Gilgamesh: A Comparative Study

Posted: 03/07/2012 in Mythology

The following constitutes a brief comparative study of the themes found within the Epic of Gilgamesh and world mythologies. It is by no means exhaustive. The themes and characters within the epic are denoted in bold, capital letters and underlined. The relevant comparisons in world myth are denoted in bold.

ENKIDU

“So the goddess conceived an image in her mind, and it was of the stuff of Anu of the firmament…”

“His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Sanuqan’s, the goddess of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”

“He is the strongest in the world, he is like an immortal from heaven.”

“A man unlike any other is roaming now in the pastures; he is as strong as a star from heaven and I am afraid to approach him.”

“‘Mother, last night I had a dream. I was full of joy, the young heroes were around me, and I walked through the night under the stars of the firmament, and one, a meteor of the stuff of Anu, fell down from heaven. I tried to lift it but it proved too heavy…I braced my forehead and I raised it with thongs and brought it to you, and you yourself pronounced it my brother.’”

“ ‘Mother, I dreamed a second dream. In the streets of strong-walled Uruk there lay an axe; the shape of it was strange and the people thronged round. I saw it and was glad. I bent down, deeply drawn towards it; I loved it like a woman and wore it at my side.’ ”

Comets:
Stems originally from the Greek kometes, meaning “wearing long hair” – tail of the comet, term first coined by Aristotle in his  (Webster’s Dictionary)

All celestial bodies with a perceivable haziness or ether surrounding them were described as having hair, such as the Pleiades, which are imagined as icy maidens with waist-long hair in aboriginal Australia (Andrews 105)

Along these same lines, the Peruvians called the planet Venus “Chaska”, which means “the wavy-haired” (Velikovsky, 165), and the Arabs called Venus “Zebbaj”, meaning “one with hair” (Velikovsky, 165)

Axes:
Axes have long been associated with falling celestial objects, great power, and occasionally divinity. In China, a legend states that early in the history of humanity, man stumbled about aimlessly, a helpless victim of wild animal attacks. Finally, the Storm God takes pity on hapless man, and carves a multitude of jade axes out of a rainbow, which subsequently rain down from the sky empowering humanity. From this point forward Jade is referred to as “the stone of Heaven”. (Gump 31)

This tradition is repeated in Polynesia, where jade axes are said to be gifts from the heavens, meant to assist mortal man in his struggle against nature. These axes are occasionally seen as tantamount to divinities themselves. (Mackenzie, SSI,  )

In Egypt, the word neter, meaning god,  is represented by what many believe to be a primitive axe. “…it is clear that the two greatest masters of Egyptology considered   to be either a weapon or a cutting tool, and, in fact, assumed that the hieroglyphic represented an axe-head let into and fastened in a long wooden handle.” (Budge, 63-64)  “Taking for granted then that the hieroglyphic   represents an axe, we may be sure that it was used as a symbol of power and divinity by the predynastic Egyptians long before the period when they were able to write, but we have no means of knowing what they called the character or the axe before that period. In dynastic times they certainly called it neter as we have seen…for at the base of it lies, no doubt, the Egyptian conception of divinity or God.” (Budge, 65-66)

HUMBABA

“…in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is ‘Hugeness’, a ferocious giant.”

“When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm [alternate versions have “flood-weapon”], his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself.”

“It is not an equal struggle when one fights with Humbaba; he is a great warrior, a battering-ram. Gilgamesh, the watchman of the forest never sleeps.”

“I will conquer him of the cedar wood and show the strength of the sons of Uruk, all the world shall know of it. I am committed to this enterprise: to climb the mountain, to cut down the cedar and leave behind me an enduring name.”

“He nodded his head and shook it, menacing Gilgamesh: and on him he fastened his eye, the eye of death.”

“Glorious Shamash heard [Gilgamesh’s] prayer and he summoned the great wind…The eight winds rose up against Humbaba, they beat against his eyes; he was gripped, unable to go forward or back.”

“So he felled the first cedar and they cut the branches and laid them at the foot of the mountain. At the first stroke, Humbaba blazed out, but still they advanced. They felled seven cedars and cut and bound the branches and laid them at the foot of the mountain, and seven times Humbaba loosed his glory on them. As the seventh blaze died out they reached his lair. He slapped his thigh in scorn.”

“Then there followed confusion for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground. For as far as two leagues the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest, he at whose voice Hermon and Lebanon used to tremble. Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.”

