New Elements in the Old Epic (The History of Gilgamesh) from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar



Let’s renew our path with examples.

Gilgamesh is the hero of the Akkadian epic—of the multi-characteristic stage—who was apparently a historical figure, living nearly three thousand years before the Common Era, at a time when in the lower parts of the Tigris farmers had already learned how to build irrigation canals and had domesticated the donkey but hadn’t yet tamed the horse. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu journey on foot to commit heroic deeds.

The great king and warrior Gilgamesh lives in a city with strong walls:

        See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
        Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
        . . . inspect its mighty foundations,
        examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built. (Prologue)

Fired brick was a new invention that was a source of pride.

Gilgamesh, who owns an axe and a knife made of bronze, hears that the gods have created a new hero, Enkidu, who is as strong as himself.

Enkidu, with long hair covering his body, roams all over the wilderness, eats grass, and when he is thirsty drinks water from the waterholes kneeling beside the wild animals. The hunters are terrified of this savage man. Enkidu destroys the traps and frees the trapped animals from the hunter’s holes.

Enkidu’s story is repeated twice.

The unhurried pace of art was not yet burdened by experience. First, the story is told by the narrator, then it’s repeated by the person who has witnessed it: the impediment here is tautological.

Gilgamesh sends the hunter with Shamhat the harlot to meet Enkidu. He instructs Shamhat to strip off her robe and lie by the waterhole.

When Enkidu arrives to the waterhole, he sees her and approaches:

        She used her love-arts, she took his breath
        with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
        what a woman is. For seven days
        he stayed erect and made love with her,
        until he had had enough. (Book I)

At last, when he gets up, he realizes that all the animals have left him forever. He realizes that he can no longer run like an animal, his mind “had somehow grown larger.”

Then Shamhat gives Enkidu one of her robes and leads him to a shepherd’s hut:

         “Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food,
        we humans eat and drink this.” Warily
        he tasted the bread. Then he . . . drank seven
        pitchers of the beer. (Book II)

Enkidu is gradually introduced to human civilization, he becomes the protector of hunters and best friend of Gilgamesh. Together they travel to the Cedar Forest where terrible monsters live.

Intimacy with the woman humanizes him. She gives him the knowledge of life, the foreboding premonition of sorrow and death. She tears him away from his flock.

I am reading the epic of Gilgamesh, rereading it and analyzing the repetitions, and I am filled with awe at how people perceived themselves and how they told stories about themselves.

Everything is valued—both Enkidu’s battle against Gilgamesh, and the friends’ journey to the Cedar Forest. They walk side by side, they dig wells, they eat their bread sparingly.

Then they commit deeds and see dreams—the dreams foretell their actions. They commit deeds and then reinterpret them.

And though Shamhat civilizes Enkidu, he curses her for that. He assigns her to live under the shadow of a tavern wall, warm her body by the hearth.

Sleeping in the ashes for warmth is the last place for refuge, it is a place for paupers.

Enkidu curses the harlot with the ultimate curse of homelessness: to become the lover of a homeless man, to roam the streets without a place to rest. But Shamash, the god and protector of Uruk, interjects: “Enkidu, why are you cursing / the priestess Shamhat?”

The god reminds Enkidu that it was Shamhat who gave him beer and bread fit for a king. And Enkidu blesses the harlot.

Scholars have finally learned how to touch and understand the clay tablets that bear the cuneiform script, which appears to have retained the hammered nail marks.

The tablets signified a shift in the change of human relations.

The wedge-shaped impressions on the tablets are arranged differently; sometimes they look like traces left by birds, but in reality they are traces of changing structures.

This is how man’s relationship to the world, the various segmentations of the visible realm change: it is the knowledge of the world through labor and disillusionment.




Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.

Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.

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