Wednesday, 14 January 2015


“Events are as much the parents of the future as they were the children of the past.” – JohnGalsworthy

I have a fascination with things ancient. This is not new, it began when I was child, to the extent of me wanting to become an archaeologist. I guess, in part this may have been due to living in a country where things ancient were commonplace and familiar. Wherever one turns in Greece, one finds evidence of the past. One cannot ignore the past there, one is surrounded by it in both obvious and subtle ways. I learnt to speak uttering some words in my mother tongue that have remained unchanged for 5000 years. I learned to read and write using letters that were the first truly alphabetic script devised to record the vowels and consonants of speech. I grew up reading myths and legends that children 2,500 years ago were reading also.

I still love ancient things. This goes for ancient writings also. My tastes are more universal and widespread nowadays. But in reading those texts from long ago, I hear the voices of humanity from the distant past and feel strangely close to them, for they are so similar to me. Their stories amuse me and entertain me in the same way that they did them. Similar things move me or stir up my anger. I am puzzled by the same things, I am in the same moral and ethical pickles that they were in when they were writing all those millennia before today.

Today, let us go back in time (about 4,500 years ago) to Mesopotamia. To the cradle of civilisation, ancient Sumeria. A highly sophisticated civilisation, one of the first to develop writing, and as a consequence, a literature. “The Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of these examples of Sumerian literature that we can read today in translation (for a full online translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs see:

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is one of the oldest recorded stories in the world. It tells of an ancient King of Uruk, Gilgamesh (who may have actually existed, his name is on the Sumerian King List). Various Sumerian versions exist of this story and it was widely known in the third millennium BC. The story was retold in many different forms and finally recorded, in a standardised Akkadian version, in the seventh century BC, and stored in the famous library of King Assurbanipal.

With the passing centuries, the downfall of powerful empires and the forgetting of the ancient tongues and writings, the story of Gilgamesh was lost to memory, except for occasional fragments. The story was rediscovered with the excavations in Mesopotamia in the mid-nineteenth century AD. The baked clay tablets incised with the cuneiform script were unearthed, the ancient languages were deciphered and the story of Gilgamesh made available in translation to German by the beginning of the twentieth century. People read with fascination this most ancient of stories, and realised that the flood story in Gilgamesh was a precursor of the flood story in the Hebrew Bible.

This is a summary of the story:
Gilgamesh is the King of Uruk. His father is mortal and his mother is a goddess. However, because he is part mortal, Gilgamesh must eventually die, as he discovers and comes to accept during the course of the story. Gilgamesh is a bad ruler; he sleeps with all the women subjects he wants and takes away children from their families. His subjects ask the gods for help, and the gods have the goddess Aruru create a man, Enkidu, who will be almost Gilgamesh’s equal.

Enkidu comes to life in the wilderness. He is covered with hair, shaggy, wild, like the wilderness. He eats grass with the gazelles and drinks water with the animals. A trapper is frightened by the sight of Enkidu and asks his father what to do, because Enkidu is freeing animals from the traps. His father advises him to go to Uruk, find Gilgamesh, and tell him of the wild man. Then he should ask for a harlot from the temple and bring her back with him. She will seduce Enkidu, and then the wild animals will reject him and he can be lured to civilisation.

The harlot does just that, seducing Enkidu, so he is rejected by the animals. She teaches Enkidu some of the ways of civilisation, such as wearing clothing, eating bread and drinking wine. Then she tells him of the strength of Gilgamesh. Enkidu wants to meet and challenge Gilgamesh to a contest of strength. Enkidu hears how Gilgamesh is sleeping with all the women of Uruk, and he is shocked. He now wants to challenge Gilgamesh to conquer him and force him to behave properly. They struggle like equals, but finally Gilgamesh throws Enkidu, who loses his anger and recognises Gilgamesh as a true king. They embrace and become best friends.

