‘Once Upon a Time’ (iii) Gilgamesh

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As I noted in my 1st post on this theme, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament contains many echoes of far older, interesting and amusing creation myths, flood stories and epic poems which, because used to train scribes, were widely spread in location and time across the ancient near east. The Hebrew writers/editors used a number of their ideas and themes, while altering them to reflect their own religious beliefs and distinctive viewpoints.

Another of these ancient stories is the epic poem about ‘Gilgamesh’, which has been described as “the greatest masterpiece of literature prior to the Bible and Homer(Oxford Companion to the Bible). Gilgamesh, the supposed king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (Biblical Erech) in the 26th century BCE, may well have been a historical figure. Even If he was, however, the tales told about him grew exponentially during centuries of re-telling. He was said to be partly divine (his mother being the goddess Ninsun) and partly human with superhuman strength, which finds echoes in Genesis 6, with its “ancient heroes“, “men of great strength and size”‘, who were the divine/human offspring of marriages between divine beings and human women. He was king for 126 years, which would suggest a lifetime of about 150 years – quite something, though peanuts in comparison with the 969 years of the biblical Methuselah.

With his bosom buddy Enkidu, Gilgamesh got up to some swashbuckling adventures. The goddess Ishtar was impressed, and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she sent as punishment the Bull of Heaven to trample him down, but it was killed by our two heroes. This so displeased the gods that they decreed the death of one of them. Enkidu got the short straw, which left Gilgamesh desolate, and now in fear of his own demise. To get help and advice, he decided to find Utnapishtim, the survivor of the Flood, who’d been granted eternal life by the gods, and who now lived at the ends of the earth. 

When Gilgamesh arrived at the shore of the sea that encircles the earth, he met the innkeeper Siduri, who had bad news for him, “You will not find the eternal life you seek. When the gods created mankind, they appointed death for mankind.” We’re reminded of Genesis 3, where God says that humans “must not be allowed to live forever“. This being so, Siduri advises Gilgamesh to, “let your stomach be full, and enjoy yourself in every way“, which finds its biblical counterpart in the down-to-earth book of Ecclesiastes, “there’s nothing better for human beings than to eat, drink and experience pleasure“. She directs him, nevertheless, to the ferryman who can take him to Utnapishtim.

This survivor of the Flood, now immortal, tells Gilgamesh about a plant, reminiscent of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which can restore life and make the old young again. This plant can be found at the bottom of the sea and, after a successful dive into the depths, Gilgamesh gets hold of it, and takes it with him on his journey home. While on the way, and needing a wash and brush up, he stops for a less ambitious dive into a wayside pool where, in another echo of the Garden of Eden, a cunning serpent makes its appearance, and sneaks off with the plant of everlasting life. This enables it to keep sloughing off its old skin and starting life again with a new one. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, now has to accept the inevitability of death, and to make the most of the life that’s left to him.  

What lessons can be drawn from the story of Gilgamesh? One is that no matter how able we may be, nor in how many ways, we must face up to the inescapable reality of our limitations. In Genesis 3, Yahweh, very wisely, doesn’t want human beings to “become like one of us”. If we think, speak and behave as if we were gods, our flaws, faults and failings will be so magnified that we’ll become a menace not only to ourselves and others around us but even, in the case of leaders, to the wellbeing of the world itself. Recent and current examples come to mind. Since we’re dealing with ancient writings, an ancient Latin proverb comes to mind, Vasa vana plurimum sonant, ’empty pots make the most noise’.

As I wrote in my 1st post on this theme, the Bible was written by humans, and reflects its surrounding cultures, whilst making its own distinctive contribution. This fact needn’t undermine anyone’s faith, but should deter us from selecting quotes to give ‘authority’ to our opinions about contemporary issues. The Bible is an important word, but not ‘the last word’. It needs to be freshly explored and understood by each succeeding generation.

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