by taking bits from this Babylonian precursor and embellishing them. Even reading between the lines of the epic, it's possible to see how Gilgamesh is trying to muscle in on Enkidu's story and take his place and glory as the main hero.

The Epic in Popular Fiction

Aliette De Bodard  :

Aliette de Bodard

If you browse the internet for films about Hercules or King Arthur the choice is overwhelming. But there are only a slack handful of Gilgamesh movies, many of them shorts. Whilst you can't make an accurate assessment of the impact of a story by looking at movie titles, the message is clear as day. On the whole, the Gilgamesh story is being lost to the popular imagination, whilst other myths get done to death.

I'm reminded here of what Aliette de Bodard has done for the Aztecs in her Obsidian and Blood series. By taking a little-known pantheon of gods she evokes a strangeness that gives her novels a fascinating hook. They are brilliantly written, but I'm sure some of the charm is down to the thrill of uncovering a society that few people know about in any depth. And that's despite the fact that the stories are set mere hundreds rather than thousands of years ago.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is so neglected it's practically virgin territory, but that's not the only reason I believe it's ripe for a modern adaptation. The tale of Enkidu's beginnings is a story of hope and belief in mankind's ingenuity. We're desperately in need of that kind of perspective right now. Currently this point of view is getting drowned out by enviro-disasters, zombie apocalypses, robot rampages and other stories of technology gone awry. At the same time the Epic is a potential source of controversy thanks to Enkidu's horns and the way later legends have twisted its material to contradict the meaning of the original story.

Best of all, Gilgamesh is old, old, old. And nothing casts a spell like a broken, ancient text that's discovered in spooky ruins and written in a cryptic language. So why aren't more authors finding inspiration in this work?

© Ros Jackson