It is the oldest story, so far, to reach us. Call it what you will, an epic, a novel in verse or an amalgamation of legend and history. Such distinctions matter little. Even in its incomplete form, far too many lines missing here and there, the overall impact is weird and unsettling. We cannot fully comprehend the drift and nuances of something nearly 5000 years old. The gaps in the text multiply the confusion. Even so, the tale boggles our imagination.
The adventures of Gilgamesh, written in Akkadian, a Semitic language, were written on clay tablets, now shattered or misplaced or scattered, hence the disruptions. Gilgamesh is a historical figure, a king who rules over Uruk, a city in southern Iraq, roundabout 2700 BC. Sumerian was spoken in Uruk, an ancient language completely unrelated to any other language. But the legend’s spell was so powerful that it was translated or retold in Akkadian.
As the story goes, Gilgamesh was not exactly an endearing figure. He was a pest, not leaving the young men in peace and insisting on deflowering every virgin newly married. It is not clear how he harassed the young men. Did he force them to take part in gladiatorial contests or molested them sexually? However, his behaviour annoyed the powers up above no end. The gods asked Aruru, a goddess, to knock some sense into Gilgamesh.
So Aruru made Enkidu, a wild man, from clay. He was herculean in strength, very hairy and animal-like. Who gave him his name is not mentioned. He lived among the animals. He also began to destroy the traps the hunters had set to catch the beasts. The hunters complained to Gilgamesh about the intruder. Gilgamesh sent a temple prostitute to the wilderness. She managed to seduce Enkidu. The sexual intimacy meant the end of Enkidu’s feral innocence. He came to Uruk, wrestled with Gilgamesh and found him a worthy opponent. They became close friends.
Their first mission together was to go to the cedar forest in north-west Syria to get timber needed as building material. They managed to kill the dreaded Humbaba, the guarding of the forest. All this may be a dim memory of raids carried out to obtain timber and slaughter the tribes who lived in the forest. Meanwhile, Ishtar, the goddess of love got a crush on Gilgamesh and asked him to marry her. Gilgamesh turned down her offer. Deeply offended, the goddess sent down the Bull of Heaven to ravage the land. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu made short work of the bull.
By now the gods were seriously alarmed by the pair’s extraordinary exploits and ordained that Enkidu must die. When his friend passed away, Gilgamesh became acutely aware of his own mortality and decided to find out the secret of eternal life. Only the legendary king Utanapishtim could help him who, having survived the Flood, had become immortal. He lived a long way off, at the end of the world and beyond the sea. Undeterred by the distance involved, Gilgamesh set off and at the end of the journey met Siduri, a woman who was a tavern-keeper at the world’s edge. A tavern at the end of the world, kept by a woman! Strange indeed, its implication now lost.
To make it short, Gilgamesh did meet Utanapishtim who narrated the story of the Flood but said that he could do nothing to help his rare visitor. However, Utanapishtim’s wife took pity on Gilgamesh and persuaded her husband to give him a plant of rejuvenation so that he could regain his youth. Unluckily, on his way back, a snake sneaked off with the plant and Gilgamesh came home empty-handed. A long, perilous journey which yielded nothing. By way of a consolatory dispensation, the gods decree that after his death Gilgamesh would be made the governor of the underworld and reunited with his family and Enkidu.
The Sumerian Underworld or the House of Dust is a truly scary place, completely at odds with the hells we have been told about which abound in unbearable tortures and raging fires. This Underworld is an eerily silent place where nothing happens at all and those who enter it can never find a way out. “The house where those who dwell do without light/where dust is their drink, their food is of clay/where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers/and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark/and upon the door and bolt lies dust.” The last detail, the door and bold covered with dust is telling, suggesting aeons of disuse. The door to the Underworld was opened and shut only from the outside. Imagine a throng of voiceless shadows stumbling around in the dark, with dust for a drink and lumps of clay for a meal.
Interestingly enough, the ancient Mesopotamians did not believe that the Flood had anything to do with human iniquity. The human race, they said, was doubling and redoubling at a dizzying speed and the people made so much noise that the gods could not sleep properly. They appealed to their leader, Enlil, to do something about it and he set a world-wide flood in motion. Afterwards the gods blamed Enlil, for overreacting. The punishment meted out, they said, was out of proportion.
But has these been a global flood which was not forgotten? Some scholars think that such an event did take place circa 7000 BC when a comet entered the earth’s atmosphere. Its nucleus, made up of ice, broke into seven pieces and fell in the seas, causing devastating tsunamis. People, all around the world, in their legends, mention a great inundation. Therefore the flood could not have been a localised phenomenon.
As the Akkadian was a Semitic language, there are words in the story of Gilgamesh which are still familiar, like “bakka” (weeping), “baraqa” (shining), “zikru” and “kezru” (a male prostitute). If the entire text of the poem was available in a romanised version, we may be able to spot more words which we still know and use.