“More familiarity with our own mythology might help us to relate to theirs.” – Jean-Luc Picard, from last week’s piece on Darmok
With this quote and the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu still fresh in my mind, I came across a piece titled A Wild Man, Tarzan of the Highlands over at The AnthropoEccentric. In his thought-provoking essay, N.S. Anderson explores modern re-imaginings of the tale of Gilgamesh in music, translations, and art while highlighting the connections between nature and culture that lies at the heart of this Mesopotamian epic.
A Wild Man, Tarzan of the Highlands
Anderson begins by featuring a contemporary take on the ancient poem performed by Baba Brinkman, a Canadian rap artist and scholar who has built a career connecting hip-hop with literary poetry. Have a listen this rendering of Gilgamesh, performed by a modern-day troubadour:
Brinkman’s modern twist on this oldest of tales exemplifies the enduring power of story and storyteller to entertain, captivate, and resonate.
The Lament of Gilgamesh
Next, Anderson takes a look at translations of the epic poem, in particular passages that speak of Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu’s death. Out of the two version he quotes, I prefer the Hines version, taken from Gilgamesh: A Powerful New Version of the World’s First Epic:
“How long did I slap your corpse-face
to drive a summer into its ice?
But, O, Enkidu,
how am I to know myself without you.” (p. 46)
Anderson perceptively points out that this rendition reinforces the notion that Enkidu served as a mirror for Gilgamesh, and it is through their companionship that the God King came to know himself and mature as an individual. (More on this later)
The Artwork of Ludmila Zeman
Gilgamesh and Enkidu: The original bromance.
Finally, Anderson features the stunning artwork of Ludmila Zeman, a Czech-Canadian artist who won a Governor General Award for her Gilgamesh illustrations in a trilogy of children picture books. They represent another path in which the Mesopotamian legend has been revitalized for modern times and made enjoyable for audiences of all ages.
I don’t generally succumb to impulse purchases, but I knew from the first moment I saw them that I needed to get my hands on this series. Thumbing through pages containing these beautiful images, my favourite remains the one of Gilgamesh’s mourning Enkidu’s passing.
The Civilized and the Wild: Co-creation and Interdependence
Towards the end, Anderson points out that one of the more fascinating things about the epic of Gilgamesh is that it depicts the agents of nature and culture as partners who actively shape each other. Unlike many mytho-poetic manifestations of nature in Western civilization, the divisions between nature and culture are not absolute. Enkidu’s wildness is not associated with danger or evil; civilization does not shun him, nor does he rejects its lures. Similarly, Gilgamesh has no qualms connecting with the embodiment of a force older than that of his civilized realm. In fact, his connection to nature through Enkidu helps him grow:
“Only once he embraces the creature who is as much ass, donkey, and panther as man, the creature with a connection to a world that is older than humankind, that precedes the world of civilization and lies at its foundation, only then is Gilgamesh able to mature, to elevate himself as a man.” – N.S. Anderson
They come into partnership as equals, one part god, one part wild. Together they learn from and rely on one another, serving as the ying for the other’s yang before there existed such a concept. Their bond changes them both, making them, as Anderson puts it succinctly, more human and humane. The reciprocal nature of this relationship, in my opinion, makes the Enkidu’s death all the more tragic, and Gilgamesh’s grief more heartfelt.
I’ll stop there for now: There’s a lot more to read at the link. I recommend that you to take read, view, or listen to the various versions of Gilgamesh over at The AnthropoEccentric, and I would love to hear your thoughts.
- Which version of Gilgamesh featured here, art, music, or poetry, appeals to you most? Why?
- Can you think of any myths or tales that incorporate nature and culture together with the theme of balance?
Hines, Derrik. Gilgamesh: A Powerful New Version of the World’s First Epic. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.
Zeman, Ludmilla. Gilgamesh the King. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1992.
Zeman, Ludmilla. The Revenge of Ishtar. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1993.
Images © Ludmilla Zeman and are utilized under the the guidelines of Fair Use; no copyright infringement is intended.