Doalogue #3: Gilgamesh, The Quest for and the Meaning of “immortality”

January 11, 2011


[I decided to include this dialogue in the blogs I’m adding to this website, over twenty in all, even though many, perhaps most, visitors  have not heard of the 4700-year-old epic poem Steven Herrmann and I talk about here. But the dialogue is really about how to live in the world (and for some whether there’s a way to outwit Death and attain some sort of immortality).  These are questions all of us have to deal with one way or another.  I think this dialogue is a good investigation of the pitfalls and insights involved in finding one’s place.  Follow along; you will find yourself adding your own thoughts.

We are all familiar with heroes’ journeys, in comic books, the movies, fiction, poetry, Native American myths, and so on — all brought together in Joseph Campbell’s marvelous, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This dialogue centers on “the oldest story in the world,” the hero’s journey of Gilgamesh, a mythic-historic Mesopotamian king of Uruk.   Gilgamesh is the basis of Stephen Mitchell’s 2004 critically acclaimed version. As Mitchell describes it, “In this epic [Gilgamesh] has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him, Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death.” The poem, through the story of Gilgamesh’s trials, explores fundamental themes of human existence, “grief and the fear of death, . . . love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom.”  Steven and I discuss the timeliness/timelessness of this ancient epic and its myriad connections with their ongoing discussion of cosmic unity and our place among the stars.]

Herrmann: I had the copy of Gilgamesh on my shelf but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Now I am writing a paper where I look at the figure of Gilgamesh in C. G. Jung’s Red Book.

McKowen: I didn’t know Jung did that.

H: Oh, yes. I am looking at Jung’s dialogue with a figure he calls Izdubar. It is a fascinating story, beautiful really. The prototype is found in the epic of Gilgamesh. To understand Jung’s dialogue with this visionary figure, I needed to read the Babylonian myth. So I thought it would be a good thing for us to talk a bit about the book.

M: I’m glad you suggested that. I remember just reading through it quickly initially and must have scanned what Mitchell had to say about it in his introduction. But this time I read it carefully, and it was much more meaningful to me. And I began to pick up key elements of the view of life that the poet who wrote this story was presenting. Mitchell talks  about that, and as you know, there are differences from the hero myths that came along later. They have a little bit different picture of what a hero does. Maybe we’ll get into that later. Anyhow, go back to what you were saying about Jung. I didn’t know he had examined it.

H: That’s what moved me to suggest we read it together. I see Jung’s dialogue with Izdubar as being central to his entire work. It is pivotal! It will change the way we  understand Jung,  now that we have the whole text. I’ll have more to say about my paper later. I’m interested in what kind of parallels you see in Gilgamesh and the book you’re writing?

You cannot get the drop on life.


M: There’s one that really stands out, and that’s that you cannot get the drop on life. You can’t figure out in your head how to pull a fast one on life, get all the goods and get away with it. You just plain can’t do that. It doesn’t matter who you are or how powerful you are, your strength or anything else. Until you get that, you’re going to be lame. In order to find  the path, the path with a heart– or your bliss as Joseph Campbell says– it requires total surrender, a giving up. Those aren’t even good words because it’s more like a falling into life. That’s what this  book really says. Gilgamesh goes through all these journeys, and he finally finds a guy who knows  how to  be immortal, and where to find the herb of immortality.  He  goes and gets it, then carelessly lays it down while he bathes, and a snake carries it off. It’s almost like he’s supposed to be careless, because there isn’t any way to pull that off. He had to be careless for this to happen. Now that I think about it, if it had been some kind of powerful force that took it away from him, that wouldn’t have been any good. So finally, there’s nothing left, no more chances, his last chance comes to nothing. Finally, it’s like the song that goes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You know that one?

H: Yes.

M: Well, that’s the basic idea of it. Nothing was more powerful than that conclusion, that you don’t want to happen, really. You want Gilgamesh to prevail. Well, in a sense he does prevail. The other thing Mitchell talks about;  you know the poet repeats himself all over the place, but he describes the city of Uruk several times, how beautiful it is, in luscious language, two or three times. But in the end Gilgamesh has lost his final quest. He comes to his own home again, to his beautiful city, and the poet describes it once again.  But I think  the poet does that deliberately,  for his readers and for himself. Gilgamesh comes back to the same place, but it’s a place illuminated by his journey, his enlightenment in a sense. OK, now how about your take on it?

