The Epic of Gilgamesh was written over 5,000 years ago. It is regarded as the first great work of literature. My interest today is not in the usual emphasis, that is placed, on the examination of the nature of friendship, the treatment of the duties of kings foreshadowing ‘mirrors for princes’ in the Epic. Today, I am preoccupied with the motif of journeys in literature. This theme is most explicit in Homer’s Odyssey and in Aeneas’ Aeneid. Bernard Schlink, in his novel Homecoming, made the point that the Odyssey is a tale about a journey back home from war whereas The Aeneid is a journey following dispersal in the aftermath of war.
There is another tradition of the travel motif, where travel is an act with a specific purpose which is, often, to complete a task. This tradition is exemplified in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, as told in the epic poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC. Here we have a crew of 19 heroes including Jason and Heracles on a quest for the Golden Fleece. The journey takes the heroes through the Isle of Lemnos, Cyzicus, the Symplegades and finally arriving at Colchis. And their courage and virtues were tested in the varying encounters.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is in the manner of Jason and the Argonauts, although of course pre-dating it. We have Gilgamesh and Enkidu setting out to go the Forest of Cedar to kill Humbaba, the ogre. What distinguishes this account from other fictional works with a journey theme is that the tests are enacted in the spirit. In other words, the heroes confront their own inner demons rather than being tested by events or obstacles in the real world.
We know that both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are valorous. Gilgamesh is
Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature,
brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage!
Going at the fore he was the vanguard,
going at the rear, one his comrades could trust!
[…] the tall, magnificent and terrible,
who opened passes in the mountains,
who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands,
and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise;
Who is there can rival his kingly standing,
and say like Gilgamesh, ‘It is I am king’?
Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born,
two thirds of him god and one third human.
And of Enkidu, we know
All his body is matted with hair,
he bears long tresses like those of a woman:
the hair of his head grows thickly like barley,
he knows not a people, nor even a country.
Gilgamesh’s testing encounters come in the form of dreams. In the first dream, Gilgamesh saw a mountain fall on top of him. In the second, a mountain threw him down and held him by the feet until he was rescued by a handsome man. In the third dream, the heavens cried aloud and the earth rumbled, the day grew dark, there was lightning and fire broke out and death rained down. In the fourth dream, Gilgamesh saw a Thunderbird soaring above him with a distorted face and breathing fire and its wings spread out over him. In the final dream, Gilgamesh had taken hold of a wild bull but the bull cloved at the earth raising dust that went up into the sky.
The effect of these dreams on Gilgamesh was to provoke a deep sense of foreboding, ‘how ominous it was, how desolate, how unclear’. He was startled and his flesh froze. We have a hero confronting his fear, his anxiety and terror at the impending challenge. Enkidu’s responses were classic examples of psychological reframing. We could go as far as to say that this was the first documentation of tactics of cognitive behavioural therapy.
Enkidu’s response to the first dream was to say ‘the mountain you saw could not be Humbaba, we shall capture him, we shall cast down his corpse in the field of battle’. His response to the second dream was ‘Humbaba is not the mountain, he is different altogether, come cast aside your fear’. And to the third dream, ‘your dream is a good omen, you will see the radiant auras of the god, of Humbaba whom in your thoughts you fear so much. Locking horns like a bull you will batter him and force his head down with your strength’. In response to the fourth dream, Enkidu recognised the magnificent terror of the Thunderbird, and said ‘its visage distorted, its mouth was fire, its breath was death’. He described its awesome splendour I suppose to give weight to the extent of the challenge but then predicted ‘we shall bring about his death’. Finally, in response to the fifth dream, Enkidu said ‘we shall join forces, and do something unique, a feat that never has been in the land’.
This epic poem at the very least traces an interior life, registers fear not merely in words or terms like terror but as symbolic images made manifest in dreams. But in addition, there was a requirement for dream interpretation, for skilled counsel that combined wisdom and empathetic understanding. Enkidu recognised and named Gilgamesh’s fear whilst at the same time reinterpreting the obvious symbols of fear and apprehension in such a way as to give encouragement.
To read these travel sagas, not only across time but also across culture is to be enriched, to come to comprehend the mythological transformation of the precarious existence of human beings in the ancestral period. In Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irumale, an explicit travel saga with all the motifs of challenging encounters but distinct in the fact that these encounters are other worldly, peopled by beings whose materiality and substance shift between the visible, the incandescent, and the shadowy. Fagunwa’s tale shares with The Epic of Gilgamesh, the symbolism of the forest. Where Homer and Apollonius depict travels on the sea, ploughing the waves as the Greeks often said, the primeval forest of deep ancestry is the territory that Fagunwa trods not navigates, and that Gilgamesh, too, journeys in.
These thoughts all came my way as we walked along a towpath. Longboats with names such as Charlotte M, Beamish, Waterloo, Bunbury Bill, Moonlight and Glastonbury Tor were moored up to one side of us. Along the hedge bordering the path were forget-me-nots, buttercups, Irises, dandelions, daisies and cow parsley. The most challenging encounters were with a pair of swans and their three signets. We had no Humbaba to test our resolve. We had not vowed to bring back the Golden Fleece nor to explore Oke Langbodo. Our reach was parochial and arm’s length. The horizon was pulled close to our noses and the sky, a mere handkerchief thrown overhead and threadbare in places. The span of our embrace was cramped and prosaic. That is the tragedy of the modern world.
Photos by Jan Oyebode