Here’s an audio version
What makes a good story? Conflict, drama, sex, adventure, the search for meaning or understanding: think of any story, be it literary or acted, and you’ll find most if not all of these elements, unless you only watch porn or wrestling. What I love to think about is how consistent these elements are over time. Recently, I reread The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is literally the oldest story in the world, and no, it’s not about a guy saying “I’ll call you,” and not calling.
The story is about the adventures and loves of a Sumerian king, who archeologists date at about 2700 BCE. Evidence of the story written down comes, so far, from about 2100 BCE, which means that it was a story that got told a lot, and written down perhaps even earlier than we currently have evidence for. It’s preserved on the remnants of clay tablets written in Cuneiform, kind of like what Word Perfect documentation looks like. Portions of it have been found at various places and from various times, which tells us that it was widespread and popular. Like the Iliad and Odyssey for the Greeks, or the legend of King Arthur for us, we can’t know how much of it really happened, but to me it’s far more interesting for what it tells us about what ancient people thought was worth preserving in a story.
Gilgamesh was a powerful king of the most powerful city on Earth. He’s described as “A bull,” which, according to the archeological record, means he might actually have been over 5 feet tall, and no doubt muscular and strong. He was also quite a bastard. He tormented his people, abusing men and women equally, though not in the same ways. He invoked the droit de Seigneur, a fine old tradition that survived in Europe till the 15th century or so, whereby a ruler was empowered to deflower every young woman on her wedding night before she and her husband were allowed to sleep together. (I’m not making this up, though I wish I were.) Having vanquished all his foes, he terrorized his own people till they appealed in desperation to the gods. The gods heard, and the creator goddess made a balance for Gilgamesh, a wild man named Enkidu. This wild man is “civilized” through the gentle offices of a temple priestess who specialized in being really good in bed. The mere act of being seduced by her and sharing pleasure turns him from something like an animal into a true man: an extremely pithy statement about women’s role in agriculture verses hunting and gathering, worthy of a book or two at least.
The meeting of Gilgamesh and Enkidu takes the form of a titanic fight. Gilgamesh finally prevails, but in their exhaustion, they form a profound and lasting friendship. They support and encourage each other through trials and dangers, and Gilgamesh is, in a way, civilized by his friendship with Enkidu, which is arguably not strictly Platonic. When Enkidu is struck down, Gilgamesh embarks on a long and difficult journey to seek out answers to why we die, and whether immortality is possible. He gains wisdom, if not eternal life, and returns as a man who has seen all, done all, known all: kind of like Chris Hadfield.
This story tries to answer many questions: what makes us different from animals? Why do we fight? What do sexual intimacy and friendship give us? Where do we find courage? How do we recover from grief? Incidentally, it also gives us our first account of the flood myth, predating the biblical account by many centuries. (Noah is called Utnapishtim, which is a totally cool name, and what I might call my first born, if I had one.)
The story tells us that the giving and receiving of pleasure and the bonds of friendship are what make us human, and the civilization can be recognized by the presence of bread and beer, but of course we already knew that! We have friends to keep us company in happy times, and hold us up when we’re frightened. Pissing off the gods is always a bad idea, and we can learn important things from our dreams. Mortality is our nature, and we can’t bring back loved ones who’ve died, but if we continue to find enjoyment in each day, we will be living in the right way. I love reading this story and knowing how old it is. It’s kind of a cozy feeling to connect to people who lived so long ago and so far away, and to think about how often this story has been told and read over thousands of years.