THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH—-THE FIRST TRUE WORK OF WORLD LITERATURE—FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The Epic of Gilgamesh may be rightly considered the first true work of World Literature, being the greatest literary composition of ancient Mesopotamia and likely predating in its origins such works as Genesis of the Bible’s Old Testament, the Iliad and Odyssey and the Vedas by more than a thousand years. It is the likely source of such archetypal stories as The Flood, later transcribed into Genesis of the Bible, Torah and Koran. It is also the earliest model of the Epic Tradition, establishing such archetypal motifs as The Descent into the Underworld, The Hero’s Quest, Contention with the Gods and the Quest for Immortality later to be found in Homer’s Odyssey, The Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy. There are even hints in the epic of the origin of the Biblical story of the Creation and Fall of Adam & Eve.
Gilgamesh, the hero of the epic, is likely based on an actual historical king-high priest from the city-state of Uruk around 2750 B.C., whose saga was preserved, embellished, mythologized and elaborated over 1500 years until settled into its classical form by the Babylonian writer Sin-liqe-unninni around 1200 B.C. The epic vanished from human knowledge for two thousnd years, however, until recovered by archaelogists and linguists, like the heiroglyphic texts unlocked by the Rosetta Stone, in the 1850’s.
Gilgamesh, like other classical heroes presents himself as a mixed figure, like Achilles and Hercules in being of mixed divine and human parentage, and like Achilles though of heroic heart, having serious flaws of character. The Epic begins with Gilgamesh the king oppressing his own people through such practices as exercising the “right of the first night” to deflower new brides, causing the people to appeal to the Gods for help. The Gods consider a solution and come up with a unique remedy: they will create a brotherly rival of similar superhuman energy and strength, Enkidu, to divert and channel Gilgamesh’s overweening energies in a more positive direction. Gilgamesh and Enkidu thus become a cross between the Odd Couple and the Dynamic Duo—-Gilgamesh a noble, over-civilized and refined king, and Enkidu, like Adam created out of the clay of the ground, rough, hairy, crude, uncivilized and animal-like.
Gilgamesh, learning of Enkidu’s discovery in the wilderness as a sort os Sasquatch, schemes to bring him to civilization by means of sending a beautiful prostitute, Shamat, to seduce him. She succeeds in taming him with sexual pleasure, then reels in the hooked fish to join civilization, accustoming him to clothes, language and human intercourse. Some scholars note the similarity of the Enkidu/Shamat story with Adam & Eve, in which a seduction of a primal man causes sin, death and a fall from natural and divine grace into the mortal world. When Enkidu, however, learns of Gilgamesh’s abuses, such as deflowing brides on their wedding night, his natural outrage overcomes him and he vows to teach Gilgamesh a lesson. They fight, and being evenly matched yet complementary, instead of enemies they become fast friends.
From that point the two become like Arthurian knight-heroes and sworn brothers like the Musketeers, vowing to do great deeds and gain immortal fame. They defeat the great monster of the Cedar Mountain, Humbaba, and plunder the cedar forest for materials to embellish the Palace of Uruk. They then run afoul of the Goddess Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility, when Gilgamesh refuses to become her lover due to her record of abuse of her ex-beaus, and she asks the Gods to give her the Bull of Heaven to wreak havoc and punish the king and his city. The Gods refuse at first, but when she threatens to “Raise the Dead to Devour the Living,” a kind of threatened “World War Z,” they grant her the Bull and she sicks it on Gilgamesh and Uruk. The Dynamic Duo, however, are able to defeat even the awesome Bull of Heaven and they dismember it, flinging one quarter of its carcass, half of the hind-quarters with its testacles attached into Ishtar’s face, outraging her.
The heroes reach the height of their fame and glory, but their excesses against the Goddess Ishtar constitute a hubris which the Gods cannot further tolerate, and they decree that one of the pair must die, namely Enkidu. In delirious dream after falling ill he descends to the Underworld of hell and is finally carried off by the Angel of Death.
Thereafter, the epic changes shape and focus as grief-stricken at the discovery of Death and the loss of his beloved friend, Gilgamesh wanders the wastes of the wilderness from which Enkido emerged until resolving, like Siddhartha-Buddha upon the realization of death and suffering, to embark on a Quest for Immortality, seeking out Utanapishtim, the Ur-Noah who is the one man who has acheived immortality by surviving the Great Flood, Noah-like, when the Gods warned him to build an Ark for his family and all the animals of the earth. To find Utanapishtim he must, Odysseus-like voyage on endless seas, in this case the Sea of Death. En route, he encounters the Scorpion-Man, Sphynx-like guardian of the great tunnel whom he defeats, allowing him to transit the “The Road of the Sun,” which is the trans-cosmic path through the center of the earth the sun takes to return to the East from the sunset of the West to begin each day anew. From there he completes his journey to Utanapishtim across the Sea of Death by aid of the Divine Ferryman Urshanabi, who Charon-like bears him to the Elysian-Eden on the snether-hores of Death at which the one immortal lives with his also immortal wife.
His Quest for Immortality is disappointed, however, as Utanapishtim demonstrates to him that his own immortality was a one-off act of grace of the Gods which can never be repeated by any other and urging him to return to his home at Uruk. His wife, however, taking pity on Gilgamesh lets him in on a secret—the existence of a charmed plant at the bottom of the sea that can rejuvenate—make the old young again and urges him to seek it. Gilgamesh does so by tying stones to his feet and descending to the floor of the sea in transit home and recovers the boxthorn plant. Now overjoyed that his Quest is successful and that he will return to Uruk with this great boon, he relaxes to wash himself in a lake but in a moment of negligence while bathing, lets the divine charm out of his sight. It is then stolen by a serpent and he is doomed to return to humanity utterly defeated and empty-handed from his Quest.