Contendings of Marduk and Tiamat:

“He made a net to encircle Tiamat within it, marshalled the four winds so that no part of her could escape: South Wind, North Wind, East Wind, West Wind, the gift of his father Anu, he kept them close to the net at his side. He created the imhullu-wind (evil wind), the tempest, the whirlwind, the Four Winds, the Seven Winds, the tornado, the unfaceable facing wind. He released the winds which he had created, seven of them. They advanced behind him to make turmoil inside Tiamat.” (Dalley, 251)

Contendings of Re and Apophis:

“I know that mountain of Bakhu upon which the sky rests; it is of crystal(?), 200 rods long and 120 rods wide…I know the name of this serpent which is upon the mountain, its name is Whn-f. Now at eventide he will turn his eye against Re, and a stoppage will occur in the crew and a great astonishment(?) in the voyage…” (Coffin Texts, Faulkner, Spell 160)

“Apep has fallen to your destruction, the southern, northern, western and eastern gods have bound their bonds on him, Rekes has felled him, he who is over the partisans has bound him, and Re is content, Re proceeds in peace.” (Book of the Dead, Faulkner, Chp.39)

Contendings of Indra and Vrtra:

“With his great weapon, the thunderbolt, Indra killed the shoulderless Vrtra, his greatest enemy. Like the trunk of a tree whose branches have been lopped off by an axe, the dragon lies flat upon the ground.” (Rig Veda, 1:32)

ISHTAR/BULL OF HEAVEN

Having been humiliated by Gilgamesh’s rejection, Ishtar “fell into a bitter rage, she went up to high heaven.”

“My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh.”

“Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle?’ Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years of seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough.’”

“When Anu heard what Ishtar had said he gave her the Bull of Heaven to lead by the halter down to Uruk. When they reached the gates of Uruk, the Bull went to the river; with his first snort cracks opened in the earth and a hundred young men fell down to death. With his second snort cracks opened and two hundred young men fell down to death.”

“But Ishtar rose up and mounted the great wall of Uruk; she sprang onto the tower and uttered a curse: ‘Woe to Gilgamesh, for he has scorned me in killing the Bull of Heaven.’ When Enkidu had heard these words he tore out the Bull’s right thigh and tossed it in her face saying ‘If I could lay my hands on you, it is this I should do to you, and lash the entrails to your side.’ Then Ishtar called together her people…Over the thigh of the Bull of Heaven she set up lamentation.”

Venus and the Bull:

The association of the planet Venus and a bull can be found in the Vedas of the Hindus, in which the Morning Star is described in the following manner: “As a bull thou hurlest thy fire upon earth and heaven.” (Velikovsky, 179) Just as in the story of Gilgamesh, the bull is here equated with destruction on a vast scale.

As a sidenote, the reference to the Bull of Heaven causing a seven year drought/famine, is oddly reminiscent of the biblical story of Joseph, who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and seven lean cows to mean that Egypt would soon experience 7 years of famine following 7 years of abundance, causing Pharaoh to entrust Joseph with the task of storing away the food necessary to survive the 7 lean years with ease. (Genesis 41:17-31, KJV)

The association of the foreleg of the bull with Venus is also not a new theme in mythology. This particular subject is rather vast and incredibly complex, exceeding the scope of this study. A summary must suffice. In Egyptian mythology, there is enmity between Horus (who represents Venus) and Set (who represents the Great Bear, the supreme Northern constellation). The Great Bear was originally known as the Ox-leg or Striker, and came to be associated with the foreleg of Set (see utterances 20 and 21 of the Pyramid Texts, trans. Raymond Faulkner). In one Pyramid Text utterance in particular, Horus is said to tear off the foreleg of Set (Faulkner, utt 61), and in a later variant, Horus is said to hurl the foreleg into the sky, where it became the constellation we now know as the Great Bear or the Big Dipper. Admittedly, the roles are somewhat reversed (Venus throwing the leg rather than being thrown at), but the association of the foreleg of a bull and the Morning Star in two separate cultures is difficult to ignore.

DILMUN

Gilgamesh sets off to find Dilmun, “the garden of the sun”. He reaches Mashu, “the great mountains about which he had heard many things, which guard the rising and the setting sun. Its twin peaks are as high as the wall of heaven and its paps reach down to the underworld.”

“The Man-Scorpion opened his mouth and said, speaking to Gilgamesh, ‘No man born of woman has done what you have asked, no mortal man has gone into the mountain; the length of it is twelve leagues of darkness; in it there is no light, but the heart is oppressed with darkness. From the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun there is no light.’”

“When Gilgamesh heard this, he did as the Man-Scorpion had said, he followed the sun’s road to his rising, through the mountain.” Gilgamesh travels 12 arduous leagues until finally arriving at the garden of the sun. “There was the garden of the gods; all round him stood bushes bearing gems. Seeing it he went down at once, for there was fruit of carnelion with the vine hanging from it, beautiful to look at; lapis lazuli leaves hung thick with fruit, sweet to see. For thorns and thistles there were haematite and rare stones, agate, and pearls from out of the sea.”

