Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Legacy of Divisiveness

I’m having Gilgamesh withdrawals right now. Let me explain: for the last decade I have taught the Sumerian epic as part of the Mesopotamian unit of my Humanities/Expository Composition class. For a number of reasons, all of them positive, I’m not teaching that course this year. I miss it and Gilgamesh. And I’ve been meaning to explore a particular meaning it has for me as a transgendered woman.
Right: The original Macho Man. Gilgamesh wrestles a lion in a statue in the Louvre.
In a nutshell, Gilgamesh is the story of an obnoxiously arrogant king to whom the gods want to teach humility by giving him a friend who is his equal in all things – his exact double, in fact, in all but a few details – and taking that friend away, causing Gilgamesh to vicariously experience his own death. Gilgamesh loves his friend Enkidu as he loves himself, and together they fight and kill the giant Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedars of Lebanon, and when Gilgamesh spurns the advances of Ishtar the goddess of fertility, love, and war, and patroness of his city of Uruk, and she sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy him, it is Enkidu who throws the Bull’s severed haunch into the Ishtar’s face. And it is not long afterward that Enkidu sickens and dies, sending Gilgamesh into paroxysms of grief and causing him to undertake a quest for his own immortality. Ultimately, Utanipishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah, who survived the great flood and has gained immortality from the gods, and thus is the object of Gilgamesh’s quest, teaches him that immortality is not his, that even though he is two-thirds god, Gilgamesh will, at his death, go to the underworld with every other mortal and eat clay for eternity. Through realizing his own mortality, Gilgamesh gains the humility he needs and returns to his city of Uruk a better king.

Not much to do with transgenderism here. Are Gilgamesh and Enkidu archetypal gay lovers – a Sumerian Damon and Pythias? Is this story, in part, Brokeback Mountain set between the Tigris and Euphrates? Dense as I am, it took me years to realize it, but – yep.

But much as I honor that, that’s not the purpose of this blog, and I must admit that on the surface there is little in the main story of Gilgamesh that sheds light on the transgendered experience. But I think the story holds an important key to the disenfranchisement of both natal and transgendered women. I’m referring to the section of the epic in which Ishtar approaches Gilgamesh and offers to take him as her consort.
Right: Voluptuous Ishtar in a Mesopotamian statue.
"Come here, Gilgamesh," Ishtar said,
"marry me, give me your luscious fruits,
be my husband, be my sweet man.
I will give you abundance beyond your dreams:
marble and alabaster, ivory and jade,
gorgeous servants with blue-green eyes,
a chariot of lapis lazuli
with golden wheels and guide-horns of amber,
pulled by storm-demons like giant mules.
When you enter my temple and its cedar fragrance
high priests will bow down and kiss your feet,
kings and princes will kneel before you,
bringing you tribute from east and west.
And I will bless everything that you own,
your goats will bear triplets, your ewes will twin,
your donkeys will be faster than any mule,
your chariot-horses will win every race,
your oxen will be the envy of the world.
These are the least of the gifts I will shower
upon you. Come here. Be my sweet man."

[Gilgamesh, never a paragon of tact, replies hotly:]

"Your price is too high,
such riches are far beyond my means.
Tell me, how could I ever repay you,
even if I gave you jewels, perfumes,
rich robes? And what will happen to me
when your heart turns elsewhere and your lust burns out?

"Why would I want to be the lover
of a broken oven that fails in the cold.
a flimsy door that the wind blows through,
a palace that falls on its staunchest defenders,
a mouse that gnaws through its thin reed shelter,
tar that blackens the workman's hands,
a waterskin that is full of holes
and leaks all over its bearer, a piece
of limestone that crumbles and undermines
a solid stone wall, a battering ram
that knocks down the rampart of an allied city,
a shoe that mangles its owner's foot?

