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Category: Utukku

The Zodiacal Organization of the Gilgamesh Epic

“The doctrine of the necessity for ministering to the dead is here enunciated in no uncertain fashion.

Unless their bodies are decently buried and offerings of food and drink made at their graves, their lives in the otherworld must be abjectly miserable. The manner in which they meet their end is likewise taken into account, and warriors who have fallen on the field of battle are pre-eminently fortunate.

Eabani is evidently one of the ‘happy’ spirits; his ghost is designated utukku, a name applied not only to the fortunate dead, but likewise to a class of beneficent supernatural beings.

The term edimmu, on the other hand, designates a species of malevolent being as well as the errant and even vampirish spirits of the unhappy dead. The due observance of funeral and commemorative rites is thus a matter which touches the interests not only of the deceased but also of his relatives and friends.

We have seen from the foregoing that the epic of Gilgamesh is partly historical, partly mythological. Around the figure of a great national hero myths have grown and twined with the passing of the generations, and these have in time become woven into a connected narrative, setting forth a myth which corresponds to the daily or annual course of the sun.

Within this may be discerned other myths and fragments of myths—solar, seasonal, and diluvian.

But there is in the epic another important element which has already been referred to—the astro-theological. The zodiacal significance of the division of the epic into twelve tablets may be set aside, since, as has been indicated, the significance is in all probability a superficial one merely, added to the poem by the scribes of Assur-bani-pal, and not forming an integral part of it.

At the same time it is not hard to divide the epic naturally into twelve episodes, thus:

  1. Gilgamesh’s oppression of Erech;
  2. the seduction of Eabani;
  3. the slaying of the monster Khumbaba;
  4. the wooing of Ishtar;
  5. the fight with the sacred bull;
  6. Eabani’s death;
  7. Gilgamesh’s journey to the Mountain of the Sunset;
  8. his wanderings in the region of thick darkness;
  9. the crossing of the waters of death;
  10. the deluge-story;
  11. the plant of life;
  12. the return of Eabani’s spirit.

Throughout the epic there are indications of a correspondence between the exploits of the hero and the movements of heavenly bodies.

It is possible, for instance, that Gilgamesh and his friend Eabani had some relation to the sign Gemini, also associated in ancient Chaldean mythology with two forms of the solar deity, even as were the hero and his friend.

The sign Leo recalls the slaying of Khumbaba, the allegorical victory of light over darkness, represented on monuments by the figure of a lion (symbol of fire) fighting with a bull.

Following the sign of Leo, the wooing of the hero by the goddess Ishtar falls naturally into the sign of Virgo, the virgin. The sign of Taurus is represented by the slaying of the celestial bull, Alu, by Gilgamesh.

The journey of the hero to Mashu and his encounter with the scorpion-men at the gate of the sunset are, of course, mythological representations of the sign of Scorpio, as are also his wanderings in the region of thick darkness.

It is noticeable in this respect that Babylonian astrology often doubled the eighth sign (Scorpio) to provide a seventh; it is therefore not unlikely that this sign should correspond with two distinct episodes in the poem.

The first of these episodes is associated with Scorpio by virtue of the introduction of scorpion-men; and the second, on the assumption that the scorpion is symbolical of darkness.

Perhaps the sea-goddess Sabitu is associated astrologically with the fish-tailed goat which is the conventional representation of Capricornus.

Then the placing of the deluge-story in the XIth tablet, corresponding with the eleventh sign of the zodiac, Aquarius, the water-bearer, is evidently in keeping with the astrological aspect of the epic.

Chaldean mythology connected the rainy eleventh month with the deluge, just as the first month of spring was associated mythologically with the creation.

The healing of Gilgamesh’s sickness by Ut-Napishtim may possibly symbolise the revival of the sun after leaving the winter solstice.

Lastly, the sign of Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, corresponding to the return of Eabani from the underworld, and perhaps also to the restoration of Gilgamesh to Erech, is emblematic of life after death, and of the resumption of ordinary conditions after the deluge.

It has been suggested, though without any very definite basis, that the epic was first put together before the zodiac was divided into twelve—that is, more than two thousand years before the Christian era.

