Gilgamesh, the First Human to Disfigure Mother Nature, by Paloma Breton-Chang

Gilgamesh, the First Human to Disfigure Mother Nature, by Paloma Breton-Chang


In this Anthropocene Age, few people recognize the role that Nature plays in our society. Although humans are biologically a branch of Mother Nature, they choose to see themselves and her as two distinct systems. These two networks, which have significantly grown apart from each other in the past centuries, are now on a battlefield. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the human network radically changed their perspective towards Nature; rather than seeing her as a source of life, they started exploiting her for the benefit of their capitalist system. As we see in the oldest written story known to exist, the tensions between these networks date back even as far as four thousand years ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh clearly depicts humans’ urge to detach themselves from the Nature network to develop their own. This essay will explore how this ancient text reflects issues that we continue to see between humans and nature, such as colonialism, ecocide, and humankind’s confrontation of our mortality.

The meeting between Enkidu and the harlot testifies to colonialism. As the first civilized societies appeared, the Nature network became something humans began to believe could be tamed to their own will. To begin with, Enkidu was created to balance Gilgamesh’s overwhelming power which his people could no longer withstand: “O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self; stormy heart for stormy heart” (The Epic of Gilgamesh 4). As seen in this passage, Enkidu and Gilgamesh were not meant to dominate each other like colonialism suggests, but to coexist in order to bring balance between the two networks. Nevertheless, this principle was broken when the ‘civilized’ humans’ network took over the Nature network, resulting in an act of treachery from Enkidu. Previously, Enkidu was the friend and protector of Nature, characterized as innocent, wild, and kind as long as he remained within her: “He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land  Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with the wild beasts at the water-holes … When [the trapper] dig and tears up [his] traps set for the game, [Enkidu] helps the beasts to escape” (4). However, the instant he disregards this agreement, Enkidu transforms; he loses his cultural identity as well as losing to the human network, and becomes a mere tool in the hands of Gilgamesh. Following this, colonialism can be seen when Enkidu became Nature’s enemy after joining forces with Gilgamesh’s clan. Just as Indigenous peoples have been converted to Catholicism and deprived of their land and culture by the English settlers, this act reflects how Enkidu’s culture has been taken away and how the bond between him and Nature has been destroyed forever. Indeed, when Enkidu tries to come back to his kind, “his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone … Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart” (5). This passage depicts how Enkidu is deprived of his cultural identity as he lost his physical skills and was re-educated. As a result, the humans network’s influence on Enkidu leads him to abandon his own and even kill Humbaba, his own kin.

Subsequently, the confrontation with Humbaba, the protector of Nature, is a distinct representation of an ecocide. Even more so, this act is perceived as a ‘heroic ecocide’, as humans in the Epic seek glory by repressing the Nature network. Indeed, Humbaba is no less than a terrifying monster who guards the Cedar Forest, surely not oppressing the human network. Yet, Gilgamesh seeks to reaffirm his authority and fame by dragging his new companion as far as destroying an innocent opponent: “…we will go down together into the heart of the forest. Let your courage be roused by the battle to come; forget death and follow me…” (9). As one would expect, Enkidu fulfills his role as Nature’s enemy and adds: “[After killing Humbaba], we can search out the glory and the glamour” (11). Moreover, Humbaba’s defeat only builds on the disrespect Gilgamesh and Enkidu hold for Nature. In the same way as nowadays human activities, such as excessive hunting or poaching, have led to an increase of endangered species, the two protagonists are contributing to this issue by rashly killing the greatest force of Nature: “[Gilgamesh] struck Humbaba with a thrust of the sword to the neck, and Enkidu his comrade struck the second blow. At the third blow Humbaba fell” (11). Not only do they brutally murder the guardian of the forest, but they also seek to burn the Cedar Forest: “[Enkidu said:] ‘kill Humbaba first and his servants after” (11). Similarly, the first traces of deforestation date back to when the two protagonists cut down Humbaba’s servants, the Cedar trees in his forest. All part of Humbaba’s defeat, Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s alliance aims to shield their culture by cutting down the Cedar Forest. By doing so, they impose the power of their network over Nature and thereby gain benefit in the material they obtain to erect buildings: “I will cut [the trees] down and build you a palace” (10). “They attacked the cedars, the seven splendours of Humbaba were extinguished” (11). Consequently, Enkidu dies, and the tyrant goes on a new quest to find a cure against death and to affirm his rule.

Furthermore, Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality mirrors the human network’s constant yet unsuccessful fight to defy Nature’s laws. Above all, the “strong-walled city”, as an epithet repeated many times in the Epic, holds great symbolism in Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. By aiming to protect his people from the unknown ‘dangerous’ network, the hero of Mesopotamia built a strong structure to block any external naturel sources from Nature from entering the city. Thus, these walls reveal humanity’s fear of this network and their will to protect themselves. Although no natural forces can break through this shelter, neither can the inhabitants explore Nature; therefore, if they can’t step outside Uruk, they can’t access the secrets of everlasting and rejuvenating life. Likewise, Gilgamesh’s defeat by the snake suggests an irony. Just as he used to steal and abuse his people, the tyrant’s fate was reciprocated when the serpent became his thief: “[The serpent] rose out of the water and snatched [the magic plant] away, and immediately it sloughed its skin and returned to the well” (22). His destiny only proves that Nature is trying to retaliate for what humans did to her. One might also suggest that the cycle of death and rebirth, signified by the snake shedding its skin, is the province of Nature only and, as a part of Nature, humanity is subject to physical transformation through death, a transformation that we resist and try to transcend to no avail. Lastly, after trying to stay awake for six nights and seven days to obtain Upnapishtim’s gift of immortality, Gilgamesh falls asleep for seven more days: “Look at him now, the strong man who would have everlasting life, even now the mists of sleep are drifting over him” (22). This only proves how, no matter how much effort humans spend to take over nature, they cannot even stand against their natural instincts; therefore, they cannot dominate the Nature network.

Overall, the two-thirds divine Gilgamesh offers the opportunity to the human network to reflect on their brutal attempts and malpractices to dominate the Nature network. He has shown to the world that mankind and Nature are not meant to fight against each other, but rather to be one.



Work Cited

Sanders, N.K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency.


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