Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an archetypal myth, predating the Hebrew bible by around 2 millennia. The reason it is archetypal has as much to do with its thematic elements as with its antiquity. It tells the tale of the 27th century B.C. god-king Gilgamesh (Sumerian Bilgames) and his search for meaning in life. It deals heavily with humanities greatest fear: death.

Gilgamesh is grieved by his mortality and seeks a cure for this sorrowful state, taking us on a quest to find Utnaptishim, the immortal human survivor of the great deluge. Utnaptishim was granted immortality by the gods after the god Enlil was angered that humans had survived his catastrophe. All other gods agreed to make humans mortal henceforth.

Here is what I find particularly interesting in the Epic. First, the obvious parallels to the Hebrew story of Noah, as well as recurring significance for the number seven. Now, as you are likely aware, Islam replaced the Babylonian mythology by force, much in the same ways the Christian faith replaced the Greek mythology. However, remnants of the old persist for both East and West. In Islam, fire is a particularly feared cause of death. We find roots in the Sumerian poem 'the Death of Bilgames', where Bilgames companion Enkidu returns from the netherworld and explains the fates of all who dwell there. Those who perish by fire do not enter the netherworld, they are in a state of permanent displacement, alluded as the worst fate of all. There is much more of interest in this poem that I won't spoil should you decide to read it.

To sum up, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a treatise on the proper duties of a king, the futility of any attempt at immortality save the remembrance in the living of those who accomplish great things, and the importance of solid friendship is implicit in the relationship between wild-man Enkidu and two-thirds god, one third human Gilgamesh.

Very interesting, beautiful, and well worth study.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment