Before the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is possible that we didn’t write stories. Or at least stories in that manner. Because humans had not yet settled into a sedentary lifestyle. Without settling down and ending the hunter gatherer period in our history, the ability for a story with characters and a familiar history would be impossible. Without culture, a culture to reflect and understand the mythos of a gathered people, there is no avenue for story fiction. This [Gilgamesh] and books like it, such as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which Shakespeare himself would take historical accounts for his dramas.) Stories become possible when a people congregate and share a common history, a reference point or mythology. Without this a story, though understandable by literate people, will contain alien references and characters whose import is not known.
It is also possible that writings before the Neocene were lost during the last ice-age, which modern science believes to have ended around ten thousand years ago. Studying the ancient works of literature, such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and many other religious texts popular in the Western world. And it is true that, from these stories, the identity of the reader is forever shaped and changed either by acceptance or rejection.
Of course leading this new lifestyle allowed for humans to do more than survive. For the first time it allowed us to live; it allowed us to live in a manner not too far removed from the way we live today. And when humans started coming together, the long history of oral lit eventually became the written word, the most ancient of which is to be found on clay tablets in ancient cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was the first language system to be developed and was used by all the major empires of the era. This includes Egypt, Hattusha (of what is modern day Turkey, not the Biblica Hittites,) Syria, and Babylon. It was the diplomatic language of the period. And on these clay tablets we find the first work of fiction known to exist.
Outside of a textbook a story doesn’t need to inform or educate although they often do. From the epic of Gilgamesh we get a partial understanding of the people who lived in the area where it originated, on the land between the Tigris and Euphrates between the second and third millenniums BCE. We know the king Gilgamesh was a celebrated ruler; we know the culture was a literate one of many gods, conscious of their cultivation of the nature world. These are things we can fix historically and definitively establish. Yet in the case of Gilgamesh we are made to understand the things we cannot know, things of which we’ll never more than partially glance, and get a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it has always meant. The culture as defined by this epic reflected our will and need to understand, and was painfully conscious of what we could not, and, in its way, is an attempt to reconcile our morality.
The reason Gilgamesh remains popular among scholars is because we learn about human history; we look to the past and through that prism see our daily lives in a different, richer life– and we look to it to understand life as it was all those centuries ago. The search for the meaning of life has always began with the opening of a book, and a historical perspective from different angles offers us a larger range of possibilities and, being subjective in our sight, make the associations ourselves, as one who looks upon a cloud formation and finds the shape not in the clouds, but in themselves. ‘Methinks it looks like a weasel,’ as it’s put in Hamlet is a subtle nod about the nature of how we understand and believe and its relationship to our inner universe. Lao Tzu, one of the trinity of great Chinese philosophers, the others being Chuang Tzu and Confucius, wrote in the Tao te Ching:, in regards to ‘the line:’ The five colors will make blind a man.” This could be said in regards to the man who, though studious, being so omnivorous in his selection of books and philosophy, knows so much that something is lost.
This also suggests that definitions (the way that can be named is not the constant way) impart a fixed idea that there are only those fixed colors, only those fixed philosophies; this obscures the infinite continuity of shades between and opposite. To know with division distracts
from the subtlety of merging; the static gaps as defined by omission take away from the eternity of f. Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to meaning is impaired by fixed perspective based on the absence of considering gradation in respect to what it means to be human, to be separate from the animal kingdom. There is an infinite continuity of meaning and the history of literature has done well to, through writing and analysis, pull meaning because of our natural instincts and pattern recognition.
A Rorschach test may very well be meaningless in objective terms, but the way in which it is subjectively interpreted testifie to the notion that what we bring to the table of understanding largely influences the understanding we take away. Reading is a kind of re-telling – not to learn what is known, but to know what isn’t; this is the endless search all readers engage in each time they pick up another book. It is a search for what can’t be known and we’re right in the middle of it, to see for ourselves, the meaning of a story. First we need to account for the events, having first established whether it is fact or fiction, so we may be able to articulate the question raised by a character’s actions and reactions as well as the implications and consequences. We need to consider how a story is put together as well: how it uses the conventions of language, events with beginnings and endings, description, description of character, and the way in which the story reawakens our sensitivity to the real world.
