Unsucky English Lecture 8: The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets

[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. A Goddess Prays ~ 8. This Lecture ~ 9. The Original Original Sin ]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.

I have a love-snore relationship with Book IV of Gilgamesh. On first read, in fact, it was snore-only, and no love. That changed on the second read, so stay with me.

First, the Snores

On the surface, it’s a tedious chapter that recounts the journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu from the gates of Uruk to the edge of the Cedar Forest, home of the “evil” monster/”sacred” forest guardian Humbaba, whom Gilgamesh has decided to kill for glory. They travel a thousand miles every three days, only stopping for a lunch break at the 400th mile, and on the eve of the third day they pitch camp – where else – on the heights of a mountain-top where, closest to the gods in heaven, Gilgamesh apparently has better reception for dreams from the divinities. Enkidu encloses Gilgamesh in a magical circle of flour, a gust of wind portends a divinatory dream will indeed visit him. He goes to sleep, has by all appearances a very bad dream, wakes up terrified, and tells it to Enkidu. Enkidu then interprets the dream favorably, against all common sense, and Gilgamesh swallows it.

This happens five very repetitive times. The only thing that changes in each repetition is the content of the dream, and the outrageousness of Enkidu’s wishful interpreting.

In the first dream, Gilgamesh dreams a mountain falls on him and Enkidu. Enkidu tells him the mountain is Humbaba, who will fall like that mountain. (Never mind that the dream suggests they’ll both be crushed under him.)

In the second dream, the mountain falls only on Gilgamesh and pins him down, and a “shining man” frees him. Enkidu says the mountain is again Humbaba, and the shining man the sun-god Shamash (remember, Gilgamesh’s goddess-mother Ninsun prayed to Shamash to aid her son against Humbaba).

In the third dream, the heavens roar, the earth heaves, all goes dark and silent. Lightning incinerates the trees and all is ash. Enkidu really reaches on this one, saying the heavens are Humbaba, who is powerless to harm Gilgamesh.

In the fourth dream, an eagle with a lion’s head and flames shooting from its mouth attacks Gilgamesh, and a “young man” kills the eagle. Enkidu, *snore*, says the eagle is Humbaba, and the man is Shamash.

In the fifth dream, things get a bit “wtf”: a giant bull, whose bellow shatters the earth and clouds the sky with dust, pins Gilgamesh to the ground, but a man pulls him up, puts his arm around him, and gives him water. More “wtf” still, Enkidu out-does himself by interpreting the bull – get this – as Shamash, and the man as Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh’s father.

It’s not quite as bad as the “begats” in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers (and if God wrote the Bible, this snorer proves He needed a merciless editor), or the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of The Iliad, but it’s close.

Next, the Love

I’m an English teacher. One of the more obnoxious parts of my job is getting all preachy to students who whine that this or that book is “boring,” and telling them that a bored person suffers from a boring mind. There’s always a way, I preach, to turn lead into gold. You just have to stop snoring and wake up, and do that little “reader-response” trick of bringing your own experience and mental connections to the text.

And when I do that with this chapter, it gets a little fun. Let me count the ways.

On Dreams, Magic, Gods – and Poets

That whole “dreams comes from heaven” bit, for example. On the face of it, this motif in Gilgamesh is one of thousands of examples in ancient literature of early humanity’s mental childishness. Faced with questions for which they had no certain answers – Where do we come from? What happens to us after we die? What are these visions we experience in our sleep, and what causes them? On and on – our earliest ancestors settled on answers that today’s toddlers might swallow, but not today’s adults.

The whole thing brings to mind an analogy that, while I know it’s facile, I’m still fond of, and find compelling on many levels: the metaphor of (Western? Intellectual?) human history as the development of an individual human. Antiquity represents our early childhood, gullible enough to swallow Santa Claus; the Middle Ages is our later childhood, accepting whatever we’re told by our authoritarian father-figures in the Church; the Renaissance is our adolescence, rebelling against those fathers and creating new identities, seeking new truths; the Enlightenment is the prime of our adulthood, the cooling of that rebellious passion as we turn more earnestly to our work; we could throw Romanticism in there as a mid-life crisis, though I won’t push it; and our own Modernity – say, 1850 to today – that’s us past our prime, muddled and venal, physically and mentally flabby, caring more about comfort than work, sliding into mediocrity and, soon, senility. (The divine Oscar Wilde points to the same thing in reverse order with his maxim, “The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.”)

So our “young” Gilgamesh and Enkidu “know” that dreams come from the divine, are portents, omens, Things To Be Taken Seriously. Before you join me in a condescending smile, stop with me and ask yourself how many people you’ve known who are still so childish in their beliefs. Can you think of anybody like the man I met years ago who heard God speak to him from his television set – not once, but many times – and never once thought to ask himself, “Should I seek psychiatric help?” Or the good but hyper-religious friend who called me during my waiter shift at my Los Angeles restaurant to breathlessly tell me he had encountered God – and who over the next several months dressed – in Los Angeles – like Rasputin, cassock and Eastern cross necklace and all, and gathered a troupe of disciples around himself renamed after Jesus’ original twelve? Or any number of the no-less-extreme, though more socially accepted (and very well-fed) men on our radios, televisions, and megachurches who claim to talk to God on a regular basis? People who talk about auras, horoscopes, astrological charts, End Times, Nostradamus, on and on?

