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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 111

This tale is a blend of several well-known mythologic and folklore elements, the chief of which it may be observed are the slaughter of the bull and the felling of the trees. These incidents show that part of the story at least was originally made to explain the origin of tree and animal worship. At the time it was reduced to writing this tale was probably about four thousand years old, so that it had had every chance to attract to itself other floating incidents, such as the way in which the wickedness of the faithless wife was brought to naught.

THE GILGAMESH EPIC

An important place in the mythic lore of the Orient falls to the great Chaldean poem known as the Gilgamesh epic, a copy of which, inscribed on fragmentary clay tablets, is still extant in the British Museum. This copy was made at the instance of Assurbanipal (Sardanapalus), King of Assyria, in the seventh century before our era, and was housed in that[Pg 249] monarch's famous library at Nineveh. Ere the century in which they were deposited there closed the tablets were buried beneath the ruins of the city, to be recovered only in modern times through the researches of Sir A. H. Layard and others. The epic, written by the Ninevite scribes on twelve tablets, tells the adventures of a mythical or semi-mythical hero called Gilgamesh, and is of the nature of a solar cycle, comprising a number of more or less distinct and complete myths woven into a connected narrative. Some of its episodes are known to be of high antiquity, dating at the latest from some two thousand years before the time of Assurbanipal.

It is possible that there is an historical basis for the character of Gilgamesh, whose name is thought to be of Elamite or Kassite origin. It happens by no means infrequently that a real national hero becomes the nucleus of various legends of gods and supernatural beings, and it is therefore not improbable that Gilgamesh was at one time that prince of Erech which the epic represents him to be. Mythologically, he is the type of the sun-god (as a brief scrutiny of the poem will show), his adventures typifying the course of the solar luminary through the heavens and into the Underworld. Eabani, the mythical type of primitive man, with whom Gilgamesh is associated as friend and fellow-adventurer, also presents solar characteristics. It is not, however, sun legends alone which have found their way into the epic. The myth of Eabani and Ukhut in the Ist tablet approximates to the story of Adam and Eve; there is mention of the seasonal myth of Tammuz and Ishtar in the VIth tablet; most important of all, in the XIth tablet appears the famous Babylonian story of the deluge, forming in itself a complete and separate narrative, connected with the rest of the epic only by the most mechanical of literary devices.

The opening of the poem is rather obscure. A fragment exists which seems to be its earliest lines, a sort of prologue indicating the benefits accruing to those who read the epic. Another fragment thought to belong to this work is about a grievous siege of the city of Erech; but as no mention of Gilgamesh appears, it is doubtful whether the fragment really[Pg 250] forms a part of the poem. When Gilgamesh is first introduced in the mutilated text it is as the semi-divine king of Erech, a tyrannous monarch whose people groan beneath the weight of his oppression. There is nothing to indicate how he reached the throne, whether he was a native prince or a conqueror. Like the sun he typifies, his birth is shrouded in mystery. His mother, Rimat-belit, is a priestess of the cult of Shamash; it is not from her that he has received his strain of divinity. His father, strangely enough, is not once mentioned, and we are left to conjecture that he was the offspring of a god, probably of the sun-god himself, whose worshipper and protégé he is.


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