Enkidu and Gilgamesh

Unsucky Literature, Lecture 1: The Dangers of Reading Gilgamesh

To My Few Student Readers: Please Stay

I’m bored writing for adults these days, and most of my readers are adults. If you’re a student, can you send this link to your friends, put it on Facebook, Tumblr it, etc? I want students as my audience for this series, because I want to share with you all a series of posts, beginning today and continuing for years, probably, about:

Why the Classics Only Seem to Suck

I don’t blame students who think classic literature sucks.1

They have millions of good reasons to think that. They may, for example, have:

  1. teachers who aren’t that great at reading, writing, or teaching, or
  2. great teachers at not-so-great schools that are afraid to let them read the most controversial literature (almost all schools are really afraid of students and their parents), or
  3. English worksheets that turn literature into anatomy tests (“Identify which phrase below is an example of onomatopoeia” and similar dentist drills), or
  4. five-paragraph essays to write in which the teacher in #1 tells them that they “must not use ‘I’, must have a topic sentence in the first line of each paragraph,” and a million other rules that real writers (we just excluded most teachers there) ignore altogether, or
  5. a lack of time to read the books assigned in English class, what with all the other homework (they want to have a little time of their own to just live their life, after all, to maybe read stuff they want to read – so why not just read the Sparknotes summaries?), or
  6. over-their-head levels of language complexity or adult content that they really shouldn’t be expected to comprehend (language) or care about (a middle-aged housewife’s psychology) until they’re well out of high school, or
  7. dry lists of words and terms to memorize for that most ultra-sucky thing of all – that thing which more and more schools and parents seem to think education is now – the S.A.T.

My Promises for This Series

I promise not to bore you with trivia or showy diction – to use “use” instead of “utilize.”  And I promise to try to give you enjoyable ideas of why, despite the pain of many English classes, this thing called literature, played with naturally, gives pleasure.  Much classic literature is wonderful.  I get more pleasure out of a used one-dollar copy of a Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde play than I do out of my $5,000 home theater.  When I want a buzz, I choose books over booze and bongs. Good literature is the best drug out there.

Added Bonus: I’ll throw in a “big picture” tour of the history of literature from the earliest story ever told – today’s post – forward through the centuries to the Greeks, the Hebrews and their Bible, the Romans, the fascinatingly whacked Middle Ages and the lovely Renaissance, the supremely dangerous Shakespeare and the often-kinky Romantics, straight on up to a few choice books from our modern times. (That’s another thing that annoys me about so many English classes I’ve had to teach: they rip all books out of their historical context, and disconnect them from their times and each other. It’s like studying butterflies pinned under glass instead of watching them fly among the flowers.)

I’ll also avoid constipated scholar-talk in favor of the conversational, occasionally dangerous style of a teacher who can tell you the truth, as he sees it, about these books without fear of being fired for ruffling the feathers of the fearful “three P’s”: parents, principals, and preachers.

Great books are often door-openings to dangerous places, places polite society fears and deems off-limits.  When those doors open in a classroom, teachers often refuse to enter.  There’s always the student who can’t handle it, who complains to one of the three P’s, and forces the conversation to remain, safe and proper, in the well-lit hallway.

Not so here where, away from school, we can touch the taboos, and experience how literature can be a threat and a danger to who we are, to how we’ve been conditioned to see life, to our culture’s status quo.

Doris Lessing really nails the connection between schools and the status quo better than I could dream of doing, so I’ll close this section with her:2

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being molded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this society.” – Doris Lessing

Now here goes.

Starting at the beginning – literally: c. 3,000 BCE

Let’s start with the oldest story ever told (or at least that we have written down), the first story in the history of our species, the story whose title, tragically, will make your eyes roll and your feet head for the exit door the minute you hear it, because it’s associated with your lifetime of aversion to classroom classics.

I’m talking about Gilgamesh.

Don’t leave.

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. <br /> Stephen Mitchell's glorious translation from 2004.

Gilgamesh – the Earth

It’s one of the coolest books you’ll ever read.  It comes from one of the earliest cities, literally, on Earth – but it’s so alien to everything we Judeo-Christian types have been conditioned to think of as “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” that it seems a work of science fiction or fantasy more than anything else.

Really, don’t leave. You’ll miss the part about a religion that sees sex as a good and holy thing.

I’m not making this up.  Here’s the background:

Gilgamesh is the story of a Sumerian king who may have actually lived and ruled around 2,700 BCE. That’s almost 5,000 years ago. The city itself was a thousand years old when the story was written, so we’re talking a story from a civilization 6,000 years ago.

Stop and let that sink in.  The Bible is only half that old, with the “Old Testament” reaching its final form around 400 BCE, and the “New Testament” not being slapped together until around 330 CE (or A.D., if you’re out of touch with proper scholarly conventions).  So Gilgamesh is more than twice as old as the Bible. The Bible’s a pup compared to this story, and as I’ll argue, the Bible is less wise, in many deep and fundamental ways, than this Sumerian book as well.

Moving on:  The king’s city, Uruk, was such a walled and templed and terraced wonder that the citizens themselves were blown away by it.  Since the story is from an age close to the agricultural revolution, when we stopped wandering around as nomads and living more like herd animals than humans, we get a sense, when we read this story, that the people who wrote it are totally aware of what a cool thing they’ve accomplished by making one of the world’s first grand cities – first, do you hear?

Looking out from Uruk’s walls across the sandy plains of what is today Iraq (Uruk was not far from later Babylon and today’s Baghdad3 ), you would have seen no other cities.  Cities, to repeat, were new, and Uruk was one of the first.  When you read this story, it’s like the story-teller remembers the days before the city was invented, the days of wearing animal skins and being goat-herders or hunter-gatherers.  And you can clearly tell he loves his city all the more for the different kind of life it makes possible – the civilized life.

It’s a story, then, of humanity basically crowing its pride over creating civilization by creating that Most Needful Thing for civilization to exist at all: a city.  If someone were to have written a blurb on the back of the book back then (which he couldn’t have done because the “pages” were actually baked clay tablets stacked like bricks in the library, all covered in reed-imprinted cuneiform), he would have written something like,

Unlike our neighbors in every direction, we aren’t hunter-gatherers, goat-herding nomads, or farmers in country villages.  We’re civilized. We built a city.  And we’re damned proud of that.

Luckily, since Uruk was civilized, it had court poets instead of flag-waving idiots to tell the story a bit more gracefully, and to tweak it and revise it over a couple thousand years to make it just so.

On Sex, Good and Bad

I have to be careful about sex here, because the story itself is.

Rendering of a ziggurat in Uruk

Rendering of a ziggurat in Uruk (PD-self from Wikicommons)

On the one hand, the city had temples (like the ziggurat pictured right) dedicated to the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, procreation, and – strangely – war. (Aphrodite is basically the Greek version of the much older Ishtar, and Venus the Roman version. You knew that.)

We’re so blind today to the seeming magic through which sexual intercourse leads to pregnancy, and pregnancy to the creation of life from the womb of woman, that it takes a bit of imagination-work for us to appreciate how much sense it would make to pre-civilized and first-civilized humans to consider sex, pregnancy and birth, and above all women, as magical, sacred things.

That the Sumerians did consider sex sacred is clearly shown by this fact:  the temples of Ishtar were staffed with priestesses whose role was to have sex there, in the temple – whether only with the king or other elites, or with everyone, I don’t know.  These temple prostitutes were not “sinners,” were not “immoral”; they were respected every bit as much as Pastor Teds and Imam Abdullahs in churches and mosques around the world today.

And sex was not a “sin.”  It was a holy thing.  Check out “heiros gamos” on Wikipedia for the juicy (but deep) details.  (And stay tuned for my own theory, when we get to the Bible one of these days in this series, of how Ishtar and the Sumerians influenced the Jewish priests who wrote the Bible’s Genesis to make Eve such a bad character in the story, and sex – everybody’s favorite hobby, to riff off Woody Allen – such a bad, guilty act.)

So in Uruk, it may have been your duty as a good, gods-fearing citizen, to go to “church” occasionally to have sex with a temple prostitute.

In class, this point would get giggles from the immature or freak-outs from the ever-present class prudes, and the following idea would never sink in – which is sad, because it could lead to possibly deep and beautiful ideas such as this:

Think of how different it must have been, as a young person entering puberty, not to be shamed for suddenly discovering sexuality, but to instead, I imagine, be congratulated by family and society, maybe brought to “church” – the temple – to have that sexual awakening honored and instructed through some religious initiation.  To be welcomed into this magical new stage, rather than met with the silence and denial puberty is usually met with in our own culture.  “Abstinence-only” sex education would be laughed at in Sumer, and priests, parents, and schools would be comfortable with this natural thing.  There were far fewer locked doors, hidden materials, and guilt-burdened consciences for boys and girls back then, I suspect.

But it could also lead to less “beautiful” but still “deep” questions like this: For the “prostitute,” how was “temple prostitution” then different from prostitution now? Since sex wasn’t shameful then, was prostitution also not shameful?  Were the temple prostitutes abused and frowned upon the way many prostitutes are today?4  Or were they protected from abuse by the temple, and by the reverent treatment of those they served there – treated less like today’s “whores,” in other words, than like today’s preachers?   Since they surely thought of sex differently than we in the West do in the Judeo-Christian framework – and we inherited much of that framework whether we’re religious or not – it’s not an easy question to answer.5

(Do you see the “science fiction” side yet?)

But on the other hand, there was such a thing as “bad sex” in this story – and it’s what gets the plot rolling.

King Gilgamesh was a bit of a jerk when it came to sex.  Because he was king, and above the law, he had more choices than his wives or the temple prostitutes.  And the choice he made struck everyone involved – even the gods, who looked on from heaven – as really, really wrong: Gilgamesh chose to treat himself to the bed of every new bride on her wedding day – before her husband did.

So the people of the kingdom get understandably offended by this cocky king, and their complaints finally make it to the ears of the gods: the big-daddy god in particular, Anu (think Zeus and you’re close enough).

And here’s another place I think it gets deep and beautiful – but first let me take a detour to mention a couple of important things that connect to the beliefs of Jews and Christians and Muslims today.  The “deep and beautiful” stuff won’t work unless you know this.

On God, His Leadership Style, and His Fore-Fathers

First, the Gilgamesh epic is from a culture6 that spoke a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, and that dominated the Middle East for thousands of years before Judaism, the religion of the Bible and of Jesus, even existed.

