The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most ancient mythological poems we have the possibility to read. It is part of the Sumerian mythology and, as we know, the Sumerians were Europeans (intended here as a biological term). The poem is a collection of originally independent stories, putted together by Babylonians without changes of any sort: as expected, it contains various elements recurrent in the other European mythologies…
Gilgamesh is a prototype of ancient Sacred King/May King, and only by understanding this we will be able to get something from the figure of Enkidu, a character who becomes very soon the best friend of Gilgamesh and who will follow him during most of the events described in the poem. We’ll return later to the bond between these two characters.
To note that the poem refers to the multiple sexual relationships of Gilgamesh, possibly because it happened in the past that the men who demonstrated to be the best physically and mentally had the possibility to obtain more than one woman, so that they could have many more children and as a result a wide spread of their genes:
The king of Uruk with crossroads,
Is open the tent
(that alienates) the others,
Of the groom (only):
The legitimate wife,
He lies with her,
and the husband afterwards.
(Such is) the order
(Wanted) by the divine will,
And, since his birth,
(This privilege) is granted to him!”.
-The Epic of Gilgamesh
An interesting fact about Enkidu is that he is presented as a sort of savage and indomitable man who lives harmoniously with animals in the woods. What happens later in the poem can make us think that Enkidu represents man when he still lived in harmony with nature, not knowing yet civilization and the agricultural/sedentary way of life. The people of Uruk sends a whore to approach him, corrupt him and later take him in front of Gilgamesh. The whore (note that the figure of the whore/prostitute has never existed amongst hunter-gatherers, i.e. for the 99% of our time on this planet) instead represents the civilization (i.e. domestication) of man, a dramatic change for our existence in this planet. That’s why, after Enkidu has an intercourse with her, the inhabitants of the woods refuse to still live with him. Enkidu has been corrupted by civilization, there is no more place for him in the savage world of the woods. Passed to civilization, Enkidu feels more weak physically (because this way of life is the consequence of a degeneration and it leads to a further and progressive degeneration) and the poem states that the whore took him to shepherds who offered him bread and beer, two typical products of the agricultural/sedentary way of life:
“The bread (that) they offered (him)
He refused it;
The beer (that) they presented him,
He refused it:
Without eating this bread,
Enkidu examined it with suspect;
Without drinking that beer,
He examined it with suspect…”.
-The Epic of Gilgamesh
Now, returning to the relation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the poem suggests that the latter is, most probably in relation to sympathetic sorcery, another “Gilgamesh”:
“He looks like Gilgamesh,
(But equally) vigorously
-The Epic of Gilgamesh
“To Gilgamesh (, it was said),
(Although) similar to a god,
Has been (therefore) given
-The Epic of Gilgamesh
What I think is that Enkidu is the substitute of the Sacred King at the time when the periodic reign of this one comes to an end. You see, we have good reasons to think that at least some of our European ancestors, at least for some time, at least in certain areas of Europe (yes, we don’t know much about this topic…) had not the custom to kill the Sacred King at the end of his annual reign, nor organized competitions to confirm or replace him; instead, on the last day of reign, they pretended that the real King was dead – for example confining him in an isolated place that symbolized a grave – while a substitute obtained the title of King for the duration of that last day, with all the honours, privileges, functions and duties of the role (it is possible that this “reversal of roles” is at the origin of festivities such as the Saturnalia and Carnival, both characterized by a temporary abolition or overturning of the normal hierarchy of social roles). They achieved this through sympathetic sorcery (“the similar generates the similar”): giving him all the kingly attributes (the prehistoric forms of the crown, of the sword and of the scepter) he became the King. However, at the end of the day he was ceremonially/ritually murdered and then the real King returned from his isolation (i.e. from his symbolic death), reborn, the new Sun ready to regain his role and to reign for another year.
Possibly they did that to avoid the killing of he who was their best man, or maybe because the King at a certain point refused to accept his destiny and imposed this variation of the ritual…we don’t know for sure. Regarding the substitute, for what we know he could have been a criminal, a degenerated man which destiny was in any case to be executed, or he could have been a healthy and honourable man ready to do an act worthy of being remembered, dying as a King: indeed, as we know, our ancestors had a vision of life and death that included rebirth for the honourable man…death was not a problem, even less if it was considered by all as an honourable death. I tend for the second interpretation but, again, we don’t know for sure.
A King’s death:
Returning to the poem: during the lament for the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh points out how all the living creatures, animated or inanimate, mourn for him. This is very similar to what happens after the death of Baldr – another Solar God/King that dies in Winter to be reborn in Spring – in the Norse mythology, when all the living creatures mourn his death so that Hel will return him from the reign of the dead. The same for Enkidu, in that moment he was effectively the Sacred King, ritually killed and ceremonially cried.
We can see the same process applied in some episodes of the Greek mythology, for example when Phaeton takes the chariot and the distinctive attributes of Helios – in this way becoming a new Helios – but shortly after starting to perform the role of his father he dies. Another case is the one of Achilles and Patroclus, where Achilles (the Sacred King) pretends to be dead, remaining isolated in his ship until when his substitute, Patroclus, dies shortly after having become himself the King/Achilles, through the use of his armour and his weapons. Both the factions are sure to have Achilles in front of their eyes when Patroclus shows up, and Patroclus is convinced that by using the armour and weapons of Achilles will obtain the same strength and valour for which the son of Peleus is famous on the battlefield: sympathetic sorcery at its best! Patroclus then dies and, finally, Achilles ends his isolation: the (real) King has returned to life!
Part 2: Sumerian Mists (Part 2 of 3)
Part 3: Sumerian Mists (Part 3 of 3)