Ask yourself, better still, if you’re still childish in any similar way. I was once. In fact, I was just like Gilgamesh in this chapter: In my truth-seeking twenties, way back in the late 1980s, I went to an Oregon mountain-top, had a friend sit me inside a magic circle, and prepared to fast there for three days in hopes of receiving a vision from the gods – specifically, the Native American gods of the Pacific Northwestern Sundance religion. The punchline: we had to cancel the “vision-quest” because a) one of us had forgotten to bring a meat-offering for the bird-spirits, and you couldn’t have a vision-quest without a bird offering any more than Gilgamesh apparently could without that magic flour; and b) my helper-friend had a romantic crisis with his girl-friend, and had to run back to his distant town in order to patch things up.

(Gilgamesh was lucky Enkidu didn’t have a high-maintenance girlfriend.)

Don’t think for a minute that I regret those years. And don’t think, either, that I don’t enjoy being able to laugh at them from a completely different mental space 20 years later. Above all, to tie this tangent back to the “intellectual history as individual development” analogy, do think that the reason I was able to outgrow that childish stage was that I went on to study history from antiquity to the present in college, and to grow in that process to intellectual maturity – which, believe me, means much intellectual humility and skepticism, lest you think I’m prideful by saying this. (Nutshell: At the end of a semester of immersion in Greek and Roman studies, I wanted to be a Classicist; at the end of the next semester of Medieval Studies immersion, I wanted to be a monk – and actually called a monastery asking how I could; the following semester’s immersion in Renaissance and Modern Studies thankfully pulled me past that stage, and left me more of a Marxist than anything. Readings since then have pulled me beyond that stage too.)

So the childish magical thinking we chuckle at in Gilgamesh survives all around us, 5,000 years later, all over the world. I’ve traveled much of that world as an adult, and seen it. I saw it in my native United States, where spells said over water, bread, juice, and the like, are believed to magically transform them. I’ve seen it in Europe in the same manifestations. I’ve seen it in Kosovo, as a NATO peace-keeper trying to protect the people who drop to their knees five times a day on the streets to point in a magical direction and pray from being killed by their fellow country-men who believe in a different magic. I saw it in a Buddhist monastery in the Yunnan province of China near the Tibetan plateau, when an ancient monk put a magic string around my wrist. I saw it in Bali, Indonesia, at a Hindu temple full of incense and drumming with monkeys scrambling in trees overhead. I’ve seen it most recently at my Korean mother-in-law’s fresh grave-site, where her family visits and speaks no words of their own to her, but instead opens their magic book above her and reads from it, sings its songs, and then leaves. (I always talk to her at that point, fully doubting she hears at all, just because it seems so heartless to leave without saying a simple “We loved you.”) And I’ve wished for each of those countries that its people could have the opportunity to study history, or travel the world and observe it like I’ve been lucky enough to do, or both, so they could start questioning all the tribal, divisive magics separately claiming to speak their many One Truths on our inseparable, indivisible One Planet spinning through this One never-fully-explainable mystery called the cosmos.

Back to Gilgamesh, Who We Never Really Left – and His Poets

Reader-response. Connecting our experiences to what we read, riffing off the connections. All the above does connect, in this reader’s mind, anyway, to one thing about this snorer of a chapter in Gilgamesh that I love. It’s this: I can’t help but suspect the poets behind this work of being far less childish than their place at the infancy of civilization suggests they should be. Even more, I see signs in this chapter of a sensibility that is startlingly modern: I see these poets as laughing at the childishness of the religious beliefs of their culture.

The clues are in Enkidu’s interpretations of Gilgamesh’s five “dreams from the gods.” It’s not just that Enkidu gives different interpretations of the dreams – for example, Gilgamesh’s “helper” being Shamash in Dream Two and Four, but Lugalbanda in Dream Five. These are noticeably strange, and I always tell my students that if something is strange – is a “wtf?” – in literature,  the author(s) want us to notice them. The poets may indeed want us to notice how contradictory the interpretations are, and laugh at them a bit.

But the more laughable thing, the most interesting “wtf?”, lies in the increasing outlandishness of each interpretation. Dream One doesn’t raise a brow: the falling mountain represents the falling Humbaba – reasonable enough, so we’ll take it seriously. Dream Two doesn’t phase us either: the falling mountain is again Humbaba, and the god Gilgamesh’s mother prayed to for help, Shamash, is the helper in the dream. Enkidu’s interpretation of Dream Three gets more interesting, though, and upsets our expectations: Gilgamesh seems to die unaided in this one – it ends, remember, in “darkness, silence, and ash” – and Enkidu’s interpretation that the dream shows Humbaba is “powerless to harm” Gilgamesh doesn’t satisfactorily explain away that deathlike ending. Anybody awake in the audience, then or now, would presumably notice this slight “wtf,” and wake up a bit. It’s not reasonable enough to satisfy.

