EP 005: Half a Man Walks Into a Bar

EP 005: HALF A MAN WALKS INTO A BAR Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do you find when you get to the edge of the world? According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, it's a pub. Today, we're diving into the world's oldest piece of literature and asking the tough questions – what it is, why it matters, and whether the goddess Siduri really did give up her day job.

In the mid 19th century, scientists were starting to unearth evidence that the Earth was a lot older than anyone had ever imagined. This caused large parts of the scientific community, and the population at large, to panic, and set off a frenzy of archaeological activity trying to uncover evidence that Biblical stories were true.

Around the same time, the young George Smith was developing a burning fascination with ancient Assyrian culture and history. He fed this by loitering in the British museum during his lunch hours, nosing around the cuneiform tablets. Eventually, and presumably because they realized that there was no way to get rid of him, the Museum set him to work analyzing the tens of thousands of clay shards that had been shipped in from present day Iran, and which had been sitting around in dusty boxes ever since. They came from remains of the library of Ashurbanipal, which had been discovered and excavated by Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi-Assyrian Assyriologist. George Smith worked on these for ten years, translating the cuneiform writing, searching for evidence of Biblical tales, and generally having a cracking good time. But if he enjoyed himself doing that, it was nothing compared to what he felt when he eventually came across a flood narrative that resembled the story of Noah so closely that he was completely overcome with excitement, and started stripping in his office. So the next time you ask yourself if you actually enjoy your job, remember that that’s your benchmark for job satisfaction.

Now George Smith was excited because he thought he’d found definitive proof that these religious stories were true in the most literal way possible, but that’s not necessarily the case. The similarity of these stories across multiple texts in multiple can be argued from both perspectives, by both those trying to refute and those trying to prove literal proof. It’s a fascinating debate that we aren’t going to even attempt to tackle here. But what George had definitely uncovered was the oldest piece of extended literature in the world – The story dates back to at least the 20th century BCE.  So years before the epic poems of Homer, an Assyrian writer had penned – or more accurately, carved, the epic of Gilgamesh. Parts of the story exist in other fragments found in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, but these twelve Akkadian tablets that Rassam found, and George Smith translated, are the fullest version of the story.

And what a story it is. If anyone is still labouring under the delusion the ancient world was a boring place in which you tilled a few fields, said a few prayers and then popped your clogs out of sheer boredom before turning thirty – listen up.

So Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk. He’s 60% god, 90% man and 100% jackass. He keeps the men in the city too exhausted to revolt by forcing them to take him on at sports (not really a fair match, given the 60% god factor), and claims all the brides on their wedding nights. Basically, he sucks, and nobody likes him, so the people cry out to the gods for help. The gods, presumably feeling a bit bad because of the that whole 60% bit, respond by creating a man to be Gilgamesh’s equal, hoping to stop his oppression. But they don’t create another part-god, part-man, maybe because that didn’t work out so well the first time. Instead, they create Enkidu, who is more part-man and part-wild animal. Unfortunately, the gods seem to be so pleased with themselves at this stroke of brilliance that they then neglect to give him any instructions whatsoever. He hangs out with wild animals all day, and helps himself to the locals’ food, because they’re not already unhappy enough. Eventually they get completely fed up and send a temple prostitute to seduce him, thinking that that will tame him. Bizarrely, this actually seems to work, and the obliging prostitute-turned animal tamer takes Enkidu to a shepherds’ village to learn about the ways of civilization – something the gods also apparently left out. In the meantime, Gilgamesh has been having dreams that a new best buddy is on the way. Like tyrants everywhere, he’s afraid of things he can’t control, and he still loves his mum, so he goes running to her for help interpreting his night time visions.

The shepherds are a friendly crew, and they invite strangers round for a bite and a bed when they pass through. Over dinner one night the talk turns, as it does, to local news. After the sports and the weather, they tackle the hot topic of Gilgamesh gate crashing people’s weddings, and Enkidu is so enraged that he decides he decides to solve the problem by gate crashing a wedding too. He blocks Gilgamesh on his way into the wedding chamber, and they have an enormous fight. So things are looking back on track for the gods’ plan at this point. But then Enkidu realizes that the Gilgamesh is much stronger than he was and gives up, and they decide to become besties instead. So there goes that. Gilgamesh seals their friendship, and puts the final nail into the god’s badly thought out plan, by suggesting a road trip. They pick the Cedar Forest, because the monster slaying potential is great that time of year. Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mum, adopts Enkidu as her son before they go, which is – admittedly – a bit weird.

