03 November 2010
Book Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Release Date: approx. 2000 BCE
Date Finished: 30 October 2010
Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid
Challenges: 100+ Reading, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, Really Old Classics Challenge,
The Short and Sweet of It
Gilgamesh is the big man on campus in Uruk, sleeping with all the virgins and lording it over the population. No one is his equal is strength or good looks, so the gods create Enkidu to be his match. The two become fast friends and head off to have grand adventures with lots of killing and the such not. Then, tragedy strikes and Gilgamesh finds himself fearing his own death. How can he achieve ever-lasting life?
A Bit of a Ramble
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fantastic story. One of, if not the, oldest narrative, The Epic's importance to literature cannot be overstated. Despite its brevity, the tale can be discussed, analyzed, and pondered over and over and over. Instead of generically reviewing the book - seems unnecessary due to its importance to our culture - I thought I would highlight just a few of the issues The Epic makes me think about.
When the gods create Enkidu, they leave him roaming the wilderness, cavorting with the animals. He is a wild man, natural. A trapper sees him and determines to make him civilized. The plan? Get a courtesan/priestess/prostitute to sleep with him. That's right. Sex with a woman is what brings man from his natural, animalistic state to civilization. The only thing I have never figured out is if this is good or bad.
Enkidu is happy and free running around those woods, one with the animals. Then a prostitute - probably a priestess of some sort - shows him her bubbies and it's all over (seriously, the trapper actually tells her to bare her breasts; it's all about the bubbies). She makes him a man (that phrase is actually in the text) by "teaching him the woman's art", and now the animals won't come near him. He loses something by this transformation.
On the other hand, he gains a lot as well. He now has the company of humans, he befriends a king who is two-thirds god, he has sex.... I think the text portrays this woman's actions in a positive light. When Enkidu is dieing, he originally curses the trapper and the woman who brought him from the wilderness; but then the god of the sun, Shamash, rebukes him for this, and he blesses the woman.
Whether a positive or a negative, however, I do find it telling that the way to civilize a man is through a woman. Man = natural; woman = civilization: this has long been a metaphor.
The Epic includes a flood story that many readers will find familiar. In it, some of the gods determine to destroy humanity - because they are too noisy - by sending a flood. One man, Utnapishtam, and his family are spared. He is told to build a boat, given the appropriate dimensions, and he is told to bring the seed of all the animals. They survive the flooding and come to ground on a mountain. He releases a dove but it comes back to the boat because it can't find land. He releases birds until one doesn't come back. Sound familiar?
The story of Noah and his Ark is almost identical. And the idea of the gods getting ticked off because of noisy children, that's in the Enuma Elish, a Sumerian creation story which predates The Epic of Gilgamesh. Think on it for a bit.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu share a special kind of closeness. When Gilgamesh first dreams of Enkidu, "to [him] its attraction was like the love of a woman." His mother, Ninsun, tells him he will be drawn to Enkidu "as though to a woman" and that Gilgamesh will "love him as a woman". When Gilgamesh and Enkidu take a walk, they do so holding hands, and when they sleep, they sleep in beds together: "then they took each other by the hand and lay down to sleep."
Throughout the text, it is absolutely clear that the two love each other; they are great friends, no two ever as close. What is not clear is the true nature of their relationship. In the absence of the phrase "and then they had sex", some argue that inserting a sexual relationship is too heavy handed. Many scholarly sources, however, indicate that homosexual relationships were accepted in ancient times. An ancient Egyptian tomb from about 2600 BCE actually houses two men, buried together and images indicate the two were in a sexual relationship and even lived together. This sort of acceptance suggests to me that Gilgamesh and Enkidu's romance would not need to be directly stated in the text to be true. When something is common, it can be inferred, and really the text does give us quite a few hints even if the two never explicitly engage in coitus.
Relationship to The Odyssey:
I decided to re-read The Epic after finishing the first six books of The Odyssey for a read-along hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity. The concept of heroism finds its roots in such characters as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Odysseus, and reading their stories together gives me a chance to truly compare, to see how the ancient world created and developed the idea of the hero that persists to this day.
The Filmic Connection
As far as I know, The Epic has never been adapted to film in its entirety. To do so would require great skill on the part of the director. The book covers a gigantic chunk of time but is only about 60 pages long. I do, however, think it could be done, and I certainly would love to see a film version of the story, especially one that kept Gilgamesh and Enkidu a couple. They are the epitome of "manliness", literally part of the foundation on which the concept of masculinity is built. The juxtaposition would be beneficial to contemporary perceptions of homosexual men.
This Book Around the Web
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Amy Reads; things mean a lot; Ready When You Are, C.B.; Jenny Loves to Read;
During this time, I will be reading and reviewing literature of the time and posting about related topics. If you have anything you would like to add - a review, an informative post, etc. - let me know. I would love to have you join in!
Echoes of Man Image from ~darkmatter257 at deviant art
Enkidu and Courtesan from Bible Origins
Utnapishtim and Bird from New World Encyclopedia
Gilgamesh and Enkidu from Neil Dalrymple
Gilgamesh Head from Zinda Magazine
Odysseus from Wikipedia