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THE BABYLONIAN EPIC OF GILGAMESH

THE BABYLONIAN EPIC OF GILGAMESH


LIKE India, Greece and other countries, Babylonia had its great national epic centering around a hero named Gilgamesh. His feats remind us of the labors of Hercules and, like the latter, he was supposed to be a purely mythical character until, among some clay tablets found at Nippur a few years ago, was a list of historical dynasties in which Gilgamesh is mentioned as a king of Uruk (or Erech). Follows now the startling revelation by Col L. A. Waddell, in a book on The Indo-Sumerian Seals (1926) that "the Haryas'wa of the Vedas and Indian Epics and the Ur-Nina of the Assyriologists, generally regarded as the first great dynast of the early Sumerians,...is the son of the great Hercules of the Phoenicians and Greeks, here conclusively identified with Gilgamesh of Erech, and now disclosed for the first time as a historical Aryan-Sumerian-Phoenician king and great sun priest of Bel of relatively fixed date, about 3150 B.C."

As the Gilgamesh Epic has been reconstructed from thousands of broken pieces, it is exceedingly fragmentary; interesting to few besides the historian and archaeologist. To the theosophical student its chief appeal lies in its many indications that against a background of legend and history is depicted the drama of one "striving for perfection." The poem is divided into twelve books, which probably correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac, with which the twelve great "labors" of Hercules have usually been associated.

The narrative opens with a complaint of the people of Erech that Gilgamesh has taken away their sons and daughters and they appeal to the goddess Aruru to create a man who may be "equal to taking up the fight against him." Accordingly Aruru forms "a man of Anu in her heart," then breaks off clay and throws it upon the ground. Thus is created Enkidu, the hero, "a lofty offspring of the host of Ninib." But his body is covered with hair like an animal, he eats and drinks with the animals, and upsets the traps of the hunter who, in order to catch him, sends to him an Ukhat. The woman bids him "Come, arise from the accursed ground!" Enkidu obeys her entreaty, learns to eat human food, drinks seven jars of wine, so that "his heart became glad and his face shone," is clothed by her, anointed with oil, and finally becomes a shepherd, protecting the fold from attacks of lions and other wild beasts.

Now Gilgamesh has two dreams. In the first, something heavy falls upon him from heaven, almost crushing him with its weight. He manages to take the burden to his mother, who says it forebodes the coming of one like himself, born in the mountain, and to whom all will pay homage and to whom he himself will become deeply attached. In the second dream he sees one like himself, brandishing an axe; this, his mother explains, is none other than Enkidu. Conducted by the woman to Erech, Enkidu meets Gilgamesh and immediately ensues a fierce combat in which Gilgamesh is worsted; nevertheless thereafter the two become inseparable. Gilgamesh is referred to as the "younger brother," slightly taller than Enkidu, who is otherwise his exact counterpart, except that on some cylinders he is represented with animal hoofs and horns.

The first task undertaken by the two is an attack upon Huwawa, the mighty guardian of the cedar forest, whose mouth emitted fire and whose breath was death. The elders try to dissuade Gilgamesh from so perilous an undertaking, Enkidu declares that even his strength is not sufficient, but Gilgamesh upbraids his companion for such cowardice, affirms his reliance upon Shamash (the sun-god) and says, "If I fall, I will establish my name." At last having received favorable oracles from the gods and being advised by the elders to wash his feet in the stream of Huwawa, the two set out, Enkidu leading, because he is acquainted with the way. After this exploit in which Huwawa is conquered, the goddess Ishtar offers herself in marriage to Gilgamesh, and enraged at his rejection of her suit, appeals to her father Anu to avenge the insult. Accordingly, Anu sends a winged bull which Enkidu seizes by the tail, adding insult to injury by flinging a piece of the carcass into the angry goddess' face.