Second, the Hebrews who first settled Israel over a thousand years after the Gilgamesh story knew this dominant culture, and included many Sumerian myths in the Bible; two well-known examples are the Six-Days’ Creation and Noah and the Flood in Genesis (the Sumerian Noah, Utnapishtim, will be a major character by this story’s end, by the way – and will tell the original and much older Sumerian version of the Flood later adapted in Genesis). You can read the Sumerian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, yourself to see the similarities.  It’s only a few pages long.

But the differences between the Sumerian and Judeo-Christian gods are even more interesting.

The most interesting difference to me is that the Sumerian religion had male and female gods and, more importantly, that the main Sumerian “god the father” type was, like most fathers, married. It’s always seemed weird to me that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god is alone, unmarried.  Zeus had Hera, the Sumerian Anu had Aruru, but Yahweh, the “God” of the Bible?7  No female for him.  You have to wonder why the Hebrews took the female from heaven, who did it, when, and how.  I do, anyway. But I’ll share those thoughts down the road.

The other interesting difference is in the morality – I almost want to say “leadership style” – of the two father gods. To see the difference, let’s do a thought experiment:  pretend Gilgamesh did his wife-stealing stunt in Jerusalem, that Gilgamesh was a Hebrew and his god was not Anu but Yahweh, the god of the Jews and Christians.

When that God hears that Gilgamesh is deflowering all the wives of all “His people” – “coveting” more than his neighbors’ (and subjects’) “asses” and therefore breaking one of the Ten Commandments – how do you think that God would react?

People will argue with me here, but I don’t see how they can win: that God deals with sinners, rebels, and others who disobey him with this “leadership decision”: punishment.  He’s an “angry God,” as he says himself. 8 It’s hard to see that God doing much but using angry force to punish Gilgamesh and make him change his ways.  Human obedience is what matters to that God, as I read him; human wisdom comes a distant second.  You want evidence?  God’s instructions for dealing with people who disobey his laws, over and over (in Deuteronomy especially), is to simply kill them. And Adam and Eve received one hell of a punishment because of their disobedience, too.

Back to the Story: “What Would Jesus Anu Do?”

But the earlier Sumerian god, Anu?  His reaction to Gilgamesh’s adulterous outrage is totally intriguing, and in my view, totally cool.  I like this god.

He doesn’t say “Punish him.”  He doesn’t say “Kill him.”  Instead, he turns to Aruru, the goddess who the Sumerians believed created humanity from earthly clay, and tells her to do it one more time.

He tells her, more interesting still, not to create any old human, but instead a special type. “Now go and create,” he tells her,

“a double for Gilgamesh, his second self,
a man who equals his strength and courage,
a man who equals his stormy heart.
Create a new hero, let them balance each other
perfectly, so that Uruk has peace.”

And so she does.

I’m going to stop here for the moment, and just share why I think Anu is a god worthy of the title.  Because by creating a “double” for Gilgamesh instead of simply killing him on the spot, he shows that to him, “sin” is a lack of wisdom.  As you’ll see, he creates this double so that Gilgamesh may have the experiences he needs to grow wiser.  I also think he’s just plain smooth for not freaking out and throwing a temper tantrum, but instead coolly coming up with this mysterious idea:

“Make a double for him. That should do the trick.”

What a wtf plot twist. Love it. Suspense accomplished.

And it’s a wonderfully optimistic view of man for a God to have: not “fallen” and in need of salvation, not infantile and in need of a list of Commandments to unthinkingly obey, not tainted by any “original sin,” but instead: capable of growing through experience, of learning and finding his own way, of finding “balance” that brings “peace.”

That “double,” by the way?  His name is Enkidu – and he’s Gilgamesh’s double in a curious and fascinating way: Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine, one-third human; Enkidu, on the other hand, is – get this – two-thirds animal, one-third human. Gilgamesh is the king of civilization; Enkidu is a wild-man living naked in the wilderness, alone with no human companionship.  But this animal-man is actually innocent and good – shades of some pre-Biblical Darwinian understanding that, hello?, humans are indeed animals in the animal kingdom, and that that bit of natural obviousness is nothing to freak out about?

Before Closing:

Challenges, corrections, extensions, additions, and anything else are welcome. More on Gilgamesh soon.9

Next: 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good and Evil, Nature and the Hero – Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Birth of the New Man 7. A Goddess Prays ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets 9. The Original “Original Sin”

~     ~     ~

  1. thanks to Tom, by the way,  whose post partly inspired this and who turned me on to that article. []
  2. and thanks to R. Greco for this gem []
  3. that’s right: the US military is occupying and bombing the earliest civilization in the Middle East, and for any of you familiar with Mosul, that’s where the clay tablets holding the Gilgamesh story were uncovered, after two thousand years of sand-buried silence, by a British guy in the late 1800s []
  4. And – are there prostitutes today that don’t feel ashamed, aren’t abused or frowned upon, and actually find fulfillment in their profession?  Aren’t the questions endless? []
  5. Thanks to the Salon.com forum that mentions this post for pointing out this angle. []
  6. it’s complicated: the earlier Sumerians, whose language was not related to the Semitic Hebrew and Arabic, were overthrown by other races, including the Akkadians and Babylonians, whose languages were both dialects of Semitic Assyrian, and who kept the story alive []
  7. Yahweh is a Hebrew name for what English-speaking Jews and Christians call “God” []
  8. And boy, I just opened the floodgates to a million evangelists to explain how Jesus marked a change in God’s law, a new covenant, with mercy replacing wrath, et cetera. But I’m going to side with the Jewish people on this one, for the sake of argument, and stick only to their original, non-Christian texts. The Torah above all.  I’m talking about that God as the literary character we read about in Jewish religious literature. []
  9. and if you decide to buy the book, be sure to buy the Stephen Mitchell translation pictured above. All the other ones I’ve seen are less poetic in comparison. This one’s fantastic. []

168 thoughts on “Unsucky Literature, Lecture 1: The Dangers of Reading Gilgamesh”

  1. We actually read Gilgamesh for school last year… without glossing over the sex. The only thing I wish is that I hadn’t read it for school. Reading in preperation for a test is less enjoyable by many orders of magnitude, no matter the content. When you are trying to remember exactly what a list of 10 vocab words meant, it’s hard to get into the flow of the story. I don’t care what school would have me believe, but reading which isn’t fun (and thus engaging), isn’t worth reading.

    On another note, I think you oversold this too much. Teens interact with the people and ideas, not the “lingo.”

  2. @Morgante, Yeah, it was a hard one to write. Many interruptions, which always kill me. But the “lingo” was less a reflection of what I think “teens” would like and more an attempt to just write about stuff I love in ways similar to how I sometimes talk about it with friends.

    Did you read the Mitchell version? And did you talk the connections to Judeo-Christianity? Those connections are more than half of what makes the story so interesting.

  3. Yes, it was the Mitchell version if I remember correctly.

    Unfortunately, we didn’t talk about the connections with Judeo-Christianity in any great detail… we discussed the “facts” about the connections (which stories were replicated), but the class certainly wasn’t encouraged to discuss the moral implications… only what could be expected coming from public schools in the US.

  4. I feel like I live in a different world of teaching than you ever knew existed. I talk to my students all the time about the great themes of literature, film…the stories that hold us together and drive us apart.

    And I’m not at all worried about getting fired over it…where the heck did you work that you had such worries?

    oh – and do you really have a $5000 stereo system? Cool :)

    Tracy Rosens last blog post..Pick it up

    1. @Tracy: Really, you can question the wisdom of the Bible and its god in your classroom, and openly suggest that sex is a good thing, without fire alarms going off?

      And yes, $5,000 sound system. And I almost never listen to it.

      1. You can’t just say it’s $5K and not describe it. We want details.

        BTW, Theta-Krell-Silverline Audio-Escient.

        There. I started it.

        1. I’ll play. PAVV (Korean) HDTV, Denon AVR-3805, Elac 5-speaker surround hi-fi. (But don’t mistake me for an audiofile. I’m not techy enough, or patient enough – yet. 😛 )

  5. Going to grab Gilgamesh and read it again. It sits on the bookshelf between Cicero and Herodotus. My year elevens and I had a rather enjoyable afternoon reading Poet and The Women by Aristophanes. They even sang the chorus with melodies that they made up on the fly depending on the meter. The plot cracked them up. The reading cracked them up. The smiles were broad, the laughter was long. They will remember something of the position of women in 5th century Athens. We completed Act One. The second act this Thursday. Great post Clay.

    1. Jump on in, John. Good discussions here.

      I’m dashed: my copy of the Mitchell translation belonged to my last school, so I don’t have it handy to review for the rest of the posts! In Korea, that means weeks waiting for the mail from elsewhere.

  6. Good morning, Clay –
    Sorry, I’m bad with instructions, so I read your post even though I’m old.
    I love Gilgamesh, and Stephen Mitchell is my favorite translator of so many works and writers (Lao-tsu, the Bhagavad Gita, Rilke).
    One of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes, Darmok, (with the late Paul Winfield as the metaphor-speaking Tamarian captain) returns to this story of friendship. I may use it in my Science Fiction/Fantasy class this year.
    For the last two years I have taught Psychology in Literature to second semester seniors. Some very honest, enlightening, thoughtful, hilarious, and embarrassing conversations about literature happened in that class.
    And thanks once again to the United States Congress for yet another contemporary example of a man in public office having sex with someone who is not his wife. How easy that makes teaching The Scarlet Letter (which is about sex, love, the human heart, and choosing to defy convention.)
    Oh, and one of my favorite words is sucktastic.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Rehearsal, revision: preview, prehear?

  7. Great post Clay; stumbled across this so I’m a first time reader here, but I’ll definitely come back for more!

    I’ve loved literature from an early age, and like many others, school took the bright glow from that love and dimmed it with tests, dissection and going at the pace of the slowest student.

    THink it might be time to get out Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Prose again and re-enjoy The Ballad of Cynewulf and Cyneheard!

    Thanks again :)

    1. @James, just a quick thanks for bothering to be kind.

      Anglo-Saxon….I love it. Half the job of a high school English teacher worth his or her salt these days is to un-teach the idea that long Latinate words (”SAT words”) are better for writing than the snappy Anglo-Saxon.

      As I love to tell my students, I’ll take a “kiss” over an “osculation” any day.

  8. Thanks for a great essay, I plan on reading further. Just so you know, mid-way through your piece, I went to Amazon and ordered the book.

    I have two comments:

    1. Personally, I’m bothered by the “proper scholarly conventions”. BCE vs. BC and CE vs. AD. What, exactly makes the “common era” the common era? Oh yeah, THAT. Which is to say, BCE and CE are nothing more than empty PC posturing. A tool to help users pretend they are not using the referrant that they are clearly using. And because they obscure the basis of the time pivot, they obscure rather than advance meaning (as is typical for all things PC–it is the enemy of knowledge and understanding).

