Category Archives: Literature

“Sixty Centuries Are Looking Down On Us”

A few years ago, I wrote a short critique about optimism in classical education circles, an issue I feel strongly about because I think that for the most part that type of optimism may be evidence of an intellectual and spiritual hubris unbecoming of anyone who really and thoroughly tries to ground himself in the classical tradition. On the other hand, at another point, trying to deal with the opposite error, extreme cultural pessimism, I wrote a short “balancing” piece “Is Western Culture Worse than Sodom and Nineveh”. Here I want to take up the large theme behind both posts yet again, but give it more development.

Writing about the section of Aeneid Book II in which Aeneas realizes the weight of how he must lead a “wretched band” of refugees to a new home, Stanley Lombardo comments:

“Yet it is not for the dispossessed alone that this passage has extraordinary resonance; any student of human history knows that Aeneas’ speech represents an event all too familiar in human experience and captures an unhappy truth of the human condition: however secure the present may seem, our deepest intuitions…recognize our communities to be fragile, vulnerable, contingent.”

The Essential Aeneid, p. x

One of the greatest benefits of classical literature consists in how, thoughtfully engaged, it exposes the dichotomy between what we know to be true in our heart of hearts and the fantasies we read onto the present out of a motive of desiring security.

Consider: we all have a tacit belief (at least if we’re remotely thoughtful about anything beyond our immediate present) that what happened to other societies in the past can’t also happen to us. At the same time as we realize our society is experiencing many grave trials, we really do tend to get so caught up in the moment that mostly what we see is our fantastic material prosperity – which we easily assume entails actual cultural might.

Yet in truth, we need only to spend a while pondering the fate of Troy as read in Homer’s Iliad and continued in Vergil’s Aeneid to gain perspective and point us toward a desperately needed moderation of attitude and practice. (A moderation most sadly lacking, in my estimation, over the last year and a half of COVID, which exposed to the bone the rank materialism and scientifictitious blindness of our culture – even of many purportedly “conservative” Christians.)

Someone has to say it in this age of overweening prideful assumptions of our “exceptionalism,” and since the classical authors already said it, all I have to do is report their words. The actual truth of the matter, borne out by six millennia of recorded history, is that civilizations come and civilizations go, and where this cycle stops, no one knows.

At a point not really all that far from the dawn of recorded history, we read the opening lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh extolling the great city of Uruk that he, the great semi-divine king, had caused to be built. It’s a stirring scene (at least, for anyone who bothers to think about how unbelievably fragile a thing a city really is), and it’s followed up by many pages of fantastic heroic adventures pushing back monsters and gods and even throwing down the gauntlet in the very face of Death Itself. Yet after all is said and done, Gilgamesh’s friend is dead, Gilgamesh himself realizes he, too, will die, and the poem closes with the exact same lines it began with – extolling the great marvel of a city that, whatever it looked like fifty centuries ago, now looks like this:

Uruk, Iraq | Ancient | Pinterest | Sumerian and Ancient ...

So then. Given the uniform testimony of history, it is actually just ludicrous for any generation – for we ourselves! – to act as if we living in the 21st century, surrounded by technological whiz-bangery and material glut and apparent freedoms greater than that of any ancient kings are somehow the goal toward which all of history has been pointing. Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and all the rest – we will escape their fates for we are just really Super Special People. Like Midas, doesn’t everything we touch turn to gold – or at least, promise that it will as soon as we can apply our sciences, our mastery of nature, to it in just the right way?

Scarcely only 200 years ago – a mere drop in the bucket of history – Napoleon is reported to have said to his troops as they prepared to fight the British in Egypt near the pyramids, “Forty centuries are looking down on us.” Ponder that for a moment. Napoleon blazed like a shooting star across European culture, and left a seemingly indelible mark on all of human life. Yet, like Caesar, Napoleon “came, saw, and conquered” and like the builders of the pyramids he, too, is now gone, leaving only fragmentary traces of his “exceptionalism” behind.