Every good road trip needs some sightseeing on the way, so they take the scenic route to the Cedar forest. Gilgamesh has five terrifying dreams about falling mountains, thunderstorms, wild bulls, and a thunderbird that breathes fire. Because he’s still an idiot, he decides that these are good omens.

When they eventually get to the Cedar Forest, a fierce battle breaks out between them and Humbaba, the guardian of the forest. The boys are terrified, but they whisper some very sweet sweet nothings to each other, so that’s nice. Seeing that it’s all about to go completely south, the sun-god decides ties Humbaba up in 13 winds (I’m guessing he just forgot to bring rope). This makes him MUCH easier to kill. Gilgamesh and Enkidu celebrate by chopping down half the forest.

A little while later, the goddess Ishtar notices how great Gilgamesh looks in his armour, and how marvelous he is at killing things. Gilgamesh rejects her because apparently she treats her lovers badly. So that goes to show that irony was alive and well in the ancient world.

Ishtar doesn’t take the rejection as well as she might, and sends the bull of heaven to avenge her honour. The bull obliges by wreaking havoc in the city. Enkidu and Gilgamesh oblige by killing it. Gilgamesh shows a real streak of maturity by throwing one of its legs at the rejected (and by now, probably dejected) goddess. The whole city throws a massive party, but Enkidu has an ominous vision about a failure heading his way. In the dream, the gods are fed up with the pair of heroes for killing Humbaba, not to mention their favourite bull, and decide that one of them needs to die. He then had a second dream so terrifying that it kills him. Gilgamesh refuses to believe that his friend has died, and clings to the body until a maggot falls out of the nose, which seems to prove things quite definitely.

Gilgamesh throws him a massive funeral, and then takes to the wild. He wanders around covered in animal skins, grieving for his friend, but also terrified now about the idea of his own death, which up till now, he seems not to have thought very much about. The obvious solution is to avoid it completely, so he goes in search of Utnapishtim to learn the secret of eternal life. He travels beneath the mountains and past a very happily married pair of scorpion-people, until he arrives at the end of the world… where he finds a pub. He goes in for a beer, because – let’s face it – he hasn’t had a great couple of months. The bartender is a goddess called Siduri. In classic bartender fashion, she listens to his sorrows and offers up some classic advice: “all mortals must die”. She tries to encourage him to go back and enjoy the rest of his life while he still has it, but – in classic woeful drunk fashion – he ignores her advice completely. She gives up, probably because arguing with drunk people is pointless, and tells him how to cross the sea. He finds the ferryman exactly where Siduri said he would. Unfortunately, Gilgamesh throws a spontaneous tantrum at this point and destroys the objects that would have allowed him to cross the waters of death. The ferryman sets him to work, and he has to cut down 120 trees to use as barge poles instead. Lots of deforestation in ancient literature.

Gilgamesh’s efforts are wasted though, because when he does finally cross the sea, and meets up with Utnapishtim, the latter reprimands him in no uncertain terms, telling him that trying to fight the fate of a human life is pointless, and spoils the joy of living. He then recounts the story of his own immortality – and this is the bit that so excited George Smith that he became a temporary stripper. Utnapishtim says that the gods decided to send a great flood, but the god Enki warned him and told him to build a big boat. More deforestation ensued, until he had a big enough ship to load in two of every animal and bob on top of the flooded world until the weather improved a bit. Some of the gods were so impressed that they gave him eternal life as a reward – but it was a one time deal. To prove his point Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Gilgamesh has every intention of doing this, but falls asleep pretty much immediately. The moral of the story is that he cannot conquer death when he cannot even conquer sleep. Gilgamesh is miserable, feeling that every chance of immortality has been taken away from him. He travels back feeling very sorry for himself, but when he sees the walls of Uruk he realises how beautiful the city is. He decides to stop being a jackass, and to achieve immortality in reputation instead.

So there we go – the epic of Gilgamesh! If that sounded a little disjointed to you – don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything. It is a little jointed, partly because it was written as separate poems, and partly because bits are still missing.

As The poet and scholar Michael Schmidt suggests in a fantastic book called “Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem”, this epic can’t be read as a finished, polished composition like the Illiad or the Odyssey. Instead, he suggests, you have to approach it a little more like life, more untidy, more ambiguous, with bits missing and questions that can’t be answered. And the beauty of that messiness is exactly the point of the story, and exactly the thing that Gilgamesh, eventually, manages to learn. Gilgamesh started out being called a god and Enkidu started out being called animal. The Epic of Gilgamesh, and his eventual redemption, is really the story of their becoming human together.

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