    2. The Hebrew god created nature, and therefore is above nature. Male and female are concepts of nature and therefore the Hebrew god, being above nature, is neither male nor female. It is a short-coming of the English language that we do not have a non-gender-specific third person singular pronoun, forcing us to give to god a gender that the Hebrews who first worshipped “him” would not have recognized.

    So, the Hebrews did not remove the female god from the pantheon, leaving the male god alone; the Hebrews removed gender from the pantheon, leaving a god neither male nor female. Interesting to me is the change introduced by Christianity–by giving god a consort and a son, they made him male for the first time. To my knowledge, you don’t see “god the father” anywhere in the old testament. The new testament god has been brought closer to us, made more human and, therefore, less godly.

    1. Tim, thanks for the thoughts.

      Re: 1. I hear you, but I think there’s substance to the shift from “BC” and “AD” to “BCE” and “CE.” Yes, they still reference the same pivot point, which still smacks of cultural imperialism, but any alternative would be messier than going from British to Metric measures. At least there’s no explicit or implicit confirmation that “Jesus is Lord” (Domini) when we say “CE.” To me that’s a good, respectful, scientific shift.

      Re: 2. It’s been so long since I read Bloom and others about the different writers – what, J, D, Q, and Y ? – of the Old Testament. Seems I remember there are actually two main names for “God” in the Torah: what, El (maybe Elohim?) and Yahweh? And wasn’t one more anthropomorphized than the other? God’s “walking in the garden” and calling around for Adam and Eve after the Fall, for example – is that a Christian re-write?

      Still, interesting points. I’d love more clarification. God sure has come to take on a “fatherly” persona in Judaism as much as Christianity and Islam, as far as I can see.

      1. Re: 1
        If one finds a new celestial body, one gets to name it. If one finds ( creates ) a new element, one gets to name it. They that defined our “current era” named it.

        If you want to use CE, define it and it’s yours. If it’s the same as AD, then either you’re a plagiarist or a fraud. THAT’S academic rigor. THAT’S being respectful. THAT’S science.

        Silly innuendos of undefinable and irrelevant motives, i.e. “cultural imperialism”, are the methods of politicians and demagogues.

        You, sir, are a journalist.

        1. Huh?

          Historians didn’t “find” world history, and neither did the Church. Logic check.

          “Define it and it’s yours” sounds so solipsistic I don’t know what to do with it.

          Rude bombast is no substitute for logic: call an African “Johnson,” you change his reality; call time “the Lord’s,” you do the same – motive or no motive.

          If you’re not being rude, my apologies. I’m a bit of a tone-mirror in comments.


  9. Here by Stumbling and just commenting to say how much I wish you had met my old religoin teacher from high school. You would have had a blast:

    “We’ll be starting with the Bible. You know, the apple thing? Yeah, looking at the climate it was probably a fig and not an apple. And what does a fig look like? It looks like a uterus, it does! What do you make of that?”

    He had similar openings for every lessons and while some of them were more far-fetched than others, they did make people participate instead of texting their friends.

  10. Hey Clay, I feel compelled to comment again: what fun!!! I actually love Gilgamesh, and don’t have to be sold on it… I am so glad you are preaching the Gilgamesh gospel here! Gilgamesh is one of the options in my Myth-Folklore class (although it’s competing with Egypt that week, and Egypt usually trounces Gilgamesh) – http://www.mythfolklore.net/3043mythfolklore – anyway, that’s not until next week, but one of my students is working ahead, chose Gilgamesh, and did this great story retelling with Siduri, the ale maid. I’m pasting it in here – my students publish their formal writing assignments as webpages on the open Internet, but they do the blogging in an invite-only Ning (long story, my school is paranoid) – and this is one of the weekly blog story retelling assignments. Anyway, I’ll send you an invite to the Ning if you are interested! Meanwhile, enjoy – I think she did a super job! :-)
    Laura Gibbs
    Univ. of Oklahoma


    My retelling is based on the Epic of Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh Departs. My story is told from the point of view of a narrator, and Siduri plays a larger role in the scheme of things; Gilgamesh learns to drown his sorrows in a good brew.

    Gilgamesh, having cried as much as a grown man (and a king to boot) possibly can, finally let his friend Enkidu be buried near the forest he grew up in. Gilgamesh wiped the snot from his kingly nose (the clogging of which was probably the reason he didn’t put the guy in the ground sooner) and decided that no earthly pleasure could make him forget his sorrow. So, he set out on a quest to attain something new, whether it be immortality or something even better, he couldn’t be quite sure. All he knew was that he had to find something to either elevate himself above human emotions, or to make him completely forget that Enkidu even existed.

    On and on Gilgamesh sojourned. Over rough, gravelly terrain did he stumble, through mosquito-infested bogs did he scramble. Many a splinter in his fingers did he suffer and much throbbing pain of stubbed toes did he endure. Finally, the woebegone king, again wiping the snot from his snout, and in great distress, came upon a building in a clearing. The sign outside the door read, “Siduri’s Irish Pub.” Having heard much of the goddess’ knack for brewing many a fine stout and her wisdom in solving problems for her customers, Gilgamesh eagerly knocked on the door, hoping to be admitted within to question Siduri about the path to immortality.

    Siduri opened the door to see a snotty-nosed man with the dejected air of a whiny child, and promptly began to close the door again, having seen enough of these pitiful mortals tonight.

    “Please!” Gilgamesh cried, a snot bubble bursting from one nostril, “I need to know how to find the path to immortality!”

    At this request, Siduri couldn’t help but open the door again. “All right,” she sighed, “but I’m in the middle of cooling a batch of wort, and I need to transfer another into its secondary fermenter, but if you keep quiet and don’t touch anything, you may be rewarded.”

    Siduri’s great wisdom was in her method of dealing with the problems of mortals. Rather than begrudgingly listening to the downpour of frivolous dribble that came out of the mouths of human beings, Siduri feigned interest whilst bringing them more and more beers, good strong beers, mind you, none of this commercial, watered-down, low-calorie liquid. And before she had to utter a single word of advice, her once bedraggled customers were soon recovering nicely, often to the point of singing and dancing and throwing all caution to the wind.

    Gilgamesh, after following Siduri around the micro-brewery behind the pub, was becoming increasingly discouraged. Apparently, as far as Siduri was concerned, he should give up his quest; the only person who knew how to gain immortality was Uta-Napishtim, and he hadn’t been seen in these parts for years due to a little too much beer and too little money. His boatman, however, was a regular here, but he wasn’t likely to be in tonight.

    “Just have a beer,” Siduri exclaimed with a wave of her hand. “Here, this one’s my imperial stout, over here we have a nice, full porter, and I’ll throw in my famous pale ale on the house.”

    Gilgamesh, having been a bit of a beer novice, shakily brought the stout up to his lips, dreading the idea of flavor and multi-sensory overload. But, alas! One drop of the nectar did him in; a whole new, bright and happy world opened before his eyes. More and more he drank, and more and more he savored. At long last, Gilgamesh completely forgot why he had come to Siduri in the first place, and joined in with the singing of several happy customers around him, feeling very hopeful and brave. In the middle of his quartet, the door to the pub opened, from which came a man whom Siduri immediately welcomed as Uta-Napishtim’s boatman, Ur-Shanabi.

    “Good news!” Siduri shouted over the drawling warbling of an older man next to Gilgamesh. “Ur-Shanabi is here and has agreed to take you to see Uta-Napishtim.”

    Gilgamesh looked blankly from one to the other.

    “Why would I want to go there?”

    Laura Gibbss last blog post..August 24 Round-Up

  11. Most common Hebrew names for God (Conservative affiliation):
    yud-hay-vav-hay (the letters, pronounced adonai)

    I’ve never heard adonai referred to as yahweh in a religious context, only scholarly. Hmm. I wonder how that happened. When did yahweh become the default scholarly name for the Hebrew god?

    And as a Jewish student in mainly Christian schools, I generally prefer CE and BCE myself. It’s not offensive to use AD and BC, but it is a Christian reference.

    I think I’ll go borrow a copy from the library…

    Hannahs last blog post..:)

    1. Hi Hannah,

      I think the “Yahweh” is based on the yud-hay-vav-hay – i.e., YHVH. Change that “V” in “vay” to a “w” (a common substitution in Western languages) and you have YHWH. Throw in vowels and there you have it?

  12. OK, this one put me over the edge–I linked it and stole your photo. So sue me.

    I loved Gilgamesh when I read it years ago. I need to read it again. Great literature bears rereading every decade or so. (Probably worth reading more frequently, but time is time.)

    Two points, both tangential, but both hit home:

    1) Sex is sacred. Reality twists. Lives are created. We suffer from our inability to even try to define sacred these days. We run from what’s holy. One of your (many) strengths is that you do not confuse the religious with the sacred.

    2) Baghdad is an old city–when we started bombing Iraq, I mentioned (only to those I love) that cities around as long as Baghdad will likely outlast our culture.

    I’ll go away now.

    Michael Doyles last blog post..Beyond School

    1. RAmen, Michael. Hey, on a different note, where can I get one of those tinfoil hats you’re sporting recently? You crack me up in such the right way.

  13. Being a Jewish student in a Jewish school, I just wanted to clarify a few things.
    1. First off the whole “Yaweh” phenomenon is actually blasphemous according to orthodox Judaism. Because (as was mentioned before) the ten commandments list “Using God’s Name in Vain” as a sin. When talking about God in the mundane most Jews say “HaShem”, which means “The Name” because there is so much dispute about naming God. There are layers upon layers of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) underlying God’s name. Names such as “Adonai” mean “My/Our Master”, “Elohim” is a generic word for God in modern Hebrew (El, Shadai, Tsva’ot etc… fall under the same category). There is a “real” name for God supposedly, however this name is no longer known, officially, to mankind. As far as the derivation of “Yaweh” this comes from the ancient Hebrew word spelled “Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay.” Now it is prohibited to pronounce that word in its true form so “adonai” is substituted (though it still commands a good deal of respect) even though “Yaweh” is actually a contraction of the Hebrew words for past and present, “Haya”, and “Ye’heyeh”, (interestingly ancient Hebrew did not have a future tense).
    2. As far as anthropomorphism is related to God, God’s name is inextricably intertwined. Many of the aforementioned pseudonyms carry a specific attribute with them. For instance, when the Torah uses “Elohim” it is trying to emphasize God’s attribute of strict law; conversely, when the Torah uses the name “El/El-Shadai” it is emphasizing the attribute of mercy. Neither one is “more” anthropomorphisized, each name carries a certain message that the Torah is trying to convey. Now this may easily be construed to show that Judaism is polytheistic; however, that is obviously not the case. The different attributes are not different Gods, they are merely different emphases that the Torah wants to create in order help the reader learn, and understand the context.
    3. I don’t even want to touch the sex issue, but suffice it to say that the original Bible did not condemn any NATURAL sex (i.e. not homosexual, incestuous, etc…).
    4. For those of you who have suffered through the Da Vinci Code, please note that Dan Brown is thoroughly lacking in any deep Jewish Knowledge. According to Mr. Brown there are two male/female sides to God, “Yaweh” and “Shkhina (note that “kh” is the guttural sound made in the back of the throat)”. First off, this is a load of bullshit, I have already explained “Yaweh. As far as the “Shkhina”: The “Shkhina” is another anthropomorphic title of God. In fact the “Shkhina” is about as physical as God gets, the Torah describes God’s “Shkhina” (usually translated as presence) residing amongst the Jewish people in the desert/ in the Holy of Holies etc… This is usually meant to be taken as a measure of the Jews’ worthiness: when the Jews are acting appropriately, God resides amongst them, when the Jews sin, their temple is destroyed and the presence of God is no longer as concentrated or as obvious. The “Shkhina” is purely a literary tool meant to convey the people’s ever-changing connection with God.

