The Enduring Lessons of ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’

How a 4,000-year-old Babylonian poem is still apt today
BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEJuly 13, 2018 PRINT

“The Epic of Gilgamesh” has been in Andrew George’s life since he was 15 years old; it’s a poem he’s grown up with and grown older with. “It’s one of those texts that changes as you go back to it. It is so profound and full of meaning that the more life experience you bring to it, the more it has to give,” said George, professor of Babylonian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

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Andrew George, professor of Babylonian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. (Courtesy of Andrew George)

George’s prizewinning translation of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” for Penguin Classics in 2000 was the culmination of 15 years’ worth of research for a critical edition. He honed the popular translation by reading it out loud to passing pigeons on his hotel balcony in Baghdad.

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“The Epic of Gilgamesh” by Andrew George. First published in 2000 by Penguin. Image shows 2003 book cover. (Courtesy of Andrew George)

The poem was originally written around 1800 B.C. and has evolved through time, with others contributing new lines and episodes.

Here, George shares his wisdom of this ancient work of Babylonian poetry.

The Epoch Times: What’s the importance of reading such an ancient classic now?
Andrew George: Many texts from the ancient Middle East are very alien, and modern readers don’t really find very much of interest there unless they are interested in specific things: cultural things, mythology, and so forth.

But “Gilgamesh” is a poem about a human being. He’s a king, but, nevertheless, the poet is really interested in him as a human being and in how he develops from a brash youth to a position of wisdom, of knowledge, and how he made himself better. That’s a path all human beings take.

You have to reflect upon the purpose of life, and “Gilgamesh” does this, but it doesn’t do it in a kind of didactic way, saying, “This is the purpose of life.” It does it by telling a story about this tyrant who has to learn how to be a human being and become wise.

The thing about “Gilgamesh” is it seems that everyone seems to get something from it, and the more you read it the more you get from it.

The Epoch Times: What surprises people when they read the poem?
Mr. George: People are surprised that a poem with such a long history and having been lost for so long and also recovered comparatively recently, is, yet, something that they can read from beginning to end without difficulty, and re-read with further gains of understanding. It speaks to them in a way that a lot of ancient literature doesn’t.

The Epoch Times: What are the inherent values of the poem?
Mr. George: An appreciation of your own humanity, of the position that you’re in; at least that’s what I get from it.

Many ancient works, of course, are deeply embedded in a religious context. Whereas “Gilgamesh” comes from Babylonian civilization that was polytheistic. The thing that makes “Gilgamesh” different from other ancient Mesopotamian narrative poetry, and a lot of ancient poetry generally, is that it’s about the human condition. It’s about what it is to be human, and the gods, they’re there; they enter the story, and they somehow manage parts of the narrative, but they’re in the background. The poem isn’t about the gods.

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A fragment of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” from Nineveh, 7th century B.C. (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, UCLA)

This concentration upon humanity means that “The Epic of Gilgamesh” has been called by some people the first humanist poem in human history, which I think is an apt title.

The Epoch Times: Who are the main characters in the poem?
Mr. George: Enkidu is created by the gods as the other half of Gilgamesh in order to absorb [Gilgamesh’s] superhuman energies and stop him from oppressing his people, right at the very beginning of the poem.

Enkidu is born in the wild, not of a mother, but simply created by the mother goddess in the wild. He’s like a wild animal that grows up with the wild animals, suckled by the wild animals, and runs within the herd. He’s completely nonhuman in every respect. He has no gods, no family, no civilization whatsoever.

What the poet does with Enkidu, he uses Enkidu as a way of projecting his thoughts on how human beings became civilized.

So Enkidu is first of all seduced by a prostitute woman. This creates an awareness in him that there are other human beings, and the prostitute woman tells him about Gilgamesh, so he becomes aware that there are not just women humans, but there are also men humans like him. And that act of sexual intercourse with the prostitute, in fact, makes a division between him and his former friends, the gazelles of the herd, and they won’t let him in anymore.

He’s lost his innocence, as it were, but he’s also found a new society, and the old society of the wild is now forbidden to him; he can’t run as fast as he could before. But at the same time, while he’s lost physical power, he’s also gained cognitive power, so he can think, he can understand language, and he can speak. All these attributes that are not attributes of the animals come through the act of association with the woman.

That woman leads him to the shepherds’ camp. Surrounded by the shepherds, pastoralists, if you like, Enkidu is taught how to drink beer and how to eat bread, and his fur is scraped off, and he’s anointed with oil and becomes a human being. He then is given a club to do battle with the lions and wolves. He’s no longer a friend of the wild animals; he’s actually their enemy now.

When Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, they do battle, but Gilgamesh realizes that this is the wild man that he’s been told about who will become his friend and savior and so he stops fighting. And Enkidu realizes that he has to find a place in human society, and that means not fighting in the city but joining and accepting a place in the hierarchy of human society, so he stops fighting as well.

So they can then become friends.

