Gilgamesh and the Original “Original Sin”: Unsucky English Lecture 9 (part one)

[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. 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.

A good thousand years before the Israelites were putting the final touches, in their scriptures, on the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims,2 the Mesopotamian gods of Gilgamesh were already ancient. And a good thousand years before Adam and Eve committed their first sin and brought death into the world by disobeying that God3, the “Adam” of the Sumerians – Gilgamesh’s sidekick, Enkidu – had committed his earlier “original sin.”4

In this lecture, I’m going to argue that Enkidu’s “sin” — which had nothing to do with disobeying any god, nor with his epic and far-from-shameful sex with Shamhat — cost our race far more than Adam and Eve’s. And we’re only now, in this generation, really able to appreciate that truth. Call it a 4,000-year-old prophecy that we’re now seeing unfold all around us.

It happens in Book V of Gilgamesh, and for the life of this modern, scientifically-minded skeptic, this “prophecy” is far more true and far more disturbing than anything we see in Eden, or perhaps in the whole Bible. If it doesn’t haunt you a bit by the end of this lecture, then one of us has problems.

The funny thing is, it happens in such a subtle form that it’s easy to miss. And it’s that subtlety that makes me want to state, for the millionth time in this series, that the poets who wrote Gilgamesh were among humanity’s finest ever.

Funnier still, it happens in the very suckiest episode in all of Gilgamesh: the slaying of the monster Humbaba.

Predictably, the well-meaning sadists who produce our suckiest literature textbook anthologies seem to always inflict this episode on our high school students. These out of touch souls seem to think teens will find monster-slaying scenes really cool. Between movies like Harry Potter that let us see and hear monsters like the Dementors almost sucking our souls out, and video games that let us chop the bastards’ heads off ourselves and be covered in their blood and gore, this Humbaba scene in Gilgamesh doesn’t stand a chance. It ranks about as high on today’s adventure scale as an exposed Victorian ankle ranks on the scale of modern sexiness.

So fear not: this English teacher isn’t going to insult your intelligence by arguing that this this chapter is good for its scary monster. There’s terror enough in this chapter – reality-based terror, at least in my reading of it – for us to need no supernatural special effects.

Background: Before the Divine Divorce

Adam and Eve’s original sin reflects a recent, radical stage in the evolution of Israelite religion: the separation of the divine from the realm of Nature. It’s the first religion we know of that saw God outside of Nature, transcending it. Unlike all the other religions in the Near East up to that time, the Jewish religion saw God not as created within Nature, but as creator of it. So it makes sense that the “original sin” in the book of Genesis is disobeying that God. He’s the King, the Lord, the Master of the Universe. He ordered Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, and they disobeyed. That’s the sin.

We can play with some of the depths of this myth some other time, because there’s much more beneath the surface of this seemingly silly “I told you not to eat that fruit” story. But the point I want to make here is that this myth only makes sense within the revolutionary worldview of a certain set of Hebrews around 1,000 BCE. It doesn’t make sense inside the older Mesopotamian view of the Gilgamesh poets.

Their gods are not divorced from Nature. They live in it, they have natural bodies and functions, they even have divine animals like the Bull of Heaven (which, as we see later when it takes what the British might call an “epic shite” on Enkidu, has divine-but-natural bodily functions).

As importantly, there’s no “Master of the Universe” god in the Mesopotamian worldview, so there’s nobody to give absolute “commandments” like “Thou shalt not eat that fruit.” One god might be stronger than another, but that doesn’t make him or her all-powerful over all the others. Remember from Lecture 1 that these gods, additionally, don’t seem to think the Biblical god’s authoritarian commandments are the best way to deal with humans anyway: they didn’t punish Gilgamesh for deflowering all his subjects’ brides, and they didn’t command him to stop – or, as so often in the Bible, declare he be stoned to death. Instead, they pulled that totally mysterious and totally cool trick of creating Enkidu to somehow, wtf?, give Gilgamesh an experience that will wise him up and make him stop being such a royal ass. In short, they weren’t punishing “sin” – they were curing stupidity.

And yet I still claim that Enkidu, in Book V, commits an “original sin.” So what gives?

