How much of the bible is derived from stories told by cultures more ancient than itself? In my previous post “The Flood: Biblical vs. Mesopotamian Narratives” we found so many similarities in detail between Noah’s Ark and the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The dimensions of the vessel, the use of birds to tell when the land became dry, the performance of sacrificial rites after landing, and so on, were all alike. The moral of the stories differ, of course. Noah and his family learn about God’s grace amidst judgment, whereas Gilgamesh learns humility in light of man’s earthly mortality.
It is not the first time cultures have swapped metaphors in relaying their particular messages about the meaning of life. For instance, consider all the stories from different cultures about the stars presented in Jakob Thelan’s recent posts. Meanwhile, we have learned in post after post over the years about “deeper meanings” beneath the surface of bible stories. The million dollar question is: Are there also deeper meanings to stories held sacred by other cultures?
The answer is emphatically “yes”! We have learned in several of my posts last year about the Sufi and the Druze, esoteric Muslims who have found hidden meanings in the Quran. My post “Is there Just One Holy Book” suggests that hidden meanings are found in nature itself. In this post we will explore the hidden meanings involving the two main characters in the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh”. Allow me to introduce them – Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
The epic opens with a description of Gilgamesh’s kingdom in Sumeria, the city of Uruk with its splendid palace gardens and architectural wonders surrounded by a giant, unsurmountable wall for protection. The narrator tells us that Gilgamesh is a superhero. He is part god, part man, a warrior who has made great physical accomplishments, but was so cruel and selfish that the people he ruled over hated him. When he was not busy fortifying the city, he was a rapist, a murderer, and did whatever he wanted at other’s expense. He kept the city safe from attack, but he caused so much suffering that the people cried out to the gods day and night for relief.
In the rest of the epic, the gods respond to the people’s suffering. They do this not by stopping, removing, or chastising Gilgamesh, but by creating a redeemer, Enkidu, out of clay and spirit, who would first struggle with, and then befriend, Gilgamesh, drawing him into experiences that would reform him.
The first hint of hidden meaning occurs when at the end of the epic, the narrator describes that after all his purifying adventures beyond the city, when Gilgamesh comes home the first thing he does is write down all that has happened to him on 12 stones that he leaves at the city gates for all to see. Whoever is hearing or reading this narration and is alert suddenly realizes that the narrator is Gilgamesh himself, that this is a first-person account of how the narrator has matured through his adventures.
Also an alert reader will understand that in coming to terms with his earthly mortality, this has now culminated in Gilgamesh leaving a record behind all the wisdom he has accumulated through personal struggles, so that his transition into higher consciousness attained through them may live on. In effect, his consciousness has attained immortality. The reader can assimilate his consciousness and continue growing from that point on, instead of starting from scratch. If we were to consider ourselves reincarnated souls on the path to higher consciousness, coming across this epic might be a predestined event meant to accelerate our growth. Or maybe it is just a story to impart wisdom on our first and only time around.
12 Stone Tablets
The second hint of hidden meanings is the number of stone tablets. The number 12 is significant in Sumerian culture, which was the first to observe the 12 moon cycles throughout the year and to split up the Zodiac into 12 constellations, each representing a god. The Sumerians passed on the significance of 12 and the Zodiac to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Romans, and the Romans to the Western world. The Chinese developed a separate Zodiac system of 12 constellations. The Hebrews have the 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus had 12 disciples. Buddhists believe that life is composed of 12 stages, which together keep the wheel of life turning, keeping all life in a cycle of existence which can only be transcended through very high levels of consciousness. Thus the 12 stones have a spiritual connection to divinity and higher consciousness. This is borne out in the epic as Gilgamesh matures to higher levels.
Joanne Walmsley, who is an accomplished psychic and numerologist from Australia, provides additional insight into the number 12 from her website (ref 1).
“In numerology, the number 12 is related to Pisces. The (12th) Tarot card is The Hanged Man. It represents the completed cycle of experience and when an individual reincarnates as the number 12 they have completed a full cycle of experience and learned of the possibility of regeneration toward a higher consciousness. They belong to a group of developed souls who have accumulated an unusual inner strength through many and varied lifetimes. They may still, however, be hindered by old habits that need to be changed. The soul then attracts what it needs as a learning experience. A reversal of negative thoughts can bring about very favorable and positive effects, and can aid in achieving their goals and aspirations.
