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
They have millions of good reasons to think that. They may, for example, have:
- teachers who aren’t that great at reading, writing, or teaching, or
- 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
- English worksheets that turn literature into anatomy tests (“Identify which phrase below is an example of onomatopoeia” and similar dentist drills), or
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
“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.
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.
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?
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”
~ ~ ~
- thanks to Tom, by the way, whose post partly inspired this and who turned me on to that article. [↩]
- and thanks to R. Greco for this gem [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- 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? [↩]
- Thanks to the Salon.com forum that mentions this post for pointing out this angle. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- Yahweh is a Hebrew name for what English-speaking Jews and Christians call “God” [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]