Hi arrival at Uruk tames Gilgamesh who now leaves the new brides to their husbands (Hooker).
Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the cedar forest to acquire timber for Uruk's walls (this need for protection indicates both increased prosperity and further urbanization), but before doing so they must defeat Khumbaba, the forest's guardian, a primitive, nature deity. They know fear for the first time, triumphing only with help from the god Shamash's winds. Victorious Gilgamesh now rejects the passion goddess Ishtar, Enkidu ridicules her, and she responds by sending the Bull of Heaven to devastate Gilgamesh's lands. Spurning Ishtar implies rejection of heterosexual passion, obviously wrong for continuing a heroic race of mortals. When they kill the bull, Gilgamesh and Enkidu also realize their mortality. Enkidu is the first to die, and Gilgamesh first suffers deep depression, and then undertakes a solitary journey to an underworld realm in search of immortality. Utnapishtim, human survivor of the great flood, tests Gilgamesh, but the hero fails and Utnapishtim cannot give him the secret. He does entrust Gilgamesh with a flower of immortality, however, which Gilgamesh loses to a treacherous serpent. He had wanted to share the gift with his townspeople (Ibid; Heidel; Tigay).
The Significance of Gilgamesh to Modern Audiences -- Literature is one way to build bridges from one culture to another, from one time period to another, and to understand the roots of human development and individuality. Gilgamesh, as allegory or myth, tells us that the basis of humanity is a spark that was shared by humans, just like us, but with a different language and culture, over 5,000 years ago. What is fascinating is the manner in which countless stories, old and new, repeat this tale. It is almost as if humanity needs to understand its own relationship with itself and its creator in a way that pushes one out of the comfort of the warm and dark womb into the harshness of now needing to breathe, eat, move, grow and learn. For instance, who cannot understand and empathize with Gilgamesh as he yearns for a deeper understanding of reality because of the pain he experiences when his friend Enkidu dies?
Further, since our modern "Western" culture is based on a Judeo-Christian heritage, it is easy to see that many of the stories in the Biblical Old Testament are either very similar thematically, or very similar in their overall message to Gilgamesh.This is also true when one looks at the tradition coming out of Mesopotamia to Egypt and the Arabian Penninsula, which eventually became Islam.
Scholars like Joseph Campbell and Claude Levi-Strauss believed that myth is a mode of communication between generations, outside the temporal realm and, rather than referring to objective reality over time it may describe an abstract, conceptual or emotional reality. As it tries to describe the unknowable, which changes over time, it becomes a language of symbols, of metaphors, and a language of correspondence meant to communicate truths as opposed to references (Doty). Thus, for society and culture, myth and ritual have four basic functions: mystical/metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical. All of these functions exist in Gilgamesh:
Mystical/metaphysical -- the metaphysical function of myth and ritual is primarily to awaken the mystery of creation, the wonder of the universe, and to attach the individual to a broader, more universal reality that goes beyond our senses. This mystical experience is meant to help humans have a core spirituality that can come as close as possible to envisioning a Supreme Being; to understand that which cannot be communicated directly. Some, in fact, believe that this part of the ritual/mythical experience is what allows humans to communicate in metaphors and think in the abstract (Schillbrack, 86-9). In Gilgamesh this is apparent in the plans of the Gods, and the manner in which the overall metaphysical universe seems preordained for the hero to outline human traits and prove to the Gods that humans are worthwhile.
Cosmological -- This aspect helps humans describe something so vast that we can rarely get our minds "around the concept." The universe, or cosmos, is filled with meaning and significance, nature, the formation of chemical properties, all that happens in the natural world, and yet without mythic structure, we are unable to comprehend even the most basic aspects of the universe. After the Industrial Revolution, for instance (really the post-Enlightenment Developed World), humans turned more towards science to tell us how to define the universe, how to map the cosmos. However, from the beginning of civilization, ritual and myth have described the world -- and may be considered false today, but if looked...
Indeed, as science advances, particularly the subject of physics, the lines blur even more between reality and the notion of myth (Tracy, 285-91). In Gilgamesh this is expressed by the cosmological order of the universe, set up as a template for the journey of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
Sociological -- Myth and ritual are part of the human acculturation process. That is, to pass down moral and ethical codes for people of that culture to follow, those which help to define that culture, organize the behaviors from generation to generation, and give a sense of belonging and structure to daily life. This was particularly important prior to the modern era, in that when humans were more connected with the natural world they felt more in awe of nature, as well they needed to feel that there was a purpose, that events were not completely random. This validation of culture makes it easy for the history and structure of the tribe to maintain itself through generations. However, this is also a concern in the modern age when life changes drastically, and we do not have a mythos with which to deal with changing times. The rituals allow us organize maturity, to pass and live the stages of life in the appropriate manner, and, without actually speaking of it, to establish the right and wrong way to behave within the group (Campbell, 205-12). As Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey, they learn about culture, law, organization of cities, and interact with different individuals (e.g. cultures).
Pedagogical -- the ritual nature of myth is at the focus of the "teaching" myth -- leading us through rites of passage that define us, and our position within society; from dependency to maturity to old age, to the final stage, our corporeal death. These rites of passage bring us all into oneness, with the universe and with each other since we share them so directly. All of the functions of mythology are tied to this concept, which allows us to know our place in the universe. (Doniger, 20-31). The teaching aspects of Gilgamesh are obvious -- each of the tablets, the minor stories, the journeys, are all parables designed to help humans live in harmony, understand their universe, and prosper.
Nostalgia aside, Gilgamesh is a parable of culture in a microcosm -- the development of civilization, lessons to learn, the process of becoming human, all combined and repeated as a link to humanity's past, present, and future.
Works Cited & Consulted
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