Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Week 02, Gilgamesh, Egyptian Poetry

Notes on The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Prologue and Part 1 (12-17).

As with the Greeks, a certain kind of wildness or violence is proper to human beings. 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 comes 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 upon 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, which are maintained at great cost. Being human is an exhausting task.

Part 2. The Journey of the Forest (17-24).

Gilgamesh says on page 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. These mountains and woods are apparently the place where the gods dwell.

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 belongs to the dying generations of men, but he wields the power of darkness and light. So perhaps going to the forest amounts to 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.

Part 3. Ishtar and Gilgamesh, and the Death of Enkidu (24-30).

Ishtar becomes enamored of Gilgamesh, but he scorns her and announces his distrust—she’s had a succession of unfortunate lovers, so why should he be added to the list? She unleashes the Bull of Heaven, which Enkidu promptly kills. She then vents her outrage to the other gods, and, in spite of Shamash’s objections, Anu declares that one of the two heroes must die. When Enkidu is stricken with a wasting illness, he reveals to Gilgamesh his dream about the Underworld, presided over by Queen Ereshkigal. The earth’s great kings are mere servants here. Even the greatest of human beings mean little to the gods, it would seem. Ancient literature seems full of such implications—as when, in Indian lore, a self-important Indra is humbled by a vision of infinitely many Indras marching as a long file of insects. The metaphysical layers of the cosmos—its infinity and transcendence of ordinary time—annihilate all human pretensions.

Sometimes even the gods are dwarfed by infinity and cosmic cycles. Well, Enkidu’s vision is a sad one—perhaps the best humans can hope for is this kind of melancholy insight. Is it better to know, or not to know? It’s better to know, if only because failing to take the insight that is given amounts to cowardice: “We must treasure the dream whatever the terror.” Gilgamesh still needs to learn how to take the ultimate knowledge afforded by Enkidu’s dream of the Underworld. He mourns for a space, and then goes searching for life everlasting. He fears death, and will confront his fear. The pattern that emerges from Gilgamesh is that humans will be compelled to ask grand questions to which the answers will always be disturbing rather than comforting. The strength and honesty with which people bear the weight of this gloomy insight goes a long way towards establishing their value.

Part 4. The Search for Everlasting Life (30-35).

Gilgamesh goes to the Scorpion-Guardian of the Mashu Mountains, who opens the mountain gate for him. In the Garden of the Gods, Shamash and then Siduri the winemaking goddess with her golden bowl tell Gilgamesh he’s on a fool’s errand, but the hero declares he will look straight at the sun, and confront death itself. On 32-33, Siduri’s advice is simply to enjoy the “good things that lie at hand” (to borrow a stock phrase from Homer’s Odyssey); to revel in his physical being and in whatever transient pleasures mortal life offers.

Still, Siduri directs Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim’s ferryman Urshanabi, who will convey him across “the waters of death.” Gilgamesh damages the boat’s tackle and destroys the sacred stones, thus sacrificing his own and Urshanabi’s safety. But the journey will be made, and apparently by Urshanabi’s “pole-vaulting” stratagem, Gilgamesh (now alone) reaches Utnapishtim “in Dilmun at the place of the sun’s transit.” This sage is the only man the gods have made immortal. And what does he say? Well, for the moment, only that “there is no permanence.” All human distinctions come to nothing when, at last and never quite certain what is going to happen, we arrive at our end. Well, as Hamlet says, “Alexander dead and turned to clay, would stop a hole to keep the wind away.” Still, these ancient cultures and texts are remarkably concerned with matters of rank. There are a few rulers and high lords, and everybody else is a slave or a commoner. We may be tempted to invoke Freud: isn’t the emphasis on hierarchy an attempt to overcome the primal threat of nothingness, of meaninglessness, ennui, that strong countercurrent to heroic action and civilization-building?

Part 5. The Story of the Flood (35-38).

Utnapishtim agrees to tell Gilgamesh how his immortality came to be granted. It seems that the gods, spurred on by Enlil, decreed the extermination of the teeming, noisy human race. These gods hardly found it acceptable that humanity’s din and activity should set up against them a rival order. The great Flood is not, therefore, a punishment for humanity’s wickedness; instead, Enlil is simply upset about all the noise and files a celestial noise complaint! Ea saves Utnapishtim of Surrupak because of an oath he must keep, and so Utnapishtim rides out the flood on the boat he has built for himself and his fellow citizens, along with many wild and tame animals. As many scholars have noted, the story strongly resembles the one in the Bible about Noah and his Ark. Ishtar the Queen of Heaven relents, and the flood recedes at last. Ishtar gives Utnapishtim a gift of jewels, and Ea rebukes the raging Enlil, who promptly bestows upon Utnapishtim immortality. He and his wife will dwell “at the mouth of the rivers.” So in the end, Utnapishtim rides out the flood, Ishtar repents, and he is granted eternal life. But he’s not a happy man. He has what he and all others have sought, but it doesn’t comfort him, and his wisdom doesn’t comfort us, either.

Parts 6-7. The Return, The Death of Gilgamesh (38-41).

The thing I find most interesting about the Epic of Gilgamesh is its unrelenting rejection of the “happiness principle,” as we post-Utilitarians would call it. Utnapishtim gets the last word—there is nothing permanent for human beings, and that seems to be the wisdom he imparts to Gilgamesh, who has sought him out to learn about death, his greatest fear after the passing of Enkidu. The idea that Gilgamesh actually grasped in his hand not immortality but at least youth, and then lost it, is almost a cruel joke on the part of the narrator’s gods—even this hero (himself partly divine) gets no more than a tantalizing touch of what lies beyond humanity.