Judged in the light of history, we living in the 21st century are just more temporary actors passing across the stage, most of us almost never conscious that, to borrow Napoleon’s words, “Sixty centuries are looking down on us.” Don’t judge the happiness of your life by your prosperity now, the Athenian statesman Solon warned one of the most powerful men of his day, Croesus of Lydia, “But look to the end, for only when it’s all over can other people judge whether you were trully happy.” It never ceases to be odd to me how many classical educators tell this story as part of classes on Herodotus, but fantastically fail to draw the moral lesson out to their own selves and our own time.

When you get right down to it, NO, we are not somehow better than other cultures in terms of what the nature of the world and the nature of humanity itself can allow to happen. We ought not to assume that whatever comes our way we are not only ready to meet it but able to decisively overcome it. The end of such hubris stands revealed in the stark, resigned words of Aeneas to his men as the Greeks ravage once proud, prospeous Troy:

Brave hearts – brave in vain
If you are committed to follow me to the end –
You see how we stand. All the gods
Who sustained this realm are gone, leaving
Altar and shrine. You are fighting to save
A city in flames. All that is left for us
Is to rush onto swords and die. The only chance
For the conquered is to hope for none.

Aeneid II.409-416 (Lombardo)

True, Aeneas survives that battle and, after seven years of bitter wandering and a horrifically bloody war in Italy, founds the race that would one day produce Rome. Proud Troy fell, but shreds of hope carried Aeneas forward to a new destined greatness. Troy was reborn, after a fashion, and many centuries later, so too was Rome when the barbarian tribes swept in and refashioned her legacy into a dozen “Romish” localisms whose influence persists even today in our architecture, our languages, and our literature.

So, then. To try to see where all the Optimists are coming from for a moment, let’s not be Johnny Rain Clouds, since as that old pop song from 1986 enthusiastically proclaims, “Things are going great, and they’re only getting better….the future’s so bright / I gotta wear shades.”

And yet, where is Rome, that grand, fantastically ordered and prosperous place that no less than the god Jupiter himself declared would possess an imperium sine fine – an “empire without end”? It’s arguable, as noted above, that Rome changed forms and so is in a whole lot of smaller, less ostentatious ways still hanging around. But even so, consider that Cicero lived and breathed and walked and talked and spun out the most epic speeches you’ll ever read about ethics and philosophy and about how he, by the passionate fire of his own incredible forethought and industry, almost single-handedly saved the Republic from ruination at the hands of Catiline in this place:

File:Ruins of Roman Forum.jpg

As they say in logic classes, Q.E.D.

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

So, then. Perhaps we can just seek refuge in a pious theological appeal to God’s providence. In Scripture God said He wanted to bless His people and the Patriarchs were crazy-rich and God promised Israel temporal abundance for covenant faithfulness in the land He gave them and aren’t we God’s new special people, King’s Kids, just “postmillennially” waiting for our Father to make all enemies Christ’s footstool in a great, visible instantiation of widespread cultural triumph? What’s to be all that concerned about? We’re on the cusp of a great civilizational reinvigoration and reformation. Rejoice for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

But wait – after centuries of hopeful striving Israel spectacularly failed and at last joined the great litany of fallen, ruined cultures already chanted out above. Fascinatingly, too, lots of replacement-type theologies focusing on Christian cultural work (“the Church”) usually try to make vague appeals to “hope” do all the heavy conceptual and practical lifting while they leave out most of the worst parts of the historical story, which looks on the whole all too depressingly like everything that came before it. The questions arise from the texts themselves – at least they do for people who really and truly do read the texts.

As Lombardo put it in the opening quote of this post, “however secure the present may seem, our deepest intuitions…recognize our communities to be fragile, vulnerable, contingent.” And let’s not forget –

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

Augustine spends many pages walking though Old Testament history in his masterwork The City of God. He makes a very thorough case against cultural presumption, concluding that after the inspired record of the Old Testament no one can speak for Providence. After the time of Christ, no one can “read” Providence with great accuracy, for no one has the status of prophet that the Hebrew writers did. Accordingly, it would be a strange thing indeed for someone living today to read all this and yet still reassure us that someday, perhaps not really all that far off in terms of the brevity of human consciousness judged against the immense weight of time, someone won’t come across the shattered remains of, say, the Statue of Liberty, and be forced to apply to it the profound words of Shelley’s poem: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

So, then. If that short, simple phrase doesn’t make a person tremble at the “unhappy fragility” of the present and take everything he does with much more gravity, what can?

