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Gilgamesh and the Death of Eternal Growth

7 min read

Once upon an ancient Sumerian tablet (well, 12 tablets to be precise) there was a story about a powerful king who swooned all the girls and fought all the boys; a man who sought to challenge nature and the gods by venturing out on a quest to end death itself. 

If this is sounding suspiciously like a hyperbolised Hollywood superhero film, then well done. Take a vegan cookie. Because this is, arguably, the very first of the man-child-god-hero genre. Here is the origin of the all-pervasive monomyth that dominates so many of our modern stories. Here is *drum roll* Gilgamesh!

I’ll be honest, I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to the monomyth. But in certain contexts, I have to admit it really makes sense.

For those who need a quick refresher, the idea of the monomyth – probably better known as the Hero’s Journey – is a narrative pattern popularised by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Essentially the pattern goes something like this: a hero (typically, but not necessarily, a man) ventures out into the unknown and wondrous world, encounters and then overcomes all kinds of obstacles, and finally returns to bask in the glory of home.

Now, whether or not we agree with old Jo is a matter of opinion. Personally, I think the idea of trying to pin a cohesive pattern on the tangled web of storytelling is like trying to pin a sticky note to the sky.

Still, there’s no denying that the monomyth has a pretty hardcore fanbase, and with good reason. The pattern holds true to some of the most enjoyable stories in our culture. Almost too many to mention, in fact. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and The Lion King are just a few. 

So yes, Gilgamesh. As I said, potentially the first in the long canon of hero-heartthrobs, and as such, he has have a lot to answer for. I’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about the story. 

Generally regarded as society’s earliest surviving literary masterpiece, The Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to roughly 2100 BC and the Sumerian city of Uruk (modern day Iraq). It follows the journey of king Gilgamesh as he rises to his highest point, falls to his lowest, and eventually seeks redemption somewhere in the middle. It’s a story of butchery, intense brotherly love, and an all-consuming fear of death. It’s also a story that uncannily echoes the state of the world today, with our cruel/lustful leaders, our disregard and disdain of the natural world, and our dread of the inevitable, looming change. 

The epic begins by proclaiming Gilgamesh is ‘he who has seen everything’ and is two thirds god, one third human, and ‘supreme over other kings, lordly in appearance’ – essentially sounding like a sturdy piece of totalitarian propaganda, replete with a very human inferiority complex. The epic goes on to say it is he ‘who opened the mountain passes, who dug wells on the flank of the mountain’ – make of this what you will, but it sounds an awful lot like fracking and fossil fuels to me. 

Hereditary ruler of Uruk, Gilgamesh does more or less whatever he wants. In the beginning his oppression of the people is relentless and terrible. He ‘does not leave a son to his father’, forcing them into endless bouts of fighting, games, and probable forced labour. He also ‘does not let a girl go to her mother’, demanding the droit du seigneur, or ‘lord’s right’, to rape any virgin on her wedding night. If that isn’t a massive ‘Grab them by the pussy!’ I don’t know what is. 

Eventually the people rise up and pray to the gods to bring a challenger. The gods agree to create the wild-man Enkidu, who subsequently becomes tamed by a temple harlot called Shamhat through a two-week long act of saucy sacred prostitution (a fascinating episode which I’d love to go into, but that’s one for another day). Perhaps because of this ‘taming’, Enkidu isn’t quite strong enough to defeat Gilgamesh. Despite a Marvel-esque epic showdown, Gilgamesh emerges victorious. However, he’s so awed by Enkidu’s strength that he immediately proclaims him his blood brother for all eternity. Nothing like a bit of rough’n tumble to get to know a chap, I suppose. 

From here the epic moves into its next stage, as the newly formed bromance bonanza go on to have all kinds of quests and adventures. Adventures that mostly seem to involve dominating the natural world and defying the gods.

