Category Archives: Classical Pedagogy

That “Silly” Old Gilgamesh

Recently, my daughters read a set of history stories put out by a classical education publisher. Driven by the old pietistic Evangelical cardboard-cutout plot of “Everything-Done-And-Said-For-Spiritual-Purpose-of-Evangelizing-Lost-Character,” the chapters walk said unbeliever through the course of history, exposing the manifold follies of unbelieving worldviews by “simply” setting them side-by-side with the Bible and laughing at the divergences, as if their mere existence proves the veracity of the Christian view. As I paged through the book, marketed to adolescent readers, I cringed more than once at the obvious fact that the authors apparently really do believe that the cardboard cutout theology-apologetics they present to young people is totally compatible with the best aims, methods, and academic goals of classical Christian education.

Among the troublesome remarks made in this book published as part of a “classical” education reading diet there occurred a description of the adolescent Christian main character’s view that the Epic of Gilgamesh is a rather “silly” book. We might expect such an opinion from an adolescent, since at that age the very faculty of judgment is still developing along with the brain. But it was an adult classical educator who wrote the book, so I suppose we ought to be scratching our heads wondering what’s going on. Gilgamesh a “silly” book? Whatever else it might be called, “silly” should never be among the choices. Allow me to explain why.

Imagine a world literally (!) and biblically (!) like the one that the opening words of Genesis 6 describe:

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful, and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose…There were giants on the earth in those days and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. (1-4)

It is well-known that Christians don’t agree on the identity of these “sons of God” (some see them as human scions of the godly line of Seth, here doing evil things; others as fallen angels who took on bodies, here doing evil things), but one thing is crystal-clear: the union of these sons with these daughters produced giants, “the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” We’re surely not too far off the mark in saying that the products of these marriages seem to be a good bit like what mythology calls “demigods.” And that leads us to the realization that, lo and behold, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, happens to be a demigod (2/3 god, 1/3 man) of gigantic dimensions: “A triple cubit was his foot, half a rod his leg. Six cubits was his stride…” (I.56)

This already, from the opening lines of the Epic, should be enough not only to arrest our attention but to render forever null and void any adolescent judgment that this is going to be a “silly” book. We may have here, rather, the earliest piece of surviving human literature describing the adventures of one of the Nephilim in lands still then under the yoke of demonic overlords (cf. “the Prince of Persia,” Dan. 10). And when we realize that, putting our best guess to dates, a real Gilgamesh would have preceded Father Abraham by only 500 years, and the latter may well have grown up hearing about the hunt for Humbaba, the tragic death of Enkidu, and the quest for Uta-na-pishtim, we might well feel a stronger connection to Abraham than before. Moreover, as people who believe in a book full of angelic appearances and miracles, we ought to be more disposed to find the basic story line of Gilgamesh plausible, not less.

I would like to present you a more properly classical way to view the Epic of Gilgamesh, a way that doesn’t approach it first as the product of a heathen mind (followed by a childish indulgence in laughter, as if we, given all we have by grace alone, are somehow better than they), but as the product of a human mind, a mind which, though darkened in many ways by sin, yet retains enough God-given light to come to many true conclusions about God’s world.

For one, the Epic of Gilgamesh raises profound questions about the roots of, and even the value of, civilization. Like most important cities in the Ancient world, Uruk was founded with a divine imprimatur, in this case, under the direct oversight of a demigod. Yet this divine imprimatur does not include an inherent ethical component, let alone a foundation encouraging political wisdom. Gilgamesh, a literal giant of a man, is a moral pygmy when we first meet him, tyrannizing his people, stealing brides right and left, and well exemplifying the adage “Might makes right.” It is an all-too common pattern in human history, broken only here and there prior to Christianity (by the Greeks and the Romans, for instance), and since the very first city ever was founded by a fratricide, Cain, we might do well to stop and ponder whether there is just something about fallen city living that leaves much to be desired. Cities solve many problems by centralizing power and the means of production, but it is precisely these great strengths that can easily become great weaknesses that radically affect thousands or millions. Maybe the quiet, peaceful, “in touch with nature” life of the herdsman in Gilgamesh is better? It was Abel’s “natural” sacrifice that God accepted, not Cain’s “technological” one. Gilgamesh offers us a chance to ponder such deep and abiding questions about what it means to be human.

