Apollo and Dionysus, or Gilagmesh and Enkidu: A Nietzschean Reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh

In the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there are two chief characters: Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Both are male, and it is striking that ancient Mesopotamian culture hit upon the same overriding tensions between these two characters as those that Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Birth of Tragedy, postulated for Greek tragedy between its two chief archetypal male characters, Apollo and Dionysus.

Apollo, for Nietzsche, represents order and Dionysus represents wildness, and it is the tension between these two that sets the stage for drama and tragedy.

Why? Because it seems inevitable that the Apollonian assertion of order and persona into the otherwise Dionysian world of disorder, wildness, and multiplicity will always ultimately end badly for Apollo.

Dionysus, in the long run, seems to hold most of the cards. I am reminded of the response that the philosopher Gregory Bateson gave to one of his children about why it is so difficult to keep one’s bedroom in the way that we call ‘clean.’ Bateson replied (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Because there are so many more ways that we call a room ‘dirty’ than the ways that we call it ‘clean.’

In other words, the sheer force of entropy and numbers makes the world move toward the Dionysian; that is, toward the way that we don’t want it.

Apollonian meticulousness and assertion is thus difficult to maintain without a constant effort. 

This Batesian, and ultimately Nietzschean, model for understanding the human condition, applied to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, actually functions pretty well as a way of reading The Gilgamesh Epic, wherein Gilgamesh is an Apollonian figure, setting forth a dynamic persona against the world, and Enkidu is a wild Dionysian figure to be tamed.

Here’s how the The Gilgamesh Epic describes Gilgamesh in Book 1:

Gilgamesh went abroad in the world, but he met with none who could withstand his arms . . .

In other words, Gilgamesh is an assertive Apollonian persona, travelling and subduing. He is also a builder of civilization, managing the intercourse of men with men, and men with gods:

In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu, and for Ishtar the goddess of love.

It sounds like religion at Urdu had a balanced, Jesus-Mary Catholic quality to it, in which both a male sky god, Anu, and a female deity, Ishtar, are given equal attention and appeasement. Gilgamesh is clearly about the maintaining of order, balance, and safety for his people. But his imperial Apollonian assertion is also dangerous and Dionysian when directed at others. He is interested in bringing his own energetic persona ever further out into the world. The gods, noticing this,

cried to Aruru, the goddess of creation, ‘You made him, O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet.’

The goddess responds in the creation of Enkidu, in a fashion that is striking for its similarity to the book of Genesis, in which God forms Adam (which means clay) from the dust of the earth:

She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created.

Enkidu, unlike the armored and civilized Gilgamesh, is a Dionysian hippie:

His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.

Recall that Adam, in the Hebrew Bible, is at first also a forager and innocent. It is ultimately the loss of innocence and cultivation of the land by the sweat of the brow that becomes Adam’s curse.

Like the Biblical story, in which Adam is driven out of his innocence and into the reality of a harsh world where he will ultimately die, so Enkidu will have a similar transformation through his encounter with Gilgamesh.

About Santi Tafarella

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