The Role of Animal Intelligence

H: I look at it from a psychological angle. My ideas  are shaped somewhat  by  Jung,  his thoughts on it. He didn’t write a whole lot about it, but there are some references  to Gilgamesh in his writings. One of his students, Joseph Henderson, has written quite a bit about the Gilgamesh epic. I won’t dwell too much on those ideas, but I’ll name one that I think is pertinent to your book, and that’s the idea of animal intelligence that we’ve been talking about. Gilgamesh, according to Jung, is a representative of the hero and the Spiritual ideal. Mitchell says, accurately, I think, that Enkidu is two-thirds animal and one-third god. Gilgamesh is one-third animal and two-thirds god.

M: Yes, those are good images . . .

H: So you have a mirror symmetry going on, in the friendship motif.

M: But that’s not the animus/anima idea.

H: No, it’s not. According to Henderson, the myth represents what he calls an initiation-failure. He loses the herb of immortality through carelessness on his return journey when the snake carries it away. It sheds its skin and disappears. It’s  a very interesting part of the story. Let’s  put it in context. I think Stephen Mitchell was very timely in his publication of this book. In the Introduction, he speaks about the myth in light of the conflict in Iraq. It’s in 2004 when he’s writing the introductory essay. He’s reflecting on what happened there and he’s looking back 4,700 years and looking at what went wrong across all those years of history and where we are today. I think that kind of reflection is pertinent to our initial talks about The Field and McTaggart’s book. It’s timely in regard to our work, your book, my Whitman book, and  my essay “Melville’s Vision of Evil.”

The Hero’s Quest

M: They do blend together amazingly. This is really relevant to what we’ve been saying in our dialogues. A little side issue: What significance do you see in the shed skin? Do you have any thoughts on that?

H: Well, the snake represents transformation. The shedding of the skin is considered a synonym for the waxing and waning of the moon, the metamorphosis that did not happen in Gilgamesh’s life I agree with you that he was changed, but I think Henderson has a point about the failure of his initiation in his hero’s quest. He didn’t attain immortality.

M: No, he didn’t.

H: He lost the most precious thing that he was searching for. Let’s get back for a minute to this train of thought I was following in regards to the sea of intelligence, because according to Jung, whom Henderson was influenced by; of course, Enkidu would represent animal intelligence. That’s what Gilgamesh loses, and that’s where the failure occurs: the loss of his connection to instinct.

The joy of actually coming home

M: I think what happens in the end, whether it’s called a failure or not, depends on how you view that event, because from my perspective, while it seems like a failure, I would say he finally gave up a pursuit that was incorrect, that was wrong. I think he was still trying to battle life when he went on his journey. There is the element you’re talking about. He feels bad about it: “I will not be immortal. I have to live here. I have to live in this beautiful city that I have never seen so clearly before.” As I think about it, if there’s anything missing, it would be the joy of actually coming home, to your true home. Our true home here, in this room, in this instant–with our eyes open. And you don’t get that if you’re after something. I would say most people in this universe are really trying to be immortal in a direction that’s hopeless. And the immortality is  right  in front of us, in front of our very eyes. There’s all kind of imagery throughout our literature. You must become as a little child. I was blind, but now I see. That kind of stuff. I think he came home to be a good king, and to live in his city, and to live in it every day. He probably doesn’t need to go on any more hero journeys.

H: You know, that’s the whole point. The point Henderson makes is that the need for hero journeys clearly was over for him, his calling as a hero, by that point. His mourning and his grief over the loss of his friend is the really profound thing. He lost his friend.

M: Yes.

H: And the loss of the most precious thing he could have.

M: Yes

Immortal Longings

H: Immortality. The loss of both of those; the grief and mourning, I think you would agree, is profound, really leads him back to his modesty and humility that you didn’t see in the earlier parts of the story.

M: I don’t know how Buddha put it, but they talk of the still, sad voice of humanity. Some see it as a poignant thing. There is a great deal of com-passion, a sharing of the  feelings  of all of us, that we’re not going to be immortal. Maybe Buddha wasn’t happy enough [Laughs]. It seems to me there should be a tremendous amount of joy to recognize what we really are. That it’s not out there, not an aromatic plant under the sea. It’s somewhere else. Our immortality exists right now, right here.

H: That’s absolutely right. I think Whitman would agree with that. He says that in one of his notebooks. You know, that’s something that we should  talk about a little bit more  with regards to loss, because what he did lose– and I think it’s significant – is the loss of a friend, a loss that was poignant, not only for Gilgamesh, but for Enkidu. Enkidu is initiated by the temple priestess Shamhat and he loses his connection with the animals.

M: That’s very clear in the poem.

H: He no longer can run as fast as a gazelle. He no longer has that connection with the natural world.

