An Ancient Lament

In the long, sordid history of scoundrels and rogues, Gilgamesh would be right up there with the worst of ’em. Gilgamesh, a mythical figure* from the first modern civilization, that in ancient Sumer, a.k.a. the Cradle Of Civilization, a collection of towns along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in what was the Fertile Crescent,

was the king of Uruk. He ruled with an iron fist, according to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book, or at least what could be regarded as literature, in the world, circa 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. Being interested in antiquity, naturally I’ve read the slim volume once or twice.

One of the things ol’ Gilgamesh, a superman of sorts, two thirds god and one third man, who could kill lions with his bare hands, was fond of doing was raping new brides on their wedding nights. Yup, a real winner. He was a rogue very much like the antagonist, Dietrich Jaqzen, in Opalescence.

Well the people complained to the gods and the gods sent another strongman, Enkidu, to stop his abuses. When Gilgamesh was about to step into another home for his nefarious purposes, Enkidu suddenly blocked the way. The two fought mightily, even splitting the massive beams that were the door posts.

After the fight, as seems to happen in these kinds of things, Gilgamesh and Enkidu became fast friends. Then Gilgamesh decided that he wanted to kill Humbaba, the formidable protector of a sacred Cedar Forest, which size is said to have been 10,000 leagues in every direction. The contemporary definition of a league is something like 3.4 miles, but even if only one mile, that would still be a very big forest! Enkidu tries to talk him out of it, but finally relents. So they run to the Cedar Forest. Here’s a description of it from, Back To The Cedar Forest: The Beginning And End Of Tablet V Of The Standard Babylonian Epic Of Gilgameš, based on a newly found section of the Epic which includes 20 new lines of text:

“The cedars drip their aromatic sap in cascades, a trope that gains power from cedar incense’s position in Babylonia as a rare luxury imported from afar. The abundance of exotic and costly materials in fabulous lands is a common literary motif. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that the Cedar Forest was, in the Babylonian literary imagination, a dense jungle inhabited by exotic and noisy fauna. The chatter of monkeys, chorus of cicada, and squawking of many kinds of birds formed a symphony (or cacophony) that daily entertained the forest’s guardian, H ̮umbaba. The passage gives a context for the simile ‘like musicians’ that occurs in very broken context in the Hittite version’s description of Gilgameš and Enkidu’s arrival at the Cedar Forest. H ̮umbaba’s jungle orchestra evokes those images found in ancient Near Eastern art, of animals playing musical instruments. H ̮umbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre and but as a foreign ruler entertained with music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings, but music of a more exotic kind, played by a band of equally exotic musicians”.

There they fight, then slay Humbaba and set to clearcutting his beloved forest, even clearing its roots “as far as the banks of the Euphrates”. The interesting part is what follows next:

“The aftermath of the heroes’ slaying of H ̮umbaba is now better preserved. The previously available text made it clear that Gilgameš and Enkidu knew, even before they killed H ̮umbaba, that what they were doing would anger the cosmic forces that governed the world, chiefly the god Enlil. Their reaction after the event is now tinged with a hint of guilty conscience, when Enkidu remarks ruefully that [ana] tušār ništakan qišta,we have reduced the forest [to] a wasteland”. The anxiety about offending the gods seems to a modern reader compounded by ecological regret. Enkidu goes on to imagine the angry questions that Enlil will ask them when they arrive home: minû uzzakunūma taraḫḫisā qišta,what was this wrath of yours that you went trampling the forest?”. In the theme of the angry gods, the poems about H ̮umbaba in both Sumerian and Akkadian already displayed an ethical ambivalence toward the expedition to his Cedar Forest, arising from what one commentator has called the “double nature” of the forest’s guardian as ogre and servant of Enlil. This newly recovered speech of Enkidu adds to the impression that, to the poets’ minds, the destruction of Humbaba and his trees was morally wrong“.

Like the description of the forest, this kind of ecological awareness is very rare in ancient poetry“. ~ Andrew George, one of the two translators of the new fragment.

What’s also interesting is that the area where all this took place, the Fertile Crescent, home to the ancestors of eight of our modern crops and five species of domesticated animal, along with many important cultural advances, is now a desert.

“So how did Fertile Crescent peoples lose that big lead?” asks historian Jared Diamond. “The short answer is ecological suicide: They inadvertently destroyed the environmental resources on which their society depended. Just as the region’s rise wasn’t due to any special virtue of its people, its fall wasn’t due to any special blindness on their part. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in an extremely fragile environment, which, because of its low rainfall, was particularly susceptible to deforestation.

“When you clear a forest in a high-rainfall tropical area, new trees grow up to a height of 15 feet within a year; in a dry area like the Fertile Crescent, regeneration is much slower. And when you add to the equation grazing by sheep and goats, new trees stand little chance. Deforestation led to soil erosion, and irrigation agriculture led to salinization, both by releasing salt buried deep in the ground and by adding salt through irrigation water. After centuries of degradation, areas of Iraq that formerly supported productive irrigation agriculture are today salt pans where nothing grows”.

Now I’m not suggesting that it was mythical* Gilgamesh and Enkidu who did the actual cutting, but could they represent peoples and kingdoms that did?

Cedar was highly prized by the ancients. The Cedars of Lebanon (or Cedars of God), also part of the Fertile Crescent, were valued for their use in construction throughout the middle east, including in King Solomon’s famous temple.

I wonder, could The Epic of Gilgamesh be, in part, a lament for the loss of this ancient forest and those living within it? An early protest of our increasingly rapacious ways? The first (at least written) glimmerings of our modern environmental movement? I’m not an expert; I’m just asking.

The story of the discovery of the new text is an interesting subplot in itself, full of Indiana Jones type intrigue. Most people are aware of the version of the epic that was discovered in Nineveh in 1853. This new discovery involves the US invasion of Iraq (where old Babylon was) and the consequent pillaging of the country’s ancient treasures by vandals and smugglers.

A lovely tune.

One more interesting site I found while researching for this article: here you can hear the Epic read in its original ancient language, Akkadian.

*Although some believe that Gilgamesh was a real, historical person based on his inclusion in the Sumerian King List (translation here), who was mythologized by later generations.


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