Number 12 warns of the necessity to be alert to every situation, to be suspicious of those who offer a high position and carefully analyse it, and to be aware of false flattery and those who use it to gain their own ends. Number 12 represents the educational process on all levels, the submission of the will required and the sacrifice necessary to achieve knowledge and wisdom on both Spiritual and Intellectual levels. When the intellect is sacrificed to the feelings, the mind will be illuminated with the answers it seeks. Attention paid to requirements of education will end suffering and bring success.”
She further explains the significance of Pisces:
“In relation to Pisces, The Hanged Man is associated with emotions and bonding. It symbolizes the ‘collective conscious’ and is a sign of purification and cleansing.”
“The Hanged Man is sometimes known as the ‘Suspended Person’.
It reflects the story of Odin who offered himself as a sacrifice in order to gain knowledge. Hanging from Yggdrassil, The World Tree or The Tree Of Life wounded by a spear, given no bread or mead, he hung for nine days (footnote 1). On the last day, he saw on the ground runes that had fallen from the tree, understood their meaning, and, coming down, scooped them up for his own. All knowledge is to be found in these runes (footnote 2).
The Hanged Man, in similar fashion, is a card about suspension, rather than life or death. This card signifies a time of insight so deep that, for a moment, nothing but that insight exists.
The Hanged Man symbolizes such moments of suspension between physical and mystical worlds. Such moments don’t last, and they usually require some kind of sacrifice … sacrifice of a belief or perspective, a wish, dream, hope, money, time or even selfhood. In order to gain, you must give. Sometimes you need to sacrifice cherished positions, open yourself to other truths, or other perspectives in order to find solutions to bring about change.
One thing is certain, whether the insight is great or small, spiritual or mundane, once you have been the Hanged Man you never see things quite the same.”
She further elaborates:
“The main lesson of the Hanged Man is that we “control” by letting go – we “win” by surrendering. The figure on Card 12 has made the ultimate surrender – to die on the cross of his own travails – yet he shines with the glory of divine understanding. He has sacrificed himself, but he emerges the victor.”
Ascending and Descending Consciousness
The Sumerians believed in reincarnation. Gilgamesh is considered in some interpretations (ref 4) to be an “old soul” who has reincarnated through many cycles to attain a high position in the material world, but who has either never attained, or has lost, a great measure of spiritual enlightenment in the process. To say his ego has grown out of balance is a gross understatement. He represents ascending consciousness gone sour.
To correct this, the gods created Enkidu from clay and spit (representative of spirit) as a “new soul”. Enkidu is thus innocent, a wild nobody springing up in the wilderness (footnote 3), untouched by worldly experiences. Yet he has something big in his favor; he is imbued with an innate spiritual sensitivity. In other words, his spark of divinity so freshly incarnated for the first time is strong and has not been overshadowed. He is like a virgin spirit descending from the height of divinity who is pressed into earthly clay. He is so pure that he is a fish out of water, so to speak, not knowing how to conduct himself and having neither conflict nor ego. In his naivety, he thinks like Adam and Eve might have in the Garden of Eden, but he is born outside it.
To initiate his melding with the material world, he is invited by a beautiful temple harlot to experience temporary sexual bonding along with learning how to experience some of the aesthetics and depth of worldly existence. He is virgin consciousness beginning to descend into the joys, and eventually also the sorrows, of the material plane. The woman has become his earthly mentor, teaching him to love his fellow creatures, and prepares him, as he kindly departs from her, to respect and appreciate life on earth.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both in a desperate state of incompletion. They are paradoxically both opposites and complements of each other who are destined to meet and complete each other. The first meeting occurs when Enkidu wanders out of the wilderness into the city of Uruk and finds Gilgamesh overpowering and raping a woman, the very opposite of Enkidu’s expectations of sexual activity. He tries to stop Gilgamesh. A fight between them ensues, and when Gilgamesh is about to fall off the city wall, Enkidu rescues him. When Gilgamesh becomes curious why Enkidu would be so foolish as to risk his life by challenging him, then saving him, he starts to forget about his impulsive sexual pursuit, and starts to befriend him.
Various crises then start to occur in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu must partner with each other to solve them, and through which they become extremely close friends. The better points of their personalities begin to rub off on each other. Then Enkidu gets sick with a fatal disease. He has a terrifying nightmare about the afterworld which he explains to Gilgamesh before he dies.
It is unfortunate that the two must be separated by death. In most epics, either the hero or the one closest to him dies. This is because, in well-crafted story, the denouement must always come with a heavy price to show its true worth. However, as we shall see, all is not lost; although separated in death, their spirits become united.