M: And they won’t hang out with him! [Laughs.]

H: They take off. There’s something lost through the civilizing process.

 Gains and Losses of Civilizing

M: Yes. And I was thinking that, that there’s  something lost when you civilize something.  In the book The Man Who Listens to Horses Monty Roberts watches a mare mustang, who is the boss of the  herd, disciplining a nasty little colt, a young stallion.  He’s old enough to be a pain in the neck. He goes around biting other colts, takes a nip out of one of the mares. So the head mare forces him out of the group, makes him go 300 yards away. She forces him out of the group. That’s the equivalent of a death sentence. You have to stay with the herd or you’re easy prey to predators. She makes him stay out there. She lets him come back. He misbehaves. She sends him back. That goes on for about four different occasions over several days. Finally, he says, “Ah, I’m not going to do this anymore.” He becomes civilized. Now he’s part of the herd. He had to give up that nastiness. Well, this is what Gilgamesh was doing. He  was so powerful that he did whatever he felt like doing, carelessly trampling the rights of his  people, sleeping with each new bride before the groom, and so on. His  people admired him but his  power was out of control. You can’t go around biting mares, you can’t  go  around kicking people. You can’t go around kicking the universe. You’ve got to participate in it as part of it. To become civilized is not to fight  against  your environment  but to live in it. Thoreau said, “I came  into the  world not chiefly to make it better but to live in it.” So your first task is to live in it as part  of it. And you do lose those connections with the natural world, but I think there’s a way to get back our integration with the whole. The way to do that is to pay attention, which is what Jane Goodall did with the chimpanzees. She did as Exupery’s Little Prince did; she sat a little closer each day. Here she is with these wild chimpanzees, who allow her to come and sit with them, the way wild animals allowed Enkidu to come and sit with them. She’s able to do that because she  erases all the pushiness; she’s just another animal in the forest. The chimps  get along fine with the other animals who share their habitat, and they all live side by side. Here’s this human being, and she has to be quiet and participate  without  pressure. So when  I see Enkidu and Gilgamesh having to give up certain things, apparently those are things that are excesses that have to be brought into line.  OK. Take it from there. What do you think  about that?

H: I think giving up excesses is exactly why Enkidu was sent to Gilgamesh as a double, as a companion, a figure who was not mostly divine like Gilgamesh, but as large, his equal almost.

Sacred Forests

H: I like what Stephen Mitchell said about the Humbaba episode. It was a preemptive strike.

M: Yes. Yes.

H: I must say, that’s one of the parts of Mitchell’s essay that I liked the best because he relates  it to what we did to the forests. . ..

M: Right. We’re doing that right now, denuding the forests. We’re supposed to protect the forests. Humbaba was put there to protect the Cedar Forest.

H: And these two guys go and chop it down. And Gilgamesh chops down the tallest cedar in the whole Cedar Forest. It reminds me a little bit of Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood Tree.” The oldest living thing in the world is the redwood. And Whitman’s really writing about a different kind of tree – this is the real giant: Coastal redwood.

M: Whitman never heard of the Gilgamesh poem probably, but it’s the same myth.

H: We were talking earlier about The Field, and the meaningful coincidences in our lives, and look at how these stories overlap. One thing that’s very interesting to me is that these clay tablets, written in Acadian, which they figured out, is a Semitic language. There’s a similar root with  Hebrew – there are influences among them. Clearly, the discovery of those tablets in 1857 is very significant in light of what Whitman was doing.

M: Oh, yes. That’s very good.

H: It’s right at the time when Whitman’s writing his “New Bible.”

M: Hmm. I don’t know if that information got spread around very well back then.

H: I don’t know, but they were in the British museum, and they were being translated.

M: Well, you could take it back to The Field idea.

H: That’s what I’m doing. It’s an interesting coincidence because right at that time Whitman starts writing the New Bible, and in the center of it is the balancing of the love poems to women and to men, the Children of Adam and Calamus. So what I’m saying is that the timing of that discovery is really interesting in light of what Whitman’s project was, which was to bring a new myth to America, which would speak both to men and to women and to heterosexuals and to gay people and lesbians. So the discovery of this myth which, as Mitchell points out, has homoerotic and even homosexual content to it., , .

M: Very significant.

H: Here is a friendship story that doesn’t leave anybody out in terms of sexual orientation. It’s right there in the story, the homoerotic  love relationship, which is very intimate. Gilgamesh has an intimate friend, a relationship that’s very important in his journey and his transformation. So, go ahead – there are parallels that are very interesting here.

