Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Week 01, Course Intro, Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh Notes

Prologue and Part 1

As with the Greeks, a certain kind of wildness or violence is proper to men. Early on, Gilgamesh is unrestrained in his violence and does not show proper respect to his people. He doesn’t understand that he is supposed to be a shepherd, not a wolf. Enkidu is “wild” and strong, but I don’t get the sense that he was violent before he became “a man” after sleeping with the temple prostitute -- a violation of the separation between human and animal. He ran and ate grass with the herd animals, the gazelles, and foiled human attempts to kill these peaceful animals. He is also given womanly attributes -- the metaphor of a marriage bond between him and Gilgamesh should come into play. When Enkidu sleeps with the temple prostitute, he becomes like Gilgamesh, a challenger to the state’s orderliness. He becomes estranged from the animals, who reject him. This rejection stems from the animals’ perception of his interest in humans, and from the fact that he now knows “the woman’s art.” As for Gilgamesh’s bond with Enkidu, it’s a case of like taming like. The strong must consort with the strong, or else they will turn on the weak. To become a man is to become violent, and violence must be both recognized and restrained, limited to proper boundaries. The story demands that human and animal be kept at enmity – Gilgamesh’s pity for the “snared bird” can’t be encouraged – but this may betray equally strong anxiety about the boundaries; they are maintained at great cost. Being human is an exhausting task.

Part 2. The Journey of the Forest.

Gilgamesh says on 17 that destiny leads him to stamp his name on bricks; he will raise a monument to the gods after cutting down the evil in the land, Humbaba, who is identified with the wild mountain and woods that Gilgamesh and Enkidu must enter.

Enkidu at times counsels turning back, and at a critical point Gilgamesh weakens. Is he confronting the threat of meaninglessness, something like an ancient sense of nihilism? That would contrast with what one author has called the “ego” as a material force that must be connected with others beyond the individual. He counters Asian philosophy’s tendency to focus on “self-annihilation” with African rootedness in the material (but not mere materialism).

What is the reward for killing Humbaba? Is this a primal struggle with nature, in which humanity must assert its powers? Is it a confrontation with death? Or with some of the gods – Enlil in particular? We might relate the reward to the fate Enlil has decreed – Gilgamesh is of the dying generations of men, but he has the power of darkness and light. So perhaps going to the forest is confronting the dark side of the gods and of human destiny. Gilgamesh fells the seven sacred cedars and will build with them a temple in Uruk. We might suppose that this journey, aside from asserting the power of human effort, is about reestablishing divine order in the face of a menace – but of course the gods themselves aren’t exactly in agreement. Shamash helps the heroes, but Enlil becomes enraged, even though it seems he’s the one who told them to kill Humbaba.


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