    PS: I apologize for getting so far into this dangerous territory, but I hope a cleared up a few misconceptions
    PPS: By the way, I completely agree with you as far as your ideas about teaching/inculcation are concerned. I get a larger than normal dose, being in a private school.

    1. Mamimon, I appreciate the input. Without meaning to antagonize at all, I do want to touch the sex issue, because it’s relevant to my comparison with the older religion of the Sumerians. My reading of popular rabbis introducing Judaism has led me to understand that Judaism is a lot less puritanical about sex than most Christianity is, but I’ve also read enough of the Torah (in English, granted) to know several strict condemnations of sex are to be found in it: women raped without yelling loud enough to be heard are to be married to their rapists; homosexuals (who being part of nature, I would argue, practice “natural” sex by definition, without supernatural definitions interfering – but we seem to disagree on this one pretty fundamentally) get death by stoning.

      Blast, I’m rushing because I want to go watch Hillary’s speech at the convention. But this mention of the “original” Bible – what do you mean by that?

      Again, no trollishness intended. Thanks for the clarifications.

      1. Ahhh yes, I’ve heard those arguments before. Well, I’m sure you are aware of the vast amount of Rabbinic literature that has accumulated over the centuries, and they provide clarification to the “Torah Sh’Michtav” (the written Torah). Now, I should have prefaced that sentence with a caveat that would remind you that “Rabbinic literature” is not necessarily written solely by Rabbis. There was a tradition amongst Jews in the ancient times to have a solely oral law the “Torah Sh’Baal Peh,” which was not meant to be written down. It was meant to be passed from Moses down, and interpreted throughout the generations; however, this chain was broken by a Roman massacre of many of Rabbi Akiva’s students, and this forced the oral law to be written (which in an of itself was declared a day of mourning). Now, for my point: This Oral law explains all the various intricacies of the Written Torah.For instance, it is written that when a woman is raped and nobody responds to her calls, then all those that neglected her calls are worthy of having all their property destroyed. Other cases that you hear like that one are likely to have been previously resolved in a more reasonable way than you may have heard.
        As far as Homosexuals go, think about it from an evolutionary standpoint: you need to reproduce to sustain your species; if you want to reproduce, you need to be heterosexual;ergo the “natural” way to have intercourse is heterosexual. Once the dire need to reproduce for fear of extinction is gone, the need to only have heterosexual intercourse is obviated to a certain degree: therefore homosexuals have evolved as a societal phenomenon. Also, when the Torah prescribes death in any form you must be aware that death was such an uncommon occurrence that it is said that a “Beit Din” (a court of law) who kills someone once every 70 years is very harsh.
        By original I was just trying to stress the old testament.

        PS: I was rather tired when I wrote my last comment; as you can see my name has changed since then =)

        1. I know about the “vast amounts of oral tradition,” etc, and see them much the way I see medieval scholasticism: centuries of argument and explication taken to infinitely complex levels, but – all based on false (or at least un-demonstrable, and therefore “proof-burdened”) premises.

          So it takes me back to the original texts upon which all the volumes of commentary are based.

          Occam’s Razor.

        2. Mamimon,

          Great comment – I do feel compelled to respond to your theory on the “evolution” of homosexual behavior, however. There are numerous documented examples of homosexuality and bisexuality in other animal species (most notably among populations of macaques and bonobos). As far as researchers are able to discern, this behavior is not a by-product of a species having reached any evolutionary or population benchmark: rather, the behavior appears to be and integral part of said maintenance of a “satisfactory” rate of reproduction. In fact, most homosexual behavior in these groups has very little to to with pleasure or reproduction at all, but has everything to do with survival in terms of the maintenance of social order and positive social relationships.

          Forgive me if I misunderstood your comment, but you seem to be positing the opposite with regards to the emergence and evolution of homosexuality. It appears to me that you may be conflating the existence of the behavior itself (a fact) with the categorization/”critical reception” of said behavior (a social construct).

  14. First time reader, also from StumbleUpon. Looks like someone knows where the traffic is.

    Anyways, I never actually read Gilgamesh, though I know enough bits and pieces of the plot that when I saw you were gonna be retelling it for a modern audience without holding back I knew it would at least be a fun way to kill some time. However, by the end of the page I’m glad I looked because this is far more than just a vivid plot synopsis (which is what I was expecting). Consider yourself bookmarked.

    I have to agree about reading for a test being absolutely horrid, although on the other hand I know I wouldn’t have gotten halfway through Catcher In the Rye if I didn’t have to (it took me a while to stop hating the protagonist as a person and notice that it was actually pretty good). Though part of it is that, when forced to read the closest thing to the original version that they can both get past the censors and nominally call English, most classics are just a pain in the butt to read in the format schools make you read, plain and simple. I know Shakespeare, for instance, was chock full of lude jokes, fight scenes and language that people of the time actually used, and on top of that most performances probably involved a lot of improvisation, but the teachers are probably glad that the average student doesn’t understand that biting one’s thumb was the equivalent of giving someone the finger (and so on), or at least take no steps to correct it. It’s considered blasphemy if you don’t read what the original script said word-for-word in the most serious tone you can and without stopping to explain what the phrase you just read meant at the time.

    Anyways, I look forward to reading this series, and will probably be exploring the rest of the site.

    PS: I’m a college student, going into my second year in engineering. I read for pleasure sometimes (though mostly sci-fi or fantasy, almost never classics), but as you can guess from the fact that I stumbled-upon your site, probably not enough.

    1. Brickman, thanks for the interesting comment and “civilized” defense of me on SU (gosh there are some boobs there).

      I hear you on the catch-22 of English teaching. Force is aversive, but laxity is exploitable. We English teachers pull our hair out over how to escape that dilemma. (The link starting that numbered list of “suckiness factors” takes you to the Washington Post article that expresses it all very well.)

      Engineering, huh? I’m jealous. I discovered applied science’s beauties way too late to be a player in those fields.

      As for Shakespeare – ob yes. I did a fun “King Lear Street Talk” project where students had to understand the cursing, and translate it into Mafia contemporary English. Fun stuff. Search “F-bomb” here if you’re bored 😉

      Thanks again for stopping by. Good luck in college. I miss college terribly.

  15. Love the post, glad you are making lit an experience instead of an assignment.

    One thing to mention, I think the stereotypical Christian has warped what Christians/ the Bible actually say about sex. If you read the whole Bible (Song of Solomon, for instance) you’ll find that the Bible thinks sex is awesome. Freaking amazing. It does, however, specify that it is only this level of amazing in the marriage context where the sacred bond is forever only between two people. Ideally.

    The Bible doesn’t say sex is bad. The Bible values sex very highly, which is exactly why it preaches that sex shouldn’t be taken lightly.

    Plus I would argue that a monogamous sex life is the more enlightened view than temple prostitutes… sure its out in the open but those ladies were still giving their bodies away daily… which sucks for anyone.

    Just my thoughts.

    1. Hi Rick,

      Hm. Granted the “Old” (Jewish) “Testament” has a few books that honor sex. But it has a few that don’t as well. (A big problem with any collection of texts from different authors spanning centuries.)

      But the Christian add-ons? Paul is pretty sex-o-phobic, from what I can see. “It’s better to marry than to burn,” he says. “Better to be celibate like me, but if you can’t, tie the knot.” (Many scholars question if Paul was a guilt-ridden homosexual. Google it 😉 )

      We’re getting ahead of my game plan – I’ll definitely write a piece on Genesis, and the utter weirdness of the “original sin” or “knowledge of good and evil” leading up to the covering of the original couple’s genitalia. Strong implication there that sex is somehow shameful, no?

      Thanks for weighing in. I’m not sure where I stand on polyamory v. monogamy. The whole cultural context of each would require tweaking for people to be able to handle it.

    2. Back again, Rick. Your comment,

      I would argue that a monogamous sex life is the more enlightened view than temple prostitutes… sure its out in the open but those ladies were still giving their bodies away daily… which sucks for anyone.

      just kept ringing.

      Because prostitutes around the world are still giving their bodies away daily, and because it’s socially frowned upon, in most countries its illegality and reproach only add to the burden of the prostitute (and the lack of legal protection).

      It’s a point I’m not sure I’m comfortable with, but still I see it and want to entertain it: if prostitution were still classified as holy and honored by society, might not that be preferable to the type of prostitution we have today in its stead?

      Again – thinking outside the box does not mean subscribing to each attempt 😉

  16. I’m obviously late to this party but I could not have put this any better! If you are okay I may quote this in my Western Lit class. I teach Western Lit and I do it because I LOVE BOOKS and it kills me when teachers turn it into something painful. These are great, exciting stories – STORIES PEOPLE – not crusty old books to be revered from afar.

    Beths last blog post..See Dick Fail His Class

    1. @Beth: I think Clay is averse to lawsuits. I tried, but he won’t bite. You have my permission to quote him

      @Rick: sex is all about giving away the body, monogamous or otherwise. I happen to be monogamous for a whole lot of reasons (not all I understand), but I’d put my money on the polyamorous as far as enlightenment goes.

      @maimon: not sure what the “natural” heterosexual position is, but I imagine it involves the woman standing on her head a few post-coital hours to up her chances of impregnation. And your reasoning puts condom use up there with buggery, but that almost makes sense given my Catholic background.

      @Clay: I’ve hijacked your site–take me to Libya.

      Michael Doyles last blog post..Capitalism and biology class

  17. I love discussions like this. Seriously, great posts people. I remember when I first read Gilgamesh in high school. Darn near gave me a crisis of faith! I was a conservative young christian at the time ( I am a liberal semi-young christian today)

    Gilgamesh actually helped me open my mind quite a bit to ‘risky’ ideas like… the bible might not be a literal representation of history, but rather that the ancient Jews who wrote it were influenced, heavily, by summerian culture and language. Even the Suzerain style covenant is a sumerian derivative.

    This topic is not ignored by two GREAT authors. Thomas Cahill in “The Gifts of the Jews” and Chaim Potok in “Wanderings”. (Yes Yes… do not forget Potoks non-fiction!! Fantastic!)
    Cahill particularly emphasizes the different road the Jews took in regards to God and life in general.
    Once more book recommendation – author: Rob Bell, title: “Sex God” Brilliant view on how Christians ought to see sexuality. (That is, as a good, natural, and sacred thing!)

    It’s a brave new world folks, not all differing ideas must be seen as clashing dichotomies. It’s all part of the human story. Which brings me to my last point…. as a future history teacher, I’ll use either date system and genuinely not give a flying freckle. (C.E. BC etc..). But really, if all we do is change letters around to be PC, are we really enhancing knowledge??

    All it tells me is that around the later part of the 20th century, social groups began to feel offended if they heard Christian language. And that is how students of history will read about our society. 80 years from now.
    I mean come on! I don’t gripe about being born in the month of August, despite my loathing for Caesar Augustus and his brutal policies! Perhaps I should start a movement though, lets purge all Roman influence from our calendar! 😉 I jest, I jest.

    This mechanic has homework if he wants to finish college in 5 years. l8r.

    1. Yes, when we change letters around, we are enhancing knowledge–the process itself is enlightening.

      And there is no such thing as a crisis in faith–faith allows exploration. Maybe a crisis in “beliefs”, but I’m all for that.

      Social groups are not offended by Christian language–they are offended by Christian presumption. A subtle (but important) difference.

      Clay already knows I’m one of those kind-of-off-tilt Christians. At least up to the point of the empty tomb.

      As far as the Roman calendar, point well taken–let your kids know where the term “August” comes from. Tell them about the Benedictine monks and time.

      Call it the 8th month. That you challenge the name August in class will mean something to a child whose mind is being dulled by a state-sanctioned curriculum.
      Really. I double dog dare you. =)

      (Clay, where are you?)

      Michael Doyles last blog post..Capitalism and biology class

    2. Thanks, Craig. I’m in a rush, so I’ll point to my reply to Tim here about the CE v. AD thing.

      Mind you, I’ve lived and taught in China and Korea, so labeling their history in reference to the “Year of Our Lord” seems far more objectionable than it did when I was in the States. But even in the States, it is, as Michael notes, “presumptuous.”

      I see historians as social scientists, bound by the rules of evidence that dictate any scientific craft. Their personal leaps of faith shouldn’t seep into their as-objective-as-possible (or at least respectably skeptical) scholarship. They become propagandists when this happens.

      1. A crisis of beliefs is better way of puting it, for sure. It is what you get when your beliefs are based on one simple truth. I have met such people time and time again. Faced with the fact that the Bible has stories strikingly similar and seemingly borrowed from Gilgamesh, Christians who have always been told that the Bible is the absolute infallible word of God are suddenly at a lack for words. Thats why so many Christians ignorantly defend a literal interpretation of scripture. Literally shutting their mind to other ideas. To them, it is all false if any one thing is false. I ask, how does the message of Jesus change if we suddenly learn that the world wasn’t made in 6 literal days and the Grand Canyon wasn’t carved by the great flood!? Oh crap… guess we still have to love our neighbor and forgive people an stuff.

        Clay, I love the word social scientist. History as science is the best form of history. Yet, part of what historians do is give their interpretation and opinion on the data collected. Thus, an argument is born, and that is what historians do.

        Propagandists happen when no one else knows history well enough to argue with the pseudo-historian weenie-wack who spoon fed them a load of junk talking points that they should have known to spit back in his face.
        Propagandists depend on half-truths and half-wits to believe them. Our country (U.S.) has an abundance of both.

        1. Sorry to be late on this one, Craig.

          I love your first paragraph. It needs nothing else from me.

          And yes, agreed, social scientists do offer interpretations, but based on the evidence at hand, not on unfounded metaphysics. Are we agreed on that?

          I’m certainly agreed on your last point about weenie-wacks and half-wits, and also smiling at the language. Levity is next to godliness in my book (ever read or see Eco’s In the Name of the Rose?

          Thanks for the nuggets.

  18. Clay,

    Amazing post! Now I see what you’ve been up to… Teaching. I’m happy for you and impressed once again with your writing ability. One of my professors said that we don’t spend enough time sitting under trees thinking about giants; you, however (I know how much you hate that word), have moved from thinking about giants to actually battling them.

  19. I quite honestly believe I would have killed to have learned the classics from you in high-school. I attended a very Bible-Belt rooted, South-East Texas high-school. We were never able to read anything for controversial than Huck Finn, or To Kill a Mockingbird.
    Your lecture style appears to be phenomenal. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

    1. Thanks Chet – but here’s the irony: between the self-censorship that goes on because of the prudes and religious fanatics in the classroom, and because of the concentration-breaking giggles or gasps that break out every time sex or secularism are mentioned, classroom discussions never felt as good as writing these things here does.

      Thanks again for the kind words.

  20. Oh wow. I actually read this whole lecture and enjoyed it (despite being a God-fearing Christian).
    I’ve never read Gilgamesh, but now I’m curious as to what is written in this book.
    Bravo on the lecture, you really know how to target teenagers. Other than that, I don’t really have much else to say other than I laughed at some of the “DON’T LEAVE!” parts.

  21. Hello. I found this site on Stumbleupon. I enjoyed reading your lecture and look forward to more. I have not read Gilgamesh but will. I am almost 40 and remember asking one of my English teachers if a story is every just a story and the teacher was caught off guard and said yes. I was always a prolific reader and my favorite epic is Lord of the Rings. I do not agree with all of your lecture but enjoyed it.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks Rodgeman, and by all means voice your disagreements. Things get more interesting that way!

      I’m going to sound like an English teacher here, but I would answer your question differently. To me, a story is never just a story: it’s a mirror of its times and culture, and sometimes a lamp to enlighten them as well. Blake says we can “see infinity in a grain of sand.” I add we can do the same in any story.

      Granted, that can get boring when done bloodlessly.

  22. I’m a student in college studying writing, and I really enjoyed this article. I’ll be waiting for the rest! Any chance you’ll be moving on to Shakespeare soon?

    1. Erin, I’m so happy to see new students pitching in. Thanks for the support.

      And Shakespeare? Good god yes. Romeo and Juliet is so much more subversive than my teacher in the Bible belt ever hinted, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

      And then there’s Lear, which is so perfect to me I’m afraid to touch it.

      (But since I’m going to go chronologically, I have to stop at Homer, the Bible, Lucretius’ _On the Nature of Things_ (an epic poem on atomic theory and its religiously liberating implications, of all the amazing things, coming from a time before Jesus). And I love Plato – though not his philosophy – too much to skip him. Jeez, I’m an idiot to think I can ever finish.)

  23. Interesting. I am all for the Unsucky English thing, although I’m thinking that Unsucky Literature might be a more accurate label for what you’re doing — Gilgamesh isn’t really English, except in translation, and things are lost in translation.

    And some things are overlaid over translation as well, perhaps filling the empty spaces from the things that are lost. In history, we would call it “presentism,” and I’m seeing some in your rather romanticized expression of ritual prostitution in a way that sounds more like 1960s free-love advocate fantasy than a description of how Sumerians would have understood that aspect of their religions expression. Particularly when you leave the fertility aspect of sexuality entirely out of the conversation of a time that predates reliable birth control technology (which doesn’t even take into account the value Sumerian culture placed on fertility, as compared to modern western liberal culture’s value of fertility).

    Ancient societies were not noted for their egalitarianism, nor were they noted for their value of personal empowerment and free expression of any kind. Civilization of that time had much more to do with learning and complying with community standards which were enforced with strictness that gave reason for compliance through fear as much as anything else. Personal liberation of the time was the freedom to leave the protection of the city and run the significant risk of starving to death.

    And I suspect you could probably receive a wider audience with a touch less hostility toward traditional Christian belief. Just a thought.

    As to the lack of a wife for the Christian god, it is not the case that every branch of Christianity accepts that, although, to be sure, God’s wife is not to be found anywhere in mainstream Christianity. It is not based in the married nature of pagan gods — it is a logical extension of the title Father, which implies a Mother.

    Just a few thoughts at the end of a long day.

    Blains last blog post..A Mormon Talk

    1. Good comments, Blaine, and good challenges.

      That “unsucky” thing was a whim in a silly mood. I’ll probably drop it altogether in subsequent posts. The “English” part referred to “English classes,” though your point is well-taken. “Unsucky Literature” doesn’t have the same ring to it that the original does, and I’m a sucker for sound.

      The charge of presentism is fair enough too. I’m not sure I positively characterized it with any objective voice as much as I tried to speculate, infer, and question some of the effects of a cult like Ishtar’s on a society. Comparisons to other ancient cults still alive today, like Judaism and Christianity, are inevitable and relevant – and the great thing about blogging all of this is that it allows readers to negotiate what it all means precisely as you’re doing by commenting. I’m all for it.

      Do we – can we – understand “how Sumerians would have understood . . . . ritual prostitution”? If you have references (or links) to other primary sources shedding light on this, please share them. Ditto with any primary evidence regarding any practices related to the temple prostitutes and pregnancy, etc.

      As for egalitarianism and such, there are at least hints in this text – one we’ve already seen in the gods’ disapproval of Gilgamesh’s infringement of the marriage rites of his subjects – that suggest a concern with something like individual rights. (And this is the tradition that produced Hammurabi’s code long before the Mosaic, after all.) But I’m again unaware of claiming egalitarianism anywhere so far, first of all, and second, of claiming there was no fear as a measure to control the people. My comparison was more specific – between Anu’s implicit approach to dealing with ethically wayward mortals versus what we see in Genesis and elsewhere.

      If I show hostility anywhere, I’m unaware of it. Critical disagreement, yes; skepticism, absolutely. But hostility? (And my aim is not to attract a wider audience at the expense of free expression; priestly beliefs deserve no immunity from skeptics, though they’ve received it for centuries and still do. It’s the third millennium. We’ve come a long way since these beliefs formed, and discovered much that challenges them.)

