He who saw the deep

Great works of art are not so much created as uncovered. That is, the themes which resonate most strongly with people already exist, and an artist only hopes to find those themes. It is when the audience recognizes the work as being true – that is, validating the art within themselves by agreeing with it – that “great art” happens.

So, if what an artist does is stumble around in the dark for truth, we must have been stumbling across the same truths from the start.They can’t change, after all, or they wouldn’t have been true to begin with.

To test this hypothesis, let’s go back to the beginning: the birth of the written story.

Storytelling is likely as old as language. It is a way for humans to communicate hypothetical situations to each other, a useful survival tool. Our memories are much more adept at storing information encoded in a narrative, and the story often serves to establish rules, customs, or general survival advice.

However, the refined and written story is relatively recent in comparison – around five-thousand years old, at least that we’ve been lucky enough to find. What is generally considered the world’s oldest written story is called “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Gilgamesh is ancient. It is a Sumerian text that was first compiled in the form we know it in 1800 BC. Let me put that into perspective: The Greeks didn’t even exist yet, not the way we think of them. The Iliad and the Odyssey would not be scratched into tablets for another twelve-hundred years. It would be fourteen-hundred more years before the first versions of what we would recognize as the Old Testament were put into writing. When you notice similarities between the Book of Genesis and this story, it’s worth recognizing that available evidence suggests this is much older than Genesis.

The Sumerians who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh date back to 5000 BC, and theirs was one of the first three civilizations we have evidence of. But I’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh (as an English translation), and what struck me wasn’t a view into our ancient past. What surprised me was how familiar it all seemed.

The story opens to introduce the titular Gilgamesh – a Sumerian king who is two-parts god, one-part man. He is young and hot-headed, powerful and energetic but cruel and oppressive. Specifically, he is a serial rapist who enslaves people and works them to death. His subjects are terrified of their irresponsible tyrant, and pray to the gods for help.

The gods respond by sending an equal and opposite force into the world… which is probably not what the terrified subjects had in mind. But they get the wild-man Enkidu, who shares demigod status with Gilgamesh and is his only equal in beauty and strength.

But Enkidu is spiritually the opposite of Gilgamesh. Where Gilgamesh is a cruel man who lives a life of luxury, Enkidu is a kind man who lives a primal life with beasts.

We’re introduced to an Enkidu who suckles from wild animals and grazes in meadows. Hunters marvel at the wild god-man, and send some prostitutes to seduce the guy.

Okay, so this part isn’t familiar. Let’s look into it – it’s a theme in Sumerian culture that sex is used to introduce wild men to civilization, perhaps as a lure to draw them in. The Sumerians exist in a time when they are literally *the* civilization, mankind’s sole outpost against a savage earth. This fact is very much on their minds. Sex that you don’t have to kill or risk dying for is probably one of the most attractive features of city life, and so comes to represent the allure of this whole project to a patriarchal society.

Freud would also have a field day with this. Enkidu is seduced by one of the prostitutes sent his way, and accepts the offer of civilization. With his virginity lost, the beasts of the wild reject him, and he’s banished from his old life. Bit of a Garden of Eden predecessor.

Enkidu enters civilization and becomes a decent guy – he is Gilgamesh’s opposite, after all. He learns about the tyrant king and is outraged, then sets out to challenge Gilgamesh.

He arrives just in time to witness Gilgamesh committing some more tyranny, and the two demigods clash. Gilgamesh wins, but only after the first serious struggle of his entire divine existence. Recognizing each other as two sides of the same coin, the duo become inseparable friends. The friendly rivalry with Enkidu gives Gilgamesh an outlet for his destructive tendencies.

The tyrant king and the civilized wildman go on adventures together – think Hercules with a sidekick – that culminate with the two of them killing both a demon and a god. The other gods don’t take kindly to this, and so decide to punish the two friends by killing one of them. Enkidu is chosen to die (what did you expect? It’s not “The Epic of Enkidu”.)

Up until now, it’s all standard ancient myth stuff. Here’s where the story gets interesting from my perspective.

