Jacob and the angel–or Enkidu and Gilgamesh

The Gilgamesh Epic embodies the tensions between order and wildness, not in the gods Apollo and Dionysus, as Nietzsche claims that the ancient Greeks do, but in the god-like characters of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Gilgamesh is a city-dwelling ruler of a civilization–whom the Greeks might have called a tryranos. Enkidu is a dweller in wildernesses, uncivilized and possessed of a fearful animal power. At one point in the Gilgamesh Epic the two rivals wrestle through the night, as Jacob wrestled the angel in Genesis.

The encounter between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and their ultimate friendship, is striking for its alert mythic symbolizing of what it is like to be human–its divisions and stuggles, in numerous guises, in what Blake called “the contrary states of the human soul.”

It feels when reading the Gilgamesh Epic that we are hearing the voices of ancient human beings whose concerns are familiar and are our concerns, and who made those concerns into stories that we readily comprehend. 

Sarah Lowall, the general editor of the “Norton Anthology of World Literature” (2002), said of the Epic of Gilgamesh:

It is both humbling and thrilling to hear so familiar a voice from so vast a distance.     

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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