Does Gilgamesh grow up?

The epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known. Recently made more accessible in a fresh version by Stephen Mitchell, it tells the story of an arrogant king who takes advantage of his subjects, despoils nature, and offends the gods. When his best friend dies under a god's curse, Gilgamesh seeks the secret of eternal life, hears the story of a flood that almost destroyed humankind, and finally finds, then loses a plant said to have the power of restoring youth. The story in Mitchell's version ends with Gilgamesh arriving home and describing the wonders of his great city.

The ending is disappointing. It doesn't answer the key question: Does Gilgamesh grow up and change his ways?

Did facing up to his friend's death and wandering in the wilderness in search of eternal life bring about some great alteration in Gilgamesh's behavior? The verses don't say explicitly. Some subtle clues suggest that, on his return, he at least has the potential for humility (sadly lacking in his early life) and a more neighborly attitude toward both his subjects and the gods.

Clue #1 is how Gilgamesh reaches the "island of the blessed" where dwell his ancestor Utnapishtim and his wife, who survived the great flood. (I picture them being played in the film version by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, reprising their roles as Miracle Max and his wife in The Princess Bride.) Gilgamesh glides down a river, uses dozens of poles to push a boat across a stagnant sea, then stands up and holds a robe so that the boat can sail the last distance. In other words, first he coasts -- which is what he's been doing all his life, and then he uses his own brawn -- still in keeping with how he has always lived.

However, the other shore cannot be gained by Gilgamesh's own effort; he must allow the wind to glide the boat to its landing. In the Sumerian pantheon, the wind god is Enlil, the same god who decreed that Gilgamesh's friend, Enkidu, must die. Gilgamesh stands as a mast. A mast would come from a tree, and trees were prized in Mesopotamia as spoils of war (Roberts, 2006). (Earlier in the text, after slaying a monster, Gilgamesh celebrates his victory by chopping down all the trees in the forest that the monster was guarding.) Standing in the boat, Gilgamesh offers himself to the wind, to Enlil, as a conquered state might offer trees as tribute. When he arrives at the home of Utnapishtim, he is no longer keen to do battle, but is ready to listen to his ancient ancestor reveal the secrets of the gods. A man of action, not of words, in his early life, Gilgamesh is showing signs of change.

Clue #2 is how Gilgamesh loses the magic youth-restoring plant. He lays it down while he bathes in a pool at the end of a day's traveling, and a snake smells it and carries it away, shedding its skin to show that it has been transformed (or will be, once it eats the plant). Bathing in a pool of water is also a symbol of transformation, much older than Jesus' baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. Gilgamesh is truly frustrated and sad when he dries off and realizes that his journey to the edge of the world has been in vain. But in my imagination, I can see him watching the snake's theft and deciding to do nothing about it. After all, he was having second thoughts about this "secret of youth" idea. How long would the youth last? When it wore off, would he look his actual age? Or would he still be younger, just not exactly youthful? If he ate the herb many times, would he finally turn to dust when the last dose wore off? Once the pool has revived him, he may decide that the magic plant isn't the solution after all.

Clue #3 is that, at the gates of Uruk, Gilgamesh praises the beauty of Ishtar's temple, rather than railing at her, as he did earlier in the story after she propositioned him. He is no longer angry at the gods, but I don't think he feels subservient to them either. I can imagine him sprucing up the temples, as Book I of the epic describes, not as an offering, but just as one good neighbor would help out another.

This change toward a less insular and more constructive attitude is supported by the text in Book XII, which Mitchell does not include in his translation. The additional material includes the story of the huluppa tree, which Gilgamesh cuts down for Ishtar, to make her a bed and a throne. Yes, he's still cutting down trees, but for a purpose, not in an emotional frenzy. Maybe he and Ishtar have both found that they need someone to talk to.

Whether Gilgamesh becomes a great and wise king, I can't say, but I do see him as a changed man, more ready to listen, perhaps ready to give up bluster and arrogance for a more neighborly relationship with both the gods and his own people. As Book I relates, he finally shows some concern "for the welfare of the people and the sacred land." He has at least the potential to grow further.

Mitchell, S. (2004). Gilgamesh: A new English version. New York: Free Press.

Roberts, J. (2006, July). "Centering the world": Trees as tribute in the ancient Near East. Transoxiana: Journal Libre de Estudios Orientales, 11.

Lunch with a bird of prey

In a chat last night, Mercurius put a bug in my ear about using active imagination. I decided to give it a try in the context of what I've adopted as my primary (although somewhat haphazard) spiritual practice -- hospitality. I invited Horus for a visit.