A Question of Balance

Let’s recap Enkidu’s story, because Enkidu is more interesting than Gilgamesh in this episode. It ain’t about the hero here.

As we’ve seen, Enkidu starts as a sort of “wild-man Adam,” created out of dust and outside of civilization, to be the “balance” who will “bring peace” to Gilgamesh and his city.5 Unlike Adam, Enkidu lives in a nature that we recognize as realistically Darwinian: animals prey on other animals in Enkidu’s Nature, and Enkidu seems one animal among many in the way he drinks at the watering hole with them and runs as fast as the gazelles. The only difference we see between Enkidu and the other animals is his role in defending animals from predators. So Enkidu seems compassionate, and in a very specific and important sense: he’s compassionate toward natural creatures. His most outstanding trait, in this stage of innocence, is that he’s a defender of Nature.

Then along comes the prostitute Shamhat, you’ll remember, and her civilizing mission: she seduces him into civilization with that epic six-day roll in the hay (and boy, how Enkidu must have needed, like that later god in Genesis, to take a day of rest on the seventh). Similar to Samson, Enkidu loses much of his physical power after this epic sex scene, can’t sprint like he used to, and so forth – but he gains language, the ability to share ideas and conversation, the need for friendship, and the desire to follow Shamhat into the city and meet Gilgamesh. Still, though, Enkidu seems not to have lost his character as the compassionate defender: he wants to fight Gilgamesh after hearing of his bride-stealing ass-hattery.

Remember the “double that balances” motif? The “balance” seems to be thrown off when natural Enkidu leaves the wild, and crosses the gateway into civilized Gilgamesh’s city. It’s like both guys are now sitting on the same side of the see-saw – the city side. Nature’s left hanging in mid-air now.

Then they fight, Enkidu loses, and he and Gilgamesh become fast friends. Enkidu likes clothes and bread and beer, and life is good – until Gilgamesh gets that royally wild hair up his royally dumb ass to go kill Humbaba, who he calls a “monster.”6

Enkidu, Defender of Animals, tells Gilgamesh it’s a really bad idea to kill Humbaba, and reminds him that he’s not just a monster: he’s the divinely-appointed Guardian of the Cedar Forest. Enlil put him there to keep the forest, which is sacred to the gods, untouched by man, and off-limits to him.

Gilgamesh cares no more for the virgin forest than he cares for the virginity of his brides. Whether he’s taking his metaphorical axe to the virgin brides, or his literal one to the virgin cedars, it’s all the same to this swaggering dumb jock of a king: if it redounds to his glory and gives him an heroic notch for his belt, his name won’t die and he’ll achieve everlasting fame.

After Enkidu loses the argument, he tries to get the city elders to talk sense into Gilgamesh with their religious “knowledge” and urgings to fear the gods. At their pious warning that no human could succeed at this task against the gods’ will, Gilgamesh laughs possibly the first heretic’s laugh in history – or literature, anyway – and off he and Enkidu go to slay the monster.7

Off they go, straight through the gate from civilization, and back into Nature. Our “balance that doubles” motif has now seen both men jump onto the Nature side of the see-saw. Now it’s civilization that’s left hanging in mid-air – and hanging, the way I see it, fatefully.

The Original Sin – Literally

By the logic of the “double that balances” motif, everything hangs on Enkidu now. He originally balanced the civilization-symbol Gilgamesh by being the Nature-symbol “defender of animals” in the wild. He threw things out of balance by “crossing over” to civilization. Now we’ve got Gilgamesh crossing over into Enkidu’s original realm with him, balancing Enkidu’s earlier “crossing-over.” We know Gilgamesh has predatory motives for this trip: he’s going to kill the Forest Guardian, and chop down the “highest cedars.” So the question is, is Enkidu going to stay true to his original role, when he was “innocent” and Adam-like, of defending nature’s creatures against predators – even if the predator is now his friend and king?8

(to be continued)

