Sumerian Mythology – The Epic of Gilgamesh – Tablets 1-4

Alright boys, this is it. If there’s one single character from ancient Sumeria known to the public today, it’s Gilgamesh. Everyone knows he’s strong. Everyone knows he fights monsters and is basically absurdly overpowered. But do most people know he’s a huge tool, deliberately written as kind of stupid, and the inventor of everyone’s least favorite wedding tradition? Also that he fights himself a la James Kirk. Well, I didn’t, but the first four tablets of this famous myth are definitely off to a colorful start.

The opening of the first tablet is just lovely. From the frame information about the tale, to the acknowledgement that there are other versions of the tale which the writer swears are inferior, everything about the structure lets you know that you’re ready to settle in for a treat. We are introduced to Gilgamesh not through himself but through his works, looking upon the city of Uruk with only a quiet chance that he may be somewhere nearby. The temple and the details of the city itself are painted lavishly, and the roots of Gilgamesh’s tyrannical nature are clearly displayed even while he is being praised. In the description of his birth, and the allegation that he may even have been born a full-grown man, there is a conversation cheekiness to the author’s tone which betrays his understanding that this is, at its heart, a tall tale.

From there, of course, we take an unpleasant turn. Gilgamesh roams his own city, acting like what can only be described as a monstrous Skyrim player in a town full of terrified NPCs. He struts around with his full armory on his back at all times, challenging young men to duels and murdering them almost at random. In this city of his founding, he’s also originated the prima noctae, in what I must imagine is the earliest known incidence of such a phenomenon in fiction. With this, Sumerian mythology continues its theme of powerful kings getting into trouble with the gods when they start coercing women into sex. Just as the idea of Gilgamesh as the perfect god-king is a vindication of despotism, so too does the darkness of his deeds reveal the weaknesses inherent totalitarian rule. He reminds me of Gaddafi, or any other given autocrat with a sadistic streak, pulling young women out of college lectures to throw them in his dungeons. Without checks and balances, the people of a city have little recourse when things get truly unbearable.

The gods above understand that, of course, and their solution is to create an identical Gilgamesh (Enkidu) out of the materials of the Earth to oppose him — which somehow doesn’t require a god’s sacrifice anymore? Perhaps they’ve gotten better at the art of artificial human creation. Regardless, the narrative continues to grow in complexity, balancing the desires and fears of at least a half-dozen factions as the balance of power shifts. The use of Shamhat in the plot is certainly comical, as is her willingness to lie with Enkidu at the watering hole for seven whole days and nights, then again for seven more — for the sake of the mission, of course. Also hilarious is the way Enkidu picks up human language and immediately finds total fluency, although one could argue that this might be his divine element. The fact that lying with Shamhat is the spark that decreases his animal nature, activating a more rational and tempered human mind, is certainly contrary to the popular depiction of the effects of lust. Of course, it could be said that the human in her activated his own humanity in a Tarzan-type fashion.

So Shamhat cuts the hunter out of the deal and decides to bring Enkidu to Uruk herself. Along the way, she remembers that she’s in love with Gilgamesh, and takes Enkidu to a farm town where he’s introduced to bread and wine — and indulges in both. Now shorn, shaved, and oiled, Enkidu’s resemblance to Gilgamesh is clear. He learns of Gilgamesh’s tyrannical actions, and the way he forces himself on the women of his settlement with the supposed ‘will of the gods’ as his excuse — taking a page from the David Koresh handbook. Enkidu is outraged, quite literally asking if ‘the women consent to this’ — for which the farmers have no real answer.

Fueled by ale, allyship, and powerful godly gains, Enkidu heads straight for Uruk. At Uruk, a wedding is currently in progress, and Gilgamesh is waiting butt-naked on the bridal bed in the center of the town. One can only imagine him oiled and spread-eagled, a far cry from the shame-ridden Monseigneur Frollos of the Christian world. In heroic fashion, Enkidu challenges him, creating a prototypical form of the ‘All Women Are Queens’ duel.

Before their duel, Gilgamesh stops to ‘put his pants on,’ much to the disdain of later Greek and Roman readers I’m sure. Enkidu clobbers Gilgamesh, who takes the whole thing like a sport. He learns the error of his ways, and presumably agrees to stop deflowering the poor young women of his city. Instead of killing each other, the two twin bodybuilders agree to a legendary team-up, and so the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are set into motion with a bizarre and jarring change in tone and structure.

The Quest to Defeat Humbaba

Immediately, the character of Enkidu shifts to become the dramatic foil to Gilgamesh. As buddies, one must be fearful when the other is brave, just as one must be smart when the other is stupid. In this way, all of his original personality is essentially lost, shifted to suit the genre needs of the coming action-comedy.

The satire present in this story could not be more obvious. At the very start, when Gilgamesh announces that he will slay Humbaba to rid the people of this monster, there are murmurs in the crowd from townspeople who don’t even know who this ‘Humbaba’ is. Gilgamesh chooses to ignore these words, and the comedy is clear — Gilgamesh is a Tick-esque lunk looking for excuses to adventure, and the whole framework is a light jab at the Beowulf-style quest story which was undoubtedly present in earlier Sumerian and pre-Sumerian culture.

After a flattering description of the temple goddess, and some more gag-comedy with the two boys pretending not to have fallen asleep, Enkidu is granted royal blood which allows him to adventure alongside Gilgamesh as very nearly an equal. With each passing scene, we get deeper into the building blocks of a great adventure, with Gilgamesh’s dumb braggadocio played for great results against the deferential supplication of the citizens and guards. The use of the term ‘our greatest possession’ by the people of Uruk to describe their treasured king is new to me, and re-contextualizes the relationship between ruler and subjects in an interesting way.

Along the way, Enkidu gets bolder and bolder with Gilgamesh, existing as just about the only person on Earth who can sass him and survive. The bolder he gets, the more fun the dialogue becomes. Of course, Gilgamesh’s origins as both a cruel murderer and rapist just hours earlier dilutes the fun of this quest story, and I’m sure that almost every other contemporary reader of the myth shares my disappointment in that regard.

The two men set off, without guards or retinue, into the wilderness of the Near East in search of the monster Humbaba. The introduction of Dream and Nightmare as twin sisters is the most fresh and original piece of pantheon-building I’ve found in these myths so far, and is definitely worth pilfering for the sake of some worldbuilding.

As the journey continues, the pace of the story grows more confident, and the stakes grow stronger as the circumstances and personalities are revealed. The camping environment is a real treat, as are the contents of Gilgamesh’s terrified dreams — some of which are truly shocking. I can imagine young Sumerian children being entranced by the story by flickering firelight.

The comedic elements are also woven into the story with increasing regularity, including the comedy of repetition and sarcasm. As the sequence of hiking and dreaming goes on, it becomes almost interminable, repeating for six or seven cycles when a contemporary reader would have expected three or four at most. There is a rising action, though, and an arc of Enkidu and Gilgamesh each taking turns being the bold or fearful one. That back-and-forth gives them balance, and establishes a genuine closeness in the vein of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Like all good story chapters, the fourth tablet ends on a cliffhanger with a strong promise. The lair of Humbaba has been reached, and a Marvel-style duel will inevitably commence. Reaching this point, I realize with some sadness that to read the Western canon is to be overwhelmingly faced with stories by, for, and about the masculine experience. With that in mind, I will take special care to savor women’s works when they appear, although they will no doubt be imbued in part with same patriarchal views which define so much of the world’s history.