      And I’m aware of the “gnostic” (early) Christian cults’ belief that the Judeo-Christian god had a mother, and find that fascinating. But that would require some homework to refresh the memory. And as you say, it’s not so relevant today, since it’s practically non-existent now.

      Thanks again for the comments, and hope tomorrow’s shorter 😉

      1. You’re welcome and thanks for getting my tone. It doesn’t always happen.

        It’s hard to beat the ring of “Unsucky English” with something more accurate. Just needed to explore the interesting gap from complete accuracy and the great title.

        Presentism is inevitable, as is ethnocentrism. We can never reach a point where we completely understand another time, another place, or another culture completely — we never really understand another person completely, and never really understand ourselves completely. What you’ve done here is to try to make the oldest text in Western Literature relevant to a modern audience, which will require a certain amount of presentism.

        The goal, though, is to try to reduce the amount of presentism, so we can appreciate the text to some degree for what it is, because, without that, we may not be able to have much appreciation for it at all. It’s a bit of a tight-rope walk, and I’m trying to tug you to a different side of the tight-rope.

        Nope, I don’t have a lot of primary sources that describe in detail Sumerian temple ritual in translation. Get me to Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome and I’ve got a bit more to work with, but I’m not really solid on Sumerians.

        However, I’ve googled around a bit and found some pieces that seem sufficiently solid to make my point. Inanna/Ishtar was not the goddess of sexuality — she was the goddess of fertility. The temples weren’t brothels or massage parlors where the customer comes along and picks their fantasy, nor would the temple prostitute acting out that fantasy or doing what the customer ordered even be a celebration of her sexuality were it to work out that way. Temples were controlled by priests/priestesses, and the ritualized sex was creating and perpetuating specific sexual experiences that reinforced the desired beliefs in the participants.

        Now, this does contrast with some of the sex-shame threads that can be found in mainstream Christianity, which, I think, was your major point. However, there was still plenty of room for restriction of sexual behavior to something quite different than the relative permissiveness of modern Western societies. The prostitutes seem to have been expected or required to participate, whether they wished to or not, while the men who participated in the ritual were those who could pay the required fee, which would, at the very least, have reduced the number of common men who would have been able to do so if not totally removed them from the process.

        You did not make an explicit claim of egalitarianism in Sumerian society. However, your presentation of “Think of how different it must have been…” seemed to by trying to place the reader in the position of imagining themselves in that setting, without taking into account the impact of class privileges and restrictions into the scenario. As with all ancient societies, and most since then, most Sumerians were lower-class, and did not enjoy access to the same social privileges of the elites.

        And, yeah, it definitely looks like hostility from here. You’ve got a significant chip on your shoulder showing up with regard to Christianity, and the brush you’re painting it with is pretty broad. There are a variety of approaches within Christianity on some of the questions you’re mentioning beyond those you’re listing. Perhaps a little qualification about “some/many/most Christians” rather than the more general terminology you’re using would work.

        It’s too bad that you’re more interested in hanging on to every tirade you want to say about whoever it is that pissed you off in Christianity than in reaching more people who could benefit from your desire to make the study of literature less boring and more accessible. I guess you sacrifice lesser priorities for greater priorities.

        I keep reaching this stuff (or finishing it) when I’m getting tired. But I did get a nap in today, so that helps.

        Blains last blog post..A Mormon Talk

        1. Sorry, Blain, this one slipped by me somehow.

          I followed your lead and googled a bit on Innana/Ishtar too, and found mostly controversy: many arguments that sex was not involved in the cultic practice beyond the heiros gamos with the king (once annually, if I recall rightly), but others citing primary texts to support the view that temple prostitutes did indeed engage in sexual activity in the temple, and with more than the king.
          (This and this link represent the respective arguments most directly, from what I browsed.

          (And please share links if you’ve got time.)

          I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that I characterized the temple as a place where the “customers picked their fantasy,” because, well, I didn’t. I’m going mostly by direct evidence from this one text at the moment (and that mostly from memory, since I don’t have a copy of the book handy, and am receiving select passages as scans from a student in that class a couple years ago), and I’ll acknowledge scholarly accusations that Mitchell took liberties with the original. But whether he took those with this aspect in particular, I’m not aware.

          The larger point, though, beyond the type of sex practiced, by whom, and under what “stylistic restrictions” you go on to discuss, is simply that sexuality is still, from what I can see, elevated to a primary place of honor in the pantheon, and thus in the religious sensibility of the people, regardless of sexual practices in the temple.

          And from that, I still think it’s fair to infer that the shame/guilt/sin memes attached to sex in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, for those unfamiliar with this label) would be not only absent, but countered by roughly opposite connotations in Sumer: natural, honored, sacred. Your street-sweeper would be as conscious of the sacred status of sexuality represented by Innana and Ishtar as the king was by virtue of her presence as a chief deity.

          There’s too much sexuality in Gilgamesh for me easily accept your claim it’s an unfounded characterization of Innana. Procreation and fertility, yes; but my eyes see evidence of the sexual and erotic as well. (And there are more primary sources in the link above.)

          As for the “hostility” charge, I’m almost always going to agree that partitive “some/many/most” language is both more accurate and more tolerable, so I’ll keep that good advice in mind.

          But my “tirades”? Please cite examples.

          And what you perceive as a “chip on [my] shoulder” is not due to any “person” offending me, as you suggest. As politely as I can say this, it’s due to a good three decades of reading and discussing the Bible, Biblical scholarship and history, and church history as well.

          That, plus the last decade in post-Christian Europe and non-Christian Asia, has brought me to see very little to applaud in the monotheistic religions. Good secular people perform all the good works that churches do and more, without imposing their views on those they help, and I’m honestly at a loss to see what benefit comes from priestly classes and institutionalized religions. Ethical philosophy teaches the tenets of basic decency without religion’s dogmatism and irrationalism; and it doesn’t start wars.

          And I just find it strange that, 300 years after the scientific revolution and Enlightenment, we still can’t distinguish “justified true belief” from unjustified belief.

          Philosophy and science don’t insult us that way. They’re humble in the face of what they don’t know, and willing to drop a discredited belief whenever compelling evidence suggest they do.

          I read literature with a keen eye for its religious content and implications, and the relevance of those to who we are and what we’ve become today. To temper that in order to keep readers who don’t want their dogmas challenged would be self-defeating.

          Hope that made sense, and glad you had a nap.

        2. I’m not actually replying to myself, but I can’t seem to find a reply widget in your comment, so this is as close as I can get.

          Yeah, the details of exactly what ritual prostitution comprised are hard to sort out — one of the difficulties in trying to reconstruct the ancient world is the shortage of texts on which to base our arguments. I’m not that concerned with those details, except to the degree that they inform our understanding of their attitude about sex.

          I am specifically questioning the implied argument that there was no shame or restriction on sex until the uptight Jews came along, and then the really uptight Christians came by and made everyone feel bad about sex. I will grant, again, that this is not exactly your explicit argument, but would like to make the difference between your explicit argument and that which I’m inferring from it more clear for readers. That’s basically all.

          There is no question in my mind that the Sumerian mindset about sex is different than that of the Jewish paradigm, but want it to be clear that this was not a modernist free-love model in Mesopotamia that is squelched by the power of the Jews.

          And I would prefer to see some reflection on the idea that the Jewish portrayal of Mesopotamian cultures bore at least a little bit of its venom to the consequences of being conquered, enslaved, and subject to attempted cultural genocide as it did to perceived puritanism and fear of sex. Jews have shown no particular problem with engaging in sex sufficiently to maintain their population, and, as far as I can tell, have only placed significant stigma on non-marital sex — something the Sumerians show at least some problems with as well.

          Characterizing Mesopotamian civilization as the Whore of Babylon is likely to have some base in the differences in attitudes about sexual religious practice, of course, but the relationships between the Jewish people and Mesopotamia had other significant problems that played a role as well.

          Sexuality and fertility are doubtless connected. That is rather my point — not that Ishtar is not a goddess of sexuality at all, but that she is not only a goddess of sexuality. Today, there is the tendency to divorce sexuality from fertility, but that is entirely anachronistic when applied to the ancient world.

          I think you’re casting an overly dark view over organized religion, and an overly bright view of the humility of western rationalist philosophy. The sins/failings/flaws manifest in both camps are products of the humanity of the people found in the camps, and neither camp has a monopoly on any good or bad attribute, be it dogmatism, orthodoxy, tolerance or charity.

          Certainly there are good people who do not attach themselves to any organized religion, but there are people who will tell you that the reason that they have done the good things they have done is because of their religious faith, and that, without those beliefs telling them to treat others better, that they would not. I’m one of them, not that I’ve done anything all that fantastic, but that I am certain that, without my religious belief, I would be a much worse person than I am.

          I also know many religious people who are humble in the face of what they don’t know, and are willing to drop a discredited belief when compelling evidence shows it to be discredited. There are also the bigoted and closed minded to be found, of course, but I find plenty of bigotry and closed mindedness among the anti-religious as well.

          I fail to see how showing a bit of respect to those with whom one disagrees defeats one’s purpose, unless the purpose is only to discredit and demean those with whom one disagrees. I’m not asking you to withhold your own point of view — I’m asking you to more fairly represent the point of view you’re disagreeing with. When I look at how you describe what I believe, and see something that looks quite alien from what I actually believe, it raises doubt in my mind about the rest of your descriptions.

          1. Thanks again, Blain.

            I hope you don’t mind me breaking your comment into shorter paragraphs. Helps me see the main ideas. I didn’t change a word (and I increased the number of replies per comment based on your feedback, thank you :) ).

            My replies:

            You say,

            I am specifically questioning the implied argument that there was no shame or restriction on sex until the uptight Jews came along, and then the really uptight Christians came by and made everyone feel bad about sex.

            I’ve already answered that my claim is not as general (“no shame or restriction”), but otherwise, I think your summary of what’s implied in this reading of Gilgamesh at least deserves consideration.

            Something, after all, has created the Puritanical craze in Western culture – particularly American now, from what I saw while living in five years in Europe, which is often called “post-Christian” now based on census evidence.

            And if that something was not the religion that shaped the West since Constantine gave it the backing of the Roman government in 330 CE or so (when was Nicaea again?), and that then usurped that power and ruled Europe for a thousand years before the Renaissance, then what’s your explanation?

            I’ve lived in non-Christian China and partly-Christian Korea for the last ten years as well, and traveled the rest of Asia extensively. So I’ve got pretty good direct experience to back up my claim that America and its Puritanism is a) a special case, not the world norm, that is b) more shame-and-guilt-heavy (and ironically sex-obsessed) than these other two major continents.

            So if it’s not Christianity, again, at the root of these differences, then what is your explanation?

