Gilgamesh, like Jesus, was not entirely human. He was partly divine. Two-thirds divine, in fact. Not quite the theological idempotency of Christ, Father, Ghost, in which the sum of the parts is indistinguishable from the parts themselves, but still, not your run-of-the-mill ruler. His divine nature, conveniently, gave him a mandate to rule over his people, and as often happens with such mandates, he abused his power. So, in order to install the checks and balances any government requires to function properly, the gods sent Gilgamesh a companion–Enkidu.
After a tumultuous beginning to rival any rom-com you might see at the movies, Gilgamesh and Enkidu form an enduring friendship that, in most translations, has strong homo-erotic overtones. Sorry homophobes: there’s a good chance the first hero was a sexual polymorph. The divinely arranged friendship tempers Gilgamesh’s domestic appetites, but eventually they decide to take their dynamic-duo act on the road in order to claim an enduring legacy. They slay the demon Humbaba, and after returning to Uruk to claim their laurels, Gilgamesh draws the attention of the goddess Ishtar, who has decided she wants to take Gilgamesh as her lover.
Gilgamesh, mindful of the disparity in their stations, spurns Ishtar. He knows that she will grow tired of him as she has grown tired of all the lovers before him. Unfortunately, Ishtar doesn’t take this well, and just like most of the spoiled girls on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” she throws a tantrum until her father intervenes. There is, by the way, a strong argument to be made that the epic is a chronicle of the transition from a fertility cult centered on the female to a phallocentric cult centered on male potency. I think the argument is fairly persuasive actually, but it’ll have to wait, because the result of Ishtar’s wrath is the epic’s heart.
Enkidu, as a result of Ishtar’s wounded pride, is wasted by disease, and Gilgamesh must watch helplessly as his friend dies. Enkidu, the stalwart warrior, brave to a fault, is made ridiculous by death. “My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame,” he tells Gilgamesh after a fevered dream brought by death’s proximity.
Gilgamesh realizes that even should his victories tally a sum so large no man could hope to eclipse them, that number would never climb above zero. All of his accomplishments are no more than tomorrow’s dust. The death of his friend brings to mind his own, and he cannot bear it. “Enkidu my brother, whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him… Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest.”
Gilgamesh decides to seek immortality, and I’m sure I’m spoiling nothing when I tell you he fails. He journeys far, however, and like all heros who journey to the other side, he acquires wisdom. The wisdom, however, is no salvation, merely a respite. Siduri, “the woman of the vine, the maker of wine,” tells him, “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. [Instead], fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice… cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
The “little child that holds your hand,” is not for Gilgamesh the receptacle of enduring innocence that it is for us, but life’s continuation. Its persistence. It’s the obstinate momentum of love, plied against a headwind that wastes the flesh as surely as the works of Ozymandias. Nor is it coincidence that the wisdom is found with wine, or with the belly, and certainly not a coincidence that wisdom is found in the body. Wisdom penetrates. It plunges past right and wrong. It corkscrews good taste, drinking so deeply that “yes” slips through your teeth like air from an emptied balloon. The truths about our bodies, and their arrangement in drunken joy, is the first wisdom upon which all others are predicated. We prance around the fire, but only because there is a darkness, and there is a nothing in the darkness, and that nothing has always been there and will always be. It’s what we share: the nothing, and the explosion into nothing. The explosion that blows us out and leaves us empty enough to love.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is part of a long tradition of literature whose wisdom has been largely abandoned by the academy. You can read it through whatever lens you like, but you need not do so. You can pick it up tonight, after a long day at work, and be reminded that friends, family, food and fucking have been about the best thing to share on any given night for the last 4,000 years.