The interpretation of Dream Four, though, returns to reason, and lulls the alert reader’s misgivings: the eagle-monster is Humbaba, and its killer who comes to the King’s aid, Shamash – still delivering the help Ninsun begged him to give her son. This makes Dream Three’s interpretation seem a minor fluke. All is again as it should be in the land of story-telling logic. We should take this dream-interpretation stuff seriously. All that flour and favorable mountain-top wind works some serious magic to call down the attention of the divine.

Then comes Dream Five, which I swear strikes me as one of the grandest practical jokes ever played on priest by poet. No listener with the slightest hint of intelligence can take its interpretation seriously: Enkidu tells Gilgamesh the giant bull who almost kills him in this dream – who is his enemy – is not Humbaba this time, as we’d expect, but, wtf?!, Shamash, who in the previous dreams has been Gilgamesh’s divine helper. More wtf still, the helper in this dream is Gilgamesh’s father who comes out of nowhere and, though a former king himself, is still hard to see as a match for the sun-god from whom he saves Gilgamesh.

Remember, this poem was worked and re-worked over at least 1,500 years. That’s ample time for the court poets to find an interpretation for this dream less jarring on the audience’s imagination and less insulting to its intelligence. Yet there it stands, thumbing its outlandish nose at us all, with all its authorial authority. Why did the poets keep this detail as it is?

In my most mischievous imagination, they did it to confront their ancient audience with a choice: You either believe the authorities – us – and our sacred tale, no matter how absurd – or you learn the lesson we’re trying to point to here: sometimes you have to face facts, show some skeptical courage, and call nonsense by its name. This dream interpretation stuff is for the birds.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but wonder how many priests’ feathers were ruffled by this scene over the thousands of years of its telling.

A closing question: the interpretation of dreams – oneiromancy, for any students out there wanting extra points on their Gilgamesh essays – was a widespread religious superstition in the ancient world. The Hebrews did it, the Greeks did it, even educated fleas did it – but did any of those other “childhood cultures” do it with the implicit skepticism and ambiguity I argue we see here?

If not, those Sumero-Babylonians were awfully mature for their Age.

[Next: Lecture 9: Gilgamesh and the Original "Original Sin"]

  1. This series based on the fine 2004 Stephen Mitchell adaptation of Gilgamesh. []

14 thoughts on “Unsucky English Lecture 8: The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets”

  1. I stumbled upon your website in an attempt to develop an argument relating this famous “Deluge” to the seven deadly sins. Now, I speculated that my very thesis in itself has been beat-to-death by college students (or the “dreamy” high school student from your early post) for centuries, but I’m not a quitter, so I googled anyway. I found this site close to the top on the relevance scale of my search and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT! Your style, approach, innovativeness and ideas held me captivated! Reading this has helped me take a lighter look at my topic, too – something my Western Civ professor probably won’t appreciate nearly as much as my own sleep-deprived attention span, but his field is medieval study anyway…

    Thank you! I’ll be back for more.

    Irena Milasinovic
    Colorado Springs, CO

    1. Thanks for that, Irena. Encouragement like that keeps me going.

      And it is fascinating, isn’t it, to speculate about the influences of this culture on the Biblical ones?

  2. I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, and it all bumps up against reading and seeing Watchmen with my Science Fiction class and thinking about books that have boring stretches.

    What you call “the childish magical thinking” of Gilgamesh is also evident in the subtext of Moore/Gibbons graphic novel. The characters in the novel want the ‘signs’ to mean the things they want them to mean. Only a so-called crazy person can see reality. In the same way, some of us want to believe that going shopping will save the economy from itself or that it is possible to get 25% return on a legal investment. That’s “childish magical thinking” in capital letters.

    Meanwhile, there’s the boring book problem. I always like to have one novel in class that stretches the reader’s ability to stay focused. It gives us such a fine opportunity to talk about reading strategies (like the excellent one that you suggest in your post). Books that require the reader to think and the class to work together to understand are like a fine meal with some unfamiliar dishes or like Michael Doyle’s oysters. Worth the trouble, and delicious.

    Kate Tabors last blog post..Meme Mash Up: 7 things and Music

  3. This site is brilliant. I use stumbleupon most days but only very rarely do I get a gem like this.
    I’m in Uni and I often have to read the most dry, boring, convoluted, protentious crap about film and literature. There is no reason why everyone can’t write as you do…clearly, humourously and intelligently.
    These essays/lectures are fascinating, I’m hooked. Well done and please keep going :)

    1. Emasaurus, it’s so nice of you to take the time to let me know. Your second and third — oops, third and fourth, I mean — sentences could very well serve as a blurb for the book version of this series. You nail my philosophy and my purpose for these lectures in them.

      I’m in the middle of a relocation from Seoul to Singapore, so as soon as I’m settled in, I can’t wait to get back to this project. Please share it with other students, too?

      Good luck with school :)

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