Unsucky English Lecture 7: Gilgamesh: A Goddess Prays

[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

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. <br>Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

Gilgamesh - the Earth's Oldest Epic. Stephen Mitchell's fine 2004 adaptation.

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” (شمس) – 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?”

  1. This series based on the fine 2004 Stephen Mitchell adaptation of Gilgamesh. []
  2. Since the Gilgamesh court poets polished this epic over 15 centuries, I lean toward “intentional.” []
  3. which in this case hews close to the original []

24 thoughts on “Unsucky English Lecture 7: Gilgamesh: A Goddess Prays”

  1. I heard about Gilgamesh on your website. The next week, I bought and read the book. I must say, it is a very interesting read. Since then I’ve been reading your Unsucky English Lectures. The author does a good job at explanations, but your lectures have provide invaluable insight to further understanding the story. I look forward to your next posts.

    1. @Lynne, thanks for the encouragement. I agree that Mitchell’s intro and commentary are very well-done. I try not to read them as I go through this, because there’s so much else to observe.

      Feel free to jump in with your own observations, by the way :)

      1. Well, I can try and make some intelligible observations and comments. (I’m an engineer, not an literary critic.)

        I never completely understood why Gilgamesh and Enkidu felt compelled to slay Humbaba in the first place. Sure maybe it can be, on some level, compared to people going on a safari to slay rhinos or other potentially dangerous animals to gain pride, honor, remembrance, you name it. Still, how honorable of a fight is it when its 3:1, favoring your side, and you were unprovoked? Not to mention that your opponent was pinned by four winds and asks for mercy, but you decide to decapitate him anyways! They’re the aggressors in this case, not the heroes they claim to be.

  2. Wisdom ( for him or for us) comes through what Gilgamesh experiences. I was reminded of another Mitchell translation – of the Bhagavad Gita – and Arjuna’s question about evil actions, even those actions that seem to go against our nature.
    “Arjuna said:
    What is that drives a man/to an evil action, Krishna.
    even against his will,/as if some force made him do it?

    The Blessed Lord said:
    That force is desire, it is anger,/arising from the guna called rajas;
    deadly and all-devouring,/that is the enemy here.

    As a fire is obscured by smoke,/as a mirror is covered by dust,
    as a fetus is wrapped in the membrane,/so wisdom is obscured by desire.

    Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,/by the constant enemy of the wise,
    which, flaring up as desire, /blazes with insatiable flames.

    Desire dwells in the senses, /the mind and the understanding;
    in all these it obscures wisdom /and perplexes the embodied Self.

    Ninsun’s prayer of thanks (the balance of desire) reflects her wisdom. We could/should all learn from her.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Bone tired

    1. Kate, there’s so much Buddhism in that quote, huh?

      The nice thing about being non-religious is how lovely it makes religious studies 😉

      I’ve always admired the Unitarians for being able to enjoy all texts.

  3. Re: “Babylon Bashing,” there’s quite a bit of Assyria bashing as well (although, I daresay, they kind of deserved it.) But I think it’s understandable given the captivity they experienced. They were relatively glowing about the Persians, though, especially Cyrus.

    Re: the prayer itself, it is beautiful, as are many of the prayers from that period. Sometimes I wonder how cuneiform (or any pictographic writing) influenced literature, especially poetic structure. Like, did they “rhyme” symbols instead of syllables? I LOVE the sign “Dingir.” And the sign “ama-gi” (freedom). It looks like the dingir sign appears in the middle of ama-gi. I wonder …

    Re: Shamash/Sun, I was surprised to learn the etymological connections between the English word “day” and the PIE word for “sun” (also the name of their sun god) which eventually gave rise to “theos,” “Zeus,” “deus,” and “dia” as well as the Romantic words for “day” and “god” such as “dia” and “dios”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyeus)

    Personal story, once upon a time, my family tried to quit using the name “Easter” and substitute it with “Resurrection Sunday” instead so as not to invoke the goddess Ishtar. What I find funny is that, if we were to really follow that line of thought, we’d have to rename all the days of the week (most of which honor Norse gods), the months of the year (Roman gods) and even our word “day.” Also, it’s funny that Ishtar has nothing to do with Easter, but rather Eostre.

    (PS. I’ve also heard that “day” is related to another PIE word meaning “to burn” and not to that sky god at all.)

    Kesters last blog post..You might be a Redneck Jedi if…

    1. @Kester, interesting as usual. I’m surprised you didn’t catch the fairly sloppy treatment of “worshipping on the heights” that I updated in the post.

      Tell me more about your background in cuneiform and proto-Indo-European. Interesting. My connection between Shamash and Arabic “sun” is pure speculation. I should have framed it as a question instead of an assertion.

