Becoming Anthropocentric: Enkidu, Shamhat, and The Epic of Gilgamesh

It’s almost a cliché in deep ecological thought to point to the Abrahamic creation story in the Bible’s book of Genesis, where man is made in God’s own image and given dominion over the earth, as the root of Western anthropocentrism and the ecological problems that branch out from it. However, despite the rhetoric of divine inspiration that governs the reception of the holy scriptures, the biblical creation story hardly fell from the sky. Like the story of Noah and the Flood whose source is an older, Babylonian one encountered by the Hebrews during the Babylonian exile, so, too, the anthropocentrism found in Genesis is likely not unrelated, at least, to older, local narrative traditions, as a recent article about a newly-translated fragment from the Epic of Gilgamesh seems to suggest.

As the article’s author, Sophus Helle, reminds us

 The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man. His strength is diminished, but his intellect is expanded, and he becomes able to think and speak like a human being. Shamhat and Enkidu travel together to a camp of shepherds, where Enkidu learns the ways of humanity. Eventually, Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, and the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.

The newly-translated fragment, however, modifies the present version of the epic in one small detail:

Shamhat seduces Enkidu, they have sex for a week, and Shamhat invites Enkidu to come to Uruk. The two of them then talk about Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams. Then, it turns out, they had sex for another week, and Shamhat again invites Enkidu to Uruk.

The first time that Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk, she describes Gilgamesh as a hero of great strength, comparing him to a wild bull. Enkidu replies that he will indeed come to Uruk, but not to befriend Gilgamesh: he will challenge him and usurp his power. Shamhat is dismayed, urging Enkidu to forget his plan, and instead describes the pleasures of city life: music, parties and beautiful women.

After they have sex for a second week, Shamhat invites Enkidu to Uruk again, but with a different emphasis. This time she dwells not on the king’s bullish strength, but on Uruk’s civic life: ‘Where men are engaged in labours of skill, you, too, like a true man, will make a place for yourself.’ Shamhat tells Enkidu that he is to integrate himself in society and find his place within a wider social fabric. Enkidu agrees: ‘the woman’s counsel struck home in his heart’.

So far, so good. Helle’s argument is that “The episodes represent two stages of the same narrative arc, giving us a surprising insight into what it meant to become human in the ancient world.”

It is clear that Enkidu has changed between the two scenes. The first week of sex might have given him the intellect to converse with Shamhat, but he still thinks in animal terms: he sees Gilgamesh as an alpha male to be challenged. After the second week, he has become ready to accept a different vision of society. Social life is not about raw strength and assertions of power, but also about communal duties and responsibility.

Placed in this gradual development, Enkidu’s first reaction becomes all the more interesting, as a kind of intermediary step on the way to humanity. In a nutshell, what we see here is a Babylonian poet looking at society through Enkidu’s still-feral eyes. It is a not-fully-human perspective on city life, which is seen as a place of power and pride rather than skill and cooperation.

What does this tell us? We learn two main things. First, that humanity for the Babylonians was defined through society. To be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture. Cities such as Uruk, Babylon or Ur were the building blocks of civilisation, and the world outside the city walls was seen as a dangerous and uncultured wasteland.

Second, we learn that humanity is a sliding scale. After a week of sex, Enkidu has not become fully human. There is an intermediary stage, where he speaks like a human but thinks like an animal. Even after the second week, he still has to learn how to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes. In short, becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.

…One is not simply born human…

That final formulation possesses a telling, unconscious irony, most charitably an instance of that “blindness and insight” that characterizes language, thought, and even perception (i.e., as the philosopher Edmund Husserl so forcefully reminded us, we only ever see one side of an object), a blindness symptomatically evident at several points.

The first is a linguistic insensitivity, in a howler of a mixed metaphor. Like the Bible and the Homeric epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh as we read it is the result of centuries of editing. As Helle puts it

Not only does Gilgamesh exist in a number of different versions, each version is in turn made up of many different fragments. There is no single manuscript that carries the entire story from beginning to end. Rather, Gilgamesh has to be recreated from hundreds of clay tablets that have become fragmentary over millennia. The story comes to us as a tapestry of shards, pieced together by philologists to create a roughly coherent narrative… (my emphasis)

A second, deeper blindness is ideological (in a Marxian sense). In Helle’s reading, this newest iteration of the seduction of Enkidu shows that, “[t]o be human was a distinctly social affair. And not just any kind of society: it was the social life of cities that made you a ‘true man’. Babylonian culture was, at heart, an urban culture.” That the epic should identify being human with being civilized should be unsurprising, given the conditions of its production, the labour of scribes in a hierarchical, urban society, whose social relations were rooted in the settled agriculture whose surplus of food underwrote the division of labour that freed bodies and hands to sit, learn to read and write, and reproduce clay tablets retelling a cultural epic whose values unsurprisingly reproduce those of the society that tells it to itself.

Finally, there is that most fateful of unexamined distinctions, that between the human and animal. What goes unremarked is just how Enkidu is tamed:  being seduced by Shamhat with whom he copulates for one or two weeks. On the one hand, Helle’s graduate school buddies might chuckle that Enkidu is “tamed” when he goes from being a single, unattached male to one half of a couple. Not only does the role, function or importance of Shamhat’s gender go unexamined (…), Helle also, on the other hand, fails to register that Enkidu is made human by that act human beings share with all other sexually-reproducing animals, mammals and otherwise, an act as biologically primal as eating and defecating.

That “no one is born human” is surely the case, just not in the sense Helle seems to draw from the epic. As he remarks “becoming human is a step-by-step process, not an either/or binary.” However, more profoundly, it is also a process that sidesteps the animal/human binary it pretends to bridge, in however many steps. The seduction of Enkidu seems not so much to make Enkidu human as to convert him from one kind of herd animal, running wild on the steps, to another, that has learned “to eat bread, drink beer and put on clothes.”

I leave unremarked Helle’s curious wording at the end of his summary of the pertinent part of the epic, concerning how, when Enkidu and Gilgamesh finally meet, “the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.”









No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: