The Taming of Nature in Gilgamesh

The importance of the natural world in humanity’s progress in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.


Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” . . . “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:26 and 1:28)

Since the beginning, humans (why do I want to write “man” here?) have had divine sanction to do whatever it is they desire to the flora and fauna (“creeping things”) of the earth. Many have taken this to heart and continue to use the word of the God of Genesis as authority to rape, pillage, and squander all that the natural world has to offer. Indeed, much of what humanity has taken from the earth has directly led to our continued evolution through superior technological developments, but what is lost by a careless and prodigal waste of these supposedly god-given resources? The Judeo-Christian Old Testament is not the only work of literature that addresses the ecology; the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh also looks at humanity’s progress, but perhaps not so wantonly.

“The Old Satyr or Enkidu the Wild Man,”
by minoart2

Humanity’s progress seems very much linked with the character of Enkidu. Created as a wild man, Enkidu had “long hair like a woman’s,” and he “was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.” While the comment on having hair like a woman’s deserves some treatment, that will have to wait for another entry; however, there does seem to be a link between woman a nature the pervades the epic, as if women supply a link somehow between men and nature, a sort of gateway between the innocence of animals and the experience of civilization. Enkidu is animal-like at the beginning of the epic, and it takes the ministrations of the harlot to make him a man. While the latter has ideological and social ramifications as well, what’s important to the present topic is that Enkidu, once he has slept with the harlot — “For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills” — he is no longer accepted by his former animal brethren, as if the harlot had contaminated him with the stench of humanity: “Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was with him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.”

Here is where the dichotomy between nature and civilization begins to be made clear: nature is frightening and in need of control and domination — it must be civilized so that humanity can live and function within it. Nature must be tamed and ordered so that civilization can continue to grow. They somehow seem mutually exclusive, as if the natural world reminds the civilized world somehow of a bestial past that it’s trying to overcome and repudiate. Enkidu is created for this very reason: to tame the wild heart of Gilgamesh, so that he can become a good king for his people. In order to live together, humanity must have common goals and laws; both Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s wild natures must be assuaged and controlled for them to become human.

Once Enkidu has tried unsuccessfully to return to his wild life, he comes back to the harlot who “divided her clothing in two and with one half she clothed him and with the other herself; and holding his hand she led him like a child to the sheepfolds, into the shepherds’ tents.” Clothing represents humanity; like Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of knowledge “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Clothing comes from the cultivated land, not from slain beasts, for the latter suggests an incivility while the former expresses humanity. For instance, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba, the first thing that Gilgamesh does is wash himself and change his clothes: “he threw off his stained clothes and changed them for new. He put on his royal robes and made them fast.” And when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh repudiates the civilization that led to his death, and he “dragged off his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations” and trades them for the “skin of a lion.”

Similarly, what one does with his or her hair also symbolizes civilization. Once Enkidu has joined the shepherds, he “rubbed down the matted hair of his body and anointed himself with oil.” Combed and cared-for hair marks one as civilized, just as disheveled and dirty hair suggests a beast. This motif runs concomitantly with clothes throughout the epic, for Gilgamesh also “washed out his long locks” and “flung back his hair from his shoulders” after his battle with Humbaba. And, again, after the death of Enkidu, he vows to “let my hair grow long for your sake.” The change in Gilgamesh’s appearance has the desired effect, for when Siduri sees him “coming towards her, wearing skins” she thinks he is a criminal or a beast come to do her harm. Hair and clothing make the human, just like they do today.

Along with clothes and hair, what one eats also speaks of one’s culture. As part of Enkidu’s education, he is presented with bread and wine, but “Enkidu could only suck the milk of wild animals.” Both bread and wine take knowledge and skill to make, not feats that can be accomplished by animals. He quickly learns to eat like a civilized person and he “became merry, his heart exulted and his face shown.’ Only after Enkidu had followed the instructions of the harlot — “Enkidu, eat bread, it is the staff of life; drink the wine, it is the custom of the land” — is it finally evident that “Enkidu had become a man; but when he had put on man’s clothing he appeared like a bridegroom.” Indeed, Enkidu is now married, or about to be, to the customs of humanity, never able to return to the state of innocence that he has now, perhaps unwittingly, repudiated.

