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More on Gilgamesh: Did Gilgamesh Kill Goddess Worship?

Even though I finished writing a complete and polished draft of my novel The Faithful Son, I’m still reading up a ton on Mesopotamian literature, especially Gilgamesh.  I find that so much began with those Sumerian poems about that ancient Urukian King that regardless what I turn my thoughts to, it comes back to me in a drift of understanding.

Everything literary began with Gilgamesh.  Perhaps, everything religious and everything gender-related begins with Gilgamesh.

So I have two new cool books to talk about.

1. The Queen of Heaven by Gavin White

The Queen of Heaven by Gavin White

This is a reconstruction of the most ancient philosophy of living known to mankind. Gavin reconstructs the evolution of the myth of the Goddess (first come to the world with the name Ninanna – later Inanna/Ishtar, or The Lady of Heaven) from pre-literate times through the Semitic-Akkadian period belonging to Gilgamesh.

I read this avidly like it was a graphic novel rather than a scholarly thesis.  I had read another book by Gavin on Babylonian star lore and I find everything that he writes eminently readable, clear, structured like a mystery, yet replete with rare and accurate information.

The Queen of Heaven affirms what many have already said, that the very first religions of men where goddess-based religions.  But what is interesting about White’s thesis is that he links much of what was later attributed to the sun god and the consequent slew of male gods that came after was original attribute of the goddess.  He proves this, beyond the literature, through the iconography of the times, from steles, to potteries to weavings.  It is so much fun to read this book because Gavin White teaches the reader how to interpret what at first appears to be arcane symbology but that, under his thorough and simple directions, becomes a whole new language.

Ultimately, White’s thesis proclaims that Gilgamesh was the first authority figure to “kill” the goddess worship, by establishing a cult of the dead and hijacking the attributes of the goddess towards a ruling male god. In doing so, Gilgamesh also replaced the philosophy of life and regeneration with one of permanent death.

Though at first I found his thesis plausible, after some reconsidering of what I read about Gilgamesh I find this thesis to be flawed, or at least, incomplete. I do agree, I think (for whatever that is worth) that the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic did become the nail on the coffin of goddess worship — or at least, it was one of the first major influences on a shift from the worship of a singular, nameless female divinity to worship of multiple male gods.

However, I have my questions that it was Gilgamesh, the historical king,  who brought about the schism because it isn’t until the much later Akkadian versions, written about 1,000 years after Gilgamesh’s death, that Gilgamesh becomes a demigod who scorns his goddess in favor of companionship with his male human friend Enkidu (and for his worship to Utu, the sun-god). Gilgamesh the real king of Uruk probably had no such altercation with the goddess, or with any such hijacking of the pantheon.

Nonetheless, White’s thesis is powerful and thought provoking and very much worth consideration.  There is certainly a schism between the genders and at a point in history we see the goddess fading and in all the iconography of the times, held in bondage by a male god.  It may have happened in Gilgamesh’s time, but for me to be persuaded that it’s so, I would have to see this connected to the oldest and most ancient of the literary sources on Gilgamesh.  Nonetheless Gavin White’s book is a thought-provoking work that ought to be examined closely by anyone who as an interest in this period and this subject.

The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic

2. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic written by Jeffrey H. Tigay is a wonderful compendium of long needed-scholarly evidence on the evolution of the Gilgamesh story from its first appearance as disparate adventure poems to the Akkadian adaptation that we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The material in this book is thick and well referenced from its original languages in Sumerian and in various other ancient languages, like Hittite and Hurrian, Akkadian and, I believe, also Assyrian.  Tigay proposes that the Akkadian version that casts Gilgamesh as the lover and equal of Enkidu, who, shocked by the death of his friend, becomes obsessed with the search of immortality, is really a whole new Gilgamesh, a novelty only loosely based on other scriptures involving the two heroes that had been around for nearly 1,000 years before that version began to take over.

