04 December 2017

What Our Oldest Story Tells us About What it Means to be Human - Greenblatt on Gilgamesh

All of this is taken from Stephen Greenblatt's new book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. This is a blog post rather than a book chapter, so where I could I made the story much more succinct, the result being that this is more choppy and less informative than Greenblatt's account.


Gilgamesh was written by Sin-lequi-unninni. All that is known of him is that he probably compiled materials - texts and oral legends - that reached far back into the past.

The Torah was probably assembled in the fifth century BCE; the Iliad somewhat earlier, perhaps between 760 and 710 BCE. But Sin-lequi-unninni wrote his text sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE, and the earliest surviving written tales of Gilgamesh date from around 2100 BCE. Older by more than a thousand years than either Homer or the Bible, Gilgamesh is quite possibly the oldest story ever found. [And what follows is just a portion of that epic of Gilgamesh.]

Uruk was the first city in the ancient Near East and perhaps the first city in human history and the creation story of Gilgamesh starts there. This isn't the story of the origin of humans. This is the story of the origination of humanity, told through a being named Enkidu who is transformed from beast to man.

The people of Uruk are terrorized by Gilgamesh who is one-third human and two-thirds god. He's a great builder and warrior but his sexual appetites are terrorizing the city. In response to the complaints about him from the people of Uruk, the gods create Enkidu who is placed - not in the city but - in the wilderness outside the city.

Enkidu roams naked with gazelles, a wild creature with hair covering his whole body. Then he meets Shamhat.

Shamhat is a temple prostitute skilled in all pleasures. Shamhat and Enkidu spend six days and seven nights in fervent lovemaking and at the end of this time, when Enkidu tries to rejoin the gazelles he cannot. This - the love of Shamhat - has changed him. He is no longer an animal.

Shamhat continues Enkidu's initiation. He cleans himself and seems to lose the hair covering his body. He eats at a table. She takes off her clothes and shares them with him (one for me, one for you style), clothing becoming a sign of culture rather than a covering for shame.

Next comes friendship. Enkidu meets Gilgamesh and stops him from raping a bride on her wedding night - as was his custom. (This custom was the catalyst for the people complaining to the gods about Gilgamesh and their creation of Enkidu.) After they fight over this, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become great friends who share adventures and companionship.

Finally, Enkidu learns of his mortality. Facing death terrifies him and he curses Shamhat, who initiated him into civilization. In truth, though, Enkidu was always mortal but was simply unaware of it when he was more animal than human. While still filled with trepidation about death, he is consoled by the gods with the memory of all that he has gained by joining civilization: food and drink that have sustained and delighted him, beautiful clothing he wears, honors of which he is proud, and above all his deep friendship with Gilgamesh. Enkidu dies.

Gilgamesh is thrown into deep mourning at the loss of his friend. He, too, is saddened and terrified by the prospect of death and seeks out ways to avoid it. In his search for immortality he encounters an alewife who delivers this advice:
As for you Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Always be happy, night and day,
Make every day a delight,
Night and day, play and dance.
Your clothes should be clean,
Your head should be washed,
You should bathe in water.
Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,
Let your mate be always blissful in your loins
The alewife's words epitomize the wisdom of the everyday, the advice summoned up by the spectacle of too much heroic striving: know your limits, accept the human condition, savor the ordinary sweet pleasures that life offers. "This, then," she concludes, "is the work of mankind."

[Your loyal blogger's voice]

It isn't about avoiding death; it's about embracing life.

This reveling in the normal, realizing how extraordinary is the ordinary, seems to me a much richer way to enjoy life than to insist that we do great things or strive to fall into the top 0.01%. In that direction lies failure for 99.99%, and that's tragic. Learning to delight in the common things promises delight for anyone who can realize the gift of civilized humanity, the promise of the pursuit of happiness.

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