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

But, hope! Yes indeed, hope. It’s not wrong, surely, for any generation, our own included, to hope for better things in the future. If we give up hope, what will have left but broken spirits that dry up the bones (Prov. 17:22)? As Aristotle notes, human beings marry and have children because they want to leave behind an image of themselves for the future – which shows that built right into our very DNA itself is a need to assume that there will be a future and a need to hope that it will be better in discernible ways because we were here. And yet –

Sixty centuries are looking down on us.

Perhaps Augustine was right: we know that God is in control of history, that His providence is, in fact, guiding and directing all that occurs in history toward His own ultimate victory, and yet, at no particular stage along the way are any of us ever justified in setting the united witness of sixty centuries aside in order to aggrandize whatever puny little culture-thingies we’re doing at the moment. As if we poor souls, scrabbling about amidst fantastic cultural ruins that we can scarcely comprehend, are in fact just what history has been waiting for.

So, then. Hoping for a better future is not wrong. Working hard for a better future is not wrong. What is wrong is making any kind of assumptions about the future based on our own radically contingent, unhappily fragile presents.

For not only are sixty centuries looking down us, proclaiming one united message of unpredictable ups-and-downs, but Scripture itself bracingly reminds us that “The Lord opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Orpheus and Orphism (Pt. 2)

Most scholarly sources I’ve consulted acknowledge one critical fact about Orphism: there is a real paucity of records from the time period in which it arose (apparently 6th century B.C.). Thus, scholarship teaches us by its wide disagreement over many details, much of what may be said about Orphism in its original context is at best of a reconstructive nature, and so may contain significant errors.1

However, since Orphism continued as a live religion for many centuries, we do, as it turns out, have some substantial remarks about at least as it was in the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ. Here our two main sources are Plato and Empedocles.2

For instance, in Plato’s Laws the Athenian Stranger, discoursing about founding a new state and ensuring its colonists know that Justice is written into the very fabric of reality, says to the colonists:

“Men, according to the ancient story, there is a god who holds in his hands the beginning and end and middle of things, and straight he marches in the cycle of nature. Justice, who takes vengeance on those who abandon the divine law, never leaves his side.”

Laws 715e-716

Note that this conception of the nature of the universe is pantheistic, asserting that all things which exist are divine, and especially that all which doesn’t seem to be divine (like us mortals) were in fact made out of God Himself. Though Plato does not mention the word Orphism, the myth he has the Athenian Stranger relate here comes from an Orphic source that runs, “Zeus is the first and the last, the head and the middle, the one out of whom all things were created.”3 The remainder of this part of the Athenian’s discourse is fascinating in its own right in terms of the view of Justice it outlines, but I will have to relegate that discussion to a different post elsewhere.

Another place Plato mentions Orphic doctrine is in the dialogue Cratylus:

…some people say that the body is the tomb of the soul, on the grounds that it is entombed in its present life, while others say that it is correctly called ‘a sign’ because the soul signifies whatever it wants to signify by means of the body. I think it is most likely the followers of Orpheus who gave the body its name, with the idea that the soul is being punished for something, and that the body is an enclosure or prison in which the soul is securely kept…until the penalty is paid…

– Cratylus 400b-c

A third citation from Plato, which again does not name Orpheus directly but does, say scholars, probably represent Orphic ideas, is this from the Gorgias:

But then [Callicles] the life of those people you call happiest is a strange one, too. I shouldn’t be surprised that Euripides’ lines are true when he says,

But who knows whether being alive is being dead
And being dead is being alive?

Perhaps in reality we are dead. Once I even heard one of the wise men say that we are now dead and that our bodies are our tombs, and that the part of our souls in which our appetites reside is actually the sort of thing to be open to perusasion and to shift back and forth.

