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March 23, 2014 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Lessons From A Demigod
The Epic of Gilgamesh has been read in the modern world for a little longer than a century, and, in that time, this oldest of stories has become a classic college text. In my own courses on ancient literature and mythology, it is the book I always begin with. But why should a tale whose origins stretch back more than four thousand years draw such attention in an age of genetic engineering and text messaging? The answer I have given to hundreds of students is that almost every joy and sorrow they will face in life was revealed in Gilgamesh millennia before they were born. Reading Gilgamesh will not only teach them to face the challenges that lie ahead, but also give them an appreciation for the idea that no matter how much our modern world might seem different from earlier times, the essence of the human experience remains the same.

Gerald K. Gresseth, The Gilgamesh Epic And Homer (JSTOR, PDF):
This then is the meaning of the Gilgamesh Epic: it is the first embodiment in dramatic form and in explicit statement of the idea of human-ism. It must have been a very revolutionary idea at the time.
posted by the man of twists and turns (36 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Spoiler alert.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:23 AM on March 23 [1 favorite]


"Gilgamesh a King...."
posted by Fizz at 10:33 AM on March 23 [5 favorites]


Gilgamesh rules, it rules, it rules so hard. That said, this Philip Freeman article seems oddly anchored in a reading of it that validates a lot of common twentieth-century ideas of what it means to be human. One of the things I love about its descriptions of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is how deeply weird they are, and how stubbornly they resist pat modern lessons like "so much heartbreak has come to those who, like Gilgamesh, would not accept that they are mortal. "

Like, the whole point of Gilgamesh's grief after he fails Utnapishtim's test is not that he can't live forever, it's that he could have! He had the chance, but because he wasn't strong enough, he failed. That's a VERY different lesson than "all men are mortal", which only seems truer to us now because it's what we're seeing from our vantage point.

I appreciate that Freeman digs this epic, but I kinda feel like in trying to convince the reader that it's "relevant", he's just using it to validate our own ideological outlooks, and making it much less interesting overall.

Also, I've recommended this on mefi before, but I deeply love the David Ferry "translation" of Gilgamesh, which is a sort of synthesis of the various extant fragments that we have of the epic, written in beautiful, simple modern English. I've read a few other translations of what we have of Gilgamesh, but I keep going back to the Ferry translation, and have read it probably like 10 times. It's just lovely.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:33 AM on March 23 [37 favorites]


i've always loved that the story utnapishtim and his ark, later 'noah', was already an ancient myth when gilgamesh was written.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 10:40 AM on March 23 [2 favorites]


I dunno, just bet good'ol Gil would've traded most of his virgins for a single indoor flush toilet.
posted by sammyo at 10:41 AM on March 23


"this oldest of stories"

[rant]
Ugh, this phrasing bothers me. There is no need to make stuff up to sound more impressive. To start with it's "merely" one of the oldest recorded stories that survived until today. Furthermore it's fairly reasonable to assume that many other stories had been told long before that simply never got recorded. No need to artificially turn this into the archetypal story for whatever reason.
[/rant]
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:47 AM on March 23 [1 favorite]


But why should a tale whose origins stretch back more than four thousand years draw such attention in an age of genetic engineering and text messaging?

What, we need a reason? How about it's four thousand years old, I mean holy shit.

(Given the constant mixing and passing of people through Mesopotamia in that time, and the multiplication of their heirs on all the continents, there's every chance one of your ancestors heard Gilgamesh sung in the original Sumerian.)
posted by Iridic at 10:49 AM on March 23 [4 favorites]


There is no need to make stuff up to sound more impressive

Would you call it the urtext?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:50 AM on March 23 [7 favorites]


It's been a long time since I read Gilgamesh...

Greg, thanks for the sentiments on the David Ferry translation. I think I'll track it down.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 11:10 AM on March 23


Would you call it the urtext?

Why use such akkademic language?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:26 AM on March 23 [19 favorites]


I've always been amazed this thing even EXISTS, let alone that there's people who have taken the time to understand it and render it into something my modern mind can parse.

