Wednesday, February 20, 2008



Recently, I performed the ancient Mesopotamian story of "Gilgamesh."  The story itself, some 4,500 years old, and carved in cuneiform on clay tablets, describes one man's search for immortality.  It is a timeless story, and it 
speaks to me.  I find that I am deeply moved by this ancient tale.

A timeless, poetic, and powerful story, it rocked me to my bones as the hero struggles against the inevitability of death -- both of those he loves and of his own death.  In the end, after a long and driven journey beyond the boundaries of this world, he finally comes to terms with the nature of life.  You will recognize yourself here.

As I was performing it, I realized that you could say that this story is also a celebration of Ishtar.  She is there at every pivotal moment in the life of Gilgamesh, influencing and dramatically affecting the trajectory of his experiences.  So, from that viewpoint, I briefly recount the major events:


In his youth, Gilgamesh is a powerful, self-centered and egotistical ruler determined to make a name for himself through great works -- built by enslaving his own people.  Furthermore, he lays claim to the virginity of every young woman in his city-state of Uruq.  In despair, the people pray to Ishtar for deliverance.  I cannot ascribe to Ishtar a complete manipulation of Gilgamesh.  He has free will, and thus it seems the story can go in a number of directions. However, in the end, Gilgamesh will be transformed.

Because the people have prayed to Ishtar,  she will respond.  She creates a "second Gilgamesh," a Gilgamesh with heart.  She forms him out of a lump of clay and tosses it into the wilderness.   And now the story swings into its own wild imagery.

This new creation, Enkidu as he is called, is a seductive wildman, a charming free spirit.  He captures the hearts of the people of Uruq and he blends his soul with that of Gilgamesh.  But for the heart of Gilgamesh to really open, Gilgamesh must understand how deeply he loves.  The drama carries on.  Enkidu and Gilgamesh join forces and become unstoppable.  What they would do, they CAN do, and like two Titans, they look for great feats to accomplish, for terrifying monsters to slay.

At the end of one great conquest, Ishtar comes to Gilgamesh, seductively, offering her hand in marriage.  Ah, but he rejects her, and does so with an eloquent speech full of insults.  In rage, Ishtar sends down the Bull of Heaven, meant to destroy Gilgamesh...

 ...but instead, it is the Bull of Heaven that is slain -- with the excellently choreographed help of Enkidu.  Gilgamesh has not been humbled.  His heart has not been opened.  The prayers of the people of Uruq have not been answered...
Ishtar wails from the high walls of Uruq, ignored by the triumphant heroes.

Now begins the deep power of the story.  As decreed by the gods, Enkidu is stricken with a slow, debilitating loss of power -- dying without glory, merely ebbing away.  When he dies, Gilgamesh goes mad with grief and rejects all his kingly trappings.  He takes on the rags of the wildman that Enkidu once was, storms out of Uruq, and seeks immortality beyond the very ends of the earth.

And who is waiting there for him, when he actually reaches this remote region?  A barmaid who calls herself Siduri...  a disguised Ishtar.  She is kind and forthright.  He seeks immortality, so she gives him advice on how to reach the one man who can help him.  And she smiles.  Her parting words, before he sets off on this last stretch of his journey, are these, "...if the boatman will not help you cross over the lake, you can always come back to me...."

Gilgamesh sets off in search of the boatman.  When the boatman does not immediately respond to his summons, Gilgamesh displays his typical arrogance and quick anger by destroying the stone images in the boat.  In doing so, he has destroyed the power that carries the boat safely across the death-waters of the lake.
With genuine patience, the boatman offers a last alternative -- and so here you see Gilgamesh bringing "twice-sixty" poles to push the boat along.  Each pole can be used only once before it is eaten up by the toxic waters.

The goal of this lake-crossing is to reach the one human who has achieved immortality, a man called Utnapishtim.  What Utnapishtim shares with Gilgamesh is a story within itself -- but in the end, Gilgamesh is still denied the immortality he seeks.  Utnapishtim advises him to return home, and to live out his life.

At the end of this long circular journey, Gilgamesh approaches the great walls of Uruq.  His heart has opened.  No longer arrogantly proud, he recognizes the beauty of the city of Uruq -- the walls, the city within, and the people who dwell there.  And he recognizes it as the home of Ishtar...

Using the honorific that indicates her presence, the humbled Gilgamesh has returned to Uruq of the Sheepfold.