By Dan Amor
This tale is about the limits of ambition. It is about power, about piety, and about man’s inhumanity to man and life’s timeless lessons to man. Our tale is also about the beauty of friendship and the greatness of human curiosity and valour. Gilgamesh, the hero of this ancient epic is part God and part man. He is the pious King of the city-state of Uruk. He is a great builder and a dreamer. Of great but at first unguided power, and with a burning vision, Gilgamesh is humanised by his friend, Enkidu, and after his friend’s death, he searches for answers to life’s mysteries, which always elude him. At first, Gilgamesh is a notorious despot. His oppressed subjects pray for relief, which the gods give to them in Enkidu – a natural, innocent Demi-god who lives and runs with wild animals. Hearing of this danger, Gilgamesh, by a clever ruse, deprives Enkidu of his natural, animal power. But Enkidu is still a threat and attacks Gilgamesh to regain his stolen power. Though Gilgamesh wins the fight, the two Demi-gods learn quickly to respect each other’s valour. Under the influence of Enkidu’s moral strength and advice, Gilgamesh becomes just and wise. In other words, the epic seems to say that through humanity and friendship comes justice. But there is also greatness and Gilgamesh wants it. His ambition is to break through into an unknown territory, and with Enkidu, he embarks on an adventure into “The land of the Cedars”, (i.e. The forests of Lebanon).
Fame is his desire; Shamash, the Sun-God, is his guide. After conquering the protector of the forests – the giant Humbaba, Gilgamesh strips the forests of trees, presumably to build Uruk into a great city. In short, ambition and piety combine to produce greatness. At the end of all greatness, however, there is death. Because Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill a sacred bull belonging to the goddess, Ishtar, the gods decree that Enkidu must die. Enkidu is quickly stricken with illness; he languishes and dies. In mourning and despair, Gilgamesh himself concludes that ‘The end of life is sorrow.” Then come human fragility, frustration and grief. Lamenting his friend’s death, Gilgamesh determines to seek the immortal Utu-Napishtim, who lives in Dilmun, the Garden of the Sun, and to ask him for the secret of eternal life. Though Gilgamesh is told that he will never find this life, he is resolute: “Let my eyes see the sun,’ he says, “until they are dazzled with looking. Although I am no better than a dead man, still, let me see the light of the sun.” After discouragement and difficulty, Gilgamesh reaches Utu-Napishtim (the ancient Assyrian equivalent of the Biblical Noah) whose narrative is lengthy. Generations earlier, Utu-Napishtim had been chosen by the God-of-the-Sweet-Waters, Ea, to preserve all species. Seven seems to be Utu-Napishtim’s magic number: seven days of building the boat; six days of storm and a seventh of calm; seven days around on Mount Nisir before learning that the flood has receded. As a reward, the Earth-and-Air God En Lil, gave Utu-Napishtim eternal life. It is to obtain this secret that Gilgamesh has travelled to Dilmun.
As the epic constantly shows, however, all human dreams come to nothing. Gilgamesh gains the secret of eternal life – an underwater plant – but it is stolen from him by a serpent. There is nothing left but death for our king. Returning to Uruk, he quickly succumbs to the inevitable and almost automatic death, which, try as he might to avoid, was always his destiny. But our one and only Gilgamesh is , indeed, very hard to understand. He is seen primarily through the eyes of fifth columnists who impart value judgment to much of his story. He is also the subject of much interpretation and misinterpretation by many people, so much so that we hear many views of him. In addition, our man is the principal figure in a richly symbolic tragicomedy, so that much of what he says and does is relevant or irrelevant to most people at most times. In this respect, his individuality is sacrificed to his existence as a symbol of good and bad. Despite all these difficulties, however, Gilgamesh emerges as a fully developed individual. To my mind, the key to the understanding of his character is that he is a man capable of imagining the best in himself and for his tribesmen and for his circuit clowns and court jesters generally – a man whose action at any given moment is controlled by an idea of who is the most sycophantic to his wild dreams. Our man is, in the word of literary experts, is a romantic, and I would add here that he is an introspective dreamer.
I believe that his character is made clear by three incidents in his life all of which are concerned with power and its aftermath: he rode to the highest office in his country through a coup just to satisfy his insatiable quest for power and was equally summarily sacked by other virtuosos of the intricate power calculus; he rode once again to power through invidious national and international conspiracy and has refused to yield to any natural infirmity requiring him to step down. His ability to keep his subjects guessing about his state of health is symptomatic of his preference for physical over mental heroism. And his subjects’ constant cry for him to speak out on his supposed ambition in relation to his physical constitution hurts his own high evaluation of himself. Rather, his preferred style is to govern his kingdom from abroad through jackals, hyenas and baboons while his subjects are melted into total extinction at the hands of poverty and hunger. Imbued with the African ideals of manhood characterized by show of force and braggadocio, he had been dreaming of his power to save his kingdom from sleaze and economic quagmire. But when the opportunity comes to lead in a rescue operation, he appears to have missed the boat. He does not jump. His opponents and bashers have murmured that staying permanently on medical vacation abroad at the expense of the public and keeping a presidential jet and crew on standby for months on end, is the worst form of corruption.
From this point, Gilgamesh becomes a drifter. For his ambition to cling to power has given his subjects a hint of the basic indecision (cowardice would be too strong a word at this point) which is worrying the bubble of his own self esteem. This major incident brings out the depths of his being- that inner panic which destroys all his conscious dreams for his nation – by causing a single cowardly act despite his supposed good intentions. Didn’t psychologists say that only men whose cupboards are full of skeletons cling to power permanently in other to cheat justice? With Gilgamesh’s depths thus exposed, we believe he feels morally naked, without the privacy that most of us have, unless he confesses to his subjects and officially hands over power to his deputy as the constitution demands. His conscious dream of what he thinks is right while playing dice game with the collective destiny of his country has enabled him to face the consequences of his real guilt, which is leading the group of conspirators who frustrated Enkidu out of power thus plunging his nation into an endless economic doom , poverty and starvation.
As we all know, our man is convinced of the value of his dream, and always behaves to type. These are the conscious virtues, to which Gilgamesh adheres closely, since they are the embodiment of his character as a dreamer and of his ambition. Yet, admittedly, King Gilgamesh is a puzzling character, since his characteristics show that human life is a mystery and since we never really get inside him. But God has used his case to demonstrate that, if life has its depths, it also has its high points and vissisitudes. At the highest points, a human being willing to live out his dream, if this dream has value and ennobles mankind, can justify that life is elevated and great. Gilgamesh, with all his frailties, is a truly great representation of a ruler, having met and conquered life’s greatest obstacle- the climax of ambition. Yet our epic concludes on the ideas that life is brief and filled with sorrow; that the desire for power does not satisfy, and that the quest for eternal life here on earth cannot succeed. Therefore, man’s noblest achievement is love, justice, fairness, moderation and kindness to others during life.