Monthly Archives: June 2013

Gilgamesh and the War between Men and Women

51A8UGr+eDL._SY300_[1]First, apologies for the long absence. I’ve been busy with some projects, most intensely over the past five weeks or so, but here I am up for a breath of air and thought I’d fill you in on my latest reading – this from Eric Quinn, whose little book of poems called Amassunu I reviewed at the beginning of the year.

At the time I observed that he was working on a poetic re-imagining of the ancient Gilgamesh myth, that he had in fact inserted an excerpt (from the ninth tablet, I believe) in that earlier book. Well, now, just published in a very handsome edition by the Ampersand Press (, is volume one of a three-volume re-telling of the oldest extended narrative in world history – the second two to follow, one in the fall and the other sometime in 2014.

So here is Gilgamesh: The Ancient Epic: Tablets 1-4, re-imagined by Eric Quinn, 44 pages plus an informative introduction that nicely sets things up for those of us who are a bit rusty in our old Sumerian / Babylonian history. The real Gilgamesh probably lived along the Euphrates, in what is now Iraq, around 5,000 years ago and the story emerged over the next centuries and a pair of millennia into its classical form, which was then lost for more millenia and is still being pieced together from fragments that continue to appear.

In his acknowledgments Quinn refers to this project as “a life-defining work,” and by the end of the introduction one gets a sense of what a painstaking and serious project it has been – no light, casual re-telling, this, but one grounded firmly in the scholarship and whose re-imagining is in large part a matter of filling in gaps. It seems to me to go without saying that the invention, in order to be successful, must mesh rather seamlessly with the historical text, and I can say that the flow here is indeed seamless and wholly convincing at least to me. And as Quinn says himself, the feel of both narrative and characterization is surprisingly modern. “What may be most astonishing,” he writes, “is that this culture does not feel alien: it is in its unflinching observation of human nature and the broad circumstance of our existence that Gilgamesh is most enduring.”

Well, you do have to set aside our Judeo-Christian prejudices (at least during the act of reading, in order to arrive at that deeper humanity) against the cult of the Goddess, the accompanying fertility rites with their accompanying ritualized sex which constitutes part of the “paganism”that the Bible condemns (I put the word in quotation marks just to suggest the bias inherent in such terms: one man’s – or woman’s – paganism is another’s sacredness.) And yet it is even through the encounter with this strangeness, this alienness, this foreignness that we really come to the heart of what is most contemporary about this narrative.

I am alluding specifically to what Quinn refers to as “what seems to me the hidden theme in the story, the struggle between men and women for power”; and consequently his use of that theme as an organizing principle on which “to shape the overall plot” – keeping in mind that all new invention in this respect is only a matter of emphasis in filling out the historically known narrative.

This conflict arises as Gilgamesh’s new friend Enkidu comes onto the scene, invading a community founded on the authority of the Goddess Ianna with his patriarchal viewpoint. Let me try to set the stage here as briefly and clearly as possible:

Enkidu was created by the gods to satisfy Gilgamesh’s need for an equal masculine companion, a future partner in heroic exploits. Okay: so let’s just say that he was created as something of a wild man. Shamhat, a woman from the Goddess’s harem, has been sent to tame him – first, naturally enough, by introducing him to the pleasures of the flesh; then, as his guide and teacher, beginning his initiation into the ways of civilization – and to prepare him to meet Gilgamesh.

So, okay. They come to the city, where Enkidu is confronted with the king’s (Gilgamesh’s) practice – which appears to be part of the Goddess’s fertility rites; I am not an expert on these matters – of “enjoy[ing the bride’s] nectar first, / before her husband” (Tablet 2, lines 418-19). Patriarchal-minded Enkidu, in any case, finds that practice rather appalling, and Shamhat says, but no, it’s “sacred union” (line 428) and, if I am understanding correctly, essential in preparing the “ground” (my word) of the woman’s womb to be fertile. But Enkidu, who having recently “possessed” her (my quotation marks: his perspective) considers Shamhat to be his wife, is having none of it and says the following:

“‘I’ll stop this madness! A husband’s right ranks / above all others’. Lustful woman betrays / his majesty; other men must not / enter her. Marriage means submitting / to a husband’s justice. You will obey me!’” (lines 434-8).

Okay. So Enkidu has been putting this patriarchal notion in the heads of the men of the great city of Uruk – Gilgamesh’s head included. Now enter Queen Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, who I suppose is something like the head priestess of the Goddess cult, who oversees the rites of fertility. And she “and Ianna’s servants, / the temple harem, discerned ruinous changes. / Uruk’s men, faithful followers of the Goddess, / now questioned their ancestral allegiance” (lines 536-9). And then, speaking to Gilgamesh, she says: “‘Enkidu has broken Ianna’s law, / kept you from your duties with the Goddess. / He advocates the end of true marriage, / threatens women’s rightful authority’” (lines 553-6). And yet later, in Tablet 3, she again addresses Gilgamesh, who wants her blessing to accompany Enkidu on a Hero’s Quest: “‘… Look at your people! / All is cruel mockery since Enkidu arrived. / The city seethes, turbulent and divided, / our men in revolt against Ianna’s reason. / They confine their wives, steal their property, / threaten and taunt her Servants in the street’” (lines 925-30).

And yet soon there follows this sweet reconciliatory scene as Ninsun comes to accept the poor troublemaker, much bewildered by so much opposition to his notions: “She signaled, and Enkidu got to his feet, / grinning now, and stepped up to her throne. / She hung the signs and seals around his neck, / and, returning the smile said, ‘Welcome, my son!’ / Glowing, overcome by a wave of jubilation, / Enkidu could find no words to fit his feelings. // He burst out in tears, weeping, blinking, / his face shining with surprise, delight. / Wiping away his tears, at last he spoke, ‘Now I have a mother; I will cherish this …’ / In response, Ninsun caressed his cheek, / full of sympathy, sure of his devotion” (lines 1,111-22).

It is hard to deny that this tense dance between the sexes continues today. To me the hope contained in that last scene is deeply moving, and I hope we can somehow come to strike a good balance between the perhaps more benign tyranny of the Goddess and the sometimes brutal tyranny of the Patriarchal God. Putting aside (at least for the sake of argument) our Judeo-Christian prejudice against what appears to be ritualistic sexual wantonness – though personally, I find quite refreshing the humorous eroticism of earlier passages, in which Enkidu first submits to the pleasures of Shamhat’s body and then to the wisdom of her feminine guidance – there must be some insight to be gained from the old Goddess mythologies, even if we stop short of New-Age paganism ourselves.

Anyway, during the present resurgence – at home and abroad – of extreme patriarchal points of view, I don’t know which is more terrifying: that of extreme Islam as represented by the Taliban, or that of extreme Christianity which would criminalize women’s reproductive choices and (as happened not long ago in Catholic Ireland; and as some legislators would seemingly have happening in the United States) allow a woman to die rather than abort the fetus that by all evidence would not survive an hour outside of the womb – because of the existence, while the mother writhed in agony, of the slightest trace of “life” (a term I put in quotation marks because, after all, what do terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” mean when the life of a woman has so little value?).

This is a very good piece of work, in any case, which has the power over not just centuries but millenia to raise questions so pertinent to the present moment. I, for one, appreciate the labor that has gone into it, and hope that readers will flock to it.