Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gilgamesh II: Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet Humbaba – and Ishtar

Gilgamesh introduced Enkidu to the finer things of civilization. They spent many days feasting, drinking, and enjoying all the pleasures that Uruk had to offer. But soon they became bored. Finally Gilgamesh proposed a fitting quest: a journey to the Cedar Forest, where they would fight its guardian, the terrifying demon Humbaba. Enkidu cautioned his new friend, reminding him that Humbabu's "roar is a Flood, his mouth is Fire, and his breath is Death!" But despite the best efforts of Enkidu and the Noble Counselors of Uruk, Gilgamesh would not be dissuaded from his dangerous quest. Distraught, Gilgamesh's mother cried out to the great god Shamash, "Why have you inflicted a restless heart on my son?" But her pleading was for naught and at last the duo went off to do battle.

During their journey to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has a number of terrifying dreams which make him doubt their quest. But each time Enkidu puts a positive spin on them, stating that they only foretell their ultimate victory. Finally they come to the Cedar Forest and meet Humbaba. After a brief fight, they slay him, but not before he utters a curse promising that Enkidu will die before his friend. Flush with the triumph of their victory, they pay Humbaba's words little heed: then, as Gilgamesh is washing up after the battle, he receives a marriage proposal from the goddess Ishtar, who promises him a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold in exchange for his favors. But while he showed little concern for his safety when fighting Humbaba, Gilgamesh treats Ishtar's proposal with a great deal more caution.
Tammuz, the lover of your earliest youth,
for him you have ordained lamentations year upon year!
You loved the colorful 'Little Shepherd' bird
and then hit him, breaking his wing, so
now he stands in the forest crying 'My Wing'!
You loved the supremely mighty lion,
yet you dug for him seven and again seven pits.
You loved the stallion, famed in battle,
yet you ordained for him the whip, the goad, and the lash,
ordained for him to gallop for seven and seven hours,
ordained for him drinking from muddled waters, 
Stung by his rejection, Ishtar returns to heaven and complains to her parents of Gilgamesh's disrespect. To avenge their daughter's heaven, her father Anu and mother Anrum send the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh slay the bull: Enkidu adds insult to injury by wrenching off the bull's hindquarter and throwing it in Ishtar's face, saying "If I could only get at you I would do the same to you."

Exercise 1-2: Boredom
Although most people associate depression with sadness, it can also manifest as a discontentment with daily life and its routines. If you constantly feel bored, you may be suffering from depression. Although boredom has received less scholarly attention than more spectacular emotions like anger and depression, it is every bit as ubiquitous, and as dangerous. Boredom has been linked to social problems like delinquency, drug abuse, low morale, poor industrial production, job turnover, and dropping out of school. List the things you find boring in your life, as well as some things (good or bad) which you do to deal with boredom.

There are several different theories as to what causes boredom. Many psychoanalysts believe that boredom results when individuals turn anger and hostility against themselves: some existentialists consider boredom a fitting response to the universe's lack of purpose and intrinsic meaning while post-modernists claim that boredom reveals the fragmentation, homogenization, narcissism, and shallowness of contemporary culture. Institutions like prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes and military barracks struggle with boredom and strive to find ways to keep their charges occupied.

According to psychologist Stephen Vodanovich, "The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is 'having nothing to do."   Early research focused on monotonous tasks performed by factory workers on an assembly line: in 1986 Norman D. Sundberg and Richard F. Farmer developed a 28-question Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) to test an individual's propensity to boredom. Using the BPS, it soon became clear that some are more prone to boredom than others, requiring constant and ever-changing stimuli lest they fall prey to discontentment and ennui. (Adolescents, particularly adolescent males, generally have lower boredom thresholds: this may go a long way toward explaining their penchant for stupidly dangerous behavior). Gilgamesh clearly falls into that category. Unable to satisfy himself with wine, women and song, he puts himself and his friend at great risk in search of excitement.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that boredom is the antithesis of what he calls "flow," a state characterized by effortless attention, focus and absorption in a task. Csikszentmihalyi has found that flow occurs when the individual's skills match the level of challenge presented by the environment and when a task includes clear goals and immediate feedback: tasks which are too easy quickly become boring while tasks that are too difficult lead to anxiety.  Despite their luxurious and pampered life in Uruk, Gilgamesh finds himself growing discontented and restless. After finally facing a challenge from Enkidu, he is itching for another worthy opponent: the fact that Humbaba might be too much for him only serves to drive him on.

As psychologist Erich Fromm has pointed out, it is much easier to get excited by anger, rage, cruelty and the passion to destroy than by love or productive and active interests. Love and construction require patience and discipline: the lover/builder must endure frustration and overcome narcissism and greed.  Gilgamesh shows little interest in Ishtar's wiles. He is happy to risk life and limb in a fight, but less inclined to take a chance on romantic attachments. Unable to meet love with love, Gilgamesh responds to Ishtar with a more familiar and comfortable cruelty: this sets into action the events which will lead to Enkidu's death.

Like pain, boredom can be a warning signal. Richard Bargdill studied the lives of six people who complained of chronic boredom: in each case he discovered that they had relinquished their original life goals and chosen instead the path of least resistance. Although uncomfortable with their present situation, they did little to change it. Their boredom abated when they began imagining new possibilities for their lives and taking steps to make them a reality.  If you are chronically bored, you can numb the pain with drugs or distractions. You can seek excitement through ever-increasing risks. Or you can take positive steps to regain control of your life.