The real world is a world without a plot, without conventions, unnameable world—in the chaotic world of cause and consequences, the madness and blurry character and indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean the most to us bring us back to our unintelligible yet immeasurably meaningful lives. The reason storytelling became so popular in human society is largely due to the satiation of our natural curiosity with the world and our suspicion and questioning consideration of how others live and feel.
The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with a prologue–a common convention that serves as a frame – and recounts the story of Gilgamesh’s life. An anonymous narrator writes, ‘I will proclaim the deeds of Gilgamesh to the world. This narrative technique is not only a way to frame a narrative; it is a way for the narrator to introduce himself and welcome us to the endless present of telling the story. All is prologue when the third person omniscient reflective is used. All is past. The story continues by explaining itself; having returned from his journey, taking respite from his labors, Gilgamesh inscribes the story about to be told on a clay tablet. This suggests that what we’re reading is a transcription that repeats an oral telling that repeats a written tale. By using the frame the narrator intends to convince us of the story’s authenticity. By calling attention to the act of telling the narrator reminds us that the truth of the story might lie in the fact of its being a story – the undeniable fact of its own narration. The frame intends to blur the distinction between the world of the story, the world of Gilgamesh, and our own. One may not, as of yet, travel into the future: but a type of time travel is taking place as this unknown narrator begins his story. The long gone bricks rise again and reassemble and from a thousand years ago the voice begins the tale:
“Look at it now, today and still, a threshold ancient; touch it; climb the wall of Uruk and walk upon it. Regard the foundation terrace and masonry. Is it not a color of burnt brick? Is it not good? The seven sages laid these foundations.”
The narrator literally builds the story brick by brick and in our minds the walls of Uruk, a city having faded into dust, rises in its prime, in its glory in our minds; as Baghdad in a bottle-the Arabian Nights-Uruk becomes immortal, a familiar setting for philologists and cultural anthropologists and linguists, living forever as the word. This is a kind of magic, as all good books are, creating fantastical situations in exotic locales with danger and excitement and the bravado of a God-king at the dawn of human history. Two-thirds God, and this is key to all that follows, Gilgamesh is a classical hero – more beautiful and courageous and more terrifying than us all and yet his desires, attributes, his accomplishments epitomize our own. And yet he is mortal; he must watch others die and someday die himself. How much more can a God-king rage against death than the rest of us, purely mortal? Reading Gilgamesh allows us to celebrate being human, being mortal, having brief lives.
The hero’s failed attempt at finding immortality, ironically, as it is to be forever alive in the dreampool of readers the world over, has thereby attained what he died without finding. How much then should a god-king rage against mortality than we merely mortals? It is in impermanence that importance is most beautifully assigned. What joy would there be in a magnificent meal if no effort was require to attain it and it never ended? The reconciliation of past and present is always present in the work;
Gilgamesh is a tyrant without restraint. He has no compassion for the people of Uruk, a king but not a shepherd. He kills his subject’s sons and rapes their daughters. Hearing the people’s lament, the gods create Enkidu; he is to be a match for
Gilgamesh, a second ‘self.’
“Let them fight and leave Uruk at peace.”
The plan works in many ways. First Gilgamesh is prevented from entering to home of a bride and bridegroom. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight at first yet become friends. Second, they journey into the forest to face the terrible Humbaba. There they encourage each other to face death without fear, triumphantly.
“All living creatures born of flesh shall at last in the last boat of the west.. When it
“All living creatures born of flesh shall sit at last in the boat of the west. When it sinks the boat of Magilum sinks they are gone; but we shall advance and fix our eyes on this monster.” It must be noted, to ancient cultures the West, or Western Lands, was equal to death, where one went when one died. And although eternal life is not to be found, he understands the power of story, the immortality of character, legacy, and meaning. “I will go to the country where the cedar is felled,” he tells Enkidu. “I will put my name in the place where the name of famous men are written.” Then Gilgamesh turns away from selfishness and small desires and aspires to loftier goals, goals to benefit Uruk.
His duty to Uruk can be seen from the prologue; the very first sentence testifies to the immortality of his name. The immortality of a name is less the ability to live forever than the inability to die. Gilgamesh learns the meaning of love and compassion, the meaning of loss, of growing older, and eventually accepts mortality. In following Gilgamesh, we are asked to not only take part in his adventures, but in his emotional growth and broader understanding of the world and his place in it, and through that better understand our own.