[The Unsucky English Gilgamesh series so far: 1: Dangerous Questions ~ 2: The Day I Thought Gilgamesh Would Cost Me My Job ~ 3: Adam and Eve, Backwards ~ 4. The Seven Deadly Sins, Backwards ~ 5. Good, Evil, Nature, and the Hero, Backwards ~ 6. Gilgamesh and the Dawn of Man ~ 7. This Post ~ 8. The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets]1
We last left Gilgamesh laughing at the elders for urging him to fear the gods and doubt his own ability to do what none have done before. We noted it was perhaps the first Humanist’s laugh in world literature, 2,500 years before Socrates laughed similarly at the pious believers in Zeus.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are almost, almost ready to embark on their quest to kill Humbaba, the guardian of the sacred Cedar Forest who is sacred to the god Enlil, but evil to several other gods and goddesses, in the wonderfully grey and grown-up moral sphere of the Sumero-Babylonians, so different from the black-and-white moral simplicity of other, more familiar, religions.
But before we follow them out the gate, we have one more stop to make with our two heroes: the Temple of Ninsun, the goddess who is Gilgamesh’s mother. It only makes sense to visit your mother before you leave to court death (I did the same with my best friend when we left my hometown in the ’80s to hitchhike across America all summer, come what monsters may). It makes more sense when she’s a goddess who might pull some divine strings to help you survive your adventure.
It’s an episode with a few details worth pausing over.
Worship on the Heights
We see in this scene, for example, another instance of Sumero-Babylonian religious ritual that causes me envy: their “worship on the heights.” We saw it before in the Temple of Ishtar, the pyramid-like ziggurat atop which, under sun or moon and stars I don’t know, the king seems to have made ritual love to Ishtar’s high priestess. We see it in this scene when Ninsun, after first bathing in “water of tamarisk and soapwort,” arrays herself in “her finest robe, a wide belt, / a jeweled necklace,” and “her crown,” then ascends to the roof of her temple to light incense to accompany her skyward prayer to the sun-god Shamash.
(Can I pause to share that I learned to speak, read and write the Arabic language when I was in the rightly oxymoronic U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence branch back in the ’90s, and that a word I learned there made this prayer-scene a bit mind-bending? The word was not quite “Shamash,” but it was close. It was “shahms” (Ø´Ù…Ø³) – the Arabic word for, you guessed it: sun. The word stretches back to the beginning of human history, and beyond into prehistory. The young god of today’s monotheistic Arabs, Allah, may have taken the throne of heaven from Shamash in Arab religion a mere 1,400 years ago ; but in their language, he still shares heaven with that 6,000-year-oldest god. Shamash still shines on them today.)
We’ll see more of this preference for open-air, panoramic, sky-as-cathedral worship later. I just love it. Synagogues, churches, and mosques should cast a fresh look at their rooftops, and ask if there’s any potential to get closer to the Unnameable up there, instead of down below. [Self-critical update: It occurred to me later that the rooftop heights seem reserved for the elites only – kings and goddesses, so far, in this case. They ascend alone, and return below to the other devotees, from what I can see. I still like the idea, however unsupported it is on second look.]
A Prayer in Babylon’s Defense
Anyway, on her temple rooftop, under the azure dome of Shamash’s sky, Ninsun has her moment on the world-literary stage. She doesn’t blow it.
She asks Shamash the question every mother of a hot-blooded son asks: “You have granted my son / beauty and strength and courage / – why have you burdened him with a restless heart?” Whether intentional or not, I find it interesting that Ninsun’s list of her son’s gifts lacks the gift of wisdom.2 Wisdom is what Gilgamesh will gain by the end of the tale – or perhaps only we will, by knowing his story.
Ninsun then goes on to utter what I like to call her “Ode to the Sun” which, in Mitchell’s adaptation3, deserves a place in our anthologies of the world’s religious poetry:
O Lord Shamash, glorious sun,
delight of the gods, illuminator
of the world, who rise and the light is born,
it fills the heavens, the whole earth takes shape,
the mountains form, the valleys grow bright,
darkness vanishes, evil retreats,
all creatures wake up and open their eyes,
they see you, they are filled with joy….
If any eight lines of verse can serve to refute all the Bible’s Babylon-bashing – an example of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls one culture’s “mythic assassination” of its enemy’s culture – these eight have my vote. They’re not deep or fancy, and that’s their merit: the simple reverence of the lines, especially the image of all creatures waking to be filled with joy at the sight of a new day – they bespeak a gentle gratitude and majesty that gives the lie to the “whorish” slurs cast by the Hebrew and Christian texts. It’s wonderful that the Babylonian text can finally speak for itself again. (I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the cuneiform-imprinted clay tablets containing the epic lay mute and buried under the Iraqi sands for over 2,000 years, until they were uncovered by a British traveler around 1850, and then translated about 25 years later. So from the time of roughly Socrates, through the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, Renaissance, and half the modern period, this story was lost to the world, buried in silence. We’re unbelievably lucky to be alive to hear its ancient voice today. It’s a form of time-travel most of our forebears could not enjoy.)
The Visit Ends, the Adventure Begins
Ninsun goes on to do what so many mothers do who fear for their child’s success: she asks the god to cheat for him. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu close in battle with Humbaba, she asks Shamash to pin him with every wind known to nature – East Wind, West Wind, North and South, with tornadoes and gale and hurricane wind thrown in for good measure – to “make it easy” for her son to kill him.
She then descends and returns to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and adds one more civilized gift to the recently-civilized Enkidu: a family. Ninsun tells Enkidu that she is adopting him as her son, places an amulet around his neck, and tells him to be a good brother to Gilgamesh. And Enkidu, gentle as ever (but not for much longer, as we’ll see), weeps. He has a mother now, and a brother.
An interesting detail in this adoption scene shows us more about the heirodules, or “temple prostitutes” in Ishtar’s cultic service, that we met in the first lecture. Ninsun says she adopts Enkidu “as a priestess takes in an abandoned child.” So we learn that the cult of Ishtar served a charitable function in Sumero-Babylonian society by serving as orphanages. I wonder what more the scholars can tell us about that.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu then take their weaponry and march past the cheering young men and the well-wishing elders to the gate, and beyond. That weaponry, by the way? Each had an axe that weighed “two hundred pounds,” knives with gold mountings, quivers and bows and armor “weighing more than six hundred pounds.”
You have to wonder if there were ever any Sumerian or Babylonian fundamentalists who took these details literally – and if there were any Sumero-Babylonian literature teachers who countered them with the question we ask of our own variety of literalist today: “Can you say hyperbole?”