Enkidu, the Prophet Amos, Karl Marx, and Barack Obama: What Do the Gilgamesh Epic, the Bible, the Communist Manifesto, and The Audacity of Hope Have in Common?

Toward the end of Book One of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu has moved from a Tarzan-like wild state, living in nature without knowledge of human females, to now living with a woman in a rural setting, among shepherds, where he learns to drink from a cup, and to take up arms to guard against lions. The Epic tells us that:

He was merry living with the shepherds, till one day lifting his eyes he saw a man approaching.

Enkidu learns that the man is not King Gilgamesh, but an exile travelling away from Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk. The traveller tells Enkidu that Gilgamesh is behaving as a tyrant. For one thing, Gilgamesh is treating the people as his city-building slaves, in a highly regimented fashion:

At the roll of the drum work begins for the men, and work for the women.

He also tells Enkidu that Gilgamesh hogs the women of the city, taking the young female newlyweds to his own bed before turning them over to their husbands:

Gilgamesh the king . . . demands to be first with the bride, the king to be first and the husband to follow.

These two complaints remind one of two great stories in the Hebrew Bible. The first is in I Samuel 9:11-13, in which the prophet Samuel warns the Hebrew people against having a human king, as opposed to just God, ruling over them, for it amounts to slavery:

 11And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.

 12And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

 13And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

The second story from the Bible is the one in which King David steals the wife of one of his generals (II Samuel 12:1-7):

 1And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

 2The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:

 3But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

 4And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

 5And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:

 6And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

 7And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.

Putting the blatant sexism of the above Biblical passage aside for the moment (comparing women to sheep), notice that what animates both Samuel and Nathan is, nevertheless, a deep sense of justice: kings should not abuse the common people. 

Likewise, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is Enkidu learning of the injustice of King Gilgamesh that arouses Enkidu to righteous anger.

At these words Enkidu turned white in the face. ‘I will go to the place where Gilgamesh lords it over the people, I will challenge him boldly, and I will cry aloud in Uruk, ‘I have come to change the old order, for I am the strongest here.’

Given that the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is a more ancient story than the stories in the books of Samuel, we might call Enkidu the first populist revolutionary in literary history, prefiguring those that would come later, such as the Biblical prophets Samuel, Nathan, and Amos, who, like Enkidu, moved from being a herder of flocks (Amos 1:1) to a challenger of cities and kings, of the powers that be (Amos 5:11;24):

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them . . . But let judgement run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Enkidu, in short, stands at the beginning of a long line of populist prophets and religious and secular revolutionaries, violent and nonviolent, from Amos to Karl Marx to Martin Luther King. He is the young male outsider who is determined to Oedipally struggle with what he perceives to be the evil fathers in seats of power, and make the world anew.

This dynamic is even in play in this year’s presidential election (though in a comparitively milder form). Will Americans vote for the status quo, or will this be a change election, in which a young American Enkidu storms Washington and does at least some things differently?

About Santi Tafarella

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