The Role of Sexuality

It is nice to be with people who are never shocked or psychologically insecure.

M: Well, the more we talk about the so-called coincidences they turn out to be not so much coincidences as the Force Field manifesting itself. Just to take the general idea  of sexuality, which is dominant in the beginning of the poem, here are these people almost five thousand years ago in that particular society; they consider sexuality to be acceptable however it’s expressed. They don’t sit around judging sexual behavior…. So that part of his transformation is done. Then the wrestling match. When it’s over, Gilgamesh is victorious, and he kisses Enkidu. I think, as you say, that’s truly homoerotic in the very sense that Whitman was expressing it. So this range of sexuality is perfectly integrated in that culture. I don’t know how it got separated out over the years.

[On the Italian island of Ischia in the summer of 1948, W. H. Auden,  staying in Forio for the summer, wrote to a friend, “The sex situation is from my point of view exactly what it ought to be.   . . . It is nice to be with people who are never shocked or psychologically insecure, though half of them don’t get enough to eat.]

But to get back to the poem. There aren’t any evil people in it or evil gods. They are all a mix. Who was it that guarded the cedar forest?

H: Humbaba.

The Role of Violence

M: Well, in this myth, Humbaba is not evil. He’s appointed by the gods. Mitchell points  out that every time you think you’ve figured out who’s the bad guy, you find it’s not that simple. It’s much more integrated and complex. I think we do need to see here, again, that we’re all part of this integrated Force Field – or that society is not disparate parts but a unified whole. We try to avoid violence, but it is a big part of history.

H: There is a lot of violence in Gilgamesh, too. Enkidu does some things that are over the edge. He takes the thigh bone of the Bull of Heaven and throws it into Ishtar’s face.

M: Right.

H: You’re playing with fire when you do that.

M: Oh, yes.

H: Ishtar was also the most powerful deity in the Sumerian culture. So there’s a certain kind of arrogance, hubris, as the Greeks called it, in these masculine figures that are going against nature. When they go into the Cedar Forest, there’s this premeditated attack against this very important deity who guards the forest from the civilizing effects of humanity. Those trees are there for a very important reason, as we know, because of what we’re doing to the environment now. That’s going against nature, that’s going against animal intelligence. I think this is where there’s some overlap with what we’ve been talking about regarding what the poets are trying to do, which is  to put us back in harmony with nature so that we don’t continue on this mad hero’s quest that is destroying other civilizations, other cultures, and nature.


M: Hubris is an excess of what I would say is  a natural thing – which is your own entity having  a place on the planet. Hubris is saying they’re trying to take that away from me, and I need to prove that I have this power. Having to prove it is where we get into trouble and make a big mess of things.

H: As Mitchell points out, the motivation for going into these quests is that he’s doing it for fame. In other words, he wants physical immortality; he’s trying to get it through excessive use of social or political or economic power, instead of spiritual power, which is a very different thing. I would say this story is about the quest for physical immortality. That’s an example of how fame, leaving a name for oneself in the world, can be seen as an excess of one’s power drive. That’s what gets away from the wisdom of the serpent, of the snake. What Enkidu brings to Gilgamesh originally is a connection to nature. What Gilgamesh loses – and what Enkidu loses– is that connection to the animal psyche, what Jung calls the intelligence of the two- million-year-old man, the collective unconscious. Both these figures have dreams that come to them, and the dreams are very prophetic.

They both rely on these dreams.

M: Right.  Dreams can be powerfully revealing.  But we have to listen and not force  our own wishes onto to them; If the myth shows anything, it’s that!

Instinctive Intelligence

H: That’s another aspect of the story I find very interesting. The tragedy of the story and how it becomes a kind of teaching story for us is that it brings us back to the realization that if we don’t, as a civilization, recover the instinctive intelligence within the human psyche, we may destroy ourselves. I think this is what’s happening in the world today.

M: Let me think about that a minute. OK. Yes. The connection with the natural world and with our instincts – which I think are really our bed-rock selves  – is  kind of broken apart. So there’s a separation, and there are world figures who don’t realize that. That’s what’s driving this preemptive strike kind of stuff.

Let’s look at fame, seeking fame, some more. So you get your immortality so your name will live forever? I would say that’s a confused idea about how immortality works. I think the way you get immortality would be by what you are doing right now. That’s how you make your imprint.

H: Yes, I agree with that. Emily Dickinson said Fame is fickle food. Men eat of it and die!

M: Yes. Look what happened. [Laughs.]

H: And what did she do? She stayed true to her vocation, her calling. Death kindly stopped for her and she got her immortality. The horses’ heads were headed towards Eternity as she watched the children playing in the ring, the fields of grain, and setting sun.