The first of these is the journey to the cedar forest to kill Humbaba, the animalistic forest guardian, and cut down the Sacred Cedar Tree. Once the tree is felled and animal guardian slaughtered, the two heroes return to celebrate. But Gilgamesh’s ‘mighty acts’ have caught the eye of the goddess Ishtar (O.G. goddess of Easter), who invites him to become her next husband. Gilgamesh refuses, pointing out that all her previous husbands have met with a sticky end. 

As you might expect, Ishtar’s none too pleased at being rejected by a mortal man and called a murderess to boot (to be fair, the murder bit was mostly true) and demands that the Bull of Heaven be sent down to Uruk to inflict a serious thrashing upon Gilgamesh and all is subjects. 

Well, long story long, the Bull is also slaughtered, but not without sacrifice. In a moment of hubris and reckless chutzpa, Enkidu tosses one of the animal’s severed limbs to the feet of the gods. Basically, a massive F*ck You with anti-vegan undertones. This, it seems, is one Jamon too far for the gods. They send down a sickness to punish Enkidu and he dies a long and poetic death. Gilgamesh is plunged into the darkest despair. 

Like Gilgamesh we have lost our Enkidu – our friend from the wild, and with him has gone any hope that we can carry on business as usual.

This marks the beginning of the end of the epic, and is the point of real focus for the narrative. Gilgamesh leaves the city and roams the wilderness, crying out for Enkidu as ‘deep sadness penetrates his core’. However, the loss of his friend is only the surface reason for his dreadful anguish and pain. The truth is that he has at last been confronted with an enemy he cannot conquer: death. ‘I am going to die! – am I not like Enkidu?’ For the first time in his life, Gilgamesh realizes that he will not live forever, and is utterly terrified for himself.

There are intriguing parallels here between the plight of Gilgamesh at his weakest moments and the position we find ourselves in today. The combined effects of capitalism, neo-liberalism, extractionism, and countless other ‘ism’s have nudged the world to the edge of a rickety cliff. Not just from an environmental perspective – though that’s obviously my focus – but also from the observation of our now-feeble sense of community, our fractious mental states, and our utter breakdown of trust and faith in both government leaders and religious symbols. Any way you look at it, deep fissures have opened up in so many of the fundamental aspects of human experience. 

I argue that our collective losses have their root in the loss of the natural world, and the loss of wilderness. Like Gilgamesh we have lost our Enkidu – our friend from the wild, and with him has gone any hope that we can carry on business as usual. And like him we must now search for answers in the furthest of places, and – eventually – return to our truer selves.

The Epic of Gilgamesh ends in true epic fashion, with the journey to seek out Utanapishtim the Faraway, who is reportedly immortal. Driven on by rage and grief, Gilgamesh overcomes seemingly impossible challenges; confronting scorpion monsters, outrunning the sun, punting across the River of Death, but all for nothing. While he does at one point find the plant of life, the thorns of which, if pricked, will make you young again, it unfortunately gets eaten by a snake while Gilgamesh is having a bath. Thus the reason snakes shed their skin; forever rejuvenating themselves.

The weeping Gilgamesh abandons all hope around this point. He cries out to Utanapishtim the Faraway, saying: ‘The snatcher has taken hold of my flesh/ in my bedroom Death dwells,/ and wherever I set foot there too is Death’ Gilgamesh eventually returns home to the great city of Uruk, a changed man, reflecting on the wonders of everyday civilization. 

The closing lines of the final tablet of The Epic don’t dwell on gods and monsters, immortality and love, but instead they simply ponder the reality of earthly things. Brickwork and foundations. Walls and gardens and structures. 

Gilgamesh may be the original monomyth, answerable for all sorts of overly-macho stereotypes, but it also teaches an invaluable lesson.: that life doesn’t last forever. We cannot conquer and conquer without end. Sooner or later we must return to humble things. The ideology of eternal growth – eternal progress – has dominated our society for long enough. I say it’s time we sat back, and took a good long look at our earthy foundations. 

There are many of translations of Gilgamesh available. All quotes in this essay are from The Academy for Ancient Texts.

Originally published in the Hourglass Newspaper.

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