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Beyond the Garden of Ishtar
Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell, for the Man Wary of Emasculation
© 2013 James LaFond
Author's Note
I was asked a question yesterday about cultural assimilation and referred the person to this article. Then, in a panic that some long-lingering typo had gone uncorrected I reread it—and did find an unforgivably pluralizing s. It then occurred to me that this piece is more relevant today than when I wrote it, and that it belongs in the Man Cave.
Exactly one week ago, to the hour, I was sitting in a pizza shop when CNN intruded upon my high calorie serenity. People often remark that I seem unusually unperturbed with the state of ignorance and injustice in our culture. This is largely because I isolate myself from the press, from the sanctimonious liars among us.
Ignorant stoned masses of media-chained slaves? No problem.
Evil manipulative politician slave masters? No problem.
Despicable behind-the-scenes corporate puppet masters? No problem.
This is civilization as it has always been LaFond, enjoy the show.
In high school I purposely failed every subject as an act of defiance against the brainwashing I was being subjected to. Even at that early age I was a C.D.S. sufferer. I went to the library and read unapproved works; the authors that my teachers read; the material they were not supposed to teach.
This is not to say that I failed to pay attention in civics class—oh contraire! I recall being quite attentive indeed, counting every over-stressed seem of Lisa B’s heroically struggling white painter’s pants. However, in between watching her shift impatiently in her seat as the abusive pervert entrusted by society with softening our pliable young minds lectured from the head of the class, I did come away with a notion that the press was supposed to be the watchdog of the people, making sure the three checking hands of government: legislative, judicial and executive, did not overstep their bounds.
Back to the Pakistani pizza shop—a Florida legal case was being ‘reported’ on by the CNN celebrity ‘journalists’. As a resident of Maryland, who did not sit in the jury box, it is none of my affair as to the fate decreed by that state’s jury for the wannabe cop who could not handle his business and killed the wannabe gangster who could not handle his business, in some un-filmed noir Darwin Award reality show.
The ‘journalist’s’ though, were of a different mind, and actually called, from their elevated celebrity podiums, for the President of the United States, the Chief Executive of the most powerful nation state to ever rise from our simian hordes, to ‘do something’; to punish the pathetic wannabe cop, whose life is effectively over; who will be hounded by civil rights lawyers, racist assassins and ambulance-chasing barristers until the day he dies.
I actually stopped eating. As a small-brained primate who has read thousands of books, I do have an appreciation of the fact that the writers among us, and before them the poets, have held up the stories of people great and small to serve as, what Barbara Tuchman so eloquently described as, ‘A Distant Mirror’. I understand also that our relatively free and open society of the last 200 years came about largely as the result of, and under the stewardship of, a class of journalists and scholars who openly discussed the doings of our rulers, so that we might see them for what they are—the aggregate of their acts—and then act accordingly to curtail their abuses.
There I sat, chewing my Pakistani pizza with ever less relish, as I realized, with a never before felt finality, that the King had indeed Returned, resurrected and crowned to rule once again over the wretched and prostrate conquered, and I nothing but a defiant cipher to be tossed like a wilted spice into his human stew…
I soon recovered though, realizing that I no longer needed the time machine of literature to examine the doings of god’s on earth, the striving of divinely ordained tyrants, the ‘justice’ of kings. You might be confused though. So, lucky as I am, for having the curious backward-looking version of our self-famed monkey brain, and having read the ancient script of the Tyranny Earth pilot episode—in three translations over as many decades—I thought it was time to go visit the old boy once again; the prototype for the bastard that is going to rule what’s left of this place when your great-granddaughter hits puberty. Now that we are firmly on the path to political and cultural devolution, I take you back, with the aid in this instance of poetry scholar and poet Stephen Mitchell, to the Garden of Eden—or should I say the Garden of Ishtar [Love]—and its greatest king, Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh
A New English Translation
Stephen Mitchell
2004, Free Press, NY, 290 pages
Origins
The epic of Gilgamesh was uncovered in archaeological digs in what is now Iraq about 150 years ago. The sand-covered Assyrian palaces housed massive libraries of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform [wedged-shaped] script with a stylus on clay tablets that were then baked, making the first writers something of an artisan class, and the individual writer a literary stucco etcher. Thanks to the egotistical rock-carvings in triplicate of the Persian kings who failed to murder a handful of naked Greek fanatics, the ancient Akkadian script was soon deciphered.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was finally inscribed in Babylonian times [about 1,700 B.C.] about a thousand years before the Old Testament of the Hebrews. The document itself is a translation of an old Sumerian text from perhaps a thousand years before [about 2,500-3,000 B.C.] and, in it, preserves references of ‘ancient times’ passed down orally. This places the origin of the poem as a work reflecting a civilized [centralized economy] culture at about 3,000 B.C., or just over 5,000 years ago. This is the oldest full-length work of human literature which remains for us to examine.
