Literature Mythology Philosophy

Understanding The Epic of Gilgamesh: History, Philosophy, Evolution

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest work of extant literature in the world.  The text was discovered in the nineteenth century and patched together into a working piece of literature and is a foundational read in any mythology or ancient Near East class.  It is also an ancient tale we are all familiar with: The heroic warrior who defeats a monster, loses his companion, and reaches the end of the journey—only to have his prize remain elusive.  Beyond being a thrilling read and a prism into a world seemingly very distant from our own, are there any deep truths or meanings behind the text?

I wish to examine several key features of the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The first feature is Gilgamesh as the Hero archetype.  Second is the relational aspect of Enkidu and what the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu tells us about the human condition.  The third feature is the giant/monster archetype in the creature Humbaba and why he resides in the Cedar Forest.  Lastly, I wish to examine the issue of a “plant of life” and what it represents in the broader context of the Neolithic revolution.

I. Gilgamesh as the Hero-King, Founder of Civilization

The main character of the Epic of Gilgamesh is its titular protagonist.  Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk; and most scholars agree that there was a historical Gilgamesh who ruled in the early third millennium B.C.  Gilgamesh is the literary embodiment of the “Hero” archetype of Hegelian anthropology.

The opening lines of the epic give paeans to Gilgamesh.  It recounts the story of Gilgamesh having seen “the Deep,” wandering the lands, and founding the great city that the people of Uruk now occupy.  This is the prototypical praise of the founding father who is worshipped as a semi-divine being; “two-thirds god” and “one-third man.”  According to Hegel the founder of civilization is conceived as a deity with his successors (or heirs) being the “divine-king” or “divine-emperor” who, over time, loses his divine status as the democratization of society commences.  Regardless, Gilgamesh is certainly cast as the heroic god-king in the opening lines of the poem, a testament to the reality of the divine hero archetype in ancient mytho-poetic literature.

Moreover, he is the great king, the greatest king, the king that “no later king could ever copy” and “surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature.”

Gilgamesh serves as the secular deity and father of the people of Uruk.  This is partly due to the nature of Sumerian anthropology and religion which was, in comparison to Christianity, very bleak.  Men were created as the toiling slaves of the gods.  The “puppets of the gods,” to borrow a phrase from the Greeks.  The gods crafted man and decreed their fates—there is nothing man can do about this (as Gilgamesh will find out by the end of the epic).  While the Sumerians were deeply religious, and the Sumerian city and social life was organized around the temple cults and religious festivals—as Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer and Henri Frankfort detail in their works on ancient Mesopotamian society—the worship of Gilgamesh as father figure represents the origin story of the Sumerian people, who give praise to a man rather than to the gods for it is a man, not the gods, who have brought them civilization and liberty.  This is no different, in some respects than King Arthur or George Washington as fathers of their countries.

This issue of Gilgamesh as father king is an issue of fatherhood.  People come into being by genealogy and trace genealogy as their roots.  Nations have their fathers, just as children have their fathers.

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel notes that the “Hero” archetype is the founding father of states, thus the founding father of particular societies.  Gilgamesh, whether he was the first king or not, is remembered as that hero founding father of the state of Uruk.  Thus, the people of Uruk praise him and credit him for their life and prosperity.  Hegel also asserted that these heroes achieve immortality through their divinization by the successive tribe which they brought to settlement.  Gilgamesh, again, checks that credential off the list as the settlement of Uruk, commenced by him, is his enduring and immortal legacy which is what the people remember him for.

While the opening of the poem gives praise to Gilgamesh, the rest of the story—which chronologically begins with the creation of Enkidu to rival Gilgamesh—casts Gilgamesh in a sort of “coming of age” light.  While the opening stanzas depict Gilgamesh, the wanderer having become the judge king whom settles disputes and maintains the rule of law while winning the praise of his fellow citizens, in praise, the Gilgamesh of the story—as it unfolds—is not always depicted in the most favorable of lights.