– Gorgias 492e-493a

It is the idea of the body as the “tomb” or “prison house” of the soul that should raise alarm bells for the Christian student of ancient mythology. For though Scripture does exhort us not to be excessively attached to earthly things, since the goal of Christ’s redemption is the resurrection of the body Christianity proper does not denigrate the body in an “Orphic”-like fashion.

Nor does the next part of Orphism mesh with Christianity: the cycle of reincarnations that the soul must undergo in order to be purified. As one Orphic source wrote of the conditions of the soul in this cycle:

“wanders from the home of the blessed, being born into all kinds of mortal forms, passing from one laborious path of life to another. For the mighty Air chases him into the Sea, and the Sea spits him forth upon the dry land, and Earth casts him into the light of the blazing Sun, and the Sun hurls him into the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and he is hated of them all. I also am one of these, an exile and a wanderer from the Gods.”

Fragment 115.6ff, as cited in James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece

The soul’s reincarnation, indeed, knows no physical boundaries: ““Ere now, I too have been a boy, a girl, a bush, a bird, and a scaly fish in the sea.”4

It is often argued that Plato’s presentations of the soul were heavily influenced by Orphic doctrines. Among passages cited in this regard are this lengthy one from Republic X.614b-615c:

[Er] once upon a time was slain in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, was found intact, and having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day as he lay upon the pyre, revived, and after coming to life related what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond. He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company [614c] and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and above and over against them in the heaven two others, and that judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgement they bade the righteous journey to the right and upwards through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs [614d] of all that had befallen them, and that when he himself drew near they told him that he must be the messenger to mankind to tell them of that other world, and they charged him to give ear and to observe everything in the place. And so he said that here he saw, by each opening of heaven and earth, the souls departing after judgement had been passed upon them, while, by the other pair of openings, there came up from the one in the earth souls full of squalor and dust, and from the second there came down from heaven a second procession of souls clean and pure, [614e] and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those which came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others. And they told their stories to one another, the one lamenting[615a] and wailing as they recalled how many and how dreadful things they had suffered and seen in their journey beneath the earth—it lasted a thousand years—while those from heaven related their delights and visions of a beauty beyond words. To tell it all, Glaucon, would take all our time, but the sum, he said, was this. For all the wrongs they had ever done to anyone and all whom they had severally wronged they had paid the penalty in turn tenfold for each, and the measure of this was by periods of a hundred years each, [615b] so that on the assumption that this was the length of human life the punishment might be ten times the crime; as for example that if anyone had been the cause of many deaths or had betrayed cities and armies and reduced them to slavery, or had been participant in any other iniquity, they might receive in requital pains tenfold for each of these wrongs, and again if any had done deeds of kindness and been just [615c] and holy men they might receive their due reward in the same measure; 

Much more could be written on these themes, but this will suffice for this very short, unskilled attempt to sketch the ancient Greek “Orphic” religion built on the myth of the great singer Orpheus.

  1. An important remark in this regard is given in a source I cite several times below, James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5: “…it would be rash to affirm for certain that everything which I shall put before you had a place in the Orphic religion so early as the sixth century B.C. It is none the less true that the family resemblance between the different ideas to which I shall call your attention is sufficient to justify their claim to a common ancestry; and in this case we must be content to infer the character of the parent from that of the children.” []
  2. For the sake of disclosure, I initially discovered all the references to these writers which I looked up and transcribed below from James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5. In other words, nothing in the present post on this blog is original scholarship! []
  3. As cited by James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5: Ζϵὺς πρω̑τος γϵ́νϵτο, Ζϵὺς ὕστατος, ἀργικϵ́ραυνος, Ζϵὺς κϵϕαλή, Ζϵὺς μϵ́σσα, Διὸς δ̕ ϵ̓κ πάντα τϵ́τυκται. []
  4. As cited by James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5 []

Orpheus and Orphism (Part 1)

Given that engaging mythology is a significant part of classical Christian education, it’s likely that most of us have some familiarity with the figure of Orpheus. Sometimes he is reported as the son of the god Apollo and the Muse Calliope; outside myth storybooks, he is rather reported as the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and Calliope. Parentage disagreements aside, Orpheus is famous for a couple of widely-cited reasons: the aid he gave to Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece,1 and his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, which ended in failure but at least showed that Orpheus’ music could charm even the god of the dead.2.

Orpheus Among the Thracians

Greek tragedy offers additional information about Orpheus that needs to be carefully processed, including that his songs had power over inanimate objects as well as animate, and that he had connections with Bacchanalic frenzies.3. In a fascinating historical connection, some sources tell us that when the Dionysian cult invaded Thrace, where Orpheus lived, he refused to honor the new god and instead taught his countrymen to abhor as a great evil the sacrificial murdering of human beings.4 Contra Dionysius, Orpheus preached the supremacy of Apollo, for which “blasphemy” Dionysius apparently had the Maenads tear him apart.5 An alternate version of his death is that Zeus struck him with a lightning bolt for having revealed divine secrets via the mystery religions he set up.6 Though without mentiong the how of Orpheus’ death, no less a source than Plato has it, perhaps surprisingly, that Orpheus’ descent to Hades was an act of cowardice supposedly typical of minstrels, and that the god of death tricked him by showing him only an apparition of Eurydice – after which the gods arranged for his death:

In this manner even the gods give special honor to zeal and courage in concerns of love. But Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, they sent back with failure from Hades, showing him only a wraith of the woman for whom he came; her real self they would not bestow, for he was accounted to have gone upon a coward’s quest, too like the minstrel that he was, and to have lacked the spirit to die as Alcestis did for the sake of love, when he contrived the means of entering Hades alive. Wherefore they laid upon him the penalty he deserved, and caused him to meet his death.7

All these interesting items aside, Orpheus bears far greater import for classical Christian educators than just these “grammar-level” stories and criticisms. Perhaps most importantly for how we Christians deal with pagan mythology, Orpheus has been credited with formulating at least the rudiments of a system of “hyperspiritual” religious rites that eventually became a robust pagan religious offering, Orphism.

As Orphism and its influences is, as far as I can tell, a little-commented-upon topic in classical education circles, and as I myself am in no way an expert on it, this post is merely an attempt to sketch the issues. The remainder of this post and much of the next, in fact, draw very heavily upon classicist W.K.C. Guthrie’s The Greeks and their Gods.8

A Bare-Bones Sketch of Orphic Ontology

6th century B.C. Greece, in which Orphic religion arose, occupied itself largely with the thorny metaphysical Problem of the One and the Many. In a world teeming with Many individual, distinct things, what held them all together into the One overarching cosmos that was equally undeniable from experience? Concentrated in the religious imagination, this conundrum took the form of how to explain and express the presumed basic unity between the divine and the human soul.9 One solution was offered by the followers of Dionysius, who believed the god would at special times lift the human soul out of itself, so to speak, through the practice of passionate and frenzied mystical experiences. But, interestingly, Dionysian orgia did not widely catch on, for the Greek mind in general held the maxim, “mortal thoughts for mortals,” and so wanted to steer far clear of such uncontrollable ecstasies as being rather unhuman.10

The Orphics, by contrast, tried to solve the One-Many dichotomy by positing a sythesis of the mystical Dionysian and rational Apollonian religions. This Orphic synthesis turns out to be that the human soul simply is divine and also immortal, but requires a continual and rigorous process of catharsis, or purification by way of elaborate ascetic rituals in order to be “clean” enough for union with the divine.

Orphic ontology (beliefs about being) were crassly mythological, beginning with the generation of a cosmos by the first great god, Eros (Love), one of whose children, Zeus, swallows the whole thing and recreates it anew. Although superficially similar to other stories, such as Kronos swallowing his children and Zeus swallowing his first wife, Metis, this Orphic ontology should be of interest to Christians because, as Guthrie puts it, “through these crude folk-tales a new idea is set forth, the idea that the god who rules the world is also its creator.”11

What we should make of this germ of truth is certainly open for debate. In the next post, I’ll finish bare-bones sketching Orphism so that between these two posts there will be a foundation for further exploratory work relative to the myths themselves.

