The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with this sentence:
I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh.
I hear in this opening an evangelical purpose, as when the gospel of Mark begins with, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is not merely sufficient to start the epic of Gilgamesh with a simple, “Let me tell you the story of Gilgamesh,” as if sharing a campfire story to a half dozen people. Instead, the speaker adopts the persona of one heralding to all peoples across the world a story of central purpose.
And although the epic is filled with stories of the gods, one can feel in its opening sentence an ancient culture that might have, given sufficient time, made a subtle drift toward monotheism. In other words, a story of local Mesopotamian gods, had it accompanied a civilization more successful at colonizing the imagination of others, might have become the gods of all people, and by consolidation, evolved into a monotheistic religion. The Epic of Gilgamesh is, in short, imperial in tone, marking status, not just for the superiority of its culture and gods, but for its founding father Gilgamesh:
This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us the tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.
Gilgamesh was a kind of Mesopotamian Moses. He had knowledge. He knew mysteries–things you’ll never know. Unlike you, he travelled to distant places, and spoke with gods. His story was never forgotten, as other tales are, for he engraved them with his own hand, permanently, on that most permanent of materials, stone. Our civilization is built on what this man learned about the world–so pay attention!
This prologue mesmerizes and hightens expectation. It is an appeal to intimidation and authority. You’re not a man-god, as was Gilgamesh. You have never had your words engraved in stone. You’re a nobody. So now listen with receptivity to your superior, and discover second-hand what he knew first-hand.
This heavy-handed status marking before telling the story suggests that the epic of Gilgamesh was bound up with Mesopotamian temple practice, and the education of children. It was copied and kept in circulation because it was important for the maintanance of the culture.
The Epic of Gilgamesh’s sixth and seventh sentences, which begin the story proper, continue to lay out status markers:
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty.
Not only was Gilgamesh wiser than you, and better travelled, and knew the gods, and had access to mysteries, but he was also better looking than you are! This suggests that there was a Mesopotamian cultural assumption that attractiveness was a sign of one’s favor with the gods.
It should also be noted that Shamash, the sun god, plays a large role in this story, and like the Egyptian sun god, Aten, who scholars trace as the first god in world history to be worshipped (during the reign of Akhenaten) monotheistically, it is possible that Shamash, had Mesopotamian culture evolved further, might have become the name of God (as Allah and Yahweh, both originally local dieties, ultimately became identified, by competing cultures, as names for God).
So in the opening of the Epic of Gilgamesh we find Shamash and Gilgamesh, who, like the Egyptian god Aten and his prophet Akhenaten, as potential monotheistic also-rans who never quite made it. Allah and Mohammad and Yahweh and Moses still have their followers, but poor Gilgamesh and Shamash, and Aten and Akhenaten are consigned, at best, to literature courses.
Gilgamesh gave us the Epic of Gilgamesh and Akhenaten gave us his wonderful poems to the sun-god Aten. Both make it into college literature anthologies. But that’s the best they can do.
Ah, the contingent turns of history! What a fate–to find oneself a prophet or god revered by scores, or stuck in literature class for all eternity!