The gods knew that killing one of the two friends would be harder on the survivor than the deceased. Gilgamesh is devastated by Enkidu’s death. Not just because his best friend has died, but because he’s seen his opposite and equal be slain. Now, Gilgamesh cannot stop thinking about his own mortality. If Enkidu can die, then Gilgamesh will die as well.

I want to provide some background on Gilgamesh’s fear of death, as it’s one of my favorite recent realizations. The perception of the afterlife held by the Sumerians is very similar to that of the Greeks (up to a certain period), and one that I think needs to be understood. For both cultures, concepts of heaven or hell did not exist. There was an afterlife, but it is described as a gloomy place where ghosts roam around in a confused and lethargic state. There is no better place you go if you’re great, or worse place if you’re bad. Everyone winds up a ghost in this bland netherworld. So for both the Sumerians and the Greeks, life was really all you had. For the Sumerians, the concept of a pleasant afterlife had not even been seriously suggested yet. They saw death like an atheist sees death – as the end of the road.

Our bold tyrant is afraid for the first time in his life. But he’s still a fool, and so rather than facing his fear, he sets off on a quest to figure out how to cheat death. He’s got a decent idea where to start – a mythical figure called “Utnapishtim.”

Utnapishtim is worth his own paragraph, because he’s basically who we would recognize as Noah. That is, in Sumerian myth, Utnapishtim is the guy who put all the animals on a big boat before an enormous flood wiped out the world, thus saving life as we know it. In this flood story, the gods wiped out the earth in a fit of rage, but later regretted it and were very happy to find Utnapushtim had filled his ark. For his trouble, the Sumerian gods granted Utnapishtim the secret to eternal life.

Which is why Gilgamesh wants to find him – he wants to avoid death altogether.

The tyrant king goes through an epic series of adventures in search of Utnapishtim – greater than any of his struggles so far. He eventually meets a ferryman and is taken across the Waters of Death in a sort of proto-Hades setting where he finds the proto-Noah.

Gilgamesh insists on being taught the secret to eternal life. Utnapishtim agrees, but only on the condition the king undertakes a relatively simple challenge – staying awake for a week. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but promptly fails it.

I believe what’s happening here is a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s failings. He is impulsive and brash, and a boring test which requires constant vigilance is beyond him. Utnapishtim realizes this, and defeats the protagonist of our story with a few sentences.

So Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh packing. But on his way out, he’s granted information about a miraculous plant that restores youth and is the true secret to immortality. Our protagonist grabs the plant and leaves, thinking that despite having lost the challenge, he’s all set.

But after he’s taken the ferry back across the Waters of Death, a snake steals the plant, then sheds its skin to become young again. It was all a trick, and Utnapishtim made a fool of Gilgamesh.

Eternal life escapes Gilgamesh. All of this trickery with the challenge, the plant, and the snake are to demonstrate the sort of folly you’ll get into by chasing immortality rather than valuing life. Utnapishtim, the guardian of eternal life, humiliates the world’s most powerful demigod. Before that, he proved he had more foresight than the gods by saving creation from the petty rage of their flood. We don’t stand a chance.

The king’s quest and subsequent failure bring him to face the abyss. Death is inevitable, and trying to escape this only wastes what time you have. In this moment, Gilgamesh finds wisdom and patience, and is forever transformed into a great and fair king. Gilgamesh realizes that while he will personally die, civilization and mankind will live on. He devotes the rest of his long life to building up the cities of his kingdom.

The name Gilgamesh translates to “he who saw the deep.”

A literary analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh uncovers the same themes you’ll find in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard 5000 years later. Life is meaningless, death is inescapable, so make the world a little better by contributing as best you can. Accepting your own mortality leads to wisdom and humility, necessary attributes for greatness. And a true mortality, not a life spent expecting an afterlife – rather, the full acceptance that a person’s time is truly limited.

And it’s all in the first story we ever wrote down.

Scott Kelly is the author of four existentialist novels. You can find his works here. 

One Comment on “He who saw the deep”

  1. crosswaysnet says:

    That’s a lot of words dancing around ‘revelation’ with an epic mic drop shut down of any reality beyond death. Oops.

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