            Now, I just granted your first inference is fairly accurate, but your second one:

            this was not a modernist free-love model in Mesopotamia that is squelched by the power of the Jews.

            is way off the mark. Give me that concession. I’m arguing from the evidence of an ancient text here, and you’re caricaturing me as a “Summer of Love” “free love modernist” who implicitly wants us all to “let it all hang out.”

            There are other positions to stake out than these two poles.


            the Jewish portrayal of Mesopotamian cultures bore at least a little bit of its venom to the consequences of being conquered, enslaved, and subject to attempted cultural genocide as it did to perceived puritanism and fear of sex.

            –you’re getting ahead of me. I promised to entertain this connection “down the road” in this post, when we get to Genesis (and the Babylonian Captivity). But you let the cat out of the bag.

            I agree with the general outline of your argument here.

            But since the Hebrews who founded Israel committed their own “conquering, enslaving, and attempted [more than cultural] genocide” against the polytheistic Canaanites – we read that litany of crimes against humanity in the Good Book, particularly Deuteronomy and Joshua – I’m not going to give the writers of Genesis any sympathy points for being at the losing end, this time, of this Bronze Age barbarism. They lived by their (God-backed) sword and won Israel, and died by the sword and lost it (until the Persians saved them). Come to think of it, this is unfair to the Babylonians. They didn’t use a scorched-earth policy against the Israelis; they took them captive and deported them to Babylonian ghettos instead. (Many Jews liked it so much they chose to stay, in fact, in Babylon.)

            Today, there is the tendency to divorce sexuality from fertility, but that is entirely anachronistic when applied to the ancient world.

            –“entirely”? Please justify this. I’ve got evidence from Gilgamesh that suggests otherwise (and more coming).

            there are people who will tell you that the reason that they have done the good things they have done is because of their religious faith, and that, without those beliefs telling them to treat others better, that they would not.

            –I’m not the first to observe that anybody who does good works for any profit – including heavenly reward – is doing them, by definition, selfishly. Secular people who practice altruism – with no strings attached (we’ll give you medical treatment if you’ll read this tract or come to our sermon, etc) – come off far nobler and more moral. They do good because they have compassion (or maybe, granted, some psychological need to satisfy by “proving” their goodness). In any case, they’re not trying to cause people to abandon their worldview based on the missionaries’ equally improbable worldview. They’re not trying to control the thoughts of those they help. They’re giving without asking for anything.

            When you can demonstrably show six billion people that there is a soul, and that it will live after death with the creator of the universe (Christian) or on its own planet (Mormon, if I get that right) if they believe in a certain set of myths or a special book, then I’ll join the missionaries with you.

            Until then, I’ll keep asking why they meddle in other people’s lives.

            I also know many religious people who are humble in the face of what they don’t know, and are willing to drop a discredited belief when compelling evidence shows it to be discredited.

            –Then why do they cling to faith in all their different gods? I notice you’re a Mormon. Besides the teachings from a book that uses circular logic to assert its truth (“This book is true because the book says so”), what credible evidence do you have for any of its beliefs? And have you dropped any articles of your faith based on compelling evidence?

            I fail to see how showing a bit of respect to those with whom one disagrees defeats one’s purpose, unless the purpose is only to discredit and demean those with whom one disagrees.

            –I’m still waiting for you to show me where I’ve shown any disrespect.

            My aim is always to discredit – though not necessarily demean, though then again, maybe – any unjustified beliefs. Bad ideas are bad ideas, no matter who believes them – or who profits by them.

            Listen to the airwaves, go to church, watch them on TV: the religious very often attack, discredit, demean all who either don’t agree or live differently. But because they’re protected by a bubble of immunity – “you can’t talk rude to the preachers or Ned Flanders” – they get a free ride and uneven playing field.

            I’m a teacher. I’m also a thinker. And I try to be a good guy. For all of these reasons, I’m sorry to offend anyone by speaking freely and critically – and I’m trying to be civil – but more sorry that most people are scared to talk about these obvious inconsistencies in religious belief 2,000 years later. That’s a long time to have faith.

            I say faith has passed its expiration date. If it hasn’t, what’s a reasonable period of time, in your opinion, that we should be expected to wait for all the different religions’ promises and prophecies to come true? 3,000 years? 4,000?

            These are not rude questions; they’re entirely sensible.

            Don’t you agree?

            Thanks again, Blain. I appreciate your time (but jeez, I’m never going to get to the next post at this rate!).

          2. Yeah. This is getting a little long, isn’t it? I suspect we’re running close to the end of the intense part of this, and will be done in a few more bounces. There will still be stuff to say, but the major points will have been put on the table.

            The Puritan founders of America have doubtless had an impact on American culture that is not entirely gone. I can go further with that, but I think we can save that for another thread in the interest of moving things along. I’ll address pieces of this along the way, but I probably won’t address the exact point you want in the way you want this time, because the question is too big. Which I’ll illustrate by essentially asking you the same question backwards, and then suggesting we leave that question one on which we disagree, rather than trying to hammer out every implication of the question.

            But that’s later.

            As to my second point that you are repeating that you didn’t say, I will repeat that I’m not saying that you’ve said it, but that I’m explicitly challenging the notion for the benefit of readers who might draw the conclusion you’ve not explicitly stated from what you said. You didn’t say it, but someone could reasonably infer that in the absence of clear statements to the contrary, so I’m providing clear statements to the contrary. Good enough?

            Okay. I’ll wait patiently for this point to be made, but I will invoke it sufficiently to make the point that Jewish hostility toward Mesopotamia is not evidence that Jews have ever been hostile toward sex, and the same works for Christians of various stripes (although I do think it would be reasonable to consider Shakers to have been hostile toward sex).

            You have evidence that fertility was divorced from sexuality in Gilgamesh? I’d be interested in seeing that. The results of my googling have indicated that the sexuality of Ishtar was tied not only to human fertility, but fertility in crops and flocks — the purpose of the ritual was to insure that the crops and flocks would be fruitful. This is not to state that anybody expected every sexual encounter to be entirely about fertility and nothing else, but that in a world millenia before safe, effective and reliable birth control, fertility and pregnancy was an expected possible outcome of sexual encounters.

            And now we need to get down to the problem of your lack of respect for religion, which is much of what I’m getting at. You spoke about humility in the face of what is not understood, and then show an arrogant dismissal of religious experiences you don’t understand. It’s amazing to me that you can, without exploration, characterize my religious experience as selfish. We can have a very lengthy conversation about this, with lots of hammers and tongs, or we can use this instead: I won’t claim that I have a complete understanding of what you have learned through your decade living outside the US, and you don’t claim that you have a complete understanding of what I’ve learned in four decades of life as a Mormon.

            I don’t share your unproven hypothesis that all good works motivated by religious belief are strictly and only selfish — that’s a handy way of tearing down those who are being kinder to others without having to explore the multiple layers of motivation that underly any choice. Feeding a child can be an act of selfishness, but it can also be an act of love. Christianity dealt with this question in the NT, when Jesus stated that those who did their good works to be seen of men had already received their reward, and could expect none in heaven. If you want to equate the people who go on TV handing out huge checks and getting lots of immediate reward for what they’ve done with those who quietly do good and avoid public attention and reward for what they’re doing, that’s your option, but I think the logical gymnastics required to equate Mother Teresa and Donald Trump aren’t going to be persuasive to many people.

            Your discussion of hypothetical altruistic secular people in contrast to altruistic religious people is selective in assuming that the secular people never attempt to force their viewpoint on the recipients of their generosity, and that the religious people always do. Your point would be stronger if you were criticizing attempting to manipulate people to accept your point of view by means of apparent generosity. The charitable activities I’ve been involved with do not include requirements that people listen to a sermon or read a tract, although I know of some who are. I don’t claim to be more noble or superior to those who do differently. I don’t do good things to make myself better than anybody else. Rather, I do them, to make myself better than I was before. There is a self-oriented aspect of that, but I don’t see anything wrong in it. YMMV, of course.

            I don’t try to prove questions of faith based on objective evidence — things which respond to an appeal to evidence aren’t questions of faith. And, before we go any further, I will let you know that any mention of “Flying Spaghetti Monsters” or the ilk will end my participation in this conversation, as that is a flagrant sign of disrespect for those who believe differently.

            I don’t believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God because it says it is. I believe it because of subjective experiences that I could attempt to describe to you, but could not demonstrate to you. The truths I have learned from it have been reinforced by myriad personal experiences that leave me with no doubt of its divine nature.

            However, I have no real idea of what the Book of Mormon is. I’m reasonably certain that it’s not the story of how all pre-Columbian people came to the Western Hemisphere. I don’t know what geographic area it’s talking about, nor do I know who the descendants of the people it speaks of are. I’m aware of a number of theories about those questions, and I remain agnostic as I look them over. The importance of the book isn’t in the geography and ethnology of it, nor even in its historicity. It’s in the principles it teaches, and how they help bring me closer to God as I better learn how to follow them.

            That’s an example of how I have let go of pieces of my belief that are shown by evidence to not be so. Do not assume that that process means that I will inevitably end up agreeing with you if I do it correctly.

            I have no problem with challenging my beliefs, or the beliefs of anybody else, and I have no problem challenging yours anytime I see them being challengeable. I have a problem with the assumption that challenge is discreditation. I have a problem with the assumption that “I” am right and “you” are wrong just because we disagree, regardless of who the POV person is in that statement. I propose that everybody is right sometimes, and everybody is wrong sometimes, so exploring and challenging is just as likely to bring both parties to a better understanding. I don’t see that approach in your words — you don’t seem open to people who believe in God/Christ/whatever being right about that.

            I would also propose that you live just as much by faith as I or anybody else does. Faith is just a belief that leads to a behavior predicated on the understood truth of that belief. No understanding is flawless or complete, so faith is always imperfect, but we all use faith all the time. We believe that the future will be fundamentally the same as the past, and behave with that in mind. We flip the light switch because we have faith that electricity will make the light turn on when we do. Our society has faith in the product of the discipline known as Science, even though the discipline has produced many incomplete and erroneous understandings over time. Few people today have more understanding of the working of the computers they are using to read this than the folks who used to sacrifice animals in the hopes that they would have divine favor in their endeavors did in how that was supposed to work. They rely on the statements of scientists and authorities exactly as priests used to be relied upon. Faith is every bit as necessary as it has ever been, it’s just that the object of that faith is different than it used to be.

            Most of the people in the world for most of history have believed that there was something greater than humanity that could provide them with useful wisdom and guidance, and they found experiences which supported that belief. You might be smarter than they all were, but you’ve not yet demonstrated that to my satisfaction. Now, you can challenge pieces of what they have believed and show how their understandings may well have been wrong, but don’t expect that any of that means that they were entirely wrong.