The Poet’s Strength

M: The poet’s strength. That’s how she gained her immortality. And if you never even heard her name, she would have put this force field out there to interconnect with the rest of the universal Force Field. She was having her influence big time and will continue to.

H: The way she did it was by staying true to her art. She could have gotten distracted with her career, changed her poems to please a publisher.

M: Fix a little word here. . ..

H: And her poetry might have been forgotten, but the fact that she preserved the integrity of her lines….

M: That kind of purity is pretty hard to stamp out.

H: It’s very important. Now, getting back to what Gilgamesh was seeking and did not attain. I think it’s one thing to look at the beauty of the great city upon returning,  and  it’s another  thing to achieve the kind transformation that that implies. We don’t know how much he was transformed by his journey to the West.

M: I think, to read the story, he will never return to his hero days. I think he is permanently finished with hero journeys.

H: The story doesn’t go on. We don’t know what happened after his return to Uruk. Maybe there are other myths about him that talk about his return. We don’t know what happens.

The Ambiguous Meaning of Defeat

M: You know what I think? I think that, like every other aspect of the story, is ambiguous. You could see it as a defeat or as a culmination, a completion. I tend to see it as a completion, although I don’t feel good about his sadness. It can almost be considered a tragedy. I would say what he achieved is the opposite of a tragedy. But then – this is what bothers me – he doesn’t seem to appreciate what he’s seen. Even though he feels wonderful about the city, he’s cleaned himself up, he’s beautiful, he appreciates it in one sense, but in another it seems like he feels defeated. And in my judgment he isn’t. It’s the opposite of defeated. So anyhow, that’s the ambiguity. Maybe you have to take them both together.

H: I think the sadness is what you’re reflecting on, and I agree with that. So it’s a tragic story, and in that sense, it’s instructive. It’s not the kind of return you see in other myths.

M: Maybe like in the Odyssey. Odysseus comes back and triumphs. He cleans everything up. It’s a positive ending.

H: There’s a certain sorrow in the Gilgamesh myth. And in that it’s a teaching story.

Sadness and Joy

M: Let’s see what it teaches. I think anyone set on going out and conquering the world, if he read that story thoughtfully, would say, “That ain’t the way to do it.” So that would be the instructive part of it. The other part is that when life gives you something to do you’d better do it. You can’t sit there cowering. And if you do do what life requires of you, you may be sent some more errands to attend to – until you “get” what it wants you to understand. That’s your job, your journey. Ah. I think it has to be your Bliss as well. Some people just can’t be happy, just can’t bear to enjoy life. Why is that?

Why can’t our loved ones say, “Oh, I’m going to quit cowering and start enjoying myself”?

H: What’s disturbing is that he doesn’t  learn the art of self-sacrifice. He never really sacrifices his hero quest; right up to the very end he’s still on the hero journey. He’s lost all these precious things in the process. I think he didn’t stay true to the self enough, which would be staying true to his animal instincts. I think this is why he loses the herb of immortality to the serpent. The serpent represents the wisdom of the animal psyche.

M: Oh. I think what you just said is right.

H: He loses that connection. Sure, he can admire the beauty of the city when he comes back. But the way he cut down the forest with his hubris, and the way he also treated the old man when he arrived on the boat. That was not right. The boatman took him there, and he  was  ready for a fight. He still had his axe. He thought he  had to fight  for immortality, yet he  had it in the  palm  of his hand.

M: So he was still kind of confused about how to go about it.

H: When he got there, he was still carrying some of that massive inflated view of himself. The loss of his friend could have helped him.

M: That anguish, I think, was useful in his journey.

H: It did have a humanizing effect on him.

M: It does have that effect. There was nothing he could do to stop that from happening.

H: Yes. I think that’s what’s really transformative, the grief, more than anything. The mourning scenes are what really performs some therapy on him.

Our Sister Grief

M: In my book I have a passage about grief. The people of Mount Elgon in Africa say, We have to invite our sister Grief to sit at the table. Every grief is a bead that you add to a necklace that you wear around your neck so as to keep in mind how it all fits together. So grief is useful. That has to be part of the whole package.