The epic makes other comparisons between eating the flesh of animals and that of taming the resources of the natural world in order to make civilized food, like wine and bread. When Gilgamesh wanders the land after Enkidu’s death, the god Shamash sees Gilgamesh “dressed in the skins of animals” and eating “their flesh,” activities that distress the god. This implied criticism favors the more civilized customs of eating what human knowledge cultivates, not what aggression and violence procures. Perhaps this is an implicit suggestion that vegetarianism is more civilized than eating meat? This notion, as we who have tried being vegetarians know only too well, does not sit well with the current customs of our land.

Yet, in order to grown grapes and grain, land needs to be cultivated; therefore forests need to be cleared. Forests are also used for the literal building of cities, used to protect humans from the unknown dangers of the wilderness and the known dangers of the elements. In order to impose a human order on a hostile nature, one of the first steps will be the killing of Humbaba, Lord of the Cedars. Using what currently seems a very viable reason for killing, Gilgamesh reasons “Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose name is ‘Hugeness,’ a ferocious giant.” Precipitated out of sheer boredom — Enkidu complains that he is “oppressed by idleness”) — Gilgamesh decides that Humbaba is part of an axis of evil and must be destroyed, even though the ferocious giant is no immediate threat to the people of Uruk. In order to even get to Humbaba’s they have to travel half-way around the world, at least the world as they knew it. What better way to justify heroic deeds than to call it evil, a menace to society?

Yet, figuratively, Humbaba stands as a symbol for a nature that must be tamed if humanity’s civilization is to grow and prosper. While Humbaba does not offer an immediate threat to Uruk, the idea of Humbaba represents a holdfast to the continued growth of a civilization that places such importance on land that must be cultivated and cities that must be built and reinforced. In order to destroy the holdfast, Gilgamesh and Enkidu must first be armed for battle, weapons must be cast. This arming, while an aspect of the epic, also represents another aspect of human civilization and knowledge: skill and intelligence are necessary to the blacksmiths; a knowledge of ore and and how to order it to work for humans is something provided by nature and tamed by humanity.

As far as epic battles go, the fight with Humbaba is not very spectacular. It seems that most of the danger was just a product of the heroes’ minds, for Humbaba the ferocious giant fell as easily as one might cut down a tree. In fact, much of the battle with Humbaba includes the cutting down of trees: Gilgamesh “felled the first cedar and they cut the branches and laid them at the foot of the mountain.” When Humbaba is felled “for as far as two leagues the cedars shivered . . . for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground.” After the guardian of the forest is dispatched, the heroes attack the forest itself: “They attacked the cedars, the seven splendors of Humbaba were extinguished”; “While Gilgamesh felled the first of the trees of the forest Enkidu cleared their roots to the banks of the Euphrates.” These actions sound like the present-day clearing of old-growth forests in the name of progress. In order to make the land usable by humans for agriculture, the roots, too, must be cleared so that crops may be planted. Humanity is able to spread its influence, but no regard is given for the forest, the creatures that lived in the forest, nor any consideration for the future implications of this clearing.

An ethical critique is offered by the god Enlil: “Why did you do this thing? From henceforth may the fire be on your faces, may it eat the bread that you eat, may it drink where you drink.” As if Nature herself cries out and curses the very aspects of civilization that Gilgamesh’s people hold dear, Enlil knows why Gilgamesh and Enkidu have slain Humbaba, but he cannot reconcile the waste and disregard for nature that seems to accompany human progress.

Francis Danby, “The Deluge” (c. 1840)

However, with this progress also comes pain. As punishment, the gods send the Bull of Heaven as punishment for their trespass, and Enkidu bears the brunt of this assault and is mortally wounded. The Bull of Heaven might symbolize the unpredictability of nature, like the consequences of expansion on nature (El Niño) or even strains of disease that might be direct results of human expansion. Through the death of Enkidu, we are made aware of civilization’s double-edged sword: not only does it help humanity to grow, survive, and evolve, but it also destroys an innocence that might have made death less painful. Enkidu curses what represents for him civilization: women, Uruk, and the trapper. These took from him his happiness in naïveté, his innocent existence with the animals and replaced it with death. With civilization comes the knowledge of one’s own mortality, as if all human endeavor only leads to this certainty: “It was I who cut down the cedar, I who leveled the forest, I who slew Humbaba and now see what has become of me.”

Perhaps part of how we deal with death is how we live as humans. It seems that while we pay lip service to civilization and knowledge, we also give little thought to that which sustains us. We are part animal, and therefore still need that which nature provides. Even to grow grain for bread and grapes for wine requires a symbiotic relationship with nature, not a destructive one. What are the consequences of our continued waste of the land? Can we learn nothing from a 4500-year-old epic?


Originally published on January 18, 2004.