            I don’t mind your voice and your belief system being at the table across which these matters are discussed. I do mind if your voice and belief system is to be the only one at the table, and I’d prefer to see some acknowledgment that there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, just like everybody else. You seem to be a smart and decent guy, but you’re not so much better than everybody else than your crap doesn’t stink.

            That’s what I’m saying.

            Blains last blog post..A Mormon Talk

          3. Blain, your closing line in your last long paragraph almost made me ignore you. I haven’t taken that tone with you. Commenters can edit and revise their comments here after submitting; if you didn’t notice that, you know now.

            Your straw-man is not a good example of the unselfish altruistic types I’m talking about – Donald Trump v. Mother Theresa (whose letters and journals, Christopher Hitchens just wrote in a new book, suggest she often didn’t believe in the faith of her Church either – though I guess that’s your standard case of “backsliding,” against which all priests in need of return customers have a huge array of strategies – the word “faith” is impressively effective in this regard).

            I have in mind less media-hungry groups like Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders). They convince me and many others that this is charity at its best – no strings attached, no metaphysical arm-twisting of the needy, no hidden agenda, no attribution of their own good will to any deity in any of the many books claiming to speak for that deity.

            As for the rest:

            Re: Your equation of “faith in science” with “faith in animal sacrifice” – light switches being exactly (and I believe you used that word) as much articles of faith as goat-offerings:

            Do I have to point out that the light switch is not in the same category at all? That its success rate is close to 100%, while priestly magic is closer to 0%? That when light switches don’t work, the work of science has the solution to that – a solution that makes sense to Jews, Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and Secularists?

            So you don’t believe that Native Americans came to America from Israel, the way your holy book explains it. That’s refreshing. Yet you still give this book credit for explaining life after death. I don’t see how you think anybody else should.

            Subjective “peak moments,” mystical experiences of the ineffable union with something that feels divine, dreams and hallucinations (read Revelation – many scholars hypothesize it’s a hallucinogenic drug trip mistaken for a sober experience by evangelicals today, while even Martin Luther, the father of evangelicalism in Protestant countries today, rejected it altogether, said “I see no God in it,” and voted it be deleted from the Bible) – they’re all powerful experiences. I’ve had a few myself, and they changed me for the better.

            But as soon as I start “mistaking the finger for the Moon,” in Buddha’s beautiful words (and no, I’m not a Buddhist because I don’t buy reincarnation any more than I buy other undemonstrable metaphysical hypotheses – but I do find Buddhism overall the most peaceful and psychologically sound religion out there) – as soon as I say my subjective experiences are Truth, and those who disagree are Wrong, I’ve made a leap that makes me intellectually suspect and socially dangerous.

            Because I mistake a mental experience with an ontological entity, and start meddling with other people in its name. Wars start that way, families split, individuals stop thinking and start attacking reason and critical thinking and humble science – the only things that can unite us all across the tribal boundaries of the past.

            There are many things I don’t know. I say as much in the Preface to this series, and any number of other posts. But I do know there are mountains of evidence suggesting that most of the articles of truth and faith in holy books – particularly when they set themselves up to be science books, the way Genesis, read naively, does – are not true.

            I don’t call myself an “atheist” for this very reason: it suggests I know there is no deity. I know I don’t know that. But that doesn’t keep me from being a firm denier of truth-claims against which, again, there is either plenty of evidence, or equally damning, for which there is no compelling evidence either.

            Good feelings from subjective experience don’t make that experience objectively true. Neither do the good ethical consequences. Drug trips can make people more loving too. That doesn’t make drugs god.

            I can’t continue this at this length. Paint that how you will. I’ve got to get back to the series.

          4. Good luck to you too.

            I re-read my last response, and I’ll quote Martin Luther when the Pope told him to recant:

            “Here I stand. I can do nothing else.”

            Every paragraph was reasonable, and talking about ideas.

            But seriously, good luck.

  24. Clay-
    A bit of interesting reading on the topic of male/female gods, god’s wife and early Judaism would be “In the Wake of the Goddesses” by Tivka Frymer-Kensky. I read it a while ago, but I thought her tracing from Sumerian myth to early Judaism of gender issues and the idea God having a wife was pretty fascinating.

    1. Penelope, that’s an excellent tip. I googled her, hoping to arrange a Skype interview for a podcast – but discovered she died recently :(

      Would you be up for a Skype interview yourself? Maybe skim the book to refresh your memory, and tell us the parts relevant to this discussion?

      Again, living in Korea makes getting books like this almost impossible :(

    2. Long time, Penelope, but wanted you to know that I just found a copy of Frymer-Kensky’s
      Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories
       at library.nu (you really should check that site out).

      Thanks for the suggest and hope you’re well!

  25. I am a student AND a teacher, AND an adult! So I suppose I count, right?

    I read Gilgamesh in HS a long, long time ago. Without the sex parts thrown in for interest.

    I read it again this year on my own.

    Totally different experience.

    You are doing a great service here. I am sending some students young and old your way.

    You don’t do The Republic in a Nutshell by any chance?

    1. Oh yes you count :)

      It’s a beautiful translation, isn’t it?

      The Republic? Arg. I prefer the Symposium and the Lysis, among others….

  26. Wow, you win. This is a great idea. I am a student doing journalism major and trying to decide between American studies, and literature as a minor, and you definitely push me towards lit. The way you look at these old stories is very analytical and questioning (as if you were a reporter) and I absolutely love it. As far as Gilgamesh itself goes I do believe I have read parts of it, but I’m not really sure what/where, but I’m positively going to go to the library tomorrow and borrow it. I cant wait for you to get into more recent texts i.e. Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, as that’s where most of the studies Ive had are. I do have one question though, what brought you to Korea?

    1. Thanks, Sean. Jeez, American Studies sounds kind of important too. We need Americans – American journalists, especially, in this age of Faux News – who’ve actually studied their country instead of just worshiped it.

      Do you read Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine, by any chance? As a future journalist in the age of declining print, you’d probably benefit from it. All about the future of journalism.

      Jeez, how did I come to Korea? I think the Web Legacies series in the “Best of” sidebar links might answer that towards the end. Long story. But I’ve never been better since living in Asia – though I infinitely prefer Shanghai and the Chinese people, where I lived for five years before coming to Seoul.

  27. Clay Burell, you are clearly a dude! There’s so much to read and enjoy here that I’ve barely scratched the surface, (man you must practically live at the keyboard to answer so many comments as well as producing these fine articles,) but I want to thank you and generally bow in your direction.

    Your Gilgamesh article was great, (in fact I just placed an order to buy the Stephen Mitchell translation!) In fact I knew almost nothing about it before coming here, in spite of doing an English Lit degree at college, and currently being an ESL teacher in China, (not in sexy Shanghai I’m afraid, but in backward and provincial Shantou, where the kids hate it when I just sneak a Greek myth or 2 into the curriculum, and where I fear Gil would go down like the proverbial metallic inflatable.)

    Anyway before I sign off I just have one quibbly niggle. I downloaded your audio story about being bullied at school, and was soo looking forward to savouring it, but to do so I have to download Quicktime as well because it’s in m4a format?! Dude that sucks! I hate Quicktime sitting around on my HD, unused except for the occasional thing like this, slowing down the system and nagging me to upgrade it when I don’t even want it. Ever heard of mp3? It’s kind of a popular format!

    1. Hi Michael,

      You’ve got some Dude-ism mojo too, and I like it. I’m lazy to Google right now: where’s Shantou? I traveled almost all of China while I was there, and love the provinces as much as the cities.

      Maybe you can upload that podcast to Zamzar to convert it to mp3. I used the other format because it enables chapters for navigation, and mp3 doesn’t.

      Good to hear from a fellow China traveler. Korea has more money, but it’s also poorer.

      1. Hi Clay, good to hear from you!

        Shantou is in Guangdong, right over in the eastern part, almost right across the sea from Taiwan. In theory it’s one of the much vaunted ‘Special Economic Zones’ like Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau, but actually it’s totally unlike those places in terms of economic development and pizzazz. I mainly teach students in their first year of a medical degree course who come here from other parts of China expecting a mini-Shenzhen only to be disappointed. There are still relatively few foreigners here, (and I’m the only one who seems to stick around! Been here 4 years now, married a gal from Chongqing who’s expecting in February!), and the locals seem stubbornly proud of their ‘laofengjian’ (old style) mindset and resistance to change. It would be my honour to show you around if you ever make it down here! I found [url=http://myshantou.net/]this website[/url] with some interesting content. Check out the pics of streets filled with water, an all too familiar sight here.

        Thanks for the links dude, I shall be checking them out forthwith. The Zamzar one sounds really useful, (you’re clearly way ahead of me in web savoir-faire!) Like savouring a good meal I’m denying myself the pleasure of reading the various parts of your site too quickly, but you’re right about the audio quality of the written word! 😉

  28. This article is extremely well-written, illuminating, and fascinating, and I just want you to know that I’m glad that this site exists. =)

  29. I just stumbled upon this lecture and I enjoyed very much i had a teacher in highschool who was not afraid to teach things like this sadly she was politely asked to retire when students complained about her (she had been teaching for almost 50 years) so as I sit in my college waiting for my class to start this was a nice bit of nostalgia thank you

    1. Sad indeed. Another honest person bites the dust.

      You’re making me want to start an open thread asking commenters to tell of any teachers who’ve gotten in hot water for speaking obvious things in classrooms that offended people who believed in improbable things.

      My guess is that that would be one long thread indeed.

      Thanks for the comment, John. Enjoy your class.

  30. Hi Clay, me again, and with a bit of serendipitous info.
    I actually found your site through Stumble the other day when I first posted. I am a teacher, as I said before, but I am working on my Masters in Humanities/Literature.
    I have read Gilgamesh two times in my life, as I also mentioned.
    Lo and Behold, I just got my syllabus for an interesting little course I chose: Babylon, Culture and Religious History of Iraq. So…what do you think my first assignment is? Yea. That.
    Here we go again.

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  33. Thank you for being a shining example of what teachers, scholars and professors should all strive to be. Truly, fear has crippled wisdom in the modern world. Hope, that you and others like you can keep the fire of knowledge and discovery burning, is one of the only things that helps me sleep at night.

    1. Doryen, a belated thanks.

      Sometimes I wonder if beyond fear, it’s also laziness. Because it seems to me most people don’t even bother to read the books their preachers advertise every Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (and isn’t it funny that the three monotheistic religions, all worshiping the same god, can’t even unite enough to worship “him” on the same day?)

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