As punishment, he is smitten with a fatal illness to which he succumbs after twelve days. Then begins a long course of wanderings by Gilgamesh who, also afflicted with disease, seeks both healing and immortal life. The quest brings him to the portal guarded by the scorpion-men of terrifying aspect, who allow him to pass unmolested but warn him of the increasing difficulties of the way. Undaunted, our hero gropes along until he comes to a tree covered with precious stones and bearing beautiful fruit. Passing beyond this he reaches the sea where he meets a maiden who tells him that his search for immortality is vain, he might better eat, drink and be merry. When, despite her attempts to discourage him, he expresses his determination to go on, she unbars the portal and he continues his course until he comes to another sea and even to the waters of death, over which no one but Shamash has crossed.

Following the directions of the ferryman, although the current is very strong, twelve strokes bring him to his desired haven and he stands face to face with Utnaphistim, the survivor of the flood, who has in addition become immortal. Utnaphistim relates the story of the deluge and then, in pity for the hero, puts him to sleep for six days and seven nights. During this time Utnaphistim's wife concocts a magic food which Gilgamesh eats upon waking and "of a sudden the man was transformed," although his body is covered with sores; these he finally washes away so that he becomes as white as snow. Still Gilgamesh has not found the secret of immortal life. At last the woman tells him where to find the plant called "the restoration of old age to youth," which he plucks, but alas! no sooner is it in his grasp than a devil, in the form of a serpent, snatches it from him. Gilgamesh is grief-stricken at the loss and is obliged to return to Erech without having obtained the object of his quest.

Many explanations of this poem have been offered. Prof. Jastrow believes the name Gilgamesh is not Babylonian -- which lends support to Col. Waddell's conclusions -- and that the first episode, the complaint of the people of Erech, is a reminiscence of the extension of Gilgamesh's domain by the conquest of the city. The creation of Enkidu by the goddess follows the universal tradition: he is the "man of dust," or more precisely, of the Babylonian clay, while the description of his person answers to that of similar half-animal tribes found in various parts of the world even at the present time. Curiously enough, Enkidu's environment differs but little from that of Adam who, in Genesis ii:19-20, is surrounded by the animals and in Chapter iii:17, "cursed is the ground" which he has to till; while Eve finds a partial counterpart in the Ukhat who entices the man from the companionship of the animals and leads him to Erech, the whole episode symbolizing the evolution of man from a savage or "mindless" state to a self-conscious, civilized life.

The meeting of Gilgamesh with Enkidu, or his kind, who serves the former in his subsequent undertakings may have an historical basis. A similar tribe was used by Rama in his war with the king of Lanka and by their sacrificial service must have merited the right to enter upon a higher evolutionary round. On the other hand, the fact that Enkidu is the exact counterpart of Gilgamesh with only the addition of hoofs and horns, is an indication that we may read the poem metaphysically. Enkidu may well stand for the human body. He is "a man of Anu," in biblical phraseology "a man of God," for Anu was one of the Babylonian trinity. But the word anu in Sanscrit, which was well known in Babylonia, means an atom, hence the atomic man is a primary or astral form. In the dreams of Gilgamesh that follow, the heavy weight which falls upon him may typify the heavy responsibility assumed by the beings who incarnated in the "mindless" physical forms in the third Round, also the heavy burden which he and every man assumes whenever they enter a new physical body; for it is said that upon the threshold of devachan lie in wait the skandhas (the tendencies, in large part evil) which were engendered in the preceding life or lives, and which go to make up the new astral body of the reincarnating Ego.

Therefore, Gilgamesh takes the burden to his mother. The second dream in which he sees some one just like himself is, as his mother explains, Enkidu, the forthcoming personality or body. So Gilgamesh represents the Higher Triad in man. He had built the seven walls that surround Erech, he is described as "the seven-fold hero," two-thirds god and one-third human, while the signs composing his name are said to be a picture of fire under a bowl, or issuing from a torch. What is this but the light of Manas? He is also called the "younger brother," just as the Pandus in the Gita are the younger tribe, because they have appeared last on this plane of matter. As soon as Gilgamesh meets Enkidu there is the inevitable conflict between the higher and the lower self in which the latter is for the time conqueror, but afterwards Enkidu becomes the best of servants, doing with his hands the deeds which Gilgamesh, with the light of mind, points out to be done. Although Enkidu is aware that his strength is not sufficient, as is the leader of the Kurus, by his alliance with Gilgamesh he is able to overcome the foe.