H: Whitman, in this period I’m talking about, right after the tablets were translated for the first time, right around 1859, two years after the tablets were re-discovered, writes in his Calamus cluster, “I loved a man ardently but my love was not returned, and out of that love I have written these songs.” All of the poetry from this period reflects a profound loss of a friend, and a deep grief, a tremendous grief. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is filled with grief, tears for the loss of the primary object of his childhood, which was a little mocking bird that he saw flying back and forth, to and fro, from its nest. This sense of great loss of a connection with nature and its recovery – this is what’s at the center of his new myth. Yet what he achieves after the loss of his friend is an experience of a transformative vision that he calls the New City of Friends, a love that is eternal. He attains in other words the very thing Gilgamesh loses.H

Transformative Vision

M: Yes.

H: Why it’s so instructive for us today is that it shows us how to achieve the kind of immortality Yeats also achieves in “Sailing to Byzantium,” which is a poem about immortality. Immortality is in the work, in friendship and vocation, love and work.

M: You can tie that right into the story.

H: Yeats is really singing about the realms of gold in the Keats poem and in the realms of gold you’re talking about in your book. He’s there, singing to lords and ladies of Byzantium of what is past and passing and yet to come. He’s there – in the place of hammered gold and gold enameling. He’s there to keep a drowsy emperor awake, singing from a place of immortality. It’s a poem of joy.

M: Yes.

H: He’s not in the place where we’re left in the Gilgamesh tale. Whitman, in his old age, sings, “Joy, shipmate, Joy!”

M: There it is. That’s what I miss in the myth.

H: Dickinson says, “Take all away from me / But leave me Ecstasy.”

M: Right, and you don’t get that feeling in this myth.

H: It’s more of a sorrow of something having been lost.

 M: You’re right.

Profound Appreciation and Joy of Life

H: Which is the movement from the animal psyche into the profound appreciation and  joy of a life well lived. Celebrating that! Happiness is what he is after and he not only attains it, he bequeaths it to his sisters and brothers. That’s, I think, at the core of the title of your book, Realms of Gold.

M: That’s definitely correct.

H: That’s what we’re talking about with regard to the poets. It’s like alchemy, hammering sheaves of gold, hammered gold, gold enameling.

M: Yes, and it’s there in the city of Uruk. I think what you’ve said and the connections you see are really insightful. And it’s really true. It’s not a joyous poem. So I would say, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not complete. [Laughs.] But I think everything in the poem is accurate and true. So I think there’s just another step there.

H: Also I want to circle back to what  you originally  said, that there’s another way to look at the ending of the story, and that’s to appreciate the beauty of the city, and that’s what the poet does.

M: Yes.

H: He achieves a kind of immortality through the telling of the story.

You can see the poet’s eyes glowing.

You can see the poet’s eyes glowing!

M: Oh, my, he’s doing a Yeats there! You can see the poet’s eyes glowing.

H: Yes.

M: He’s really appreciating it.

H: I think that’s the key. The poet says, “Go to the cornerstone in the great city. There you will find the tablets of lapis lazuli.”

M: Very good! [Applauds.]

lapis lazuli

H: Lapis Lazuli, the realms of gold. He’s appreciating the realm of gold he has found.

M: Very nicely done, Steven! Very good.

H: That’s the enlightenment.

M: Absolutely! That was brilliant, brilliant!

H: The poet was able to do that. Don’t you think so?

M: I do, without doubt.

H: That’s what you’re trying to do in your book.

The Meaning of Dreams

M: Right, and that’s what was missing for me in the story. Your making that leap is just right, perfect. That’s the step that poor Gilgamesh hasn’t taken, and probably never will. But the poet does.

Now let’s go back to dreams, because dreams are important in your work especially. I want  to  get your views on the dreams in Gilgamesh. It seems to me that the figures in the poem are interpreting dreams to suit themselves. Well, this is what this means. They’re doing that throughout the story. If you’re doing that intellectually you can always say, “This is a good dream,” or “This is a bad dream.” But that’s just manipulating the imagery instead of letting it speak to you. Trying to lay your preference onto a dream is like trying to pull a fast one on nature. Mitchell talks about this, I think. Anyway, we have examples of thinking you’ve fooled nature. You know: “Give me three wishes.”

They get you on the third one. [Laughs.]

H: Right. [Laughter]

M: So I think the point there is that, yes, dreams can be really helpful, but don’t try to make them do what you want. Let them speak.

H: That’s the logical mind moving against nature. The dream says what the psyche perceives and knows. It is nature.

M: If you took any of those dreams and looked at it from, say, a Jungian point of view, you could make good use of them in your journey.

H: That’s the way to stay in touch with the animal in us.

M: In the story, someone will say, “What does this mean?” “Well, it means this.” “OK. We’ll go with that.”