A lot of the material in this book I was proud to see I had already deduced, from the existing literature.  For instance, the minor but important detail that the Cedar Forest in the very earliest narratives lay to the east of Uruk and not to the northwest is a tantalizing and precious bit of information, especially since the location of the Cedar Forest referenced in the later works about Gilgamesh has been firmly identified as Lebanon (with some new scholarship based on wood analysis suggesting that it may also have been from Syria or even south Turkey).  If the original Cedar Forest were located to the east of Uruk, this would lend credence to my thesis that the journey to the Cedar Forest might in fact be an allegory for a plunder of Elam, to establish new trade routes after a truce between King Enmebaraggesi and Gilgamesh would have prompted Gilgamesh to find the ore and timber he needed to import from sources other than the ones controlled by his adversary.

I also enjoyed reading the comparison between two scriptural responses from Enkidu when Gilgamesh, after capturing the Humbaba, proposes to let the monster go free. In both responses, Enkdu is high handed, strident in his advice to kill Humbaba, but in the second version Enkidu’s words are specific on the identity of Humbaba: an en priest (priest-king) and therefore, a sorcerer of that area (Elam?), and one who should not be released, because according to Enkidu, the en priest will immediately confuse the path in the forest and Enkidu and Gilgamehs will never find their way out.  So, some ideas come to mind based on this: 1. Humbaba was a priest-king commanding a large territory in Elam, or other territory to the east of Sumer which grew cedar wood; 2. rather than making him an ally, or viceroy, Enkidu suggested killing the man, because 3. he was a high priest or priest-king and therefore, according to the mentality of the time, he possessed the powers of magic or sorcery.

Another startling fact revealed in this book is that Enkidu once had his own epic. His merging into the Gilgamesh adventures was an evolution of later times.  Enkidu appears as Gilgamesh’s servant in the early Sumerian poems, and then is promoted to Gilgamesh’s best friend (and  lover) in the Akkadian versions, but apparently Enkidu never entered the earliest narratives on Gilgamesh.  Enkidu must have also been a king or character of popular imagination who, at some point in time, commanded his own literary tradition.  This fact casts into doubt whether the historical Gilgamesh knew any Enkidu at all.

In other posts I suggested that Gilgamesh is an alias for the god Dumuzi/AmaUshumgalAna, and I detailed the reasons in two long posts.  Many of the sources unearthed in this book provide support for this idea.  (See, The Problem With Dumuzi and On Gilgamesh and Dumuzi) Gilgamesh, as priest-king of a culture of goddess-worship, would have assumed the role of the god Dumuzi for sacred rites and other important cultural functions and it seems natural that the literature that narrates his life would have made little distinction between Gilgamesh the king and Gilgamesh the incarnation of the god.  But my question is whether or not the narrative of a half-god, half-human who betrayed and then paid dearly for defying his goddess, an entity who had to suffer the tortures of hell before he was “revived” or re-instated to the pantheon, is one that belongs to the ancient god Dumuzi of tens of thousands of years before Gilgamesh, or if it is Gilgamesh whose corresponding historical deeds caused the narrative to adopt these episodes and attribute them not to a mortal king (Gilgamesh) but to the immortal demigod he represented for the cults (Dumuzi).

Whether or not it was Gilgamesh who created a schism with his goddess is the question that I hope to answer.  According to Gavin White, it must be: all evidence points to this conclusion. Before the narratives of Gilgamesh existed, there is no question in White’s mind that a female divinity was worshipped for all the attributes that still to this day religious cults attribute to a male creator.  It’s only when Gilgamesh arrives on the scene that the power is usurped, the goddess ousted, and a new cult instated where the male divinities are ruling the still acknowledge the now rogue, wild, and often-hostile female force.  This is an interesting theory that has great repercussions on our understanding of the evolution of contemporary gender issues and one that ought to be studied carefully.

Both books provide new tantalizing material for the amateur Sumerologist, but they also provide interesting theories about the origins of our contemporary philosophy about the nature of existence and the fate of men after death.  Both books are absolute jewels. I’m happy to own them and recommend them highly.

Recommended posts: On Gilgamesh and Dumuzi, and The Problem With Dumuzi

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