For one he is frightened by the prospects of journeying and confronting Humbaba in the Cedar Forest.  He has an existential dread of death after Enkidu dies.  He is excoriated by the wise-man Uta-napishtim for abandoning his people and the duties that fall to a man and to a king, also mocking him for dressing like a wild-man when in lion’s garb.  Gilgamesh weeps like an immature child when the snake eats the plant of life.  There are plenty of moments where Gilgamesh comes across as an immature and frightened boy—but given that the epic is, in many ways, a coming of age tale of the great king, it makes Gilgamesh’s transformation into that great king more laudable.

The poem ends with Gilgamesh telling the ferryman of the walls and city he has helped to build, the very city whose foundation is praised in the opening stanza.  Thus, the epic ends where it started.  Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality failed, so in place of bodily immortality he leaves his legacy through a monument; the very city of Uruk which gives life to people.

In this sense Gilgamesh did achieve what Uta-napishtim achieved in creating the great boat that survived the Deluge earning him eternal life from the gods.  In accepting the reality of death Gilgamesh establishes the foundation for life in the walls of Uruk.  For when Gilgamesh fretted over death he became an animalized man, reminiscent of Enkidu, journeying out in the wild and wearing lion’s skin.  He had abandoned the duties of a man and a king, the duties to home, family, inheritance, and country, “Ever do we build our households, ever do we make our nests, ever do brothers divide their inheritance, ever do feuds arise in the land.”  And it is precisely because Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, builds up the city, passes it on to his people who trust him to rule over them and look after them, that he achieves “immortality” and ensures life continues for his people.

The hero who founds the state, civilization, according to Hegel, is the individual who acts with the common good in mind and ensures—through his actions—the settlement and continuity of his peoples.  Part of the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh is Gilgamesh’s adventures and quest for immortal life.  Another part of the story is Gilgamesh’s obvious role as the hero founder of Uruk memorialized through the epic itself.  In founding Uruk Gilgamesh is a divine father, giving life to his children, the citizens of Uruk, who commemorate him because of his heroic actions which they are now the beneficiaries of.  Thus, Gilgamesh is the god-king, “God the Father,” so to speak, who has created the world of life and liberty which humans can now fruitfully enjoy without fear and dread.

Moreover, the praise of Gilgamesh is reflective of the anthropological insight of man as a cultural animal—an animal of praise.  Man seeks praise and wants to give praise when he has an appreciation of life.  In appreciating the lives they now enjoy, the people of Uruk give praise to Gilgamesh.  And the praise Gilgamesh receives is the immorality he wins for bestowing life, civilization, and culture, to the people.

While Gilgamesh is the titular protagonist, perhaps the most memorable character of the Epic of Gilgamesh is Enkidu, the wild-man created by the god Aruru to rival and challenge Gilgamesh but who befriends Gilgamesh and whose death causes Gilgamesh existential dread over mortality.  Enkidu is also the most interesting figure to examine from a purely mythological perspective.  While Gilgamesh is considered to have been a historical person, scholars are divided as to whether Enkidu would have been a historical councilor to the king or not.  Regardless, the many symbolic themes that carry with the character of Enkidu is what concerns us.

2.1 Enkidu as the “Wild Man” or “Savage Man”

Enkidu is created by the gods to challenge Gilgamesh and his arrogance.  In principle, the gods are terrified of what Gilgamesh is becoming and what he might do to them through his power and the adoration he receives from his people.  Because Gilgamesh is strong (and handsome), the gods create Enkidu who rivals Gilgamesh in strength but lacks his beauty and cultivated manners.  This is because Enkidu represents primordial man—the hairy, disheveled, animalistic brute who doesn’t have reason and lives like the animals, that is, purely on his bodily desires and instincts.  He is like the great ape of years before, a man who is yet a man, a man who is more animalistic than civilized and refined.

Even after entering Uruk, Enkidu does not know how to eat, drink, or properly dress himself—the hallmarks of civilized and urban living.  Enkidu, as many Assyriologists point out, likely represents the homogenized composite of the “man outside the walls,” the “barbarian” whose speech doesn’t make sense, whose way of life (with the animals) seems shocking and unbefitting of a man, but who seeks out the civilized life offered by the Neolithic revolution.  This fact cannot be lost on readers of the epic.  We are reading the oldest work of literature thus far recovered in human history.  It is written, if dating is correct, in the mid-2300s B.C.  While well after the Neolithic revolution, evolutionarily speaking it is not that far removed from when Neolithic man settled the dust and began to raise crops and domesticate animals for his well-being and livelihood.