H: Yes, they keep pumping themselves up. Gilgamesh is down and frightened and doubtful. Enkidu comes and reminds him of his courage. This is a hero story, and  they pump  each other  up in this way and bolster each other’s egos. What’s missing is the connection with the Self. These dreams are really warnings. Enkidu’s interpretations of Gilgamesh’s dreams prove to be correct for the most part. Enkidu’s interpretation of his own dream is also correct. He  foresees his doom. He knows he’s doomed. This is because he went against the Goddess.

The First Hero Story

The other thing about this epic poem, dating to about 2100 B, C, is that it’s the first written hero story in Western civilization. It shows what happened when there was a movement  away from the Goddess religion, the Goddess Ishtar, or Enanna. And then the rise of the patriarchal religions. This is a thousand years older than the Hebrew Bible and a thousand years older than the Homeric hymns. We talking about a myth that emerged out of the Mother religions. And the one Mitchell picks is interesting because it shows, for example, the scene where Gilgamesh confronts Ishtar – after she tries to seduce him – with the six earlier affairs that ended in the deaths of the men she seduced, all black widow episodes.

M: Yes, yes.

H: Here he is turning against nature. This is a time four thousand seven hundred years ago when civilization became sick. The Carmel poet Robinson Jeffers was writing prior to and during World War Two that civilization is sick, sick with hubris and pride. Jeffers planted a thousand trees on his property to keep people away. He wanted to be true to his calling as a poet and shield himself from the encroaching sickness of civilization, as he said. He wasn’t moving against nature; he was moving against civilization. He represents someone at the far end of this civilizing tendency that leads to the loss of the connection to the animal psyche; he looks back at human history and rebukes it from the point of view of the intelligence of nature, trees, hawks, and the sea, the violent Pacific. In the myth the central motif is the loss of the animal man, the wild man, and the loss of the herb of immortality, which is a part of nature. “Nature’s  God,”  you could say, is a medicine of immortality. Then, the snake ends up taking it back again. So the animal psyche ends up absorbing what the hero actually won, which was the boon. He had it in his hand.

M: You had it in your hand. . ..

H: And then you lost it. We all live within that risk, as Everson said in the conversations I had with him. We all could lose that precious thing.

M: I was thinking about the hero. When people say, “God wants you to do this,” that seems to me to damage my own Self. I would throw the thigh bone in their face. The truth is I will not have a God above me. Period. I won’t put up with that. But I would say with equal force that the entire universe is the godhead of which I am a part.  But I am not a lesser part, and nothing else is a lesser part. What do you think about that?

H: Well, I think that’s an enlightened perspective. In 1847 Whitman wrote shortly  after the ancient city of Nineveh was re-discovered by a British explorer, “If I walk with Jah in Heaven and he assume to be intrinsically greater than I, it offends me; and I shall  certainly  withdraw from Heaven, —for the soul prefers freedom in the prairie and the untrodden woods.” His pantheism is translucent there. He sees that the trees are a part of the Godhead, just like Jeffers did. This Christmastime I planted thirty redwood trees up the hill in Joaquin Miller Park.

After the gods proved to be incomplete, new myths are needed – that’s the beautiful thing about the story being published in this time. The gods of the Middle East emerged out of the confrontation between a clashing of civilizations. The Hebrew bible was written in relationship to the Babylonian culture in Nineveh. The ruined palaces of the ancient capital of Assyria were found by Layard in 1844 and the first excavations began then. Herman Melville was on his way home at that time from his whaling voyage and adventures in the South Seas. Emerson had just published his essay “The Poet.” Seven years later Jonah was called to preach to the people of Nineveh. Melville picks this new myth up in Moby Dick. It’s in Father Mapple’s Sermon in chapter nine of the novel.

M: It all ties together!

The Herb of Immortality Within

H: Let me just finish that thought, because where I was going with that is that you’re absolutely right. The most precious thing is the herb of immortality within you, that you have  it.  That is what Gilgamesh was seeking, to make him not greater than the gods but equal to, not lesser than. This is what we’re all working toward: equality as a one world people.

M: Yes, that’s right. That’s what that means, the word immortality. That’s what immortality is.

Immortality is finding a way to be harmony with nature and the gods and the entire globe and the entire universe of which we are all an infinitesimal part

H: Immortality is finding a way to be harmony with nature and the gods and the entire globe and the entire universe of which we are all an infinitesimal part.

M: Once you do enter into that Field, that is the only  definition there  is of immortality.  That’s the only one that works. The rest of them are kind of flawed. The other thing that’s interesting is the continuity of these myths through time. You have the flood myth throughout history. But the other thing is the myth gets altered a bit over time, and what a hero is gets altered a bit and maybe a bit too streamlined in the West, in Germany and their myths.

