From Greenpeace Man to Neoconservative Man: Enkidu, in the Gilgamesh Epic, Gets Religion

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is a hairy Dionysian wild man whose power, and ability to instill terror in lesser mortals, is equal to that of his civilized Apollonian opposite, Gilgamesh.

At least that’s how his story starts.

In Book 1 of the Gilgamesh Epic, an animal trapper reports to his father:

Father, there is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills. He is the strongest in the world, he is like an immortal from heaven. He ranges over the hills with wild beasts and eats grass; he ranges through your land and comes down to the wells. I am afraid and dare not go near him. He fills in the pits which I dig and tears up my traps set for the game; he helps the beasts to escape and now they slip through my fingers.

Enkidu, in other words, is Greenpeace Man on steroids, disrupting the expansion of civilization and siding with the animals, liberating them wherever he finds them trapped. He is human literature’s first hippie eco-warrior, even the first terrorist, who would have driven the ratings of Fox News through the roof.

But the trapper’s father, through wisdom based on experience and reflection, does not suggest to his son a direct confrontation with the wild man. Instead, the trapper’s father offers his son astute psychological and sociological advice on how to deal with Enkidu:

My son, in Uruk lives Gilgamesh; no one has ever prevailed against him, he is strong as a star from heaven. Go to Uruk, find Gilgamesh, extol the strength of this wild man. Ask him to give you a harlot, a wanton from the temple of love; return with her, and let her woman’s power overpower this man. When next he comes down to drink at the wells she will be there.

There are two things to note about the father’s saavy advice:

  • First, the father is a clever diplomat, bringing on allies in the fight against the wild man. The father understands that Gilgamesh will take the tale of this Dionysian wild man as a provocation to his own Apollonian power, and will arouse his pride to fight on behalf of the trapper, generating a “coalition of the willing.”
  • Second, the father is, at heart, not only a cunning psychologist, but a sociologist. He understands that wild men are invariably single, without kids, and that the surest route to weakening the energies of the wild male against conservative civilization is to attach him to a woman.

And sure enough, on meeting the woman, Enkidu is seduced and “knows” the woman. Like the biblical Adam, sex is the route from innocence to experience, and Enkidu rapidly moves from adolescent spontenaity and harmony in magical nature to adult irony, hesitation, and alienation. Like the boxer whose knees are stereotypically drained away by love, so Enkidu’s strength is diminished:

For six days and seven nights they lay together . . . Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; and when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.

Enkidu, now bound to his woman as if by an umbilical cord, submits to her:

So he returned and sat down at the woman’s feet, and listened intently to what she said, ‘You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god. Why do you want to run wild with the beasts in the hills? Come with me. I will take you to strong-walled Uruk, to the blessed temple of Ishtar and of Anu, of love and heaven: there Gilgamesh lives, who is very strong, and like a wild bull he lords it over man.’

The chords of civilization are slowly entwining Enkidu, giving new meaning to the phrase, “sex and the city.” Sex and the city are the civilizing forces that tame wild men, and now his woman is even wanting him to start going to church with her! The woman will bring him behind the “strong walls of Uruk” (the city) and bring him to “the blessed temple of Ishtar and of Anu” where he will learn about “love and heaven.”

But Enkidu has not lost his wildness entirely. He imagines the city as a place that he might yet conquer for wildness, and put forth a Whitmanian barbaric YAWP in. Enkidu, in terms familiar to any young and innocent revolutionary, prepared to Oedipally overcome the city fathers, boldly announces:

I will cry out aloud in Uruk, ‘I am the strongest here, I have come to change the old order, I am he who was born in the hills, I am he who is strongest of all.’

Ironically, even as he makes this declaration, the woman is mentally sizing him for appropriate and stylish clothes. He can’t just go into the city all smelly and ungroomed!:

O Enkidu, there all the people are dressed in gorgeous robes, every day is a holiday, the young men and the girls are wonderful to see. How sweet they smell!

And he needs table manners, which the woman, with the assistance of some shepherds, teaches him:

Enkidu could only suck the milk of wild animals. He fumbled and gaped, at a loss what to do or how he should eat the bread and drink the strong wine.

And that matted, wild hair. It has to be tamed too!:

He rubbed down the matted hair of his body and annointed himself with oil. Enkidu had become a man.

Here’s wild Enkidu’s transformational markers in a nutshell: sex, city, religion, cultivated eating habits, clothes, and grooming. 

Lastly, the family resemblence of this Mesopotamian story with the opening chapters of Genesis is rather striking:

  • Like Adam, Enkidu is created from clay.
  • Like Adam, Enkidu is alone of his kind in a rather innocent, harmonious, and Edenic garden world.
  • A woman introduced into Adam’s world brings Adam to sexual gnosis and alienation from the harmony of the garden. Ditto Enkidu.
  • The move from innocence to experience in the Bible is accompanied by the covering of the body. Likewise Enkidu.
  • Adam’s expulsion from the garden is accompanied by the development of the lifestyle of cultivation (labor by the sweat of one’s brow) and, ultimately, city-dwelling. Likewise, Enkidu learns to eat and drink the products of cultivation (bread and wine) and leaves his wild paradise for the city.
  • On leaving the garden, consciousness of death accompanies Adam; likewise, Enkidu.  

Poor wild Enkidu, Horatio, I knew him well!

About Santi Tafarella

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