Meanwhile back in Sumeria, the pain of losing his friend and the fear of death cause Gilgamesh to rise up and use all his available skills to defy death, to search for the secret of immortality. He hears about a holy man who lives in a place faraway and inaccessible to most men, and who is known to have discovered immortality during the Great Flood of ancient times. He resolves to use all his strength and determination as part man, part god, to find the holy man. His journey takes him deeper and deeper into realms of darkness, where he learns to combine his persistence with the seeds of Enkidu’s spirituality in order to persevere. Finally he arrives at an oasis where he meets the holy man, who relates the story of how he survived the Great Flood and was given immortality as a gift. This story is summarized in the post “The Flood: Biblical vs. Mesopotamian Narratives”.
However, after relating the story, the holy man tells Gilgamesh that despite all his effort, he cannot impart immortality to him. The holy man’s wife has sympathy for Gilgamesh and tells him if he jumps into a pool of water, swims down to the bottom, and eats of special plant at the bottom of the pool, he will learn the secret of immortality. Again Gilgamesh puts his physical abilities to work and struggles to swim to the bottom, almost giving up hope, and then finding the plant. When he grabs the plant, he becomes very tranquil and satisfied, almost in a stupor, but before he can bring the plant to the surface and eat it, a serpent of the deep snatches the plant and disappears into the depths, shedding a serpent skin to leave behind. We are told that upon seeing the skin, Gilgamesh is brought to terms with his mortality, and gives up the quest, returning to Uruk by the way he came. Along the way, circumstances occur that encourage him to exercise and strengthen the spirituality that was passed to him from Enkidu, so that when he finally arrives at Uruk, he has become its savior and not just its ruler. His first act of redemption is to write his story for the public.
The usual interpretation of the shed skin is that it is a symbol of death. But a fuller explanation is that it is a symbol of rebirth. Snakes shed their skin when it wears out in order use the new skin beneath. It is also a symbol for reincarnation. We really are not sure what went through Gilgamesh’s mind when he finally gave up the quest for immortality. Did he realize that the end of his mortal life would not be the end? Did he expect to reincarnate, or to ascend once and for all into the afterlife, free from the cycle of suffering?
Whatever happened to him, it was for the good. What he wanted most, he could not have it for the grasping, but had to surrender to a higher power; and when he finally let go, he and his subjects got more than he bargained for. I wonder if the same thing happened to Moses when he placed his staff down before the burning bush.
Gilgamesh represents the incarnated soul ascending from the material world, becoming strong and powerful at controlling the environment and protecting his ego’s vital interests. He is characterized by violence, impulse and battle. He is a mighty conqueror like in most epics, but for the sake of his own glory. He guards his subjects because he wants to rule over them, not protect and nourish them. And then enters Enkidu. Enkidu brings to him the enlightenment he might have lost or never had. Perhaps Gilgamesh cut ethics class as a child so he could spend extra time improving his skills for the jousting team. In the epic, it becomes time to adjust this deficiency by being initiated into higher consciousness. This is accomplished by first struggling, and then bonding with a friend. It is similar to the Hebrew Pharisees encountering Jesus. We often do this with each other also, struggle and bond.
We also do this within ourselves, struggle and bond. Consider that Gilgamesh and Enkidu represent opposing and complementary processes going on inside each one of us, drawing each of us to reach for a higher level of consciousness to resolve the tension. Is this not what happened to Jacob at Peniel as described in Joshua Tilchman’s recent post “Jacob, Leah, Higher Consciousness, DMT, and the Pineal Gland”? Perhaps Enkidu represents the divine spark within each one of us that becomes activated at just the right time to begin to enlighten us as our souls incubate in the material world. Like Gilgamesh we are part human and part divine, accompanied by our personal Enkidu on the sacred path to higher consciousness.
Footnote 1. Because of the similarities of Odin’s hanging with the crucifixion of Christ, it is important to know whether the story of Odin’s hanging originated before the Gospels. The date of origin seems to be unfortunately indeterminable. It was first documented in Norse poems in the Middle Ages. This leaves three options: this myth in undocumented form predated the Gospels, this myth was influenced by the Gospels, or this myth and the Gospels were influenced by other narratives.
Footnote 2. Through his intended sacrifice, Odin discovers runes (writing or symbols of great mystical value) at the foot of the tree from which he was hanged, and the runes possess the knowledge and power to advance himself and mankind.
Footnote 3. Some authors (ref 4) describe Enkidu’s wild and uninitiated state as animalistic, but I think this is unfair to animals who develop some levels of sentience and consciousness.