  1. This series based on the fine 2004 Stephen Mitchell adaptation of Gilgamesh. []
  2. let’s put that at around 622 BCE in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, when King Josiah’s reforms wiped out the Jewish worship of Baal and Asherah []
  3. in Genesis 2, which was written around 1,000 BCE []
  4. I know that “original sin” is a Christian, not a Jewish, doctrine, but grant me the poetic license. []
  5. The Bible’s story of Adam and Eve was written in Jerusalem, scholars think, at about the same time David conquered that city and made it his capital around 1,000 BCE. That’s a full 3,000 years later in history than the founding of civilization in cities like Uruk. This is significant: it corrects the view that Genesis is a story from the beginning of civilization, when it’s actually precisely mid-way between the founding of Uruk and today. If Gilgamesh is pictured as the letter “A”, and our time the letter “Z,” the Jewish scriptures would be not “B” or “C,” but “M.” In strictly chronological terms, the period from the Jews’ King David in 1,000 BCE to the life of Jesus in the First Century CE are really the “Middle Ages” of the 6,000 years between Sumer and today.

    This may help explain why the Judeo-Christian story of humanity’s “state of nature” – the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 – rings so false, while the Sumerian story of Enkidu rings more true: the authors of Genesis came too late in our history to have any ancestral memory of man’s true, historical state of nature. What we know now of human evolution tells us the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is fiction – fiction with depths that give it the status of a fascinating myth, in the best sense of the word, but fiction nonetheless. Not so for the Sumerians and, through them – via Gilgamesh – the Babylonians. Since the people of Uruk were among the first to transition from neolithic life within nature to civilized life isolated from it, it’s no wonder that the story of Enkidu living as an animal among animals in nature is much closer to the truth of human evolution as we now know it through science. Unlike Adam and Eve, then, which is clearly a myth, Enkidu is just as clearly closer to history. Yes, he was made, like Adam, from clay, but the similarity ends there. Enkidu is not in any paradisal Eden, living a life of pre-lapsarian ease; he’s more of a primate living a Darwinian existence, drinking among other animals at a watering hole, fighting off predators in the kill-or-be-killed struggle to survive in the wild. He has the ring of less of myth than of legend – of something closer to dimly-remembered truth. []

  6. In his Introduction to Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell, who wrote the version of the epic I’m primarily using for these lectures, compares Gilgamesh here to our previous Royal Dumb-Ass in Chief George W. Bush when he decided to invade Iraq, and it’s an interesting parallel. I’m going for a reading less topical and more timeless here, though. []
  7. Now give me a medal, because I just summarized the 10,000 or so words of all the previous lectures in a few paragraphs. []
  8. And while we’re at it, it’s worth getting abstract for a second to entertain the idea that, on the symbolic level, Enkidu is Humbaba, in a sense. They’re both, after all, guardians of nature. If Gilgamesh kills Humbaba, he’s in a weird sense also killing Enkidu. Maybe that’s a stretch, but reading symbols often is. Whatever. []

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  1. Hi Clay – I’m glad to think about Gilgamesh again -
    This seems a question of who is civilized, if you excuse the term. Enkidu seems to have – like all good protagonists – the choice to change. But change to what?
    Enkidu can choose to live with nature or above nature. Gilgamesh seems to have made his choice. He feels that he is above nature or that nature is there to serve him.
    (Christianity translates this in Genesis 1:26 “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” [king james] It’s ordained. But I like Enkidu’s choice better.

    Enkidu can choose to not play god. Who do we wish to be?

    On another topic – Lolita. I sat in a meeting the other day with three left-brained white male English teachers – and one admitted that the reason he wouldn’t dream of teaching the book was his fear of the parent body. So sad. I just found it creepy as a 17 year old, so my prejudice is just as bad. I return to teach 12 year olds, so Nabokov is not on the syllabus.
    .-= Kate´s last blog ..Four types of tears =-.

    • I’ll hold off on Enkidu’s choice since it’s the subject of the next installment, but as for the English teachers, I can’t fault them for fearing for their livelihoods (and I know you’re not, either). It’s just another factor of schooliness that keeps us from hitting teens educationally where they probably already live.

      And I certainly wouldn’t expect 12 year olds to handle it – except for the occasional ilk of Dolores….

