Lessons from a Demigod
By Philip Freeman
Humanities, Volume 33, Number 4 (July/August 2012)
Introduction: The Epic of Gilgamesh has been read in the modern world for a little longer than a century, and, in that time, this oldest of stories has become a classic college text. In my own courses on ancient literature and mythology, it is the book I always begin with. But why should a tale whose origins stretch back more than four thousand years draw such attention in an age of genetic engineering and text messaging? The answer I have given to hundreds of students is that almost every joy and sorrow they will face in life was revealed in Gilgamesh millennia before they were born. Reading Gilgamesh will not only teach them to face the challenges that lie ahead, but also give them an appreciation for the idea that no matter how much our modern world might seem different from earlier times, the essence of the human experience remains the same.
The story begins with a narrator urging his readers to examine the fine walls of Uruk, the magnificent city in southern Mesopotamia where Gilgamesh ruled. Hidden inside the walls is a treasure waiting to be discovered:
Find the cornerstone and under it the copper box
that is marked with his name. Unlock it. Open the lid.
Take out the tablet of lapis lazuli. Read how
Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.
Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god, one-third man, and he reigns over his city without rival. He takes the young men of Uruk for his army and the young women for his bed. The people of the city cry out to the gods for relief from such an unstoppable force, prompting the rulers of heaven to create Enkidu, a wild man of the countryside who lives a life of Eden-like simplicity among the animals. But when the trappers of the wilderness grow tired of having game set free from their snares by Enkidu, they call on Shamhat, a temple prostitute of Uruk to come and, using sex, tame the wild man.