The Duat:

In Egyptian mythology, the Duat was a particular region of the sky (though also considered to be under the earth), through which the sun was believed to have to pass every night. There were 12 divisions of this Duat, much like the 12 leagues which Gilgamesh must travel in following “the sun’s road to his rising”. The Duat is described as being guarded by two mountains, the mountain of Bakhu in the east and the mountain of Manu in the west, just as the two mountain peaks of the Gilgamesh epic guard the place of the sun’s rising and setting. The twin mountains of Bakhu and Manu are also said to uphold the sky in certain versions.

Trees of Gems, Gardens of Gods:

A Japanese tale relates an Emperor’s quest for a magical sword (which enabled the bearer to fight entire armies) found only at the bottom of the sea, in the kingdom of the god of the ocean. The Emperor sends his chief minister and a man named Oimatsu to dive down and retrieve it from the god’s city. “Said the Emperor’s chief minister: ‘Fain would I see that city.’ He looked over the side of the boat and sighed, ‘I see naught but darkness.’ ‘When we dived and reached the sea-bottom,’ Oimatsu continued, ‘we beheld a cave and entered it. Thick darkness prevailed, but we walked on and on, groping as we went, until we reached a beautiful plain, over which bends the sky, blue as sapphire. Trees growing on the plain bear clusters of dazzling gems that sparkle among their leaves.’” (Mackenzie, China and Japan, 102-103)

A Chinese tale speaks of the Jade Emperor who “dwelt in the Jade Castle of Abstraction, high above the earth and the thirty-three heavens, according to some accounts; or, according to others, on the Mountain of Jade in the K’un Lun range. Here, on the shore of the Jade Lake, grew a  Jade Tree, which measured three hundred arm lengths across and whose red jade fruit conferred the boon of eternal life.” (Gump, 105)

Inside the underground cave from which he retrieves the magic lamp, Aladdin marvels at the trees of jade. (Gump, 14)

A Chinese record of distant lands states that “In the west, arriving at the Mediterranean, there is in the sea an island of two hundred square miles. On this island is a large forest abundant in trees with precious stones, and inhabited by over ten thousand families.” (Laufer, 7)

The Hindu myth of Swarga, the city of Indra, located atop Mount Meru, speaks of the Parijata tree, the life-giving tree, which was “found at the bottom of the Ocean of Milk” and is said to “yield all objects of desire” (Dictionary of Ancient Deities, 373). This tree is also said to rain down precious stones of all sorts on “felicitous occasions” (Laufer, 19)

The Chinese Isles of the Blest are described as being located in the east, with “spirit-dwellings” of gold and jade, “and in the groves and gardens the trees and plants bear pearls and precious stones.” (Mackenzie, China and Japan, 110-111)

THE FLOOD

“In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in 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.”

“Enlil did this, but Ea because of his oath warned me in a dream…’O man of Shurupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive.”

The ensuing destruction terrifies even the gods, with Utnapishtim’s boat eventually coming to land on the top of a mountain. “When the seventh day dawned I loosed a dove and let her go. She flew away, but finding no resting-place, she returned. Then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away but finding no resting-place she returned. I loosed a raven, she saw that the waters had retreated, she ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back.”

Utnapishtim makes sacrifice on the mountain and the gods hover over it. Ishtar is one of the last to join them. “Then, at last, Ishtar also came, she lifted her necklace with the jewels of heaven that once Anu had made to please her. ‘O you gods here present, by the lapis lazuli round my neck I shall remember these days as I remember the jewels of my throat; these last days I shall not forget.’”

Enlil confers immortality upon Utnapishtim. “In time past Utnapishtim was a mortal man; henceforth he and his wife shall live in the distance at the mouth of the rivers.”

The Council of the Gods:

Egyptian myth speaks of the council of the gods prior to the destruction of man: “And His Majesty heard the words of evil which men and women were saying, and he said unto those who were in his train, ‘Cry out, and bring to me my Eye, and Shu and Tefnut, and Gebb and Nut, and the Father-gods and the Mother-gods who were with me when I was in Nunu, together with my god Nun himself. Let these be brought hither to me secretly, so that men and women may not see them [coming hither], and may not therefore be stricken with fear in their hearts.” (Budge, From Fetish to God…463)

Warning:

In the Aztec flood myth, a man and his wife are forewarned by the gods to take shelter. “Now toward the close of the year Titlacahuan had forewarned the man named Nata and his wife Nena, saying, ‘Make no more pulque, but straightway hollow out a large cypress, and enter it when in the month Tozoztli the water shall approach the sky.’” (Spence, 122) The biblical parrallel is obvious and unnecessary to mention.

