Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gilgamesh — The Long Version

 In the 2009 version of my book, I devoted efforts to psychoanalyzing the culture that came to the New World and conquered the Native Americans.  That version contained a much longer discussion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which follows.

Humbaba's Roar

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world's oldest stories, a product of one of the oldest civilizations, and written in one of the oldest alphabets — cuneiform characters, inscribed on twelve clay tablets.  This story is from the birthplace of civilization, when the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent were still swelling like thriving tumors.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is the heroic (and dopey) saga of King Gilgamesh, who built the city of Uruk near the Euphrates River, in what is now Iraq.  He lived around 2700 BC — back when some of the vast ancient forests of the Middle East still survived (but not for much longer). 

In a nutshell, this is a story about sleaze and selfishness.  Gilgamesh was a powerful king and an incredible jerk.  For example, he habitually deflowered every new bride in his kingdom, prior to her wedding. 

One day Gilgamesh decided that a cool way to increase his fame would be to kill Humbaba, the god of the forest who lived on Cedar Mountain.  But first, he had to overcome the fierce defender of the sacred forest, Enkidu, a hairy and powerful wild man.  With bribes of food, booze, and sex, Enkidu sold out, quit protecting the wild beings of the forest, and became Gilgamesh's drinking and whoring buddy.

By and by, Gilgamesh and Enkidu went to the Cedar Mountain and outwitted the forest god Humbaba, who unconditionally surrendered to them.  They cut off his head, and then cut down every tree in the sacred forest.  Not long after this, the whole region heard Humbaba's roar — the sound of the mighty rushing thundering flood.  A primary side effect of deforestation is flooding, and these forest-whacking early farmers certainly understood this — if you mess with the forest, Humbaba is going to mess with you! 

The destruction of the sacred forest angered the gods, who killed Enkidu the wild man in revenge.  At this point, the friendless Gilgamesh went on a search for eternal life.  He wasn't granted his wish, and he died alone, afraid, and humble, like any other man — concluding a life of debauchery, abuse, and pathological ecocide.  Gilgamesh's magnificent city of Uruk was completely abandoned by 700 A.D.  Today it is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape.  The end.
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What struck me about the Epic of Gilgamesh was that none of the characters were honorable role models — they were sleazy selfish opportunists, free of principles.  This made me curious, so I explored some other Sumerian tales.  In their creation story, the gods were sloshed to the gills when they created hominids, and for this reason every single person had at least one serious defect.  In other words, all hominids were deeply flawed from the day they were born, and the highest deities were sloppy incompetent drunks.  This was a culture with some serious self-esteem issues.

Then I read the Sumerian story of the great flood.  In this tale, the booze-headed gods had become thoroughly sick of hominids; because they had bred like crazy, and were now making so much noise that the gods couldn't sleep at night.  So, the way to cleanse the land of these noxious hominid pests was to unleash a great flood and drown them all.  At this point, Ziusudra (a mortal hominid) was instructed to build a large barge, gather up specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.

There literally were great floods in the ancient Fertile Crescent.  Archeologists have discovered a heavy layer of silt in the region, which dates to around 2900 BC.  Because the civilizations converted vast ancient forests into fields, flooding must have been frequent, and sometimes catastrophic.

After reading the Sumerian flood tale, I took a look at the remarkably similar Hebrew flood story in the book of Genesis, where the god Yahweh instructed Noah to build an ark.  Like the Sumerian gods, Yahweh was also thoroughly sick of hominids, and regretted that he had created them.  He saw hominids as being thoroughly wicked — every thought that crossed their minds was evil.  They were hopeless — a mistake. 

So, in the ancient Fertile Crescent, the myths tell tales of a hominid race that is degenerate, corrupt, and evil.  Their gods were totally misanthropic.  How does this affect people — to listen to stories on grandpa's knee, and learn that all hominids are essentially bad and stupid?  How does this guide the life of the culture?  Does it lower people's expectations and aspirations?  Does it sanction destructive living?  Aren't these stories poisonous? 

It's amazing how ideas endure.  Our modern industrial civilization literally runs on the heartbeat of Gilgamesh's world.  The ancient Sumerians used a base-6 counting system (6, 12, 18...), instead of a base-10 system (like the Arabic: 10, 20, 30...).  So, it was 60 seconds per minute, 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, 360 degrees in a circle, and so on.  The clocks that we use today are based on Sumerian mathematics.  We see echoes of Gilgamesh's culture in our hierarchical and militaristic society, our disrespect for nature, our insatiable hunger for material wealth, and our powerful anthropocentricism.  And in the lands of fresh tree stumps you can still hear the mighty Humbaba's roar.  Some things never change.

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