Tuesday, 5 January 2016

ishtar or 48 hours later

Despite how well the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh establishes and wields all the classical reverberating hallmarks of myth, the story of a tyrannical king sent a wild man by the gods to curb his oppressive-tendencies—is really strikingly unknown compared to other influential works of cultural heritage. Only really rediscovered and promulgated to audience of any size after World War I, I guess it should not be surprising that the only cemented reference to the friendship fostered between King Gilgamesh and Enkidu I really ever encountered until recently was in that brilliant episode of Star Trek the Next Generation (“Darmok” it was called and perhaps the literature of ancient Sumer might not gain wide-spread status until the twenty-fourth century ) where CPT Picard encounters an alien race whose language muddles the Universal Translator. Finally realising that their speech is drawn from their native mythological canon, using allegory and allusion, CPT Picard reaches out to his fellow captain through the story of Gilgamesh. As a post-script, Picard reads a bit of Homer and wonders—never quite knowing the context or what the fallen alien captain was trying to tell him, if better understanding of his own mythological legacy might make them better explorers. As a foil to the very photogenic but committed bachelor and demi-god Gilgamesh, the gods fashion the savage Enkidu, whose disruption to the countryside seems almost as repulsive to the beleaguered subjects of Uruk as the king’s persecution within the city walls.
Hoping to civilise and tame Enkidu, Gilgamesh arranges for him to be seduced by a temple harlot—and the marathon love-making session seems initially to have worked, as Enkidu cleaned up pretty well too and the animals seems to reject his company afterwards. The former wild scourge dispatched, Enkidu even settling down and becoming a shepherd, Gilgamesh was free to continue his reign of terror more or less unabated. Learning of the king’s deportment while tending his flock, Enkidu resolved to intervene all the same. After a long battle, the two realise that they are of equal strength and sort of a buddy cop movie relationship ensues. The two go off questing together and Gilgamesh is transformed and forgets his old ways on their adventures. Eventually the pair encounter the goddess Ishtar, who has a reputation as somewhat of a vamp to compliment Gilgamesh’s former rakish but reformed ways, and when the king begs off her advances, the scorned goddess demands the Bull of Heaven be visited on Uruk to dealt the land with earthquakes, droughts and plagues. Ishtar’s contingency plan (if the king of the gods refused to unleash this Kraken) was to raise a zombie army to devour the living. Enkidu and Gilgamesh, however, are able to slay the beast—further enraging the gods, who decide one of them must pay for this transgression with his life and Enkidu wastes away, ageing rapidly for weeks, denied a warrior’s death and only a bleak, dusty afterlife to look forward to. Inconsolable, Gilgamesh gives his companion full funerary honours and resolves himself never to die—especially not to succumb to the ravages of old age and dotage (mortal himself despite his divine parentage), and embarks to find the immortal couple, rumoured to have ridden out the Great Flood, and learn the secret to eternal life. Wandering the wilderness, still wracked with grief, Gilgamesh adopts the habit of his departed friend and wears animal hides and is admitted into this Garden of Eden where the couple has taken up residence, rather grudgingly as they try to dissuade him from seeking this lot. Possibly to prove that their immortality was a unique gift and perhaps a curse, the couple Utnapishtim (meaning the Far Away) and Siduri (the patroness that gave mankind beer, rather as a consolation prize) put Gilgamesh to several impossible tests—like staying awake for a week straight or fetching the sprig of a rejuvenating plant from the bottom of the ocean only to loss it later. The king grows more sorrowful when he realises his efforts are in vain. The couple summons Enkidu’s ghost which restores Gilgamesh’s mood and makes him more receptive to their lecturing, which includes the advice to be the best ruler that he can be and create a legacy for himself so that he’ll always be remembered for his good deeds. This is the sort of immortality that man can aspire to and over-reaching can only end in heart-ache. The themes and the architypes of course pervade all myth and legend to follow but this foundational work I think deserves more exposure and study.