Toward the beginning of Part 2 of the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh desires to go away from his Mesopotamian city of Uruk, to the far-off forested “Land of Cedars,” guarded by the fierce dragon Humbaba.
This going out to the Land of Cedars would have entailed a following of the Fertile Crescent into the Levant, specifically into Lebanon, “The Land of Cedars,” following a path similar to the one that the Biblical Abraham is said to have followed from Southern Mesopotamia into the Promised Land.
Gilgamesh’s ambition is to conquer a wild frontier. He wishes to set his name “stamped on bricks” at a place “where [as yet] no man’s name is written,” and there “raise a monument to the gods.”
He, in short, seeks to assert into the world his unique aesthetic persona.
Gilgamesh’s artistic and architectural quest, setting his imprint on bricks and raising something new and lasting to the gods, is the act of an Apollonian creative artist, going beyond where he has already been, and where his predecessors have gone before.
In this sense, Gilgamesh is World Literature’s first ambitious artist—-an exemplar of what the literary critic Harold Bloom describes as one who attempts, under the “anxiety of influence,” to move beyond one’s literary or artistic fathers (or influences) to build something new, and to raise, as it were, a unique and lasting “monument to the gods.”
But it is here, with Gilgamesh’s ambition set on HIGH, that Enkidu tells him to not become too Promethean too fast, but to find in himself some humility before the divine will, and to seek permission from Shamash, the Sun God, first:
Enkidu spoke . . . to Gilgamesh, “O my lord, if you will enter that country, go first to the hero Shamash, tell the Sun God, for the land is his. The country where the cedar is cut belongs to Shamash.”
It is here that we get an insight into what ancient Mesopotamian religion was for, and it can be expressed as a kind of formula:
- ambitions and desires, such as those that drive Gilgamesh, are accompanied by anxiety (because the fulfillment of ambitions and desires, being in the future, are never certain);
- but if we get on the right side of the gods, we improve our odds of success;
- therefore, we go to the gods in prayer and sacrifice
And this is what Gilgamesh does:
Gilgamesh took up a kid, white without spot, and a brown one with it; he held them against his breast, and he carried them into the presence of the sun. He took in his hand his silver sceptre and he said to glorious Shamash, “I am going to that country, O Shamash, I am going; my hands supplicate, so let it be well with my soul and bring me back to the quay of Uruk. Grant, I beseech, your protection, and let the omen be good.”
Notice that Gilgamesh doesn’t ask Shamash’s permission, he tells Shamash what he is going to do. That’s either brave or foolish, depending on your point of view. But unlike most people who pray to a god, Shamash actually talks back to Gilgamesh, and offers him resistence. Shamash says:
Gilgamesh, you are strong, but what is the Country of the Living to you?
Gilgamesh replies that he is vexed within the city of Uruk by the suffering and death he sees around him, and needs to get out and set his stamp upon the world. And Gilgamesh is persistent in his defense of his desires, and does not give up, but wrestles, as it were, with Shamash, begging his permission:
The tears ran down his [Gilgamesh’s] face and he said, “Alas, it is a long journey that I must take to the Land of Humbaba. If this enterprise is not to be accomplished, why did you move me, Shamash, with the restless desire to perform it?
This is a profound human protest to make before the divine, and Gilgamesh’s plea moves Shamash. It recalls the numerous incidents in the Hebrew Bible where Abraham or Moses contend with God in dialogue, and move God to action or restraint, as in the case of Abraham’s reasoning and negotiation with God over the fate of Sodom and Gommorah. And it thus turns out not to be the formal animal sacrifice that does the trick before Shamash, but Gilgamesh’s sincere pleading and tears:
So Shamash accepted the sacrifice of his tears; like the compassionate man he showed him mercy.
Shamash accompanies his approval with some additional assistance to Gilgamesh’s quest:
He [Shamash] appointed strong allies for Gilgamesh, sons of one mother, and stationed them in the mountain caves. The great winds he appointed: the north wind, the whirlwind, the storm and the icy wind, the tempest and the scorching wind. Like vipers, like dragons, like a scorching fire, like a serpent that freezes the heart, a destroying flood and the lightening’s fork, such were they and Gilgamesh rejoiced.
From the above quoted passages, there are some interesting things to infer about ancient Mesopotamian religion:
- First, it is intimate. The way Gilgamesh contends with Shamash resembles the relationship of a son to a father.
- Second, it is humane. Shamash responds to sincere human longing and tears. He prefers this intimate sincerity to ritual sacrifice.
- Third, it grapples with suffering and difficult questions, as when Gilgamesh questions why Shamash might put a desire in Gilgamesh’s heart that would only go frustrated.
- Fourth, it presumes that the gods are territorial, and that humans, if things are to go well in the land that they inhabit, must appease the god of that land.
- Fifth, it presumes that the weather is under the control of gods.
These basic assumptions, in a monotheistic form, are shared by parts of the Hebrew Bible. And Gilgamesh’s quest bares some of the anxiety that another great Mesopotamian no doubt shared, on leaving one land and entering another. This was, of course, Abraham, who was not from the city of Uruk, as was Gilgamesh, but from Ur of the Chaldees.
Abraham and Gilgamesh, both from Mesopotamia, are not just near to one another geographically; they are near to one another spiritually, sharing many common assumptions about the divine, and both feeling an inner call to move.