For another thing, the early physical clash of Gilgamesh and Enkidu may be seen as symbolically representing the moral clash of the corruption of fallen city life with behavioral norms that are so connected to the natural order that even one who comes from the beasts simply knows them to be true. Here, even the cult prostitution angle provides some light. Ancient divinized politics did often have a literal sexual dimension, in which union with the female cult symbol represented participation in the divine order of the cosmos. But at the same time, in Gilgamesh it takes the prostitute to “civilize” nature, and the moment nature becomes “civilized,” it loses something wild and free that it once had. At the same time, the prostitute fails to incorporate Enkidu into the corrupt politics of Uruk, for the first thing he does on arriving in town is find and combat Gilgamesh at the door of a bride the latter is trying to steal. In our own time, when too many people simply feel no shame restraining them from all manner of actions traditionally deemed evil, and when too many profess no longer to be able to rationally tell such simple things as who belongs in what bathroom, it is somewhat refreshing, not to mention provocative, to read an old pagan book asserting the knowability and universality of natural moral norms. And on the other side, it may be worth asking what sorts of “seductive” effects civilization has on its adherents. Are we entirely sure it is good to live in cities and be shaped from cradle to grave by their incessant hustle-bustle, pluralism, and commercialism?

For a third thing, pagan or not, the book contains two major invocations of the hardwired limitations of mortals under God, particularly with respect to limitation of lifespan, and with these two it doubly underscores the duty of mortals under God to accept their limited lot and strive to do right until the end. The end of the epic is ambiguous as to how Gilgamesh lives when he returns home, but it is difficult not to surmise from the repetition of the opening phrases about the dimensions and wonders of Uruk that the hero has come to terms with his mortality and limited-ness, given up on his distorting quest for god-like honor and glory, and so, hopefully, set out to be a better, more humane sort of ruler. Speculation, yes, but warranted by how much Enkidu changes him and how deeply his abject failure to attain what only gods can have affected his disposition.

These are only three points of a number that could be raised. I think they are enough to show that the quality judgment on Gilgamesh given by the adolescent character I mentioned at the outset ought to be taken with a grain of salt. It might be true that we could get some laughs out of it here and there, particularly when Gilgamesh calls the depraved goddess Ishtar a simple whore who kills all her lovers and when Enkidu throws a bloody haunch of the Bull of Heaven at her. But to baldly judge it a “silly” book? Does such a sloppy judgment even need refuting? And more to the point, should classical educators, who of all types of educators ought to be characterized by modesty of judgment born of a growing sense of knowing-that-they-don’t-know, be writing superficial twaddle like that in the first place? Are we trying to make our children good interpreters of wide swaths of God’s world, or just self-important cynics laughing at all that doesn’t immediately “click” into place in their own current experiences?

What Do We Read These Old Books For, Anyway?

One thing that has come to concern me in my years as a classical educator is what I see as a widespread type of intellectual emasculation of the classical texts in our circles.

What I mean is the phenomenon of reading the classical books as materials for practicing polemical defenses of what we already believe on other grounds, and have no intention of letting old books question. It’s a curious sort of attitude, since our movement loves to cite Lewis’ remark in his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. There, Lewis expounds the problem with reading only recent books as the fact that they sound right to us because we inhabit the same cultural space as them: they ask only the questions we ourselves already ask, and so they come to the sorts of answers we ourselves are already predisposed to come to – and we are so easily amazed at how wise others who think just like us prove we are. Conversely, says Lewis, the value of reading really old books is that they don’t share our prejudices, don’t ask the same questions we are asking, and so are not likely to have gone astray in the exact ways we ourselves are most likely going astray – but find it difficult to see when reading only books inside our echo chamber.

Many in our movement love to cite this Lewis quote, but the real impact of it seems yet to have hit a lot us squarely in the face, to wit: as mostly unskilled (though we’re working on that) readers of the classical texts, we don’t already know, and that’s the main reason why we’re reading the classical texts in the first place. We’re already thoroughly familiar with our own time’s way of thinking about politics, economics, war, education, art, music, and so on. What we’re reading the classics for is to find out what we might be missing by ONLY being super-familiar with the insides of our own heads.

Or at least, that’s what we should be reading the classics for. It is my distinct impression that far too many of us are reading the classics for very different reasons than the one they themselves were written for, the acquisition of wisdom. It would be tedious to drag out direct quotes from classical movement authors showing this phenomenon, so instead, I’ll be devoting this space to combating it positively – by trying to show ways in which even we Christians can profit from the classical texts by trying to discern in them the wisdom God often granted even to those who denied Him.