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Category: Scorpion-Men

Implications of the Gilgamesh Epic

“Among the traditions concerning his birth is one related by Ælian (Historia Animalium, XII, 21) of Gilgamos (Gilgamesh), the grandson of Sokkaros. Sokkaros, who, according to Berossus, was the first king to reign in Babylonia after the deluge, was warned by means of divination that his daughter should bear a son who would deprive him of his throne.

Thinking to frustrate the designs of fate he shut her up in a tower, where she was closely watched. But in time she bore a son, and her attendants, knowing how wroth the King would be to learn of the event, flung the child from the tower.

But before he reached the ground an eagle seized him up and bore him off to a certain garden, where he was duly found and cared for by a peasant. And when he grew to manhood he became King of the Babylonians, having, presumably, usurped the throne of his grandfather.

Here we have a myth obviously of solar significance, conforming in every particular to a definite type of sun-legend. It cannot have been by chance that it became attached to the person of Gilgamesh.

Everything in the epic, too, is consonant with the belief that Gilgamesh is a sun-god—his connexion with Shamash (who may have been his father in the tradition given by Ælian, as well as the eagle which saved him from death), the fact that no mention is made of his father in the poem, though his mother is brought in more than once, and the assumption throughout the epic that he is more than human.

Given the key to his mythical character it is not hard to perceive in his adventures the daily (or annual) course of the sun, rising to its full strength at noonday (or mid-summer), and sinking at length to the western horizon, to return in due time to the abode of men.

Like all solar deities—like the sun itself—his birth and origin are wrapped in mystery. He is, indeed, one of the ‘fatal children,’ like Sargon, Perseus, or Arthur. When he first appears in the narrative he is already a full-grown hero, the ruler and (it would seem) oppressor of Erech.

His mother, Rimat-belit, is a priestess in the temple of Ishtar, and through her he is descended from Ut-Napishtim, a native of Shurippak, and the hero of the Babylonian flood-legend. Early in the narrative he is brought into contact with the wild man Eabani, originally designed for his destruction by the gods, but with whom he eventually concludes a firm friendship.

The pair proceed to do battle with the monster Khumbaba, whom they overcome, as they do also the sacred bull sent against them by Anu. Up to the end of the Vlth tablet their conquering and triumphant career is without interruption; Gilgamesh increases in strength as does the sun approaching the zenith.

At the Vllth tablet, however, his good fortune begins to wane. Eabani dies, slain doubtless by the wrath of Ishtar, whose love Gilgamesh has rejected with scorn; and the hero, mourning the death of his friend, and smitten with fear that he himself will perish in like manner, decides to go in search of his ancestor, Ut-Napishtim (who, as sole survivor of the deluge, has received from the gods deification and immortality), and learn of him the secret of eternal life.

His further adventures have not the triumphal character of his earlier exploits. Sunwise he journeys to the Mountain of the Sunset, encounters the scorpion-men, and crosses the Waters of Death. Ut-Napishtim teaches him the lesson that all men must die (he himself being an exception in exceptional circumstances), and though he afterwards gives Gilgamesh an opportunity of eating the plant of life, the opportunity is lost.

However, Ut-Napishtim cures Gilgamesh of a disease which he has contracted, apparently while crossing the Waters of Death, and he is finally restored to Erech.

In these happenings we see the gradual sinking of the sun into the underworld by way of the Mountain of the Sunset. It is impossible for the sun to attain immortality, to remain for ever in the land of the living; he must traverse the Waters of Death and sojourn in the underworld.

Yet the return of Gilgamesh to Erech signifies the fresh dawning of the day. It is the eternal struggle of day and night, summer and winter; darkness may conquer light, but light will emerge again victorious. The contest is unending.

Some authorities have seen in the division of the epic into twelve tablets a connexion with the months of the year or the signs of the zodiac. Such a connexion probably exists, but when we consider that the artificial division of the epic into tablets scarcely tallies with the natural divisions of the poem, it seems likely that the astrological significance of the former was given to the epic by the scribes of Nineveh, who were evidently at some pains to compress the matter into twelve tablets.

Of the astro-theological significance of the narrative itself (one of its most important aspects), we shall perhaps be better able to judge when we have considered it in detail.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 156-9.

The Deluge Tale of Utnapishtim and the Search for Immortality

“Gilgamesh now begins a series of wanderings in search of the restoration of his vigor, and this motif is evidently a continuation of the nature myth to symbolize the sun’s wanderings during the dark winter in the hope of renewed vigor with the coming of the spring.

Professor Haupt’s view is that the disease from which Gilgamesh is supposed to be suffering is of a venereal character, affecting the organs of reproduction. This would confirm the position here taken that the myth symbolizes the loss of the sun’s vigor. The sun’s rays are no longer strong enough to fertilize the earth.

In accord with this, Gilgamesh’s search for healing leads him to the dark regions in which the scorpion-men dwell. The terrors of the region symbolize the gloom of the winter season.

At last Gilgamesh reaches a region of light again, described as a landscape situated at the sea. The maiden in control of this region bolts the gate against Gilgamesh’s approach, but the latter forces his entrance. It is the picture of the sun-god bursting through the darkness, to emerge as the youthful reinvigorated sun-god of the spring.

Now with the tendency to attach to popular tales and nature myths lessons illustrative of current beliefs and aspirations, Gilgamesh’s search for renewal of life is viewed as man’s longing for eternal life.

The sun-god’s waning power after midsummer is past suggests man’s growing weakness after the meridian of life has been left behind. Winter is death, and man longs to escape it.

Gilgamesh’s wanderings are used as illustration of this longing, and accordingly the search for life becomes also the quest for immortality. Can the precious boon of eternal life be achieved?

Popular fancy created the figure of a favorite of the gods who had escaped a destructive deluge in which all mankind had perished. Gilgamesh hears of this favorite and determines to seek him out and learn from him the secret of eternal life. The deluge story, again a pure nature myth, symbolical of the rainy season which destroys all life in nature, is thus attached to the Epic.

Gilgamesh after many adventures finds himself in the presence of the survivor of the Deluge who, although human, enjoys immortal life among the gods. He asks the survivor how he came to escape the common fate of mankind, and in reply Utnapishtim tells the story of the catastrophe that brought about universal destruction.

The moral of the tale is obvious. Only those singled out by the special favor of the gods can hope to be removed to the distant “source of the streams” and live forever. The rest of mankind must face death as the end of life.

That the story of the Deluge is told in the eleventh tablet of the series, corresponding to the eleventh month, known as the month of “rain curse” and marking the height of the rainy season, may be intentional, just as it may not be accidental that Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar is recounted in the sixth tablet, corresponding to the sixth month, which marks the end of the summer season. The two tales may have formed part of a cycle of myths, distributed among the months of the year.

The Gilgamesh Epic, however, does not form such a cycle. Both myths have been artificially attached to the adventures of the hero.

For the deluge story we now have the definite proof for its independent existence, through Dr. Poebel’s publication of a Sumerian text which embodies the tale, and without any reference to Gilgamesh. Similarly, Scheil and Hilprecht have published fragments of deluge stories written in Akkadian and likewise without any connection with the Gilgamesh Epic.

In the Epic the story leads to another episode attached to Gilgamesh, namely, the search for a magic plant growing in deep water, which has the power of restoring old age to youth. Utnapishtim, the survivor of the deluge, is moved through pity for Gilgamesh, worn out by his long wanderings.

At the request of his wife, Utnapishtim decides to tell Gilgamesh of this plant, and he succeeds in finding it. He plucks it and decides to take it back to Erech so that all may enjoy the benefit, but on his way stops to bathe in a cool cistern.

A serpent comes along and snatches the plant from him, and he is forced to return to Erech with his purpose unachieved. Man cannot hope, when old age comes on, to escape death as the end of everything.”

Morris Jastrow (ed.), Albert T. Clay (trans.), An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, 1920, pp. 20-1.

Gilgamesh Sees the Tree of the Gods in the 9th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh

THE NINTH TABLET.

“In bitter grief Gilgamish wandered about the country uttering lamentations for his beloved companion, Enkidu. As he went about he thought to himself,

“I myself shall die, and shall not I then be as Enkidu?

Sorrow hath entered into my soul,

Because I fear death do I wander over the country.”

His fervent desire was to escape from death, and remembering that his ancestor Uta-Napishtim, the son of Ubara-Tutu, had become deified and immortal, Gilgamish determined to set out for the place where he lived in order to obtain from him the secret of immortality.

Where Uta-Napishtim lived was unknown to Gilgamish, but he seems to have made up his mind that he would have to face danger in reaching the place, for he says, “I will set out and travel quickly. I shall reach the defiles in the mountains by night, and if I see lions, and am terrified at them, I shall lift up my head and appeal to the Moon-god, and to (Ishtar, the Lady of the Gods), who is wont to hearken to my prayers.”

After Gilgamish set out to go to the west he was attacked either by men or animals, but he overcame them and went on until he arrived at Mount Mashu, where it would seem the sun was thought both to rise and to set.

The approach to this mountain was guarded by Scorpion-men, whose aspect was so terrible that the mere sight of it was sufficient to kill the mortal who beheld them; even the mountains collapsed under the glance of their eyes.

When Gilgamish saw the Scorpion-men he was smitten with fear, and under the influence of his terror the colour of his face changed, and he fell prostrate before them.

Then a Scorpion-man cried out to his wife, saying, “The body of him that cometh to us is the flesh of the gods,” and she replied, “Two-thirds of him is god, and the other third is man.”

The Scorpion-man then received Gilgamish kindly, and warned him that the way which he was about to travel was full of danger and difficulty. Gilgamish told him that he was in search of his ancestor, Uta-Napishtim, who had been deified and made immortal by the gods, and that it was his intention to go to him to learn the secret of immortality.

The Scorpion-man in answer told him that it was impossible for him to continue his journey through that country, for no man had ever succeeded in passing through the dark region of that mountain, which required twelve double-hours to traverse.

Nothing dismayed, Gilgamish set out on the road through the mountains, and the darkness increased in density every hour, but he struggled on, and at the end of the twelfth hour he arrived at a region where there was bright daylight, and he entered a lovely garden, filled with trees loaded with luscious fruits, and he saw the “tree of the gods.” Here the Sun-god called to him that his quest must be in vain, but Gilgamish replied that he would do anything to escape death.”

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Babylonian Story of the Deluge and the Epic of Gilgamish1929, pp. 49-51.

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