And what is the cedar forest in which dwells the beast Huwawa, but the forest of our own nature? Then there is the curious advice of the elders that Gilgamesh wash his feet in the stream of Huwawa! May we not find an interpretation of this passage in Light on the Path? "Before the soul can stand in the presence of the Masters its feet must be washed in the blood of the heart." For the beast of evil "lives fruitfully in the heart of the devoted disciple as well as in the heart of the man of desire."

The episode of Ishtar occurs in the sixth book or sign, and Enkidu's killing of the bull which follows may typify the killing out of the purely animal nature, after which the next portal guarded by the scorpion-men may with safety be passed, although the darkness deepens as our hero proceeds. It will be instructive at this point to turn to another guide-book on this "small old path," The Voice of the Silence, and note how Gilgamesh's experiences tally with it. "The more thou dost advance, the more thy feet pitfalls will meet. The Path that leadeth on is lighted by one fire -- the light of daring burning in the heart. The more one dares, the more he shall obtain. The more he fears, the more that light shall pale -- and that alone can guide." The scorpion-men are at the mountain of Mashu, and Prof. Jastrow says that Mashu was a name applied to the Arabian desert, and that even the bold Assyrian armies hesitated before passing through this region. Hence he thinks this episode may refer to some expedition to Southern Arabia.

This may be true; for can we not see that the Path of the disciple is two-fold, manifesting as objective achievement -- the facts of history and biography -- and as subjective metempsychoses, or the desires, motives, choices which constitute the real journey of the soul -- the Path "without moving" as distinguished from the moving path of effects? Because of this parallelism, history and story may be employed as a symbol of soul experiences, following the Hermetic axiom, "As above, so below." As within, so without. Since many meanings may be implied by the successive steps taken by Gilgamesh, we leave the student to think them out for himself.

And now the "Pilgrim" pushes on even to the "waters of death," which no one but the Sun-god had ever crossed, and he crosses over them -- daring antetype of Columbus and Lindbergh! For did not these men pass over tracts of sea and air never traversed before by any but the sun-god in the heavens? Some commentators have suggested that the journey over the waters of death referred to a voyage to Atlantis, not an impossible adventure considering the maritime skill of the Phoenicians. Where these waters were, insofar as we may interpret them as navigable seas, does not really matter. It would appear, however, that Gilgamesh journeyed to some great Sage at a distance, possibly to India.

We will recall that the American "witnesses on the scene" made long journeys to some central Lodge and Great Chohan for the ostensible purpose of getting the rejuvenating Elixir of Life. At all events, when Gilgamesh found this "Immortal One," he recognized him as his Master. Arjuna, with Krishna at his side, did not know that he was a Master, but asked him what such a being looked like. When Gilgamesh saw Utnaphistim he was astonished to find that in outward appearance he was no different from himself. So it is said that one may live in the same house with a Master and never recognize him as such. So, too, the Ego, who thinks himself only man, may waken himself to knowledge of his own Divinity.

And now Utnaphistim proceeds to tell Gilgamesh about the flood. That this episode existed independently of its setting in the epic is certain, for it was a universal tradition, and followed an older version in which the survivor's name is Atrakhasis, meaning "The Very Wise One." We also see that the story is the model for the account in Genesis. Utnaphistim says Ea warned him in a dream of the approaching cataclysm and instructed him to build a vessel and to catch fish and birds. After completing the "ark," he loaded it with silver and gold and "all living beings of all kinds" and then brought his family and household and workmen on board. At lastó