For this reason alone, its antiquity, Gilgamesh was very important to my study of the origins of combat sports in the Western tradition. Hence, much of my deductive work here precedes Mister Mitchell’s adaptation [as he states it is not a translation but an adaptation of numerous translations]. So don’t blame the man for my crackpot views. The quotes below do come directly from his elegant adaptation.
The book itself is one of the more pleasingly designed examples of the bookmaker’s craft. From dustcover, to the interior design, layout, and font it is a pleasure to read.
Context
According to the legend Gilgamesh was two thirds divine one third human. Reading through this adaptation and the other two translations I detect a note of transition from nomadism to settled agricultural life. The story of Mesopotamia before the Industrial Age has traditionally been one of domination by nomads from the high steppes of Central Asia or the Neolithic bikers closer to home, the Semitic peoples of the arid Arabian interior. These conquerors, like the Mongols in China, would typically be ‘absorbed’ over time culturally and genetically by the more numerous indigenous conquered population. This process resulted in ‘layers’ of traditions, including stratified religious hierarchies of gods.
In genocidal cultures, like that of the biblical Hebrews, one god will maintain status and reign, as the worshippers of the other gods are annihilated. However, in most conquest cultures only the ruling class is eliminated—and sometimes not even that—resulting in a family of indigenous female agricultural gods ruled over by a set of invader male hunting/herding gods, with the newer male gods dominating the older [Jupiter over Neptune]. In such polytheistic cultures allegorical myths featuring the rape of female gods and the seduction of male gods, and of mortals of both genders by their divine counterparts, can serve as a tool for measuring the nature of the conquest and resulting assimilation of the invading population. A good example is the ‘catholic’ Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, an obvious Aztec deity preserved as a Christian saint.
The overarching theme in Gilgamesh is that he and his Wildman biker pall Enkidu are by turns seduced by and act in defiance of Ishtar, Goddess of Love, and her priestess, Shamahat. This relationship acts as the key plot driver. Gilgamesh pays the highest possible penalty for spurning the Goddess of Love. His quest is therefore to maintain his masculine ‘nomad warrior’ identity. The poem can be read as Man trying not to be feminized as well as an allegory about the warrior trying not to be softened by the settled life of those he or his fathers conquered.
Gilgamesh is gigantic, as are the 'heroes of old' referred to by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I deduce from this common belief among Indo-European ruling classes descended from conquering nomads, a sense that they were either spiritually smaller from living in comforts unknown to their forefathers, or physically smaller as a result of abandoning the hunter's diet. [In the 1800s the largest people on the planet came from hunting/herding societies such as the Plains Indians and Zulu Nation. These meat-eating warriors often dwarfed the bread-fed soldiers of civilization that faced them.]
Relevance
Many standard themes that have run through biblical traditions and persist up until our time include: the sacred cycle of seven days; distrust of women; ritual distractions and rampant intoxication to maintain a massive servile citizenry; the justification of a stratified society based on the implied superiority of those occupying the top step on the social pyramid; and man’s ordained domination over nature—nature being the enemy of man. In varying degree these themes still have a hold upon Western culture that can be traced all the way back to the time of the Gilgamesh poet.
The primal king as judge, one of the crudest manifestations of executive rule, is even now being suggested by the celebrity journalists among us, as a way to redress perceived local injustice. I picked this poem back up after three years to immerse myself once again in the slave impulse of the human being to be ruled by, fathered by, and fettered by, a benign better; an earthly savior. I see this modern liberal passive lust to be dominated by the Big Man in the Big House as a ramification of atheism, and the loss of God in the minds of the media class; bringing hope in the form of our traditional monotheistic prayer back down to earth, into the hands of the perfect—or at least just—earthly lord.