Its antiquity, however, rests on other grounds than these. In later times the Babylonian astrological system became very complicated and important, and so lent its colour to the epic that, whatever the original plan of that work may have been, its astral significance became at length its most popular aspect.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 181-3.

The Nusku Fire Rite of Exorcism

” … As the Ea ritual revolves around the use of water, in all kinds of variations, so the Nusku ritual is primarily concerned with the use of fire as a means of exorcising the demons, or of destroying the sorcerer and sorceress. The most direct method was to make an image of the demon and burn it, in the hope that the imitation might bring about the reality. [6]

“I raise the torch, their images I burn,
The images of the Utukku, Shedu, Eabisu, Etimmu,
Of Labartu, Labasu, Akhkhazu,
Of Lilu, Lilit and maid of Lilu,
And all evil that seizes men.
Tremble, melt and dissolve,
Your smoke rise to heaven,
Your limbs may the sun-god destroy.
Your strength may Marduk, the chief exerciser, the son of Ea, restrain!”

Or for the sorcerer and sorceress: [7]

“On this day step forward to my judgment,
Suppress the uproar, overpower evil,
As these images flutter, melt and disappear
So may the sorcerer and sorceress flutter, melt and disappear!”

The images were made of various materials such as pitch, clay, dough and bronze. A variation of this fire ritual consisted in taking substances such as onions, dates, palm cones, bits of wool, and seeds, and throwing them into the fire to the accompaniment again of magic formulas. A single specimen of such an incantation will suffice. [8]

“As the onion is peeled and thrown into the fire,
Consumed in the flaming fire,
In a garden will never again be planted,
In furrow and ditch will never be imbedded,
Its root will never again stick in the ground,
Its stalk never grow, never see the light of the sun,
Will never come on the table of a god or king,
So may the curse, ban, pain and torture,
Sickness, aches, misdeed, sin, wrong, transgression,
The sickness in my body, in my flesh, in my muscles,
Be peeled as this onion,
This day be burned in the flaming fire.
May the ban be removed, may I see the light!”

Similar formulas are prescribed for the other substances.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, np.

The Demons Named

” … The existence of several elaborate incantation series in Ashurbanapal’s library, prescribing a large number of formulas to be recited in connection with symbolical rites to get rid of the demons, furnishes the proof for the practical significance attached to incantations in both Babylonia and Assyria.

These series, Babylonian in origin, revert to Sumerian prototypes and represent compilations stretching over a long period, with additions intended to adapt them to conditions prevailing in Assyria.

The scribes of Ashurbanapal were not indulging in a purely academic exercise in copying the archives of Babylonian temples ; their purpose, as was also the aim of the king, was to make Nineveh the central religious authority as well as the political mistress by having in their control the accumulated experience of the past, in dealing with the religious needs and problems of their own age.

A feature which these incantation series [1] have in common is the recognition of a large number of demons, with special functions assigned in many cases to the one class or the other.

So, for example, there is a demon Labartu, represented as a horrible monster with swine sucking at her breasts, [2] who threatens the life of the mother at childbirth; a group known as Ashakku who cause varieties of wasting diseases, another demon Ti’u, whose special function was to cause diseases, manifesting themselves by headaches accompanied by fever, and so on through a long list. It will be apparent that there is no differentiation between the demon and the disease. The one is the synonym of the other, and accordingly in medical texts the demons are introduced as the designations of the diseases themselves.

The names given to the demons in many cases convey the “strength” or “size” ascribed to them, such as Utukku, Alu, Shedu, Gallu, or they embody a descriptive epithet like AkKkhazu, “seizer” (also the name of a form of jaundice); ‘Eabisu, the one lying-in-wait; Labasu, “overthrower”; Lilu and the feminine Lilitu, “night-spirit;” Etimmu, ghost or shade, suggesting an identification of some demons with the dead who return to plague the living, Namtar, “pestilence,” and more the like.

The descriptions given of them, cruel, horrible of aspect, blood-thirsty, flying through space, generally invisible though sometimes assuming human or animal shape or a mixture of the two, further illustrate the conceptions popularly held.”

Morris Jastrow, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915, pp. 241-3.

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