Gilgamesh longs to perform great deeds, so his name will be remembered. He wants to go to the cedar forest and slay its guardian monster, Humbaba. Enkidu is terrified, because he knows Humbaba, but Gilgamesh insists, and they prepare for the journey. Enkidu’s hand is paralysed when he touches the cedar forest gate, but Gilgamesh helps him to continue. They have disturbing dreams, but nonetheless cut down a cedar tree. Humbaba approaches and they fight; Humbaba begs for his life, but they cut off his head.

Gilgamesh washes himself and puts on clean clothes and his crown. He is so attractive that Ishtar, the goddess of love, wants to marry him. He refuses, quite rudely, pointing out how she had ruined the lives of her previous husbands. Ishtar is hurt and furious and she goes to her father, Anu, demanding that he send the Bull of Heaven (drought) to punish Gilgamesh. She threatens to smash down the gates to the underworld if her father does not comply. Anu sends the Bull of Heaven, but Enkidu catches it by the horns, and Gilgamesh kills it.

Unfortunately, as Enkidu discovers in a dream, the gods are holding a council to determine who should die for these attacks on divinity, Gilgamesh or Enkidu. Naturally, since Gilgamesh is part divine and part human, while Enkidu is part human and part animal, the judgment falls on Enkidu, who sickens and dies, at first cursing the harlot who led him to civilisation, Gilgamesh and death, but then blessing her for the joy of friendship with Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh is distraught with grief and is in denial of death. First he keeps the body of Enkidu for a week, until the body became wormy. Then, he has him buried and wanders out from Uruk into the wilderness as a wild hunter, dressed in animal skins. Gilgamesh despairs for the loss of Enkidu, but also for his own death, which he now understands must come some day. Seeking to avoid death, Gilgamesh looks for Utnapishtim, the only human being who was granted eternal life by the gods. He wants to learn the secret of how to avoid death.

Eventually, Gilgamesh comes to the entry to the land of the gods, an other-world, which is under a mountain, guarded by a Man-scorpion and his mate. Gilgamesh gains entrance to the mountain and travels for leagues in the dark until he arrives in the jewelled garden of the gods.  Gilgamesh continues in his search for Utnapishtim and the secrets of life and death. He meets a divine wine-maker, Siduri, who gives him shelter and advises him to accept his human fate and enjoy life while he can. But he insists that he must find Utnapishtim, so she tells him that the boatman Urshanabi can take him across the Sea of Death to the place where Utnapishtim lives with his wife.

After a complicated boat-trip, Urshanabi brings Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, who tells his story. It is the story of the Flood (remarkably similar to the Flood story in Genesis). The point is, the Flood was a one time ever event, will never recur, and the only reason Utnapishtim and his wife are now immortal is because the gods chose to make them so after they survived the flood. The final blow to Gilgamesh here is seven loaves of bread which Utnapishtim’s wife made, one for each day that Gilgamesh slept while he was their guest. He could not even stay awake for seven days; how could he ever hope to live forever?

Utnapishtim’s wife takes pity on Gilgamesh and asks her husband to tell him about the plant that can make him young again, if not immortal. Gilgamesh dives into the sea to pick the plant, but loses it later, while bathing, because a snake slithers up and eats it.  Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with the boatman Urshanabi, and points out to him the mighty walls; this is the proper work of a human being, not the search for eternal life. The final segment of the story tells of the death of Gilgamesh and the mourning for him of all the people of Uruk.

A more extensive summary with quotes can be found here:

These ancient voices speak to us through their stories. Why did they need to tell stories, why do we read these stories? For entertainment? For passing a few hours pleasantly, amused by the storyteller’s skill? To learn something? To sympathise with the story’s characters? To find parallels with our own life? To distil some universal message on the meaning of our existence? A successful story will do all of these things and more. Through the story we gain an understanding of our own life, we are forced to analyse and make sense of our own complex existence. Gilgamesh is still a fascinating story as it is one that makes us acknowledge our humanity, it one that causes us to confront our mortality, justify the purpose of our existence and makes us look within ourselves in order to understand the world outside us.

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