Thursday, November 24, 2011

From the "Started but Never Completed" File - Gilgamesh I

I've been looking through my files and discovered a few manuscripts which I started but never finished.  This piece on Gilgamesh comes from a book-in-progress on Melancholia and Magic.
Supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance,
he is the hero, born of Uruk, the goring wild bull.
He walks out in front, the leader,
and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions.
Mighty net, protector of his people,
raging flood-wave who destroys even walls of stone!
Offspring of Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh is strong to perfection,
son of the august cow, Rimat-Ninsun;
… Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection.

Some 3,200 years ago, a Babylonian scribe and priest named Sin-leqi-unninni compiled and standardized a number of ancient Sumerian legends of a demigod-king and his best friend. These stories were preserved on clay tablets in cuneiform script, then rediscovered in 1872 when archaeologist George Smith translated them and announced that he had "discovered among the Assyrian tablets… an account of the Flood."   Today the Epic of Gilgamesh is famous not only as the prototype for many Biblical stories but as an eloquent early example of man's struggles with depression.

Gilgamesh Finds an Enemy, and Makes a Friend

Although he was a mighty warrior, Gilgamesh lacked something in the way of leadership skills. His rule was harsh, and his penchant for deflowering virgins before their weddings and taking children from their families did not sit well with the people of Uruk. Their cries rang out to heaven until at last the gods resolved to send a worthy opponent for the arrogant king. Their creation, Enkidu, was a beast-man, covered with hair and savage as any animal. Upon seeing him trappers and hunters ran in fear, then came to King Gilgamesh to seek his assistance.
"There is a certain fellow who has come from the mountains--
he is the mightiest in the land,
his strength is as mighty as the meteorite(?) of Anu!
He continually goes over the mountains,
he continually jostles at the watering place with the animals,
he continually plants his feet opposite the watering place.  
I was afraid, so I did not go up to him.
He filled in the pits that I had dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,  
released from my grasp the wild animals.
 He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!"
Gilgamesh's called on the services of the harlot Shamat to seduce this wild man. Her charms proved irresistible, as Enkidu stayed aroused for "six days and seven nights." But when he was sated, he discovered that the animals who had once accompanied him in the wilderness now drew away in fear. The harlot's charms had not only soothed the savage beast: they had set him on his way to becoming a civilized man.

Shamat suggested they go together to Uruk and Gilgamesh: Enkidu agreed to accompany her that he might challenge the king. Shamat introduced the wild man to civilzed pleasures like bread and beer, hoping that might calm him. But when he saw Gilgamesh preparing to bespoil yet another marital chamber, his anger rose and he blocked the doorway. After a heated wrestling match, each was impressed with the other's courage and strength and the erstwhile opponents became sworn friends.

Exercise 1-1: Strength Through Trials

Consider a situation where you have failed because you were not up to the task at hand. You may have dreamed of being a concert pianist but lacked the musical genius; you may have dreamed of medical school but didn't have the grades; you may have made it to the semifinals only to be conquered by a superior team.  Instead of using this as an excuse to beat yourself up, consider the ways in which you reorganized your life after your failure and the lessons you learned from your efforts.

"Adversity builds character" may be a cliché – but if The Epic of Gilgamesh is any indication, it's a very old one. Gilgamesh is a "wild bull," strong but untamed, who makes his subjects miserable with his arrogance and sense of entitlement. Since there is no one who can challenge him, he behaves like a spoiled child who takes whatever he wants with no regard for the feelings of others.

We may not be royalty, but we've been raised in a society where everyone can dream of becoming president and all the children are above average. If we have enough money and enough cultural capital, we can spend most of our lives without ever suffering a real failure – or achieving any kind of meaningful triumph. This may lull us into a self-righteous complacency: we may think ourselves great seafarers just because the high tide lifts our boat, and assume that anyone less fortunate than ourselves is morally or spiritually unfit.

When Enkidu arrives on the scene, Gilgamesh finally encounters his match. Some accounts have him defeating Enkidu after a long struggle: others have them fight to a draw. What is clear is that Gilgamesh has finally learned that he can be bested, that he is neither immortal nor omnipotent. In battling Enkidu, Gilgamesh is forced to come to grips with his humanity and, by extension, his fallibility and weakness. He learns humility and compassion for the subjects he had once tyrannized.

Much modern "New Age" thinking is based on the idea we create our own reality. Any problems we have are problems we have made for ourselves: if we are sad, it is because we have chosen that sadness. All we need do is accept that and we can become one of the shiny happy people living in a brave new world. But this comes with a corollary: if we are suffering, it is because we have done something to bring that suffering on ourselves.

Taking responsibility for your life is generally more useful and productive than blaming the world for all your problems. But it can also become a dangerous trap. Telling a rape survivor "no one can harm you without your permission," or asking a cancer patient what he did to create that experience is not empowering but profoundly insensitive and hurtful: if you are a victim, buying into that myth is more likely to impede than to help. It is important to take control of your life, yes – but it is also important to recognize the things that are beyond your control.

Are our sufferings sent to us as a learning experience? Possibly – but we're not under any obligation to learn from them! Gilgamesh could have crowed about his might when he finally bested Enkidu, then killed the savage who dared to challenge him, and gone on with his virgin-raping and child-stealing ways. He could have relied on his armies to conquer the intruder, keeping himself safe behind the walls of his castle. Or he could have run in terror from Enkidu, sacrificing his kingdom and his power rather than confronting the risk.  Instead he recognized that Enkidu's cause was just and that he was in the wrong. He recognized the feeling of being powerless and learned compassion for those who were powerless before him. We can deal with our failures and our limitations the same way: we can befriend them and learn their hard lessons or we can allow them to triumph over us.