His tragic Quest is not entirely fruitless, however, as he returns with new strength and wisdom, attaining a grace of mind and acceptance of both death and a reality beyond his control that yields wisdom. His only consolation is to return to his city and survey the immense walls and palaces he has built and find in them and in the epic saga he will leave behind after death, a kind of immortality through civilization and human understanding which he was unable to attain on the cosmic plain. Thus the Epic comes full cycle from a mythic Dream-Quest after human immortality, through heroic exaltation, and then in completion of the Myth-Odyssey, back to a renewal of the mundane through enhanced awareness and acceptance of the cosmic order and its limitations for civilized mortal man.
Nevertheless, immensely important epic of World Literature was lost to the “immortality of letters and civilization” for over two-thousand years until archaeologists recovered the clay tablets of Mesopotamia and scholars in the British Museum reconstructed both the language and the texts. George Smith, the British scholar who first diciphered the “Flood Story” which was the source of the Noah account in Genesis, dramatically and bizarrely, after he realized what he had just translated made him the first human being in two-thousand years to read the source of the Genesis story, was moved, to the astonishment of his fellows to strip himself stark naked and exult at the top of his lungs from atop a worktable in the midst of the musty artifacts room of the London Museum!
What then are the lessons about World Literature which the Epic of Gilgamesh, nearly five-thousand years from its historical and literary origins has to convey to us?
First, that though we may first think of World Literature as being a modern phenomenon accompanying Globalization, the Cross-Border e-Book and the Internet, in fact World Literature is immensely old, rooted in such works as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the common root of such stories as the Flood accounts of the Bible, Torah and Koran and an archetype of literature for five-thousand years—-a thousand years before the Greeks or Hebrews learned to write. Indeed, the concept of World Literature may be said to be much older and immemorial than even that as it embraces archetypes and motifs that predate the invention of human writing and are universal to all cultures, literate and illeterate, dating back to oral traditions and stories—“World Orature” if you will, such as the the Iliad and Odyssey which were passed on by bards orally for centuries before being written down, and that are in turn rooted in the primordial Collective Unconscious illuminated by C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, Freud, Frazer and others.
In the catchphase of modern vernacular, World Literature must embrace both it “Roots and Shoots,” that is to say both its most contemporary international sproutings—the works say of such “contemporary” international authors as Rohinton Mistry, Bei Dao or M.G. Vassanji, but must recoup the immortal classics and the evolution of the global canon that wield continuing influence globally and across borders such as Gilgamesh, the Bible, Cervantes, Goethe, the Koran, Rumi, Lao Zi, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce, T.S Eliot, Swift and the 1001 Nights, the common “Roots” of our common global culture and civilization. A journal of World Literature such as World Literature Today, were it to include only the former but ignore the latter and the long and continouous evolution of canon of classics and masterpieces of World Literature, or marginalize the cosmopolitain centers and touchstones of global tradition to fetishize only the recent works on the geographical margins, would prove itself grossly inadequate as a forum and catalyst of World Literature’s onward development. Both “roots” and “shoots” need to be comprehended if the living plant is to thrive.
Second, the Epic’s powerful archetypes of The Flood, The Rough and the Smooth Doubles (Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Jacob & Esau, etc., The Knightly Quest and Monster Slaying, the Hero’s Quest for the Boon of Immortality, the Great Mother, typified by Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun whose benign assistance and wisdom assists him on his Quest, the Descent into the Underword and many others, all are emblematic of the Universal Archetypes that inform and unite World Literature, whether through historical influence or through their independent emergence in unrelated cultures informed by a common Collective Unconscious of humanity. Such works as Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces illustrate how patterns such as the Hero’s Quest, involving a journey into a dangerous Netherworld in search of a Great Boon, overcoming a field of obstacles, and the hero’s Return to the realm of common life recur in all cultures and literatures.
Third, the Epics great themes of the fragility of human life and of human culture and civilization, of the loss of innocence and illusion and of the need for wisdom and transcendence in the light of human mortality and the limitations of reality on our dreams and aspirations, all bear witness to the experience of our common humanity accross cultures and millennia, and how World Literature may contribute to such transcendence: “Ars longa, vita brevis.”
Thus, I deeply recommends all citizens of the Global Republic of Letters read and commune with the Epic of Gilgamesh. In addition, I can testify how the archetypes and mofits of Gilgamesh informed the composition of my own recent work, the comtemporary epic Spiritus Mundi. The work is energized by the dynammic of The Quest, first in the mundane world of Book I involving the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for the evolution of Global Democracy,undertaken by the protagonists, and the later more mythical Book II, informed by the Quest for the Silmaril Crystal which takes Sartorius, Eva and the family of idealists from multiple cultures to “Middle Earth”–the Central Sea at the center of the earth, the Island of Omphalos and the Mothers and then through the Cosmic Wormhole to the Amphitheater of the Immortals at the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy. This recapitulates Gilgammesh’s Epic Journey through the cosmic tunnel of the “Road of the Sun,” the path the Sun was held to take at night through the tunnel beneath the earth from the West back to the East each day to enable the new dawn. Like the “Wormhole” through Einsteinian Space-Time of Spiritus Mundi, Gilgamesh’s path through which he must outrace the sun to avoid destruction takes him out of the known dimensions of his material world into a space-time beyond his world’s knowledge and experience, all in Quest of a Great Boon. In the case of Spiritus Mundi such “Great Boon” consists in the saving of humanity from the Armageddon of World War III by obtaining the Silmaril Crystal and resolving the Glass Crystal Game which parallels human history on Earth, presided over by the Magister Ludi, reinvigorating the tradition of Hesse’s immortal spiritual classic, “Glassperlenspiel” or the Glass Bead Game.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Spiritus Mundi, Book I: The Novel: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved