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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.

Lewis Spence’s Version of Ishtar and Gilgamesh

“In the Vlth tablet, which relates the story of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh, and the slaying of the sacred bull, victory again waits on the arms of the heroes, but here nevertheless we have the key to the misfortunes which later befall them.

On his return to Erech after the destruction of Khumbaba, Gilgamesh was loudly acclaimed. Doffing the soiled and bloodstained garments he had worn during the battle, he robed himself as befitted a monarch and a conqueror.

Ishtar beheld the King in his regal splendour, the flowers of victory still fresh on his brow, and her heart went out to him in love. In moving and seductive terms she besought him to be her bridegroom, promising that if he would enter her house “in the gloom of the cedar” all manner of good gifts should be his—his flocks and herds would increase, his horses and oxen would be without rival, the river Euphrates would kiss his feet, and kings and princes would bring tribute to him.

But Gilgamesh, knowing something of the past history of this capricious goddess, rejected her advances with scorn, and began to revile her. He taunted her, too, with her treatment of former lovers—of Tammuz, the bridegroom of her youth, to whom she clung weepingly year after year; of Alalu the eagle; of a Hon perfect in might and a horse glorious in battle; of the shepherd Tabulu and of Isullanu, the gardener of her father.

All these she had mocked and ill-treated in cruel fashion, and Gilgamesh perceived that like treatment would be meted out to him should he accept the proffered love of the goddess.

The deity was greatly enraged at the repulse, and mounted up to heaven :

“Moreover Ishtar went before Anu (her father), before Anu she went and she (said) : ‘ 0 my father, Gilgamesh has kept watch on me; Gilgamesh has counted my garlands, my garlands and my girdles.’”

Underlying the story of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh there is evidently a nature-myth of some sort, perhaps a spring-tide myth; Gilgamesh, the sun-god, or a hero who has taken over his attributes, is wooed by Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, the great mother-goddess who presides over spring vegetation.

In the recital of her former love-affairs we find mention of the Tammuz myth, in which Ishtar slew her consort Tammuz, and other mythological fragments. It is possible also that there is an astrological significance in this part of the narrative.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 167-8.

Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets IV and V, Slaying of Khumbaba

“The IVth tablet is concerned with a description of the monster with whom the heroes are about to do battle.

Khumbaba, whom Bel had appointed to guard the cedar (i.e., one particular cedar which appears to be of greater height and sanctity than the others), is a creature of most terrifying aspect, the very presence of whom in the forest makes those who enter it grow weak and impotent.

As the heroes draw near Eabani complains that his hands are feeble and his arms without strength, but Gilgamesh speaks words of encouragement to him. It may be noted, in passing, that the word Khumbaba is of Elamite origin, a fact which has led certain authorities to identify the monster with an Elamite dynasty which anciently dominated Erech, and which came to grief about 2250 BCE.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to establish the connexion between the mythical encounter and a definite historical event; but it may at least be presumed that the bestowal of an Elamite designation on the monster argues a certain enmity between Elam and Babylon.

The next fragments bring us into the Vth tablet.

The heroes, having reached “a verdant mountain,” paused to survey the Forest of Cedars. When they entered the forest the death of Khumbaba was foretold to one or other, or both of them, in a dream, and they hastened forward to the combat.

Unfortunately the text of the actual encounter has not been preserved, but we learn from the context that the heroes were successful in slaying Khumbaba.

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 166-7.

Eabani Laments the Loss of His Animal Nature

“The feast of Ishtar was in progress when they reached Erech. Eabani had conceived the idea that he must do battle with Gilgamesh before he could claim that hero as a friend, but being warned (whether in a dream, or by Ukhut, is not clear) that Gilgamesh was stronger than he, and withal a favourite of the gods, he wisely refrained from combat.

Meanwhile Gilgamesh also had dreamed a dream, which, interpreted by his mother, Rimat-belit, foretold the coming of Eabani. That part of the poem which deals with the meeting of Gilgamesh and Eabani is unfortunately no longer extant, but from the fragments which take up the broken narrative we gather that they met and became friends.

The portions of the epic next in order appear to belong to the Ilnd tablet. In these we find Eabani lamenting the loss of his former freedom and showering maledictions on the temple-maiden who has lured him thither. However, Shamash, the sun-god, intervenes (perhaps in another dream or vision; these play a prominent part in the narrative), and showing him the benefits he has derived from his sojourn in the haunts of civilization, endeavours with various promises and inducements to make him stay in Erech—

“Now Gilgamesh, thy friend and brother, shall give thee a great couch to sleep on, shall give thee a couch carefully prepared, shall give thee a seat at his left hand, and the kings of the earth shall kiss thy feet.”

With this, apparently, Eabani is satisfied. He ceases to bewail his position at Erech and accepts his destiny with calmness. In the remaining fragments of the tablet we find him concerned about another dream or vision; and before this portion of the epic closes the heroes have planned an expedition against the monster Khumbaba, guardian of the abode of the goddess Irnina (a form of Ishtar), in the Forest of Cedars.

In the very mutilated Illrd tablet the two heroes go to consult the priestess Rimat-belit, the mother of Gilgamesh, and through her they ask protection from Shamash in the forthcoming expedition. The old priestess advises her son and his friend how to proceed, and after they have gone we see her alone in the temple, her hands raised to the sun-god, invoking his blessing on Gilgamesh :

“Why hast thou troubled the heart of my son Gilgamesh? Thou hast laid thy hand upon him, and he goeth away, on a far journey to the dwelling of Khumbaba; he entereth into a combat (whose issue) he knoweth not; he followeth a road unknown to him.

Till he arrive and till he return, till he reach the Forest of Cedars, till he hath slain the terrible Khumbaba and rid the land of all the evil that thou hatest, till the day of his return—let Aya, thy betrothed, thy splendour, recall him to thee.”

With this dignified and beautiful appeal the tablet comes to an end.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 164-6.

The Gilgamesh Epic

“The most important of the various mythological strata underlying the Gilgamesh myth is probably that concerning Eabani, who, as has been said, is a type of primitive man, living among the beasts of the field as one of themselves.

The "animal man" Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

The “animal man” Enkidu (aka Eabani) defeating the King of Erech, Gilgamesh, during their first encounter.

But he is also, according to certain authorities, a form of the sun-god, even as Gilgamesh himself. Like the hero of Erech, he rises to the zenith of his powers in a triumphal progress, then descends into the underworld.

He is not lost sight of, however, but lives in the memory of his friend Gilgamesh; and in the XIIth tablet he is temporarily brought forth from the underworld (that is, his ghost, or utukkii), which in a dim and shadowy fashion may typify the daily restoration of the sun.

Another important stratum of myth is that which concerns Ut-Napishtim, the Babylonian Noah; but whereas the myths of Eabani and Gilgamesh, though still distinguishable, have become thoroughly fused, the deluge story of which Ut-Napishtim is the hero has been inserted bodily into the XIth tablet of the epic, being related to Gilgamesh by Ut-Napishtim himself.

When he first appears in the narrative he has the attributes and powers of a god, having received these for his fidelity to the gods during the flood, from whose waters he alone of all mankind escaped.

The object of his narrative in the Gilgamesh epic seems to be to point out to the hero that only the most exceptional circumstances—unique circumstances, indeed—can save man from his doom.

Other distinct portions of the epic are the battle with the monster Khumbaba, the episode of Ishtar’s love for Gilgamesh, the fight with the sacred bull of Anu, and the search for the plant of life. These, whatever their origin, have become naturally incorporated with the story of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

Gilgamesh defeating the Bull of Heaven.

But besides the various historical and mythical elements herein presented, there is also a certain amount of Babylonian religious doctrine, evident to some extent in the XIth tablet (which points the moral that all men must die), but doubly so in the XIIth tablet, wherein the shade of Eabani appears to Gilgamesh, relates the misfortunes of the unburied dead or of those uncared for after death, and inculcates care for the deceased as the only means whereby they may evade the grievous woes which threaten them in the underworld.

Let us examine in detail the Gilgamesh epic as we have it in the broken fragments which remain to us. The Ist and Ilnd tablets are much mutilated. A number of fragments are extant which belong to one or other of these two, but it is not easy to say where the Ist ends and the Ilnd begins.

One fragment would seem to contain the very beginning of the Ist tablet—a sort of general preface to the epic, comprising a list of the advantages to be derived from reading it. After this comes a fragment whose title to inclusion in the epic is doubtful. It describes a siege of the city of Erech, but makes no mention of Gilgamesh.

The woeful condition of Erech under the siege is thus picturesquely detailed :

“She asses (tread down) their young, cows (turn upon) their calves. Men cry aloud like beasts, and maidens mourn like doves. The gods of strong-walled Erech are changed to flies, and buzz about the streets.

The spirits of strong-walled Erech are changed to serpents, and glide into holes. For three years the enemy besieged Erech, and the doors were barred, and the bolts were shot, and Ishtar did not raise her head against the foe.”

If this fragment be indeed a portion of the Gilgamesh epic, we have no means of ascertaining whether Gilgamesh was the besieger, or the raiser of the siege, or whether he was concerned in the affair at all.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 159-61.

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.

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