The biggest surprise, and most difficult for me to wrap head around, in this year’s Explorer Challenge was the poetry. I am not big on poetry and an earlier post on the mothership Darkcargo went into that when I found Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti.
So I spent three months pondering what I like, if anything, about poetry. Haikus? Too easy to interpret any way I want to. Ballads? Maybe…. but there’s usually too much silly prose going on fulfilling someone’s ego. Limericks? Are they naughty? If so, I might be interested.
Then I recalled my Beowulf phase. I became fascinated with the tale a few years ago. My library had a beautifully illustrated version that I absorbed. That was poetry. Epic poetry. Poetry in all it’s glory.
With that in mind, I decided to meet this year’s Explorer Challenge with Gilgamesh. My library rarely lets me down and had this lovely version by Stephen Mitchell. It had his take on this 4000+-year-old tale plus a snazzy introduction that talks about what we know historically and what we don’t.
I read the tale first. I didn’t want to be demystified by the intro. I set my virgin eyes upon this ancient Akkadian tale and it was incredible. You aren’t suppose to like Gilgamesh at first. He is a bully, a tyrant. He suppresses the men of Ur and mates with all the women. In fact, the Ancients weren’t shy about sexual behavior and were explicit in Gilgamesh’s ‘rights’ to the marriage bed as ruler. The people of Ur cry to the gods and they make a perfect friend for Gilgamesh; Enkidu. Enkidu was born to the wild, living with gazelles and grazing on grass. Gilgamesh sends an Ishtar priestess Shamhat to tame him.
In this tale, the feminine arts of love are revered and seen as a civilizing force. Through his extensive coupling with Shamhat, Enkidu’s awareness expands and he gains the power of human speech and manly ways. He is then introduced to Ur and Gilgamesh, where he challenges the king right off, like some young pup trying to prove his strength. What follows truly surprised me. In this wrestling match fit to entertain the gods, there is quite the homoerotic flavor. In the end, Gilgamesh overcomes Enkidu, who acknowledges his superiority, and they become the best of buds.
They have a few adventures together, defeat a few monsters. SPOILER ALERT Enkidu’s actions anger the gods and they take his life END SPOILER. Gilgamesh then goes on a search for everlasting life. Utnapishtim and his wife are the only mortals granted immortality by the gods, and it was due to their efforts during the great flood. Utnapishtim goes on at length about the flood and his floating warehouse of land-dwelling creatures. This is a pre-cursor to the Noah-flood tale. Utnapishtim’s secret to eternal life is simply the will of the gods. Gilgamesh can’t hunt, force, trap, trick, or bully that kind of gift from the gods.
The next paragraph is the end of Gilgamesh. Skip if you don’t want to know at this time.
While Utnapishtim can’t help Gilgamesh with his quest for eternal life, he does know of a plant that grants youth. You eat a bit of it, and your youth is restored. We don’t know any specifics, other than it dwells in the depths of the waters that separate Utnapishtim and his wife from the rest of humanity. Gilgamesh dives and comes back triumphant. Instead of nibbling some right away, he decides to take it all the way back to Ur and have an old man try it first. On his trek back home, he decides to bathe at a pool, setting aside the precious plant. It is eaten by a snake. Gilgamesh lives to be an old man and then dies and they write this crazy poem about him.
I really enjoyed this tale because 1) it is ancient and we will never understand everything about it; 2) the cultural norms then are quite different from now; 3) women and sex are seen as civilizing forces; 4) there’s day-to-day interactions with the gods, including throwing a bull’s leg at one of them; and 5) our hero is not a hero to begin with, but has to grow into one.
So, with all this crazy coolness going on in this poem, why hasn’t it been made into a movie?