"Which of your husbands did you love forever?
Which could satisfy your endless desires?
Let me remind you of how they suffered,
how each one came to a bitter end.
Remember what happened to that beautiful boy
Tammuz: you loved him when you were both young
then you changed, you sent him to the underworld
and doomed him to be wailed for, year after year
You loved the bright-speckled roller bird,
then you changed, you attacked him and broke
and he sits in the woods crying Ow'ee! Ow'ee!
You loved the lion, matchless in strength,
then you changed, you dug seven pits for him,
and when he fell, you left him to die.
You loved the hot-blooded, war-bold stallion,
then you changed, you doomed him to whip an
to endlessly gallop, with a bit in his mouth,
to muddy his own water when he drinks from a pool,
and for his mother, the goddess Silili,
you ordained a weeping that will never end.
You loved the shepherd, the master of the flocks,
who every day would bake bread for you
and would bring you a fresh-slaughtered, roasted lamb,
then you changed, you touched him, he became a wolf,
and now his own shepherd boys drive him away
and his own dogs snap at his hairy thighs.
You loved the gardener Ishullanu,
who would bring you baskets of fresh-picked dates,
every day, to brighten your table,
you lusted for him, you drew close and said,
'Sweet Ishullanu, let me suck your rod,
touch my vagina, caress my jewel,'
and he frowned and answered, 'Why should I eat
this rotten meal of yours? What can you offer
but the bread of dishonor, the beer of shame,
and thin reeds as covers when the cold wind blows?'
But you kept up your sweet-talk and at last he gave in,
then you changed, you turned him into a toad
and doomed him to live in his devastated garden.
And why would my fate be any different?
If I too became your lover, you would treat me
as cruelly as you treated them."
Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 2004

In effect, Gilgamesh is refusing the honor of being a sacrificial king. Mythographers and anthropologists from James George Fraser to Jesse L. Weston to Joseph Campbell to Marija Gimbutas have told us about the dying and resurrecting king. It’s the basis of Greek tragedy and of Christianity (not to mention the religions of such broad ranging cultures as the Egyptians and Mayans). In an agrarian society, the king is equated with the crop. As the crop goes through a birth, death and resurrection cycle, so must the king. As the Earth is constant, so is the queen. The king often becomes king by marrying the queen. (Ever wonder why Penelope in The Odyssey has all those suitors hanging around waiting for her to declare Odysseus dead and remarry, when she has a perfectly good son moping about the palace?) The king rules for a period of time and then, while he is still potent, is either sacrificed or dies in a ritual fight defending his kingship from a successor. The true power actually lies in the queen, who is an embodiment of the goddess.
Right: Artist's rendering of Ishtar's temple at Uruk.
In denying Ishtar, Gilgamesh is making both a political and spiritual move: he is taking the constant power unto himself. With this action he is refusing to be the sacrificial victim and asserting his political might. In doing so, he is relegating the goddess/queen to a lesser position and inaugurating an era of patriarchy. Part of the Mesopotamian legacy, then, will be femiphobia, for men, who have taken the power unto themselves, will constantly be glancing over their shoulders, worrying whether women will try to get the power back – whether it be in the household, business, or politics. Physical force will take precedence over intellect and spirit. And women themselves will be relegated to the position of possessions and children. Thus any male who is compelled to emulate a woman or identify as one will be relegated to a lower position, since he is deliberately discarding his power.

Please keep in mind that I’m not saying that this was the literal action of the historical Gilgamesh (and there was one). It is very hard to pin down just when the shift to patriarchy occurred. I am saying, however, that this scene in the Gilgamesh epic can be seen as a milestone in the mythic consciousness of Western society in which the divine feminine is repudiated rather than embraced.

I don’t miss Gilgamesh as a character; he’s a jerk, and there’s too little of the reformed Gilgamesh at the end of the epic to admire. It’s good to see him get his comeuppance, though. No, what I miss is bittersweet. I’m seeing the start of it all. In rejecting the goddess, Gilgamesh has taken on a mantle of power so great that it has for centuries made men suspicious, violent, cold-blooded and unimaginative. It is the beginning of what has for millennia kept my natal sisters in subjugation and what has made my transgendered sisters and me a source of derision and fear. I miss showing this to my students and chipping away at a six-thousand-year-old edifice of femiphobia.


Abby said...


As always, thanks for this post. I remember reading the story of Gilgamesh during my freshman year in college (eons ago) and being totally bewildered about the meaning of the myth. At least now, I have the beginning of an understanding.


Gillian said...

I first started reading this epic over a bowl of curry in Yokuska, Japan. I've been going back to it ever since. I would certainly not call it a work of hopeful spirituality, since, even though he is two-thirds god, Gilgamesh must deal with the fact that there is no immortality for him, and the afterlife is similar to the Greco-Roman Hades: sit around and fade away.

But there IS a passage that I think has the wisest advice to anyone. In his quest for immortality, Gilgamesh meets an old fishwife named Siduri, who says to him:

"Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life
that you seek. When the gods created mankind,
They also created death, and they held back
eternal life for themselves alone.
Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live."

Abby said...

Although A Course in Miracles has a very different view on death and immortality, I agree 100% with Siduri on how to live a life filled with love and joy.