The Philosophy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, 3: The Conquest of Nature and the “Plant of Life”

This essay is abstracted from my lectures on the Epic of Gilgamesh, an audio recording is available below through the YT video:

 

The episode of Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying Humbaba is one of the more memorable (if not the most memorable) story contained in the epic.  It is also a story that any student of myth knows: The hero venturing away from home into a mysterious and dangerous foreign land where a beast or monster presides that he most overcome in order to complete the quest.  Humbaba is the “dragon” archetype of the medieval-esque fantasy.  Or, more straightforwardly, Humbaba is the classical monster archetype of any mythological fantasy. But what does Humbaba represent and why must man kill this guardian of the forest?

3.1 Humbaba as the Predatory Beast (of Nature)

Most commentaries over Humbaba are now grounded in evolutionary thought.  During the beginning of mankind’s evolution to modern homo sapiens animals, nature, and the forest, were exceedingly dangerous to primordial man.  Animals were, literally, “monsters” to our early hominid ancestors.  It is only after the Neolithic revolution that man begins to “tame” nature or “conquer” nature and domesticate animals for their self-use and gain.

Humbaba is described in most English translations as an “ogre,” and while Humbaba is not well-described in the Epic of Gilgamesh additional Sumerian stories and iconography highlights him as a composite beast of natural animals who would have been predatory animals in early human history.  His face is generally depicted as being that of a lion—a large cat of prey.  His scaly body is reminiscent of that of a snake, a reptile of prey and a reptile that was extremely dangerous to humans (and snakes remain dangerous to humans).  His feet are depicted as being that of a bird of prey, and there is plenty of fossil evidence that large predatory birds did attack humans.  Legends of man-eating birds are likely the manifestation of predatory bird attacks.  While most dangerous to children the claws or talons of large birds of prey can be deadly to adult humans.  (And if his claws are reminiscent of a vulture this makes sense given that human encounters with vultures would have likely been seeing these birds of prey consuming the rotting carcasses of humans and, not knowing that the vulture is a scavenger, assumed that vultures had killed the human being consumed.)

Thus, we begin to see the portrait of Humbaba as a composite of some of the deadliest early predatory animals that humans would have encountered prior to the formation of civilization is the most important thing to understand about the battle between Gilgamesh (man) and the monster Humbaba (nature).  Thus, Humbaba represents predatory and dangerous nature.  In fact, Gilgamesh is constantly frightened about the prospects of fighting the monster.  He needs Enkidu to journey with him.  He needs Enkidu to assuage his nightmares.  He needs to forge tools and other weapons to defeat the monster.  His soldiers, before leaving, tell him not to rely on his physical strength but to rely on his tools to defeat the monster.

3.2 Gilgamesh vs. Humbaba, Man’s Triumph over Nature

The battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba is the story of man’s triumph over nature.  Gilgamesh is Neolithic man armed with tools and cunning.  Humbaba is the ancient guardian of the natural world, a composite monster of predatory beasts that were once a threat to humans but who is now threatened by the new man and his tools.  The tide has turned against nature, as it were, as man is now able to work with other men with tools to conquer nature.  Francis Bacon would have certainly approved of this episode had he lived to know of the discovery of the poem.

But Gilgamesh’s triumph over Humbaba isn’t his own doing.  As mentioned already, he needs Enkidu (others) and weapons (tools) to defeat him.  In other words, man cannot conquer nature alone.  It is too difficult and too time consuming even with the advances made in the Neolithic revolution.

The slaying of Humbaba is necessary for man to begin to fell the forest and use the timber for his own purposes.  Symbolically this represents man’s defeat of animal life as he drives them away from their homes to fell the cedar wood he needs to construct the mighty and impressive cities that are springing up across the Fertile Crescent.  After all, what happens after killing Humbaba?  Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceed to chop down cedar trees and celebrate their achievement.  Having slayed the predatory beasts that once preyed of men, and having slayed these guardians that prevent man from entering the forests and felling the timber needed to construct cities and towns, man is subsequently able to build his monuments and cities and farms to sustain his new way of life.

For conservationists and environmentalists, or for those with an Augustinian understanding of man’s libido—which Augustine argued was also directed at the creation following the Fall of Man—the story of the death of Humbaba is certainly a tragic one.  Humbaba is the guardian of forest because, as predatory beast, he prevents man from entering the forest and bringing back the goods necessary for urban life.  But once the guardian is defeated man can roam the forests freely and fell as many trees and bring back as many smaller and non-dangerous animals back for food.  The killing of Humbaba represents man’s conquest and subsequent domination of nature through the use of tools—for how is Humbaba killed?  By the tools (or weapons) that Gilgamesh and Enkidu forged for themselves before embarking on the journey to the Cedar Forest.

3.3 “The Plant of Life”

I am skipping over commentary over Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven for some sake of brevity.  That said, I should mention the obvious with Ishtar as the prototypical femme fatale.  Where Shamhat is sexuality ordered to civilization, Ishtar is sexuality unleashed in service only to the self.  It is her desires and wants that motivate her and nothing else; she is cut-off from her other lovers who all died, something that Gilgamesh remarks in refusing her advances.  Moreover, in the rejection of her wanton advancements she unleashes the bull of heaven, chaos and destruction, subsequently befall Uruk until this incident is tamed.  The obvious reading of Ishtar is that of femme fatale, opposite of Shamhat, and sexually licentious; her sexual licentiousness leading to chaos and death.

