What I’m Reading: Gilgamesh


This Sumerian epic, dating back to 2,100 BC, and discovered in the city of Nineveh (the same people that the biblical prophet Jonah hated so fiercely and wouldn’t preach repentance to until he was swallowed by a whale) runs about 2,000 lines.

By contrast, Homer’s Iliad is thought to date back to 760 BC and contains almost 15,700 lines.

In the beginning we are introduced to Enkidu who is a wild man created by the gods to balance out the proud, haughty, and tyrannical Gilgamesh. Enkidu lives in the wild with the beasts of the fields, eating grass and drinking from the pools with them. Those who see Enkidu fear him and send to the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, for help.

Instead of going to confront the wild man, Enkidu, himself, Gilgamesh sends the High Priestess of Ishtar to seduce him. This is where things get surprisingly racy. Though the heroes of the Iliad are no saints, their seductions aren’t described in quite so much detail as in Gilgamesh.

Having tamed Gilgamesh with her lovemaking, in a session we are told lasts seven days, the High Priestess of Ishtar brings Enkidu to Uruk, where he meets the hero of this epic, who is about to take someone else’s bride on her wedding night–because, we are told, he does this with all the brides before their husbands have the opportunity.

Enkidu is so enraged to hear people saying that Gilgamesh is the most powerful warrior alive that he attacks Gilgamesh and they crash through walls in their fight, which eventually Gilgamesh wins. After this they become fast friends and there is no more mention of Gilgamesh’s depredations and tyranny. Whether this means he was cured of this by his friendship with Enkidu or whether this doesn’t matter to the story any longer, the reader is left to surmise.

Maybe, Gilgamesh did become a better man (or demi-god), because he later is able to reject the advances of the goddess Ishtar, citing a long litany of her former lovers, sometimes graphically, and what fates became them when she tired of them. This does show some increase in wisdom and self control.

Later, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu set off to battle the fearsome Humbaba of the Cedar Forest, we are regaled with the fact that they carry axes no normal mortal could bear–each weighing two hundred pounds. Also, we learn that fully caparisoned they are carrying six hundred pounds of armor and weaponry.

One more interesting thing about this tale is that Gilgamesh later encounters a Noah-like character named Utnapishtim, who relates the story of the earth being flooded and taking an ark of creatures onto the deluge and sending out a dove looking for dry land.

-Joel Jenkins
Author of Weird Action & Adventure Fiction


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