      I had trouble with this one. It’s been tough getting back into the swing – especially when the Humbaba and Bull of Heaven scenes are among my least favorite….

    2. Oh, and re: Babylon-bashing, I agree they had their obvious axe to grind about their conquerors. What I wanted to underline was the different picture we’re privy to since the re-discovery of the texts in the 19th c.

      And FWIW, it’s fun to discover you’re an etymology freak too. My Arabic dictionary (Hans Wehr version at $250 a pop) is a treasure that way. It’s such a pure, unalloyed language. The three-letter radicals give birth to so many derivations that connect concepts un-related in English. Like SHa-Ri-Ban for “mustaches,” and SHa-Ra-Ba for “to drink.” Picture the bedouin context in the Arabian desert and you’ll see the logic in that connection. Those droplets in the mustache were surely precious between oases…

      1. Clay,

        Thanks. Regarding “worshiping on the heights,” I actually don’t disagree. Many of my favorite OT figures and Christians weren’t necessarily tied to temple worship. David danced naked before the ark. many of the monastic, at least the eremetic, saints lived in the middle of nowhere out in nature. St. Francis was effulgent about his pan-en-theism. And the so-called “Celtic Christians” gained a reputation for worshiping in nature. One of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says in one poem: “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God …”.

        That said, in almost all religions it seems that the official worship happened inside and was well-regulated. The top level of the ziggurat was only accessible by the priests and that was where the god lived. It seems that “worship on the heights” has always, and in all places, been the place that the layman spoke to God/the gods.

        I am an armchair philologist. I love the history of words and, of all the far-distant roots, the PIE culture and language is the most interesting to me. As for cuneiform, I like to immerse my students in the culture we’re studying as long as we’re studying it. So, we make our own pictographic writing system and, eventually, turn it into an alphabetic one. While learning about Mesopotamia, they (try to) memorize the prologue to the Enuma Elish in ancient Sumerian (assuming my pronunciation is correct) and write letters to each other in cuneiform. Stuff like that. Anyway, I learn some stuff while researching for lessons.

        What I find endlessly interesting is the juxtaposition of pictographic and phonetic writing systems. I find the pictographic ones more interesting, although the phonetic ones seem to promote greater democracy. And how would one translate pictographs when, say, the cuneiform sign for “dingir” can be star, sun, heaven, god, or Anu? It does kind of support your theory that man becomes the ultimate arbiter of the meaning when translation is so contextual. Perhaps that is why the Hebrews preferred phonetic systems, so that the word mean the word and only the word (not that they didn’t end up putting their own spin on things as well.)

        I think about stupid stuff, too. Like, the phonograph is not a great technological advancement. Really, it would have been easily made using the technology of the Sumerians. What if, instead of a writing system, they had recorded everything? How would that have changed the culture?

        Finally, regarding Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, although those aren’t my favorite parts either, I expect they were the favorite parts of the Mesopotamians. And they’re ALWAYS the parts they include in juvenile literature or social studies books.

        1. Hi Kester,

          Why do you say that phonetic writing systems promote greater democracy? Wouldn’t they be less accessible?

          1. Hi, Debbie.

            It took over a decade to become a scribe in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It’s still incredibly difficult (or so I’ve heard) to learn Chinese writing (which still has thousands of characters). Whereas it only took me a week to learn and recognize the shapes and sounds of the Spanish, Runic and Greek alphabetic writing systems. (Of course, learning all their vocabulary is a different matter.) And anyone can learn another phonetic writing system, and even a workable vocabulary, in about a year of concerted effort.

            Thus, the writing of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians was only available to a select few, while the writing of the Jews and Greek was available to most everyone. Pictures can be subjective if you haven’t memorized them all, but an alpha just says “ah” and that’s it.

            For another example, my students are adept at writing their notes in class in such a way that I can’t decipher them using a complicated system of pictographs, symbols and some phonetic writing that would have made the Egyptians weep with frustration and Chinese green with envy. The specific purpose of writing in such a way is to keep me out of the loop.

            Kesters last blog post..Excerpts from "Rebellion" from "The Brother’s Karamazov" by Dostoevsky

  4. Wonderful stuff! I’ve been going through this entire series in a single sitting and am truly awed by the thought and revelations you have had regarding this great work.

    Thought you’d be interested to know (if you even come this far back, and see these old comments) that the word for ‘sun,’ in Hebrew, is an even closer ‘shemesh.’ Those are soft e’s, as in bed. Goes to show…

    1. Steve, for mini-lessons in Hebrew linguistics like you just gave, I’d go back to posts from the Paleolithic.

      Goes to show indeed. Thanks for the addition and the kind words.

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