  1. Apollonius, Argonautica []
  2. Ovid, Metamorphoses X.1-85 []
  3. See these plays of Euripides: Rhesus 944, 946; Medea 543; Iphigenia in Aulis 1211; Bacchae 561; Cyclops 646; Alcestis 357; Hippolytus 953; Bacchae 561 []
  4. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. 1 (London: The Folio Society, 1996), pp. 112-113 []
  5. Graves, ibid., p. 113. The rest of the story as related by Graves definitely “demythologizes” the children’s storybook version of Orpheus: while condemning Dionysian promiscuity, he apparently also advocated homosexuality, which made Aphrodite his enemy, as well! []
  6. Graes, ibid. []
  7. Symposium 179d-e []
  8. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950 []
  9. Lest this sound immediately and entirely unbiblical, recall that most basic of biblical doctrines, creation in the image of God, as His offspring, which implies some sort of union-connection between God and His image-bearers, not to mention the Apostle Peter’s remarks about becoming “partakers of the divine nature” through Christ. It should be clear that per se the notion of unity with God is not necessarily unbiblical and anti-Christian. []
  10. Guthrie, pp. 316-317. []
  11. The Greeks and Their Gods, p. 319 []

The Real Story of the Trojan War (?)

In Book II of his Histories (112-120), the father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, gives an alternative story, told to him by Egyptians who allegedly spoke with Helen’s husband Menelaus, about the kidnapping of Helen and the war of the Greeks on Troy.

It seems that when Paris (or, Alexander) stole Helen away from Sparta, he was blown off course and “wandered” for a while. Landing on a time in Egypt, he was met by Proteus, the king of that land. From disloyal servants of Paris, Proteus discovered what Paris had done, and, declaring him an impious man, gave him three days to leave Egypt. Helen, however, and the treasures Paris stole from Menelaus’ house, would remain with Proteus until the Greeks could come and retrieve them.

Herodotus says he thinks Homer knew this tale, but since it was not grand enough to suit epic poetry he chose to disregard it and accept the other tale, the one which has become immortalized in the Iliad. Herodotus’ evidence that Homer knew the other story comes from Iliad 6.289-292, which mentions Paris having stopped in Sidon on his way home to Troy with Helen. Also mentioned is Odyssey 4.351-52, which has Menelaus telling Odysseus’ son about his own enforced sojourn in Egypt.

But why was Menelaus in Egypt? The Egyptians, says Herodotus, told him the real story behind the Trojan War. Thinking Paris to have gone straight back to Troy with Helen, the Greeks raised their armada and besieged the city. The Trojans denied having Helen or the stolen treasures, and told the Greeks that Helen was with Proteus in Egypt. But since the Greeks didn’t believe them they sacked the city anyway. Not finding Helen within, they then sent Menelaus to Egypt, where he found his wife and his treasures exactly as the Trojans had said.

Fascinatingly, Herodotus believes his Egyptian sources over Homer, and gives as his reason the supposition that the Trojans would not have endangered their entire city for the lust of an erring boy prince who, at any rate, was not due to inherit the kingdom when his father died (that honor would go to Hector). Herodotus thinks that the Trojans told the truth, but that the Greeks sacked the city anyway because “the Divine was laying his plans that, as the Trojans perished in utter destruction, they might make this thing manifest to all the world: that for great wrongdoings, great also are the punishments from the gods.” Says Herodotus, “That is what I think, and that is what I am saying here.”

This is all very interesting, to say the least. I think that Herodotus is right that the “real” story of the Trojan War wouldn’t have been fitting for an epic poem, and in the spirit of his critical historical inquiries it does seem best to critique the myth and present the “real” history. But on the other hand, assuming that Homer’s purpose was far different from that of Herodotus, and also assuming (along with Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) that “myth” has much to teach us even if it is not, technically speaking, “true,” I’m going to stick with Homer’s account.

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?