Let’s go back in time…when barbarism was the order of the day. Oh wait! That was last week! In these times where poetry is either despised for being outdated or violated by rap, I’m proud that we possess verse going back farther than we can imagine. I think drawing, singing, dancing – and verse – are the oldest, most stubborn survivors of a world that constantly tries to undo them. Dancing has become blatantly pornographic, as opposed to subtly pornographic. Singing has been supplanted by amateurish hollering and babbling. Drawing is more about emotional diarrhea and manifest mental illness than about universal truths or talent. And VERSE! Poetic verse absolutely defies every generation’s attempts to ignore it into extinction!
Poets don’t make money. They don’t go on talk shows. They don’t guest star on sitcoms. But they’ve been around since…well, at least since the 3rd millenium B.C. Perhaps longer. Wherever there was spoken language, someone must have cobbled together a rhyming couplet.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written in cuneiform on stone tablets. I don’t know if it was in verse form, but the story it told has been rendered into both prose and poetry. When I read it in college, we used a prose version. I should have kept it. Now I have a verse version by Herbert Mason from Mentor Books. With an afterword, no less, instead of a foreword. It has a very good blurb on the back, with a complete waste-of-space comment by one William Alfred of Harvard University. It’s all quite nice, but they should have just put it in after the Afterword. Gilgamesh is a story of such Jungian archetypal richness, it’s like life is spilling all its secrets to you personally. The story resonates like a tuning fork with associations past and present.
So that’s the big picture. On reading it, I was shocked the same way I was shocked reading “Birds” by Aristophanes. The language is so casual, crude even, that I can’t believe the translation is for real. It’s kind of amusing, really. Here I am complaining about how porn-y dancing and singing are today, then in the first part of the story, Enkidu, the Sumerian “Tarzan”, is set up to be caught in flagrante delicto with an ancient tart. What is this? CSI-Sumeria? So yeah, the story has its quirks.
There’s a fantastic section where the city of Shurrupak suffers a flood because the gods…well…they thought it was a good idea at the time. Check this out:
Ea, who was present
At their council, came to my house
And, frightened by the violent winds that filled the /air,
Echoed all that they were planning and had said.
Man of Shurrupak, he said, tear down your house
And build a ship. Abandon your possessions
And the works that you find beautiful and crave
And save your life instead. Into the ship
Bring the seed of all the living creatures.
Wow! Are you starting to make the connections? This is the 3RD MILLENIUM B.C.! 1500 years before Homer, even. Amazing! As you can imagine, this story has made many people over the centuries since its translation VERY uncomfortable. Every great work of literature has some scandals in its closet, I’m sure. People are kind of crap that way.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent two halves of a whole. They are brothers, friends, enemies, soul-mates. I think JJ Rousseau may have read this story because he used to philosophize about how a pastoral existence created a true man, whereas a cosmopolitan, urban existence created a pretentious git, out of touch with emotions and his own psyche.
Dream-interpretation. I love reading about dream interpretation! I’ve noticed that when I try to describe dreams, what comes out is the language of psychoanalysis (not the Freudian version, however)
The prostitute in the first section is to Enkidu what Eve was to Adam. A temptress. Whether she was a bad person or not, is open to interpretation. But there are some thick associations between hers and Eve’s modus operandi.
The mother figure. Oy! Such a mother I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy’s dog. The problem is, the mother is the one who’s in charge of interpreting Gilgamesh’s dreams. She has every advantage in working his worries to her advantage. Read D. H. Lawrence’s SONS AND LOVERS.
There’s an extraordinary balance to the psychological evolution of Gilgamesh and Enkidu together. Gilgamesh was god-like and was brought down to the level of man. Enkidu was animal-like and rose to the level of man. They meet in the world of men, travel together, work together, learn from each other, and are undone by human mistakes – hey! just like the rest of us.
The idea of enduring painful physical journeys in order to reach – not a map destination – but enlightenment.
Trust me, this is a drop in the symbolism bucket that is THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH. I would suggest, if you’re going to read an American or European classic, read this story alongside whatever else you’re reading. You will be amazed at how much more you get out of common era literature.