I'd love to know more about that period and place in history if anyone can point me somewhere. I wouldn't say projecting modern ideas as to the meaning of the text and what the author was trying to communicate is necessarily wrong or bad, but it's hard to judge a work in a contextual vacuum.
posted by ThrowbackDave at 11:37 AM on March 23


Gilgamesh and Enkidu: THE ULTIMATE BROMANCE
so basically
Enkidu wouldn’t have died
if that chick hadn’t boned him and then made him take a shower
and Gilgamesh would’ve had eternal youth
if he hadn’t stopped for a fucking bath
so the moral of the story
is hygiene is for mortals
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:12 PM on March 23 [9 favorites]


I dunno, just bet good'ol Gil would've traded most of his virgins for a single indoor flush toilet.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:51 PM on March 23


a single indoor flush toilet.

Ya know, people are always saying stuff like this and I'm like, damn, how much time a day do you spend pooping, that that's your main priority? (rhetorical question!) Seriously, you think that Gilgamesh would trade the, I dunno, 23 hours a day that he spent fighting, fucking, sleeping and eating like a god, for your precious toilet?

99% of human history LOL! We're #1! (Or whatever.)

No, on the contrary, I would think that any self-respecting Sumerian hero would carefully consider your proposition, then steal your magical urn and enslave you to make bricks or something because hey, free labor!
posted by hap_hazard at 1:45 PM on March 23 [3 favorites]


Yeah--no flush toilet. Air-conditioning, sure.
posted by LucretiusJones at 2:04 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I think that 'flush toilet' is shorthand for modern potable water delivery and sewage removal systems, and all its attendant benefits to health and hygiene.

Its interesting to consider the story to determine what problems humans faced day to day. Kind of like if some trashy reality TV show was the only surviving media that was discovered in 6014BP, the discoverers may infer that humans of 2014 had a lot of "first world problems" type problems.
posted by porpoise at 3:22 PM on March 23


This is how I feel about Ovid: The Art of Love.

One of the best things about studying literature is that you truly realize how cyclical and ancient most human problems are.
posted by quincunx at 3:57 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


How awful it must be...to know so little of oneself.
You are nothing but fear...
...little king.

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:02 PM on March 23


"Reading Gilgamesh will not only teach them to face the challenges that lie ahead, but also give them an appreciation for the idea that no matter how much our modern world might seem different from earlier times, the essence of the human experience remains the same."

And it could come in handy when trying to communicate with an alien species.
posted by homunculus at 6:10 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


Kenneth Rexroth on Gilgamesh.
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 6:12 PM on March 23


Would you call it the urtext?

Why use such akkademic language?


Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious Sumer by this sun of Uruk.
posted by ersatz at 6:39 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


AMA
posted by Enki at 9:52 PM on March 23 [9 favorites]


What is amazing as the story is the history of how it was uncovered and assembled. Archaeology rules.

On and on off topic note, I always love the story of the guy who first deciphered the Sumerian flood tablet and was so excited that he started taking off all his clothes. In the British Library. In the 19th century.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:45 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


I love that story too. I found this pretty good telling of it here, which includes his sad early death while exploring for more fragments.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:56 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]



Would you call it the urtext?

Why use such akkademic language?

I'd love to know more about that period and place in history . . .


Yes, perhap just an executive sumery.

(You could just write it by hand, on the wall.)
 
posted by Herodios at 4:05 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


There's just something about Gilgamesh that comes through as real and human that grabs me so much more than other legendary texts do. Beowulf never made me smile. Homer never made me feel choked up. Gilgamesh sticks with me.

Last year, after I lost another beloved cat, leaving my home feeling a little empty, I adopted two kittens that were fostered together and named one of the Enkidu, to remind me that I'm almost certainly going to lose him before I'm ready.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:27 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]


>> I'd love to know more about that period and place in history
> Yes, perhap just an executive sumery.
> (You could just write it by hand, on the wall.)


You'll probably find quite a few ambitious people who accept that challenge. Many, many takers are far-sighted.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:01 AM on March 24


Gil: I’m big ‘cuz I’m two-thirds god.
Man: Does that mean you had three parents?
Gil: Ha! That’s one more than regular folks!
         -- Cartoon History of the Universe
His name was called Gilgamesh
From the very day of his birth,
He was two-thirds god, one third man . . .
And so he surpassed all others.