The second half of the work deals with Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality and the “plant of life.”  That Gilgamesh searches for a plant is reflective of the agrarian nature of ancient Near East civilization.  The Sumerians were urban people.  The civilization of the Sumerians was centered on the city.  But the city was sustained by agriculture.

Dialectical dynamism between cities and countryside, urban and rural, are well documented and well-discussed in philosophy and political philosophy.  That dialectical dynamic is absent in the Epic of Gilgamesh.  In place of it is the overwhelming Neolithic overtures, especially as we examined the nature of the confrontation and killing of Humbaba within the story.  The “plant of life” is no different.

Evolutionarily, man was a wandering forager who suffered extensive atrophy of first born males and members of the tribe more generally.  It is thought that up to 30% of first born males died off defending the tribe from attacks from other tribes and attacks from wildlife as man slowly transformed from wandering savage to settled civilizer.  With the newfound way of life that came with the agricultural revolution man, aware of mortality at this time, would have likely thought that there might have been a plant, or seed, of life that could now be used to sustain them.

Agricultural imagery associated with life is widespread in ancient literature.  Genesis has a tree of life planted in the Garden of Eden.  Gilgamesh searches for the “plant of life” that holds the seed of immortality.  Zoroastrian literature also invokes a tree of life.  Taoism asserted that there was a “peach of immortality.”  In short, agrarian society and its literature is ripe, pardon the pun, with imagery of a plant, fruit, or tree of life.  This is because as man settled and began to farm, with relative peace and security around him rather than weariness and strife as before, he began to think that the fruit or organic growth he planted to consume could possibly sustain him indefinitely.

Consider how the conquest of nature coincides with the Neolithic revolution and the use of tools which lead to man’s subjugation and domination of the natural world.  No longer the victim, man is the victimizer, so to speak.  In killing Humbaba, a turning point in the story where Gilgamesh begins to take on the role of a more pristine king, Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceed cut down the trees for the use of timber back home.

With this newfound power, and newfound settlement, man would have looked to plant life, agrarian sustenance, for his health.  Finally freed from being a victim of nature, or so man thinks, he begins to look to nature as that which can also bring about his salvation.  Sustain him.  Give him life.  Nourish him.  Thus, it is unsurprising that—with human life now bound up with agriculture and plant-life, that man would seek immortality in the form of a plant.

Of course, the quest for immortality fails.  Gilgamesh does not return with a plant of life and must accept the reality of death.  In the standard tablet a snake eats the plant and sheds its skin.  This reflective the superstitious belief of ancient peoples that snakes lived forever (naturally) unless killed.  The evidence they saw for this was the fact that snakes shed their skins—thus regenerating instead of growing old and dying.  But the role of the plant of life should be obvious enough, especially with its relationship to the broader Neolithic revolution which the Epic of Gilgamesh is situated in.

Conclusion

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of human literature.  Much of the work has been reconstituted from surviving fragments found in Turkey and Iraq.  The story remains fragmented as a result.  While many may brush aside the epic as “fairy tale” we can, hopefully, see many deep truths contained in the nature of the work.  Many of the themes of the story are themes that would eventually be more specifically explained with the rise of philosophy.

There are several claims contained in the work that are worth deep reflection on.  The first is the role of sex and eating in civilization.  The epic makes clear that sex and eating are prerequisites for civilization.  Aristotle would later comment about the role of sex and eating as reflective of man’s civilized greatness or animalized barbarism in Politics.  The second is the role of women (represented by Shamhat) in this process; those feminists get uneasy about the role of Shamhat in the work she is nevertheless portrayed, from the conservative anthropological disposition, as one of the heroes of the work.  She controlled the destiny of Enkidu and turned him from an animal into a man.  Third is the deeply social and intimate nature of society and friendship and how man benefits from having such personal and intimate relationships.

Next there are several historical features of the story that are worth reflecting upon.  What is the role of Humbaba in the story?  Accepting evolution as basic fact, and knowing about the bloodbath that was evolution, Humbaba’s composite nature of lion, snake, and eagle is a clear harkening back to when predatory animals were a dangerous threat to man’s life.  The killing of Humbaba represents man’s triumph over nature through use of tools and cunning—the Neolithic revolution; and the Neolithic revolution should be in the mind of all readers of the epic given that the work would have been composed at the end of the Neolithic transformation in the late third millennium B.C.  Another historical feature worth reflecting on is why the search for immortality revolves around a “plant of life.”

Far from being a “fairy tale” the Epic of Gilgamesh is a timeless classic.  It is the work of ancient men to be sure.  But contained within its poetry are deep reflections upon human nature and the human condition and experience.  Furthermore, it is a glimpse into the past now lost but recoverable by those who read the work and understand it as more than just a fanciful and make-believe story.

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