As a college professor, I often lament the way in which the New York City Public Schools prepare students for college and for the world at large. Most schools are no longer requiring the reading of full length books, because taking time with a text takes away from test prep time. Even if they read a shorter work, such as Gilgamesh, they put it down, expect to answer a few questions about the plot, take a quiz, and move on to Homer. Maybe they’ll move onto Homer. Many of my students have never heard of Gilgamesh, and many associate Homer only with the Simpsons. They emerge from school thinking that the classics are not important, and that job training takes precedence.
Here is my defense for Gilgamesh, our oldest written epic.
1. Its age. When a text has been around for nearly 5,000 years, it deserves to be read. I would expect a student to be curious about what people thought 5,0000 years ago in ancient Iraq, and why such a story would be passed from culture to culture through the millennia. A student may object, citing thousands of accounting tablets, inscriptions and plain drivel which have come down to us through time. Age is not the only reason why we should read a classic text.
2. The story as a really good hero’s tale: Gilgamesh is an epic figure. He is a tyrant, forced to face his humanity when he befriends Enkidu and the two go off to the Cedar Forrest to slay Humbaba (this may be Humbaba, above, from a mask now in the British Museum). It is history’s first bro-mance road trip. He gets in trouble by mouthing off to the goddess Ishtar, she gets mad and sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy his city. Enkidu dies (sorry for the spoiler alert, but when a text is this old, there is no such thing as a spoiler alert) and Gilgamesh runs off in search for immortality. He finds stone men, scorpion men, a man named Utapishtim who survived the Flood, and returns with a plant. I won’t tell you what happens to the plant, but a snake gets involved and it’s not good. Does Gilgamesh return a changed man, having grown from the journey…or is he still a superficial tyrant? We discuss these issues in class. Texts need to be discussed, and discussion is also missing from most pubic schools today.
3. The humor. And the sexy parts. For students reading Herbert Mason’s rendition, Gilgamesh calls the goddess Ishtar “an old fat whore.” For students reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation, Gilgamesh lets loose a litany of insults, some of which are x-rated. And then there’s the part about Enkidu’s entrance into the civilized world. It’s FUNNY, as well as dealing with serious and eternal issues.
4. The awareness that the Bible is not the oldest book in the world. This is a tough one for my fundamentalist students. There is a flood story, and the survivor is not Noah. There is a fall from a “natural paradise”. And there is a naughty serpent. Gilgamesh is the only text which parallels, and predates, the Biblical narratives. For many of my students, this is the first time they are forced to question all that they have learned, and education is all about questioning assumptions and previously held beliefs. This cannot be tested on a standardized exam, and many are unprepared for this experience.
5. Learning how to love. Gilgamesh and love is a central theme in the text. We can, and do, discuss the idea that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were lovers, an idea which many scholars have considered. Regardless, the text speaks to the depth of human relationships. Gilgamesh begins as a mean king who cares for no one but himself, and emerges as a man who will cross the ends of the earth out of grief and loss. Gilgamesh cannot arrive at this place without another person to help him, perhaps teaching us that we can’t navigate life, and love, without others to guide us.
6. Learning how to die. This is, perhaps, the most important lesson from Gilgamesh. One day we will die. Gilgamesh didn’t understand this when his life revolved around forcing his subjects to build city walls. He learns this when he can’t stop Enkidu’s death. The gods are not there for him, and there is no promise of a heaven or reincarnation, ways in which other religions have dealt with death. He stays by his body until a worm crawls out of his nose and his face collapses. All of us will face this one day, and will we be prepared? Do we have the strength to face this reality? Knowing that Gilgamesh experienced the pain of grief thousands of years ago offers us company. Knowing that millions have read and heard the Gilgamesh tale through time also gives us the sense that we are not alone on this journey. For many of my nursing students, this point resonates more than any other. They will face death on a daily basis, and no amount of medical training will help with metaphysical issues.
The Gilgamesh epic reminds us that a civilization once flourished in southern Iraq where such questions were met by human imagination and creativity. We’ll die, we’ll suffer, we’ll doubt our gods and feel that they’ve abandoned us long into the future, and what will help us deal with this? Poetry, the arts, the dramatic narratives, and our myths. Ancient Sumerians knew this five thousand years ago, and so did their global neighbors who wrote their own stories baed on the human condition.
To not grasp this is to take the first step on the road to ignorance. Where does it lead? I’m reminded of a quote by Donald Rumsfeld during the 2003 National Museum of Iraq lootings. He told the press, “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over. And it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you see it 20 times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” Yes, there were that many vases — and more — and even more examples of texts which were trampled in the looting. One of the copies of Gilgamesh was in the museum, and I would bet that Rumsfeld had no idea.