Wisdom In Gilgamesh Epic

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Posted by farid from customer-148-233-78-77.uninet.net.mx ( on Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 1:19PM :

It's no secret by now which way my prejudice lies. I am Assyrian, of BetNahrain...I respect my Semetic cousins, the Jews and Arabs, but not enough to throw over my own ancestry...especially as I can see how eagerly these same cousins themselves sought it out, were inspired by and benefitted from it. Since Judaism came first of the Three Sisters and in its reformed version, named after the Jewish Messiah, Christ...and since this same Christianity has been fobbed off on generations of our children as the real and true and better and right and modern religion of Assyrians, to our obvious detriment and ultimate undoing...my argument is with it...or rather those practitioners who would insist that it suits us far better than anything we ever had...for which and by way of proof they point to our "survival" underneath the foot of anyone who cares to step on us. This may be Christian survival alright...but it's hardly something that grew organically from our own past as Assyrians. We were as raped and mutilated by Christianity as we ever were by Islam.

It's "natural", understandable and forgiveable that a Jew would want to go somewhere else to live...it's not at all even intelligible why someone from the heart of BetNahrain would ever have wanted to...until Judaism, in its Christian and Muslim versions got through with us...and they aren't yet.

Someone said to me that Mankind, meaning just that...Men, or the best among them, have always been troubled by and consumed with finding answers to the Big Questions, that this proves what a superior sort they are. Where did we come from? Who put us here and why? That damned pagan, Socrates, said that no one could answer these questions and was a fool for trying...give the gods, or god, their due as guardians of public morals and let the rest go...concentrate instead on living an upright life, one that seeks to do good while on earth. And long before this subtle Heathen learned his wisdom the Sumerians realized much the same thing and expressed it marvellously well in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh goes seeking answers to these very same Big Questions. He's driven to it, as are all of those who've wondered if this life on earth can really be all there is...who go to bed nights worrying that a piece of wonderful flesh, such as these same great-thinking men fancy themselves, can really be allowed to rot away in the earth like some bit of garbage...by fear and horor because he sees firsthand what he can expect when his dear friend, Enkidu, dies. The kindly and industrious worm he sees nibbling, like any good Christian, on his friend's corpse fills him with horror at his own inescapable death, compelling him to ask those Big Questions. And he doesn't just wonder and bore his dinner mates to death over it...he goes out to roam the ends of the earth to find the answers.

After passing through every sort of classic travail, Gilgamesh finds himself no nearer to a Big Answer...at least not to those infernal Big Questions he set out to find. But he comes back home a better husband and friend because he finds an answer he never went looking for, an answer he wasn't bright enough to grasp at first when he was playing the mad ruffian back in Uruk...just the sort of would ask those Big Questions. Gilgamesh returns just as ignorant about the Big Answers as when he set out, only he's far wiser now, a new-made man who isn't rooted in fear and an overblown estimation of his worth and the tragic loss he would be to the Universe if he reverted to dust.

To me, the quintessence of Mesopotamian wisdom, at polar opposites to our other cousins, lies in the figure of the Divine Barmaid who gives Gilgamesh the answer he didn't go looking for, the one which calms his restless and fearful soul. Simply put she tells him that immortality was reserved by the gods for themselves, death they gave to mankind...and that's the long and the short of it. Roam where you will, pester whom you will, there is no escaping that fact. And the beauty of her advice, which follows, is that it does indeed calm the overheated spirit, soothes the arrogant mind and focuses one's attention on the beauty of a life well lived, here on earth...as we can see in the Gilgamesh who returns to his kingdom...a better man and king. Not for finding any answers to those Big Questions which his earlier wilder and irresponsible character made him liable to go seeking...just the sort of scatterbrained egotist you'll find storming about in the Old Testicle...but because he realizes there are no answers, that there can be no answers and therefore a man has to be a fool and a potentially dangerous one to those around him, if he persists in trying to play, or play up to, God.

The Barmaid tells Gilgamesh to go home, to bathe, wear clean clothes and here is the uniquely Mesopotamian world view...clasp his lady faire to his heart, take his child by the hand and...Live.

But...say a legion of Hobgoblins, what of life everlasting...what of Paradise on earth or in the sky...what of the terrors of a rotting grave...what of the pleasure of seeing the gods face to face...and how many miles is it to heaven if you fly straight there after death..and how long do you have to dally in Purgatory etc.? Shouldn't a man's time on earth be spent getting ready to die...to be reborn and live forever somewhere else? To which a Sumerian and his and her descendants would have said..."no, it is infinitely better to not trouble yourself or, more to the point, your neighbors about these things since in reality every answer to the Big Questions is born of the little mind that asks it, afraid of the dark and its own demise.

One other thing about asking the Big Questions. Since fear and ignorance fuels this drive to find Big Answers...answers no one has any certain knowledge as to their validity...coming from a Big Fear that MUST be quelled...each Big Answer has its frantic devotees who, without a shred of proof, nonetheless and perhaps because of that...must conquer his or her own doubts by smashing all those who hold an opposing and equally silly belief in their own Big Answers.

A Big Fool can only be reassured when everyone else is the same sort of fool he is...that's in the nature of being a fool...a Big One. Knowing there is an entirely different sort of fool down the way is galling because it proves the existence of fools in general...and if he, or she, or that guy down the road is a fool, as even you can see...maybe then YOU'RE one as well.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, told as an adventure story...has more wisdom and good counsel in it than 9/10 of the bible does...the remaining 1/10, besides, coming from BetNahrain, among others. I like Gilgamesh, as a person...I would have enjoyed his company...and I could have sat and chatted with the Divine Barmaid a long time and come away far wiser and more importantly, much happier, than I could have from the company of any one of those rapscallion Prophets and even Jesus, who unwittingly gave us the arguments by which we could grow ever stronger in barbarism and cruelty...in our ongoing and silly quest to answer those Big Questions...and go live among the Gods.

-- farid
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