Gilgamesh and Inanna: Ancient Approaches to Universal Questions
Although the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Myth of Inanna were written around the same time period and in the same civilization, the characters portrayed and their viewpoints on death, life, self, identity, and nature couldn’t be more different. Throughout the beginnings of Gilgamesh, we see an arrogant king determined to achieve immortality. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, on the other hand, begins her journey with insecurity and weakness. Each character has different answers to the basic human questions we still struggle with today.
First, Inanna and Gilgamesh give us different answers to the question, “How do we achieve identity?” To answer that question, we must first examine both characters’ personalities and worldviews because they significantly affect the way they interact with the world and pursue identity. From page one of The Epic of Gilgamesh we encounter an arrogant, tyrannical ruler who impetuously throws his country into turmoil by making war with other lands. He even steals children to use as warriors for his many battles and sleeps with the brides of his warriors and nobles. In comparison, Inanna begins as a helpless, incapable, weak, passive, and overwhelmed young woman. For example, she plants a huluppu-tree and cares for it for years, waiting and wondering, “How long will it be until I have a shining throne to sit upon? . . . until I have a shining bed to lie upon?” as if beds and thrones grow out of trees. Eventually, she enlists the help of Gilgamesh, who carves her a throne and a bed.
Next, by looking at the deepest desires of Gilgamesh and Inanna, we can see clearly their methods of achieving identity. Let us start with Gilgamesh. His greatest desire in life is to achieve immortality through fame as well as literal immortality in the land of the gods, the Country of the Living. This desire motivates everything he does before his transformation. He says to his companion, Enkidu, “I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore . . . I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written”. He later says, “but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind,” acknowledging the brevity of mortal life. Rather than accepting this, however, he goes on to explain to Enkidu how, through his daring journey to the Country of the Living, he will “leave behind [himself] a name that endures.” Both these quotes demonstrate his arrogance and intense hunger for fame. He wants eternal identity that will endure generations even after he is dead. Before he leaves on his quest, however, he gathers the counsellors of Uruk, who try to talk sense into Gilgamesh. They ask, “Why do you crave to do this thing, Gilgamesh?” Compare that to Inanna’s desires from the beginning of her story. At first, she desires more skills and responsibilities. For example, she visits Enki, god of wisdom, who challenges her to a drinking competition. This drinking competition is symbolic itself of her gaining power and adult responsibilities. When the alcohol gets the better of Enki, the god of wisdom does something not so wise. “Fourteen times Enki raised his cup to Inanna. . . Fourteen times Inanna accepted the holy me.” Fourteen times Enki gives away his me, or powers, and Inanna is long gone in the Boat of Heaven headed to Uruk by the time Enki sobers and realizes what he has done. Even after she acquires all that power, the first thing she does when she arrives in Uruk is give it all to the people. “As the me which Inanna had received from Enki were unloaded, they were announced and presented to the people of Sumer.” As they were unloading the me, more appeared than Enki had bestowed, symbolic of Inanna’s gaining of skill and responsibility and the way that skills build on skills.
After Gilgamesh and Inanna reveal their personalities, desires, and approach to achieving identity on earth, both characters encounter death. Gilgamesh deals with mortality by first fighting it, then coming to accept it while Inanna accepts it readily At first Gilgamesh sees death as another obstacle to overcome, like wild beasts or Humbaba. For example, before his transformation, Gilgamesh is constantly fighting nature. He cuts down trees, kills the lions “glorying in life”, wears animal skins, and disrupts the natural order of society by sleeping with the brides of his warriors before their husbands do. His phobia of death and desire for immortality is another part of his disregard for nature’s cycles. After returning in triumph from killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, Gilgamesh is shocked when his dearest friend Enkidu dies by the decree of the gods as punishment for killing without mercy. Enkidu’s death comes as a major wake up call to Gilgamesh. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh comes face to face with his own finitude. Finitude, the state of having limits or bounds, is the reason Gilgamesh tries one last time to escape this universal fate. For example, he exclaims in his grief, “How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death, I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods.” One example of his finitude comes before Gilgamesh’s realization and Enkidu’s death. Moments before they are about to fight Humbaba, “Gilgamesh was overcome by weakness, for sleep had seized him suddenly, a profound sleep held him.” This random part is included in the story to put a finer point on man’s fleshliness. Sleep is symbolic of the finitude of humanity. Inanna on the other hand, deals with her finitude quietly. She does not necessarily fear death, but she fears humiliation. She requires status and power to protect her from her mortality. All this is stripped away, however, when she sets out for the underworld. At each gate of the underworld, she is stripped of one of her symbols of power until she enters “naked and bowed low” a literal representation of the way every person, even powerful ones on earth, are made equal in the face of death. At each gate, she questions why her things are being taken away and is told, “Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned,” symbolic of humanity’s total powerlessness against death.
Another way we see how Inanna and Gilgamesh deal with death is in their dark periods. Both characters go through an intense dark time in their journeys where they confront the darker side of themselves and emerge with a better picture of their whole selves. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, this low point in his story includes literal darkness when he walks for twelve leagues through a mountain tunnel to the garden of the gods. Inanna’s period of darkness comes when she “was turned into a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, and was hung from a hook on the wall.”
The next area we see Gilgamesh and Inanna differ is their perspectives on the importance of self versus caring for others as part of the community. Gilgamesh is quite selfish at first. From the beginning, all he cares about is becoming immortal, either through fame and reputation or literal immortality or both. After his transformation however, he displays his changed spirit when receives the flower of youth. It is quite shocking when the first thing Gilgamesh thinks about after receiving his gift is sharing its power with the old men of Uruk. Inanna, by contrast, displays selfless from beginning of her story. Inanna is always more concerned with people and relationships than material things like wealth or power. The first example is when she gives her powers to the people of Sumer as mentioned earlier. Secondly, Inanna “abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.” She visits her sister in the underworld to comfort her and “witness the funeral rites” for her husband, the Bull of Heaven. Thirdly, Inanna punishes her husband Dumuzi by allowing him to be sent to underworld because he “dressed in his shining me-garments” and “sat on his magnificent throne” without moving while Inanna needed help in the underworld. She does not punish her sons because they grieved for her, displaying care for her while her husband’s only concern was usurping the throne.
Both books teach us how the self must transform and learn certain lessons about the nature of life to bring a greater sense of fulfillment and avoid despair. For example, the main message and the turning point of The Epic of Gilgamesh comes when Gilgamesh meets Siduri, a young woman who makes wine beside the sea. Siduri, like all the other deities Gilgamesh encounters, first notices his animal skin clothing. This represents his dual disregard for nature and his dependence on its cycle because of his mortality. She asks him, “Why is despair in your heart . . . and why do you come here wandering over the pastures in search of the wind?” After Gilgamesh explains his quest, Siduri tells him, “You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.” She goes on to advise him to forget his vain search for immortality and focus on the intrinsic values of life, like love, family and community. Later on, this theme is reinforced when Gilgamesh loses his flower of youth to the serpent. The serpent and the way it sheds its skin represents the cyclical nature of life, and when it steals the flower, it is symbolic of the nature of life: that men are mortal and it is best not to fight our fate.
The Epic of Gilgamesh ends with a transformed and enlightened king who builds up his community and even makes a place for nature within his city. Inanna learns an important lesson about life when she is stripped of her worldly possessions in the underworld. Without her power or status to protect her, she is completely vulnerable. It is very symbolic of how everyone is naked before death. Her experience brings her greater humility and grounding, and gives us mortals greater appreciation for relationships, not things.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by N.K Sanders, Penguin, 1972 Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel N. Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven And Earth. Harper and Row, 1983.
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