At first I was anxious about which aspect of the god would appear, but I quickly realized that he had already given me an indication a couple of weeks ago, when a dove flew into our window and was stunned, to immediately fall prey to our neighborhood hawk. This image was still fixed in my mind, and so I knew which Horus I would meet.

Feeling a little more confident that I could handle the situation, I opened the front door and in flew Horus as his full falcon-self. Everything seemed to slow down as he nodded appreciatively at the airplane models shelved over the stairwell and swooped to a perch on the top shelf of the cats' climbing structure. I touched my hand to my breastbone and bowed, as I often do when entering a sacred space. Then I looked into his eyes, which were warm and intelligent. The ceiling fan was turning, rippling his beautiful feathers ripple with a slight breeze.

He gave a couple of annoyed cries. I hadn't planned what to feed him. We'd just returned from a trip and there was no fresh meat in the refrigerator. In any case, I didn't think he would find cold flesh very appetizing. He turned to look out the window at the bird feeder, and I knew what to do. I opened the window. He hopped down from the cat shelf to the window ledge and glided swiftly and silently toward the feeder, snaring a dove in his talons. Then he carried the dove to the table on the deck, which was suddenly covered not in pollen, but in rushes reminiscent of Horus' birth and upbringing, hidden on the Nile shore. He devoured his lunch as I pulled up a chair to watch at a respectful distance, but feeling surprisingly at ease. The cats sat tall (and safe) on the screen porch overlooking the deck, Agador as usual a little restless as his natural hunter-self thought about what he'd like to do with a dove. Dymka was more serene.

A noise startled Horus and he flew away with the rest of the dove's body, leaving behind just a pile of gray feathers. I swept them and the bloodied rushes into a brown paper bag for the spring brush pickup, happy that they would be recycled back into someone's garden in a year or two.

Some useful observations from this experience:

  • You can issue invitations, but you can't control who will actually come.

  • Even with invited guests, you can set boundaries. I wasn't going to let Horus bring his prey into the house. He had to consume it outside.

  • Guests may leave suddenly and without ceremony. Still, be grateful for the time you had in their company.


Strange night at Roxy's café

Horus, Coyote, and Thor went to their favorite café one evening this week. Prometheus had planned to join them, but he went to bed early -- it's hard to get a good night's sleep when your liver is healing from being torn by an eagle all day long. They were all hoping to get a mega dose of magnificent mocha from Roxy, the star barista, but the café atmosphere was rather odd.

It's not that big a café, just a couple of rooms, and hardly busy at 10 at night, but Coyote was told he couldn't get in because he was already in. The same thing happened to Thor: He couldn't enter the café because he was already inside. How very odd! To be in, but not in. And too bad, because they'd both dressed up for the occasion. Coyote was in a fine black suit, and Thor sported a new helmet and armor obtained at the Nebula.

Horus was able to enter the café, but when he didn't see either of the other two there yet, he went off to the bathroom to change into a different aspect -- it's hard to sip coffee when you have a beak for a mouth. He chose his Harpokrates (Horus-the-child) look, an athletic youth with a fashionably long side lock and a touch of eyeliner to suggest the udjat eye.

"Blue is a nice change from my usual black eyeliner," thought Horus. (Photo by BrittneyBush)

Horus ordered a cup of mocha java from Roxy and then noticed the sign over the espresso machine: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, we have no fresh coffee. All the coffee is made from old beans, batch number 7. We had to destroy our most recent coffee shipments because they produced a hallucinatory brew that makes you feel like you're in, but not in."

Bewildered, the three friends exchanged text messages and confirmed that they were all indeed at the right café. (Fortunately, this didn't happen the night of the Blackberry blackout.) Horus found a private room that had a back door and opened it to let Thor in. Thor found another room and let Coyote in, but there was no way all three could be in the same room.

I asked Horus later why the three of them, with all their divine powers, couldn't have just opened a door between the private rooms. He said that even gods have limits, that they still have to play by the rules of the universe. The main difference between humans and gods, he explained, is that humans see only part of the rules, while gods know them all. What keeps the gods so aware of these universal truths is the way humans keep retelling creation stories, constantly adapting them to fit new surroundings and new cultures. It's like Marie-Louise von Franz wrote in Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths, "The unconscious re-tells part of the creation myth to restore conscious life and the conscious awareness of reality again." We humans aren't aware of what we're doing when we keep the gods alive in this way.