"The fixed time approached,
When the rulers of darkness at even-time were to
cause a terrible rain-storm.
I recognized the symptoms of [such] a day,
A day, for the appearance of which I was in terror."
The hurricane raged so furiously that even the gods were terrified and crouched like dogs in enclosure. For six days it continued to sweep over the land
"When the seventh day approached, the hurricane
and cyclone ceased the combat,
The sea grew quiet, the evil storm abated, the
cyclone was restrained.
I looked at the day and the roar had quieted down,
And all mankind had turned to clay.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I looked in all directions of the sea.
At a distance of twelve [miles] an island appeared.
At Mount Nizir the ship stood still.
Mount Nizir took hold of the ship so that it could not move.
When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth a dove, letting it free.
Not finding a resting-place, it came back.
I sent forth a swallow, letting it free.
The swallow went hither and thither.
Not finding a resting-place, it came back.
I sent forth a raven, letting it free.
The raven went and saw the decrease of the water,
It ate, croaked, but did not come back."


Then Utnaphistim made a sacrifice to the gods, who "smelled the sweet odor" and "like flies gathered around the sacrifice." Ea took this occasion to upbraid the leader and warrior of the gods for bringing on this terrible deluge and confesses that he warned Utnaphistim so that the latter might be saved and mankind not completely destroyed. Enlil then blesses the survivors, saying:
"Hitherto Utnaphistim was a man:

Now Utnaphistim and his wife shall be on a level
with the gods.
Utnaphistim shall dwell in the distance, at the
confluence of the streams."

Utnaphistim's tale ended, Gilgamesh is put into a trance-sleep, is "transformed," healed of his sores, and told where to find the elixir of life, a plant, which he plucks. Just as he is about to achieve immortality, the narrative continues, he waits to bathe in a cool cistern. A serpent snatches the precious plant from him. After this, Gilgamesh returns to Erech, where he evokes the shade of Enkidu and asks for information about the life after death, but the ghost says he can give no knowledge to Gilgamesh.

Such is the apparently inglorious ending to this ancient Epic -- tragedy of failure where one would anticipate a glorious climax. What may be its meaning? Considering the view of Col. Waddell that Gilgamesh may be identified with the Grecian Hercules one would conclude that, like that hero, Gilgamesh should have been admitted to the circle of the gods. Other scholars reach a more abstract opinion and think that the fate of Gilgamesh is intended to teach that the search for immortality is useless, that death does, indeed, "end all," even for the most heroic man.

But Theosophists who have studied "The Secret Doctrine" and "The Voice of the Silence" and gained some insight into the symbolisms in which are recorded the various Paths pursued in the course of Evolution, Spiritual and Psychic as well as physical, may read other meanings into or out of this old Epic. It is true that "great ones fall back, even from the threshold, unable to sustain the weight of their responsibility, unable to pass on;" and so, "when the victory is all but won, it is lost" -- as recited in Light on the Path. But the whole course of Gilgamesh, as narrated in the Poem, is against this supposition, let alone the false psychology of leading the hero of a great religious Epic, which we must assume to have excited the reverence of a whole people for long ages, to final failure after having triumphed over every obstacle. Nor does the narrative lend itself to the supposition that Gilgamesh personifies or typifies a practitioner of or devotee to Atlantean Black magic.

Rather, one would think, Gilgamesh, having reached to the mystic plant, the "Shangna robe," or plant of the Voice of the Silence, pauses indeed, to bathe in the "cool cistern" in which, if he will, he can gain "oblivion of the World and men for ever" by choosing the Path of "Liberation" rather than that of "Renunciation." But -- who knows? -- the Serpent in the Epic may have said to Gilgamesh:

"The choice is thine....But stay, Disciple....
Yet one word. Canst thou destroy divine COMPASSION?"

And Gilgamesh may have replied, as in the "Voice:" "OM! I believe that the Nirvana-Dharma is entered not by all the Buddhas," and so have chosen the "Secret Path" of the Nirmanakaya, to live and work in the Ethereal world where, as in the physical, he would find his shadow, "Enkidu."




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