He was two-thirds god, one third man,
The form of his body no one can match . . .
-- Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IX
These lines, which recur throughout the Epic have numerological significance" . . . [uh oh]

Strange as the notion of having a 2/3 divine ancestry when everyone has two parents, there appears to other evidence of a pre-occupation with the ratio 2/3 in Babylonian culture. The Babylonians invented the sexagesimal counting system. It’s from them that we inherit the division of the circle into 360 degrees of arc, the the day into two cycles of twelve hours, the hour into 60 minutes, etc. To a people without so much as an abacus, it must’ve seemed magical to discover a number that can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, and 20.

The Bablylonians associated their chief god, An with the number 60, the lesser god Enki with the number 40. Enki was also called Shanabi (two-thirds) and Nimin (forty in Sumerian). The name of Urshanabi, the ferryman means “Priest of the Two-Thirds”. The number 40 and the ratio 2/3 comes up again and again.

Perhaps they were so impressed with the power of their sexagesimal number system that they applied it to everything. Sort of like how many of us moderns seem to think that everything is digital. So it seems like ‘two-thirds god’ was a bit of Bablyonian hype making use of the hipster argot of the day meaning ‘awesome’.

But suppose we take the proposition seriously? The Cambridge mathematics department does:
Assuming normal reproductive behaviour between a set of ancestors of type pure G and a set of anscestors of type pure M, could you create an offspring of type two-thirds G and one-third M? How many generations would it take to create a genetic stock to within 1% of (GGM)?
Check this out: It's mathematically possible
If we assume everyone has two genetic parents there’s 2^n = ancestors in each generation (where n= the number of generation before Gilgamesh). 2 parents in generation n=1, 4 grandparents in generation n=2 , 8 great-grandparents in generation n=3, and so on.

If Big Gig is two-thirds god, that means that:
2^n/3 = number of human ancestors in each generation
2(2^n)/3 = number of divine ancestors in each generation

Plug it in and crank it out and when you reach the 49th generation you arrive at a generation where it's possible for each ancestor to be either all-human, all-divine, or demi-devine in proportions that can be rationalized with powers of two. That would be between 980 and 1,225 years before Giggly's semi-devine birth, depending on whether you take a generation to be 20 or 25 years. If The Big G ruled around 2500 BCE that’d be 3500 to 3725 BCE.

If Gen-49 were all unique individuals that'd be 562,949,953,421,312 (nearly 563 trillion) ancestors of whom 187,649,984,473,771 were human and 375,299,968,947,541 were divine. The principle of pedigree collapse would greatly shrink the number of actual human ancestors for sure.

As for the divine side, if Greek mythology is anything to go by, all 375,299,968,947,541 divine contributions to Gilligan's genetic make-up could have been provided by Zeus disguised as a bull (or En-lil as a swan, or whoever did that particular job in ancient Babylonia).
 
posted by Herodios at 12:48 PM on March 24 [10 favorites]


> "... almost every joy and sorrow they will face in life was revealed in Gilgamesh millennia before they were born."

I seriously doubt this; what relevance could it possibly have to my life? Last week, for example, I had to hire a temple prostitute to lure a wild man out of the woods. You can't tell me that some old and fusty text is going to offer me any useful tips about that.
posted by kyrademon at 1:22 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


i miss the woods
posted by Greg Nog at 2:14 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


Is this the proper thread to mention that my WiFi access point is named "Enlil", after the god of the air and the ether? I guess I should start being consistent and refer to my faucet as "Enki".
posted by benito.strauss at 2:55 PM on March 24


2 attacks w/ +2 mace (2-20+8), 180 HP, Special Defense: Cannot be charmed
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:57 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


2 attacks w/ +2 mace (2-20+8), 180 HP, Special Defense: Cannot be charmed
The hero of legend was the warrior / necromancer / high priest / ruler of his land. He is noted for going out and getting things done when others were unable.
This despite apparently having been born with one extremely foreshortened arm and one extremely foreshortened leg.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:20 AM on March 25


Bruce Lee had one leg shorter than the other. Still kicked boo-coo ass.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:03 AM on March 25


Was he a dancin' foo-oo-oo-oo-ool?
 
posted by Herodios at 7:24 AM on March 25


2 attacks w/ +2 mace (2-20+8), 180 HP, Special Defense: Cannot be charmed

Oh, he can be charmed all right, but the somatic component is wrestling.
posted by ursus_comiter at 6:30 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


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