H:     The      Siegfried      story.

Stephen Mitchell, Alan Watts, and Zen

M: OK. I think we explored all the questions I have about the poem. I Googled Stephen Mitchell. He has written numerous books, poetry books, analyses. I think his prologue to this book is tremendously clear and insightful. Then I saw that he’s done a lot of reading in Zen. He even studied to be a roshi. So he’s tuned in to what we’ve been talking about. Alan Watts is one  of  the people who influenced him. Alan Watts is one of the first people who articulated for me this view of how things work. So that goes way, way back, several decades. In fact, he came and talked at the college [Diablo Valley College] one time.

H: He made a big impact on me, too. I’ve read many of his books.

M: I put his talk into Image. I got the cassette and transcribed it. It was a beautiful thing he did. For half an hour he talked without looking at a note. He just stood on the stage without a podium and started in. It was beautifully put together, nicely structured. When he had completed the thought, he stopped.

By the way, do you know of a movie called Good Will Hunting?

H: Oh, sure. I love it.

M: Well, I thought the script got a little heavy-handed, but there was one idea in the  movie I  think is tremendously important, and I did this in my teaching. The first time we see Sean Maguire, the psychologist, he’s asking his students what the role of trust is between a therapist and patient. I would say, and this was a key point in the movie, how you can’t really communicate unless the barrier is broken. There has to be a love relationship. In your work, is that so?

The Centrality of Love in Gilgamesh

H: I think you’re on to the central theme in Gilgamesh, which is love. And I think that’s what he feels for Enkidu and a certain degree of love for the temple goddess, for Ishtar as well. But then he doesn’t respect her and will not make love to her when she makes her advances. Later he goes to the old man in the West, Utnapishtim, and his wife makes seven loaves of bread for Gilgamesh.

M: [Laughs.]  I forgot that one.

H: This is what Henderson calls the incubation sleep. Every time they’re  about to do a major hero event – like when they going to confront Humbaba – Enkidu draws a magic circle and puts Gilgamesh in the center and does a kind of incubation sleep for him and prepares the ground for dreaming. That’s very important in the myth. Also when Gilgamesh gets  to the  West, he  finds the old couple, and they have a kind of eternal love. Gilgamesh is at first kind of disrespectful of the old couple, and he doesn’t follow through with the assignment they give  him,  which is  to stay awake. The idea of enlightenment is there, too, the awakened one. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, and that’s when the serpent power rose in him with its seven cobras, Bliss. The serpent Ananda covered his head, and he achieved his enlightenment. Something’s missing there in Gilgamesh. He falls asleep when he’s  supposed to stay awake. This also contributes to the  loss of the herb of immortality.

This gets us back to Alan Watts, what he brought to the West, which was Zen and  Buddhism, and the philosophies of the East. That comes through in your classes. How do you bring that to students? How do you bring students from a state of being half asleep to waking them up in the classroom? I think you have to make love in a certain way. You  bring love into the  dialogue, by loving the Self in the student.

M: In Good Will Hunting there were two aspects of it. One, Will Hunting had to know that the therapist was not his enemy and know that he was not out to take advantage of him.

H: What happens is Will Hunting disrespects the memory of the therapist, Sean Maguire, of his deceased wife. The therapist had lost his wife, and Will said something disrespectful, and Sean threw him up against the wall.

M: He was going to choke him. (Hmm, that’s like the encounter of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.)

H: That’s the moment of the breakthrough. That’s what allowed for the breakthrough when he remembers his traumatic past with his father.

Love and Vulnerability

M: The point is, though, that Sean was willing to show his own vulnerability, and that later opened the way for Will to show his. He got to the point that he was not pretending to be something else.

H: That’s one thing I want to say about the two figures in the myth. These two men show a lot of vulnerability to each other.

M: They’re not holding back. This is what’s called love.

H: I think that’s a very transformative moment in the movie, when Will remembers his traumatic past. Then he cries, and Sean cradles him in his arms. This is an important metaphor.

M: He would never have been able to do that if Sean had not allowed himself to be vulnerable. That would never have happened.

H: He  modeled that for Will.

H: There’s something life-affirming about knowing you’re on the right path and that we’re all speaking a common language. That gets back to this love idea, that  this common language  is the language of human love. You and I don’t write books for fame, clearly.

M: No.

H: We’re not doing it like Gilgamesh, to leave a name.

M: People would die for their child. But one’s own journey is the place where Creation works on itself, as Tomas Tranströmer wrote in his poem that I mentioned earlier, each of us is that place.

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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