  2. Pingback: Unsucky English Lecture 8: The Modern Mischief of the Gilgamesh Poets | Beyond School

  3. Pingback: Unsucky English, Lecture 1: On Gilgamesh | Beyond School

  4. Clay, I just received my first “Gilgamesh SPAM”… take it as a compliment, or as a dementor/scary monster, or possibly as yet another actor in the polytheistic mythological tradition?

    Jungian sensibilities (and vast series of Joseph Campbell lectures) aside, I hope you’re enjoying Singapore, and that they “get you”.
    .-= Jonathan Chambers´s last blog ..It’s a goal! =-.

  5. I am 34 yrs old and in the second year ( nearly third)of college trying to get my teaching degree.
    My English class is doing essays on Gilgamesh.
    I am having trouble with some of the answers required in all the symbolism within the epic. Can you help me to understand the symbolism between woman, evil and the relationship of civilization to nature?

    If you can,..it would help tutor me in something that has long since been studied. I hate to fail and love to learn and am dis-satisfied with myself that something I read nearly 20 years ago has so escaped me. I do not wish to sound incoherent or just plain dumb.

    Sincere thanks,
    Tamara

    • Tamara, I’m so sorry to answer this way, but beyond what I’ve written in the nine posts so far, I don’t have time to discuss G right now. I’m in the middle of week 3 of my first year teaching in a new school in a new country, and barely have time to breathe.

      I will say that symbols are something that are inferred by the reader anyway, so there are no clear-cut right/wrong answers to the types of questions you asked, as much as there are well-argued and -supported versus weakly-argued and -supported answers.

      Have you talked to your prof or other students in your class? Prayed to Google for insights? Read the book again, and its preface/intro? (Mitchell’s intro is longer than his translation. It may help.)

      Good luck,

      Clay

  6. This is a wonderful analysis of Gilgamesh, particularly the original sin being Enkidu’s abandonment of Nature. Indeed, compare the land then and now: the Fertile Crescent is pretty much all desert today, with no forests left to hold the water table in place.

  7. Hi Clay

    Discovered this site today looking for Gilgamesh (link on Wikipedia) and enjoyed immensely your observations on the story. I’ve been reading it but unlike your dream student did not initially appreciate the depths of symbolism contained within. This has notched-up my already significant interest in the ancient world.

    I guess I’m commenting in hope that the series continues. Your site reminds me of the brilliant philosophy blog by Todd Park Mohr, which seemed to collapse pretty much as soon as I’d discovered it. Just hoping this one doesn’t go the same way. I know you’re busy but just thought I’d express my interest.

    I’ll put the ancient wisdon on hold in the meantime and explore the other topics you’ve posted.

    I also wondered if you’d considered an audio podcast? Then I could listen in the car which would be sweet.

  8. Course conflation struck when I was studying classics and related stories: I got Gilgamesh from three different professors in under two years. I love G., and I love your attention to the poets.

    If you don’t get back to him, what you’ve already done is a Really Good Thing. Thank you very much.
    =8-)

  9. wow. I haven’t read Gilgamesh (that is to say ‘yet’, i can safely say it is now on my list). This truly is fascinating and you have a truly engaging style. I couldn’t agree more about some teachers destroying classics because they don’t understand them. I cringe every time i hear Romeo and Juliet in the context of a romance instead of a horny boy finding a horny girl after his girlfriend wouldn’t put out. This caught my eye as i was surfing and effectively pulled my attention from Facebook and television (House no less). I just wanted to say thank you for the time and effort you put in on this and i hope to read more when you have time. Seems I’m late on the thread but i hope you read this and are satisfied with another student you will never know.

    • It’s kind of you to take the time to say so, Andrew. Was hoping to get back to this series this summer, but travels in China took the front seat instead. I do hope to finish, though. I haven’t reached the point of this tale that compelled me most to write about it. Sheesh, the world’s too fast.

    • And I can’t pass up complimenting your “unsucky” take on Romeo and Juliet. Is there a culture not so puritanical that it ruins the best literature out of prudery? (If I live that long, I hope one day to do an Unsucky on R&J as Shakespeare’s way of arguing there is no God–a dangerous idea in those inquisitorial times.)

  10. Just wanted to add my request for more. I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and hope you find the time to complete it…