Ecological Themes in Gilgamesh
This page in a nutshell: Not only does Gilgamesh learn how to treat others, but maybe implicitly how to treat the environment.
While the epic of Gilgamesh is best known for its themes of friendship, worldly renown, and quest for immortality, it also seems to be concerned with the inexorable spread of humanity on this planet. While the epic upholds and even advocates the pioneering and trailblazing spirit of humanity, there seems to live within the lines of the text a sort of lament for the nature that is lost when civilization encroaches on the forests, the seas, and the mountains. And even while Enkidu and Gilgamesh are punished by their killing of Humbaba and subsequent slaying of the Bull of Heaven, humanity’s progress seems to take the forefront in this epic of heroic endeavors. Yet, the these ecological concerns seem to be linked to the greater fate of the heroes and the people that they represent, and sounds a note of caution about overstepping our bounds.
Much of Gilgamesh concerns the theme of taming the natural or the unruly which seems to stand in direct opposition both literally and figuratively to civilization. Humanity seems to be a product, or at least a requirement, of civilization: Gilgamesh must learn to temper his lust for women and violence; Enkidu must learn the “woman’s art,” shave and comb his hair, drink wine and eat bread — the “custom of the land” — and wear clothes. In fact, the first book of the epic concerns itself with this civilizing of both heroes. After the warriors battle each other, they seem to short circuit the animal in each other, both tempering each other’s behavior and social practices so that they are simpatico with the custom of the land. Yet, once they have learned control, this aggression must soon be directed outward to other feats of taming.
The heroes’ killing of Humbaba is at best a dubious undertaking. However, seen in the light of what might be called manifest destiny — akin to that pioneering attitude of the American spirit — what are the heroes of a culture to do but help that culture to survive, prosper, and spread. While Humbaba might not have been an immediate threat to Uruk, the idea of Humbaba is what keeps humans living in fear, shaking in their caves of superstition and ignorance. Like true heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the scapegoats for their people: they will face what the majority cannot, defeat the evil, and usher in a new era of prosperity for their society.
However, like manifest destiny, this undertaking speaks of humanity’s arrogance when it comes to exploitation or the environment. When they kill Humbaba, they begin to fell the cedars, literally for the continued construction of Uruk, and figuratively for the reasons I mentioned above. However, in killing Humbaba — what Gilgamesh calls “evil . . . ‘Hugeness,’ a ferocious giant” — a confusing and chaotic scene, suggesting that perhaps Humbaba is a manifestation of the psyches of the heroes, Gilgamesh and Enkidu take what they want from nature, leaving only destruction of the environment in order to ensure the prosperity of their people. Something glorious dies with the cedars: “the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest.” Subsequently, when they have slain Humbaba, they go to work on the forest: “They attacked the cedars, the seven splendors of Humbaba were extinguished . . . and while Gilgamesh felled the first of the trees of the forest Enkidu cleared the roots as far as the banks of the Euphrates.” While it’s uncertain what the seven splendors were, the latter part suggests that perhaps one of them is the old growth trees of the forest, the “first of the trees” that Gilgamesh cuts down, presumably the tallest, straightest, and largest.
As a result of their desolation of the forest, Enkidu is sentenced to die by the gods. Perhaps this consequence should be a warning to a humanity that must destroy to prosper, rathe than live in harmony with our natural surroundings. It seems that our current need for oil has sent us again to the banks of the Euphrates, unconcerned with the trees that we fell and its consequences that are bound to make themselves apparent in our immediate future. As Enkidu lies dying, he curses the gates of the city, the same gates that are made out of the cedars that they fell and that represent humanity’s ostracized position from nature. Will his bittersweet lesson be ours?
Perhaps these concerns help to explain book five, “The Story of the Flood”? It seems that even before Gilgamesh and Enkidu, humanity spread like a virus on the face of the planet, so obscenely so that Enlil had had enough:
|“||In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor. Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in the council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.||”|
Yet, Ea takes pity of Utnapishtim and warns him: “tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly good and save your soul alive.” Seemingly a new age attitude millennia ago: get back to nature to save your life, except in this case literally. Interestingly enough, Ea tells Utnapishtim to take into the boat the “seed of all living creatures,” suggesting that humans are simply one of many in nature, nothing more special or more deserving. This then is not a moral issue, but one of survival. If we forget the forests, mountains, and seas where we were born, perhaps it is just those things that might spell our destruction.
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.” 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.
- The first part of this entry was originally published on August 26, 2004. Part two on February 10, 2005.
- Lawall, Sarah N.; Mack, Maynard, eds. (1999). "The Epic of Gilgamesh". Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition. 1. Translated by Sandars, N. K. (7th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. p. 41.
- Lawall & Mack 1999, p. 46.