The Epoch Times: What archetypes are in the poem?
Mr. George: It’s not exactly an archetype, and he’s certainly not a stereotype. When the poem begins, Gilgamesh is a tyrant, so here is a poem that is talking about the greatest hero of old, and he turns out to be a tyrant. He oppresses his people, and this is, then, not the archetype of kingship, which is that of a king who looks after his people, who is a shepherd to them as a flock, and has a duty to care for people.

The hero Gilgamesh, he’s a human being like any other, and the poem is, to a large degree, about the way that he comes to terms with being a human being. But he is also a king, and the interesting thing here is that this is a poem about a king—which introduces the king at the very beginning—but the king is not introduced as someone who is a hero and a great success, a glorious success on the battlefield, etc., although Gilgamesh was. He was the greatest king of Babylonian legend and the mightiest hero of Babylonian legend. But this poem introduces him as a man who suffers. And having done that, it sets out its intention at the very beginning: This is a man who suffers, and this is going to be his tale. It’s a tale of agony and woe.

It’s not a tale of heroic deeds. There are heroic deeds in it, but they’re all compromised, because they go beyond the limits set by the gods for what humans should be doing.

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Two heroes, possibly Gilgamesh and Enkidu, in their fight with Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest, 10th century B.C. (Neo-Hittite/Hurritic). Walters Art Museum. (Public Domain)

The poem is like this all the way through: that what Gilgamesh and Enkidu do are the things that you expect heroes to do, but they do them in such a way that problems arise. So they go to the cedar forest, and they cut down the cedar, but then they’ve transgressed, as it were, the laws of nature. They’ve upset the gods by making a wasteland of this place that was a kind of divinely protected resource, where humans weren’t allowed to go. So this great feat of going and bringing back the cedar and making it into a door for a temple actually gets them into trouble.

There is a second heroic deed that gets them into trouble. Gilgamesh insults the goddess Ishtar, and she sends down a bull of heaven to get rid of him and his sidekick, Enkidu. Instead of the bull of heaven killing them, they kill it.

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An Old Babylonian clay plaque showing Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing Humbaba, the guardian of the cedar forest. (Courtesy of Andrew George)

So again, we’re not talking about stereotypes and a rather tedious narration of heroic deeds that you get in some legend material, but actually there is a transgression of moral boundaries, so there are ethical problems here involving this king and what he does. And, of course, what happens is that between the pair of them, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, having killed the bull of heaven, the gods decide that one of them must die, and this is a lesson that Gilgamesh has to learn.

Most people don’t understand death, until it hits them very near. The loss of Enkidu, who, for Gilgamesh, is the only person he loves on earth, sends him crazy. He goes off on a great quest for immortality, because he realizes that if Enkidu dies, then he too will die, and he doesn’t want to do that.

He knows that beyond the ends of the world, there’s someone living who was once mortal but who’s become immortal. After a long series of hardships and going without sleep for the whole journey, he arrives at the end of the world and meets this old man, who tells him there is no secret of immortality. This old man happened to survive the great flood that occurred a long, long time ago, deep in our human past, and because of that, he was made immortal by the gods. That’s not going to happen with Gilgamesh, because the flood was a one-off event.

It’s a great hero who succeeds at getting to the end of the earth. But the prize that he wants, he can’t have, and he can’t get.

Then, we find he is taught his limitations by this old man, who is, of course, exceedingly wise, having lived so long and dating back to the years before the flood.

Gilgamesh is taught some lessons. The first one is—the flood hero says, “Why don’t you try and defeat sleep?” The idea is, if you defeat sleep, then you have a chance of defeating death, perhaps, because they are related. Gilgamesh cannot stay awake because he’s been on this great adventure and never slept all that time, so he falls asleep immediately, and he realizes when he wakes up that he’s been asleep for a whole week.

He begins to understand if he can’t defeat sleep, he’s never going to defeat death, and realizes that death is like for all other human beings, sitting at the end of his bed and just waiting.

Having failed at this quest, he’s given the opportunity to prove himself again, or to demonstrate to himself how human he is. He’s told where to get a plant of rejuvenation, which at least will be some kind of compensation. It won’t keep him alive forever, but it will make him young again at intervals when he eats it.

He loses it on the way home to a snake, which seizes it while he is having a bath in a pool, and as the snake wriggles off with the plant of rejuvenation between its jaws, of course, it sloughs off its skin, just demonstrating that the plant worked. Gilgamesh, then, has lost it and goes home with nothing.

All he can do at that stage is to arrive home and tell his companion, Ur-shanabi, to go up onto the walls to observe the city. And I believe that is full of meaning at the very end of the poem, because what it is telling us is that the life of an individual like Gilgamesh’s even—the greatest hero of old—is limited to a human lifespan. But if you observe humanity as a whole, as a community, by looking down from the walls of the city, and you can see all the activities that the human beings do there, then you can appreciate that the communal life of human beings goes on forever. It is the individual who dies, and that is the focus at the very end of the poem. It’s on this distinction between the fate of the individual and the destiny of the human race that is to continue.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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A relief of a lion, associated with Ishtar, goddess of love and war. Fletcher Fund, 1931. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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