At least, that’s the way it is in our version of the story. The destiny decreed by Enlil is cited at the end of the epic: it emphasizes the need to be fair to one’s subjects. Gilgamesh has no cause for despair—he has been given “power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind.” That is, the partly divine, partly mortal hero has been given a chance to participate in wielding the gods’ ultimate power. His fame will be carved in stone. Perhaps that hardly amounts to what we might demand today—personal immortality, or at least a measure of satisfaction. In a sense, the power granted by the gods is the power to participate against oneself, against one’s own species—after all, the gods may swear that earthly kings should be fair with their inferiors, but they themselves deal as they wish with human beings.

Notes on Egyptian Poetry

Pharaoh Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun.”

I treat these poems in a general, philosophical way since we are dealing with relatively loose translations—it couldn’t be otherwise when the original consists of hieroglyphic writing. The movement and precision of the original surely can’t be rendered into modern English without loss since languages are not mere aggregations of words with dictionary-style meanings, and you can’t always find an exact equivalent in a second language for a word from the first. Cultural practices differ, customs and concepts change over time, words pick up new meanings and lose old ones, and so forth.

In Akhenaten’s monotheistic-tending “Hymn to the Sun,” everything is attuned to sun, given sparkle (eye-light), purpose. The King wants to be like a concentrated beam, to epitomize purposiveness. He is the reflective consciousness of his people, embracing all things of the eye and mind, and is most worthy to rule because he is most cognizant of the order that the Sun God bestows. Throughout the hymn there are metaphors of reflection and light, mirroring, etc. Such metaphors both capture the creation’s diversity and speak to the Pharaoh’s role as described above. Order in the cosmos coincides with great diversity, and there is no contradiction. This poetry celebrates the beauty of the cosmos: Akhenaten affines himself to the Sun God by mentioning as much as he can of what is harmonized in nature under the Sun. As Hopkins’ poem says, “glory be to God for dappled things . . . . He fathers forth whose beauty is past change: praise him.”

Polytheism seems to be based on amplification: if you want to build up a view of how the world is, you look around at natural processes, the sky, the growing of crops, etc., and that’s how you envision what the gods must be like. You construe the divine realm as an amplified imitation of human and natural goings-on. You then relate to this amplified realm and treat is as a cause. This “method” has its virtues in that it can process apparent chaos by doing something other than simply asserting order where there seems to be none. The gods are sometimes crazy, and so is the world. So be it; we can pay homage to the divine without claiming that everything “makes sense.” This attitude probably kept ancient people open to the natural world and to the gods, but at the same time it must have left them open to the disillusionment proper to such an outlook: after all, we are capable of conceiving of a universe that actually makes sense, or one that would make sense. So the real thing is bound to suffer by comparison to the ideal. What I’m asserting is that most likely, there’s always at least (by negation or “hinting”) some sense of a transcendent ideal of order, even in a culture that characterizes the gods as powerful children who do as they please (like the Sumerian/Babylonian gods, or the Olympians). So I may seek a better answer than one my religion gives me, and become alienated and disillusioned.

Monotheism, of the modern sort that posits a distant, inscrutable Jehovah, or an ancient variety like that of Akhenaten’s worship of a sun that blesses us physically with its wonderful beams, posits a higher principle of absolute intelligibility, one towards which we can at least strive. Monotheism tends to draw people beyond themselves and become something more than what they are, to affine themselves with divine excellence. So it’s a vehicle of spiritual progress that may allow people to become capable of things they previously couldn’t have conceived of accomplishing.

The Leiden Hymns

The Leiden poems are also striking—Horus the Sun-God isn’t the only god, but he’s the source of the other gods and brings order to the pantheon. Interesting here, as the editors suggest, is the way the speakers try to “express the inexpressible” with respect to time, space, and spirit. The Sun is like an unblinking pair of eyes (one eye is the moon, and the other is the sun) that always keeps all things in view, though mortals sleep. That quality seems to be important to the speaker—humans live and die, fading in and out of consciousness, but the great God never sleeps. The poet employs the strategy of incarnation and anthropomorphization without confining himself or the Sun-God to the bodily contours thereby delimited. At some point—and here I would suggest that point is set forth quickly and frankly—religious language must bear witness to its own inadequacy or, perhaps a better phrase, its ultimate incommensurateness with what it tries to express. There’s no discomfort on this score, so far as I can see, in these Egyptian hymns. The Hebrew scriptures portray Yahweh more circumspectly—burning bushes, and so forth. It isn’t as if in the Bible you’re going to get an image of a huge man with one eye as the moon and the other as the sun. The Hebrew God is inscrutable both in shape and, for the most part, in thought. The Leiden Hymns, by contrast, are cheerful in the face of the need to express what can’t be fully visualized or expressed in any medium. “The Mind of God is Perfect Knowing” is a good example of this attitude. All things turn instinctively towards the sun as their source, and the act of turning is proof enough of its powers.

Love Poems.

The love poems are full of appropriate reserve—though not about sex or expression of sexual feelings. This is not a shame culture like Christianity. Rather, the reserve comes from the sense that one might not be accepted or that the lover might not be able to convey his or her passion in the right way. Good lyric poetry never comes across as smug regarding the inherent power of expression; it is never really sure that “conveying emotion” is a simple task or that language is up to it. Even so, the possibility that words may or must fail us at some point doesn’t necessarily enjoin despair—that’s an issue Wordsworth addresses straightforwardly in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” when he points out that even if the romantic poet were to be thought a translator of his or her own feelings and thoughts, the task of poetry is to reawaken the immediate pleasure in us that in turn reminds us of our common humanity. If a “translation” can do that, so be it. The Egyptian poems we are reading, of course, make no such theoretical statements—they simply adopt a frank and sometimes sunny attitude towards the relationship between language and love.


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