To be clear, it is my considered opinion that virtually our entire media class consists of bleating sheeple who have a deep seated yearning to be inseminated by the executive and chief, and that this frustrated sexual impulse is channeled into Big Man worship in the form of fawning secular journalism. Even when the Big Man lies to their face, he is still their Big Man and they yet yearn to be his repository.
Mom! I told you not to read this article. Oh well, if you got this far the rest should be harmless...
“He brought back the ancient, forgotten rites,
restoring the temples that that the Flood had destroyed,
renewing the statutes and sacraments
for the welfare of the people and the sacred land…
…Who else can say, ‘I alone rule supreme among mankind?’”
The story is simple in spots, complex in others, and deeply allegorical over all. Common and ceremonial habits, attire and rituals are described in detail, illuminating aspects of sacral and everyday life. The cosmology of the world is fully fleshed out with a council of gods, and a supernaturally bounded world of sorrow and strife. The world of Gilgamesh is demon haunted indeed. It is not however a world of extreme absolute duality: good versus evil, but a more complex adult world. In literature this has the effect of evoking a less brooding apocalyptic subtext than those inspired by monotheistic cosmologies.
Gilgamesh, despite being a pig and a bully, is a good friend. Despite being fearful he overcomes his terrors to strive against the divine powers. He is definitely the progenitor of Herakles. As for Gilgamesh’s divine right, as well as the right to rule of his lineal descendent—who, whoever he or she may be, sits in the White House as you read this—the unknown poet of ages past had this to say of his rule:
“The city is his possession. He struts
through it, arrogant, his head raised high,
trampling its citizens like a wild bull.
He is king, he does whatever he wants,
takes the son from his father and crushes him,
takes the girl from her mother and uses her,
the warrior’s daughter, the young man’s bride,
he uses her, no one dares oppose him…
…it is he who mates first with the lawful wife…
…From the moment the king’s birth-cord was cut,
every girl’s hymen has belonged to him.”
Yes, it is good to be king—ouch! I mean I think that was terrible, don’t you Siss?
Above we essentially have an allegorical verse description of the modern welfare state.
The Wild Man
The people called out to the gods for justice, so a rival was made and cast down in the wild. His name was Enkidu, and he was seduced by a priestess, wrestled with Gilgamesh, lost, became his bisexual bud and defied the gods alongside his king. [This is essentially a metaphoric description of the American two-party political cabal.]
The gods then cursed Enkidu and he died over a 12 day course. Gilgamesh wandered the world and even journeyed into the supernatural realms of the gods in search of immortality, only to return with the curse of death still hanging over his head.
Enkidu is the tragic figure in this story, born to serve, torn from innocence, and fated to die in sorrow despite his accomplishments.
The Distant One
At the end of his journey Gilgamesh finally meets the original Noah character, the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim. ‘The Distant One’ is a far more likable and devious protagonist than the later Noah. As he tells his story to Gilgamesh the Mesopotamian gods are revealed as more human than their later Olympian counterparts. It is from this figure that the hero seeks the answer to the question of mortality. The Distant One offers only a troubling enlightenment and announces that no future mortal will be permitted to journey to his otherworldly place of repose.
As the hero leaves The Distant One, the man who was deified in old age by the gods for having saved mankind from one god’s thoughtless wrath, mankind, represented by Gilgamesh, has been utterly cut off from his natural origin and the mysteries of creation. Henceforth man must be content with the simple material realm of men and the domination of the malleable natural world from whence he carves out his civilization. Gilgamesh finally returns to Uruk, his great city, after being denied immortality, and is at last content with city life as it is.
Gilgamesh is ultimately a compelling character, as are the archetypical and mythological figures he encounters. He was the god-man who denied the Goddess of Love and challenged the world order. As the poem states in the beginning “Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.”
Stephen Mitchell has breathed fresh breath into our eldest hero and has preserved for us the ages’ old messages of power and celebrity: that it is divinely ordained that the few shall rule the many, and that ages from now, but one of us, if any, will merit even a memory.
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