The Neolithic revolution marked a major turning point in human history.  No longer the wandering brutes of the past, man became a civilized, rational thinking, law-abiding, nature conquering, being.  Man was, in the terminology of Hannah Arendt, homo faber.  All of these themes are present in the Epic of Gilgamesh and all are contained in the person of Enkidu.

When he is first introduced “he knows not a people, nor even a country.”  He is an unsettled savage.  He is alone, a wanderer, a brute who does not possess reason.  He is described like an animal, un-groomed hair and beastly in attitude and power.  It is only after his taming and settling in Uruk that he becomes a man—especially in the Aristotelian sense: a rational and social (or political) animal.  Prior to his arrival in Uruk Enkidu is an irrational animal and an a-social (solitary) animal.  The bumbling, stumbling, brutish beast that Enkidu is before his encounter with Shamhat and arrival in Uruk is the primordial man before the Neolithic revolution.  And as some men founded cities, those who did not were intrigued by the towering walls and houses that began to dot the landscape and they inquisitively wanted to know about the city—thus the “birth of reason” in man.

Rationality is what the ancient philosophers, Greek, Roman, and Christian, considered to be the distinctive feature of man as the rational animal.  Where animals simply followed their instincts and desires, man has the capacity of mastering his instincts and desires and ordering them, through reason, to more productive and civilized ends.  As Aristotle said in Politics, civilized man can be known by how he eats and has sex.  Re-read the first two tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh very carefully; Enkidu’s turn to civilization is based on sex and eating.  In the words of John Milton, in Paradise Lost, “Yet not so strictly hath our Lord imposed / Labour, as to debar us when we need / Refreshment, whether food, or talk between, / Food of the mind, or this sweet intercourse, / Of looks and smiles; for smiles from reason flow, / To brute denied, and are of love the food, / Love, not the lowest end of human life.”  Man, unlike animal, can appreciate the sweetness of life, sex, and food; as Dante said in Purgatorio, “The soul, which is created quick to love, responds to everything that pleases, just as soon as beauty wakens it to act.”

Enkidu is, at first, the wild man—primordial man—who follows his animalistic instincts.  Animal man is the antithesis to civilized man.  This is why the gods created Enkidu to rival civilized Gilgamesh.  Animal man in his brutality, pure desire, and irrationality, threatens everything that rational and civilized man has constructed: order, social function, and the taming of his animalistic impulses and directed to spouse, family, and country.  Thus, this is what Enkidu must “lose” before being civilized: his brutality, his animalism, and his uncontrollable desire as he roams aimlessly like the gazelles simply feeding his desires and moving on to another location to do the same.

2.2 Enkidu and Shamhat: Sex, Food, Marriage, and Civilization

Shamhat is the tertiary protagonist in the story and the most important woman in the story.  She is a sacred harlot, a sex priestess, which was an important position in ancient Mesopotamian society.  While the Greek historian Herodotus deplored the practice of “sacred sex” in the fertility cults, Shamhat serves a very important role in the story—she is the individual who civilizes Enkidu, teaches him the sacred meaning of sex and family, teaches him how to eat and dress, and inducts Enkidu into social life.  (It is interesting to highlight how Enkidu, created by the fertility goddess Aruru, is civilized through the sexual act.)

Where Enkidu is solitary, Uruk is social; where Enkidu is an animal, the citizens of Uruk are civilized, where Enkidu doesn’t know how to eat “like a person,” instead foraging like the animals, the people of Uruk have table manners, cooked food, and appropriate dress.  “For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.”  Those fateful words from Aristotle accurately summarize the dialectical contrast between Enkidu the wild-man, and Enkidu the civilized man after his encounter with Shamhat.

When the hunter tasked with finding Enkidu discovers him, having brought Shamhat along, he informs her, “This is he, Shamhat! Uncradle your bosom, bare your sex, let him take in your charms!  Do not recoil, but take in his scent: he will see you, and will approach you.  Spread your clothing so he may lie on you, do for the man the work of a woman!  Let his passions caress and embrace you, his herd will spurn him, though he grew up amongst it.”