The Birds:

The Australian Murinbata tribe records a flood myth wherein the hero Karan escapes the rising water on a tall mountain peak, accompanied by other survivors. Soon all the land is covered in water and all people, save those on the mountain, have perished. Karan eventually sends two bird-men out to seek dry land. In the early hours of the morning they return bearing branches in their beaks as proof of the recession of the waters. (Robinson, 16-18)

The Woman:

In Christian mythology, the end of mankind as we know it is described in the Book of Revelations, the final book of the bible. In it, a particular character is mentioned as the “scarlet woman” who presides, it would seem, over fornication and is drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. She is described: “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication. And on her forehead a name was written:  MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” Certainly the parrallels with Ishtar are unmistakable. The Book of Revelation is a book of prophecy, but prophecy and mythological history are often blurred.

In the mythology of the Hopi indians of the Southwest, there occurs a series of destructions, one after the other, for various reasons. The Hopi maintain that we have gone through 4 previous worlds, and that we are currently living in the 5th. The Hopi 3rd world was destroyed by water, a flood. The reasons are described in the following way: “[The gods] were especially concerned because so many people were using their reproductive power in wicked ways. There was one woman who was becoming known throughout the world for her wickedness in corrupting so many people. She even boasted that so many men were giving her turquoise necklaces for her favors that she could wind them around a ladder that reached to the end of the world’s axis.” (Waters, 17) The similarities are astonishing.

Immortal Man:

Though not orthodox, the notion of Enoch’s immortality is present in Jewish lore. In the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal work, the patriarch is said to have his “dwelling-place amongst the angels” which is said to be located “at the ends of the earth” (Charles, 132). He is even said, in some traditions, to be made into an angel himself, named Metatron (Collins, 14).

I have chosen to bypass the well-known biblical similarities in favor of some of the more obscure flood myths from around the globe, as I feel that the biblical parrallels have been mined to the point of exhaustion by far too many authors.

THE SERPENT AND THE PLANT OF LIFE

“‘Gilgamesh, I shall reveal a secret thing, it is a mystery of the gods that I am telling you. There is a plant that grows under the water, it has a prickle like a thorn, like a rose; it will wound your hands, but if you succeed in taking it, then your hands will hold that which restores his lost youth to a man.’”

“Gilgamesh saw a well of cool water and he went down and bathed; but deep in the pool there was lying a serpent, and the serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower. It rose out of the water and snatched it away, and immediately it sloughed its skin and returned to the well.”

Greece:

“The Eleventh Labour [of Heracles] was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas…When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.” (Graves, 507)

Norse:

“The ash tree Yggdrasil is the sacred tree of life, the universal tree…It has three roots: one is among the Aesir where Urd’s well…is located…The third root is deep in Nifl-heim, the underworld…Here the dreaded serpent Nidhod constantly gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots.” (Dictionary of Ancient Deities, 516)

Central Asia:

“[Abyrga, a] deified serpent or sea-monster lives at the foot of the tree of life and dwells in a lake of milk. In some myths he is wound around Sumur, the world mountain.” (Dicitionary of Ancient Deities, 9) Compare this to the Parijata tree mentioned earlier.

India:

“A legend connecting a Naga with a sacred tree is of special interest. Anyone who took a branch or leaf from the tree was killed by the Naga…In Indian, Chinese and Japanese stories the Naga or dragon dwells in a pool beneath the tree. The tree grows on an island in a lake or in the ocean.” (Mackenzie, Pre-Columbian Mythology, 49)

China:

Picking up from where this myth left off above, keep in mind that these trees are in an underwater city.
“‘When we dived and reached the sea-bottom,’ Oimatsu continued, ‘we beheld a cave and entered it. Thick darkness prevailed, but we walked on and on, groping as we went, until we reached a beautiful plain, over which bends the sky, blue as sapphire. Trees growing on the plain bear clusters of dazzling gems that sparkle among their leaves.’ ‘Were you not tempted to pluck them?’ asked the minister. ‘Each tree is guarded by a poisonous snake,’ Oimatsu told him, ‘and we dared not touch the gems.’” (Mackenzie, China and Japan, 102-103)

“Thus we find that in China a dragon might assume ‘the shape of a tree growing under water’…” (Mackenzie, China and Japan, 75)

Egypt:

“In their religious symbolism we find the ancient sacred tree (persea) which grew in the ‘Great Hall’ of Heliopolis on the same place where the solar cat slew that great serpent of evil, Apep.” (Spence, Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends, 298)

“And in another myth the demon Apophis was killed by Ra at the sycamore of Nut.” (Mercatante, 110)

Mexico:

“…the nomadic Nahua beheld perched upon a cactus plant an eagle of great size and majesty, grasping in its talons a huge serpent, and spreading its wings to catch the rays of the rising sun.” (Spence, 28) The cactus here symbolizing the plant of life for the Nahua.

 

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