February 10, 2005

From Gerald R. Lucas

Follow-Up to Ecological Themes in Gilgamesh

I have always been curious as to why that damn flood episode is in Gilgamesh. I mean, it seems so out of place and disrupts the unity of the narrative. I know that Utnapishtim’s immortality and wisdom has to be explained (it does, right?) in some way, but do we really need the whole flood narrative that links the epic to its Hebrew neighbors? I seem to be on to something above, but it took an email form a colleague to crystalize it.

I’m a teaching a course [. . .] on classical literature and started out with Gilgamesh, which we’re finishing tomorrow. I ended my last class with an article the appeared in The Independent on the impact of global warming, sensing that there was a relation but I didn’t quite make the link. I was struck by the flood episode and saw in the catastrophic scenarios described in the article a relation. But while doing some searches for my class tomorrow I came upon the article on your website, and I was amazed to find that you make a connection between the destruction of the Cedar Forest and the consequent death of Enkidu as a warning. The flood is also interesting seen in that light, overpopulation, overextension,… Maybe the flood was a man-made environmental catastrophe? Anyway, I wanted to share that with you and I’m glad to see that I was not totally off course. I would be glad to share other thoughts I have on this fascinating epic.

By all means, share those thoughts. Your email helped solidify some of my earlier thoughts on this epic: could parts of Gilgamesh’s appeal be this warning? I’m sure that many will agree that one of the lessons that we take from Gilgamesh is that of the importance of community and how we treat others, especially if we find ourselves in a position of power. In another entry, I write:

Do not abuse power, “deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun.”[1] Gilgamesh is both “the darkness and the light of mankind” in that he brought suffering, but ultimately brought life to his people in the form of the story. What directions for life are contained within the epic?

Perhaps part of abusing that power is our relentless (mis)use of our natural resources? Nature seems to have a way of fighting back. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the recent tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed over 100,000 people is a result of humanity’s mistreatment of the planet, but it does show that in the face of nature’s power, we really are no more than ants trying to keep our hill together. Perhaps we need to pay due respect to the environment that shaped our evolution, rather than recklessly thinking, like Gilgamesh, that we can do anything we want with impunity.

Kai, thanks for the email. Please comment more, since I probably left quite a bit out.