The encounter of Enkidu with Shamhat has been one of the most discussed parts of the epic.  Feminists, naturally, have despised it for its patriarchal and demeaning language and dialectic.  Anthropologists and philosophers, by contrast, have generally seen the tremendous symbolism entailed in the encounter of wild man and civilized woman and the dignified position that Shamhat plays in the narrative becoming the sort of adoptive wife of Enkidu.  Not all feminists have recoiled at the depiction of sacred sex and the role of sex in the birth of civilization.  Camille Paglia stands against the grain insofar that she sees the powerful role of the feminine mystique in the sex act and the power that woman holds over man through the sex act.

As Paglia explained in Sexual Personae, the sexual act brings out the true character of a man; his depravity or exquisiteness; also, from the feminine perspective, the power of women over men as it relates to the civilizing role of sex and how through the sexual act came the glories of ordered civilization where men had to tame and order their sexual drive and replaced “belly-magic” with “head-magic” (rational order vs. chaotic watery order).  This transformation in civilization, Paglia notes, though men took the lead, was spurred by man’s simultaneous fear and honoring of woman and entirely related to the sexual act.  Sex not only brought forth personal identity and distinctiveness, it brought about ordered civilization.

Although the Catholic Church is often demeaned as anti-woman by those who know next to nothing about the complexity and depth of Catholic anthropological and civilizational thinking, Catholic sexual ethics also expounds on the reality of woman as the civilizer of man as seen through the encounter of Enkidu and Shamhat.  Women set the bar of civilization because man is a creature of sexual desire first and foremost and sets his use of reason to the sexual act.  When women set the bar high for sex men will follow.  When women set the bar low for sex men will follow.  Sex brings about the elevation and dignification of man, or sex brings out the denigration and animalization of man.  This is why Aristotle remarked that sex is one of the tell-tale signs of civilization.

Animal sex is unpassionate, instrumental, purely utilitarian, and stems from nothing more than desire as desire.  Animals have sex because they need to have sex and nothing more.  Human sex, from the standpoint of anthropological humanism (e.g. human exceptionalism), is something far more exquisite.  It represents a training in virtue in the words of St. Augustine.  It represents the civilized nature of man and society according to Aristotle.  And it represents the real power that women hold over men according to Camille Paglia.  It is love.

Humans are social and relational animals.  This is the main difference between “conservative” anthropology and “liberal” anthropology; or classical and modern anthropology.  Conservative anthropology affirms man’s social and relational nature—that humans flourish when in relationships and that that the basis of all civilization is the family which is brought together through the conjugal act.  Liberal anthropology affirms man’s solitary nature—that humans flourish best when left alone to follow their desires for self-preservation and nothing more; family, in particular, is the biggest barrier to human freedom (individual choice and movement).

Enkidu, prior to sex, is an animal.  After sex he is becoming a man.  He caresses and has an intimate relationship with another person for the first time in his life.  This transforms him, literally.  When he stands up and heads to the herd of gazelles they panic and flee from him.  He eventually returns to Uruk with Shamhat where he learns the art of eating and dressing.  Through sex, Shamhat introduces Enkidu to civilization and the marriage rite—where he meets Gilgamesh presiding over an event he doesn’t understand because animals do not marry.  Through sex Shamhat has taught Enkidu to master his animal desires and direct them to higher goods: family, state, and society (all of which imply something beyond the self).

When entering Uruk Enkidu does not know how to eat.  After sex with Shamhat and her tutelage, Enkidu knows table manners and when to eat—again a mastery of the passions.  Man, left alone—as Enkidu was before meeting and making love with Shamhat—is nothing but a brutish animal that follows his desires without any self-mastery and is incapable of social living and personal virtue.  Man, when united with a woman—as Enkidu becomes in his meeting and making love with Shamhat—becomes a groomed, civilized, well-spoken, and more importantly, rational being.  As the author of the poem states, after rising to his feet after sex, “he had reason, and wide understanding.”

The sex act and eating rituals, along with the marriage rite that Enkidu observes, is the trinity of civilization; and all three are integrally related to each other: Ordered sexual drive leads to marriage and the celebration of the union of male and female entails the eating of food (the celebratory wedding dinner) where the sophistication of human civilization is fully on display.  (Enkidu, having been an animal confesses to Shamhat he does not know what is going on when he first encounters the sophistication of human society and its rituals.)  Sex divorced from family, eating divorced from ritual and manner, and marriage divorced social union, simply returns man to his primitive and barbaric state of existence.  The ordering of sex, eating, and marriage to more than self-pleasure and self-want is the basis on which civilization rises and falls.  Sex, therefore, is also the induction of a person into civilized society.  For what is a man but an animal when he brutishly engages in self-gratifying sex and eating and doesn’t commit himself to marriage but lives a life of licentious animalism?  For what is man but a man when he exercises control in sex and eating and commits himself to a lifelong relationship of love with a woman to have children, raise them, and ensure the continuation of the sacred seed of life?  (This is further implied through the fact that Shamhat is a sacred harlot; the sacredness and mystery of sex and its civilizing power bound up in the functionary religious role she has in Sumerian society.)

Here the understanding of sex and civilization from Aristotle, Catholic anthropology, and Camille Paglia are better understood.  All animals have sexual urges.  The question for man is whether he follows the “animalistic” way which is to have sex at will and purely for instrumental use, or whether he follows the “civilized” way which is to control the urge, unite with a spouse, and procreate for the health of civil society.  Moreover, as Camille Paglia asserts, the sex drive and sex act shows the real character of a person.  Furthermore, women really do control the highs and lows of civilization with the sexual act; for it is woman who guards sexual ethics and with it the animalization or civilization of human society and interactions.  If woman acts like an animal man will follow her and be an animal; if woman acts like a dignified human than man will follow her and be a dignified human.

Paglia notes, and she follows Augustinian anthropology very closely here, that man is truly a creature of erotic desire.  In this sense the starting point of all humans is that of an animal but the task of humanization is to be made human rather than to remain an animal.  Ibn Rushd (Averroes), one of the foremost medieval Islamic philosophers said that the task of humanization was to turn an animal into a man through the cultivated use of imagination, his soul (e.g. reason), and ordering of the sexual instinct; this is what made man distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom.  While it is true that some men are sadistic and will behave as brutes engaged in the lust for domination through sexual libido, most men are not like that but take cues from the broader sexual and fetishistic mores of their environment (returning us to the Catholic insight as, perhaps, best summed up by Dietrich von Hildebrand concerning the sexual act as a civilizing bar that women have total control over).  Women control the future of civilization because of the mysterious and civilizing power of sex.  And Shamhat demonstrates this in her bedding and civilizing of Enkidu; she is the prime mover in Enkidu’s civilizing.

Enkidu owes his newfound way of life, his friendships, his loyalty to country, and his social mores to Shamhat.  Shamhat is not the undignified harlot abused by Enkidu but the sacred and mysterious feminine mystique that brings civilization into Enkidu’s life.  It is through their sexual encounter that Enkidu learns to master his passions, shed away his animalistic side, learn the customs and manners of civilized society, enjoy life in society, develop friendship, and become appreciative of life.  Shamhat civilizes Enkidu—not Gilgamesh—and she civilizes him through the mystical union of two flesh becoming one in the sexual encounter.

2.3 Enkidu and Gilgamesh: Friendship and Sociality

Lastly, the final unmissable aspect of Enkidu in the epic is the friendship he forms with Gilgamesh.  At first they wrestle with each other, but then they become friends after this conflict wherein Enkidu yields to Gilgamesh.

This conflict turning to yielding is a common theme in human literature, from vanquishing comes friendship—deep and intimate friendship.  Moreover, Enkidu accepts his place in the pecking order with Gilgamesh; Gilgamesh is the head and Enkidu the body.  The theme of conflict leading to friendship is visible in other great works of literature, like How Green was My Valley and Captains Courageous even Great Expectations when Pip and Herbert first meet and have their little game of boxing.

In the ancient world friendship was something intimate and deeply personal.  Modernists sometime read homoerotic overtures into the relationship, but such readings only emerged after the 1970s.  Most scholars do not consider the nature of the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu to be homoerotic in nature but reflective of the deep, intimate, and personal.  The deeply intimate friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is shocking to modern readers because we live in a deeply de-personalized world with very few friendships.  St. Augustine, one of the greater writers on friendship in antiquity, argued that friends are not only equals with one another but people whom we have an intimate relationship with: Friends are people whom we share secrets with, who are our companions, always around us (and we with them) and whom we love.  In this sense how many friends can moderns say to have?  Friends are not acquaintances and acquaintances are not friends.

Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale, noted the sudden explosion of homoerotic interpretations of famous friendships in classical literature—including Augustine in Confessions which he has brushed aside as modernist ideological eisegesis.  Concerning the prevalence of intimate friendships in classical literature there is David and Jonathan in the Hebrew Bible, Augustine and Alypius in Confessions, and most famously Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad.  Xenophon, the ancient Greek philosopher, took time to comment that there was no romantic relationship between the two in Homer’s epic and a multitude of other classicists and ancient literary critics have written against reading homoerotic overtures in classical friendship narratives.

In this way Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the first to embody the intimate friendship narrative in the ancient world.  This is because the ancient world asserted that man was not merely a social animal but a relational animal.  This theme is also found in the Genesis creation narrative with the creation of Adam and Eve, asserted by Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian church fathers in their writings, and certainly affirmed in the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

It is important to remember what Enkidu was before his civilizing and what Enkidu becomes after his civilizing.  Through his civilizing he becomes a groomed, respectable, and social person bound up with social customs and mores of ancient Mesopotamian society.  Ancient life was excessively social—any reader of Plato or Aristotle would know this.  The social nature of the Sumerian city is on display when Enkidu enters it.  There are festivals and religious rites being publicly performed for all to participate in.  Enkidu meets Gilgamesh in a marriage ceremony (where he learned to properly eat and clothe himself) which was also a very public affair in the ancient world and remains a deeply public affair in traditional Catholic areas around the world (with public processions and music playing as the bride and groom leave the church and walk the city streets).

In the companionship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu we see the social dynamic of man’s nature become crystallized for us.  Gilgamesh and Enkidu are always beside one another—even to the bitter end.

Enkidu’s death causes existential dread to overcome Gilgamesh.  Even Enkidu seems angry with the fact that he is going to die, and he curses life (all the farmers, herders, and craftsmen) and Shamhat for his predicament.  In Enkidu’s cursing of life, he reflects, momentarily, the bitter and nihilistic strand of human existence.  In cursing Shamhat he wishes to have remained with the animals than become aware of his mortality.  Ignorance is bliss.

But Enkidu is assuaged from his bitterness and he comes to bless Shamhat and the Sumerians.  Enkidu celebrates the gift of life even though he will die.  The funeral rite and ceremony Gilgamesh gives him is not merely mourning of the life (and friend) lost but a celebration of a life lived.  Funeral rites were important in ancient society and remain important in traditional religious sects (such as Catholicism and Islam).  Funeral rites are important because they are meant to give praise to the individual’s life, his worth, and importance during life.  Friends, family, and the whole city participate in the funeral.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship is nothing short of the deeply personal and relational nature of man; the deeply personal and intimate relationships that ancient man had with his fellow man in antiquity.  The very word for society comes from the Latin word socius (socii, plural) which translates as “friend.”  Civilization, society, is composed of friends.  People whom we know, spend time with, care for, and love.  Gilgamesh loved Enkidu because he was his friend.  Friendship in the ancient world was vastly different than “friendship” today.  Ancient friendship was intimate while modern “friendship” is often depersonalized.  This is why moderns have often struggled reading back on the friendship narratives of classical literature—Gilgamesh and Enkidu being no different.

The civilizing of Enkidu comes about by life in the city, his introduction to sex, eating, and marriage rites, and his friendship with Gilgamesh. In essence, Enkidu becomes a man by passing through the rites of passage of adulthood and becoming a member of that excellent city which Aristotle talks about in Politics.

We now turn to the 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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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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