February 24, 2012
Last month scholars announced they’d translated a cuneiform tablet of riddles and jokes in Akkadian, an ancient Mesopotamian language. The Akkadians were also known as Assyrians, and one of their cities was Babylon. There’s your history lesson for the day. Not many tablets of jokes have been found even though thousands of cuneiform tablets have been translated, which you know is pretty impressive if you’ve ever seen one of these tablets. They don’t look like they’re written documents. They look like about fifty pigeons danced on them, so I’m always impressed that scholars even know which end is sideways, and this is even more impressive when you know that the cuneiform equivalent of the Rosetta stone is carved in a cliff more than three hundred feet up. The tablet of jokes dates back more than three thousand five hundred years. Because of the extreme age of the jokes most of them don’t make sense to us now, although they’re all still being told by Henny Youngman. The tablet is also extremely fragmentary, so in some cases we only have the start of a joke like "An Elamite walks into a bar", or the punchline, such as "And the leper says, ‘Keep the tip!’", although there are a couple of complete jokes, including, "Yo mama’s so fat she sat on a bushel of figs and made beer" and this one:
He: How many Hittites does it take to screw in a light bulb?
She: What’s a light bulb?
Unfortunately that one wouldn’t make sense for a few millennia, but it does demonstrate just how forward-thinking the Akkadians were. Well, technically it was the Sumerians who were forward-thinking. The Akkadians were to the Sumerians sort of like the Romans were to the Greeks: they thought highly of them and borrowed heavily from their religion, language, and culture while beating them down. My apologies to anyone who thought the history lesson was over two paragraphs ago. Anyway, the Sumerians, being even older than the Akkadians, invented all sorts of things. They invented libraries, schools, and, because they also had a sense of humor, the practical joke, which was a whoopee cushion carved out of stone. It wasn’t very practical, but then how many practical jokes really are? If they weren’t the first then they were among the first people to rely on agriculture rather than hunting and gathering, and they were the first people to brew beer. About the only thing they didn’t think of first was archaeology, which is unfortunate because they could have played some great jokes on modern archaeologists by making tools that had absolutely no use whatsoever, the same way our multi-device remotes will someday baffle future archaeologists who will be unable to understand why so much time and energy was put into building something that does absolutely nothing, but that’s another story. The Sumerians even had a surprisingly modern understanding of psychology, which was incorporated in the epic of Gilgamesh. The epic of Gilgamesh is a surprisingly modern story, even though it was written and then lost more than three thousand years ago, and only first recovered early in the 20th century. I’m bringing it up for a good reason.
The story of Gilgamesh is the story of things most of us will have to face, which may be why, at the time it was written, it was so widely known, and even now, having been restored to us by diligent scholars, it’s a kind of cultural touchstone with more than a dozen versions in English alone and references in everything from poetry and novels to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And it’s a story of emotional challenges most of us will eventually have to face. Well, strictly speaking the first half of the epic of Gilgamesh is more like a buddy cop film. The half-god Gilgamesh is a tyrannical ruler of the city of Uruk. The gods send a wild man named Enkidu who, ironically, tames Gilgamesh after a fight and they become friends. The two set out to make their names immortal by killing a demon who lives in the woods. This frightens the gods who send a monstrous bull to wreak havoc on Uruk. Why they went after everybody but Gilgamesh and Enkidu is beyond me, but then the Sumerian gods worked in mysterious ways. Or maybe it was because Gilgamesh and Enkidu didn’t have any trouble killing the bull, and even though the tablets are damaged, they probably then hosted the world’s first and biggest ever barbecue. And they invited the goddess Ishtar, who wanted to marry Gilgamesh, but he turned her down and mocked her, and Enkidu threw a piece of the bull at her, which was a serious mistake because even now, thousands of years later, we still haven’t found a way to get barbecue sauce out of a tunic. It was also a mistake because Enkidu then had a dream that the gods were in council, and he died soon after that.
This is where the story takes a turn into something much more than a myth. Modern psychologists say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and finally acceptance. Gilgamesh and Enkidu talked about making their names immortal, but their understanding of death was very abstract. Gilgamesh has never really faced death before. He’s shocked by the loss of his friend. Going through the first two stages he’s stunned then outraged. Then he runs away from Uruk. The time varies depending on the version, but in the first translation of the Gilgamesh epic I read he ran for three days and looked and there was no light, and he ran for three more days and looked and there was no light, and he ran for three more days and in the distance there was light. Anyone who’s lost someone close to them, or who’s been through depression, knows what this means and how it feels. You know how it feels when nothing around you matters, when everything might as well be dark because of the darkness inside you, and there’s only a gradual reemergence into the world. Gilgamesh finds himself at the edge of the sea. In what sounds like the setup to a joke he goes into a bar. In fact the joke will be on him, but that comes later. The woman who owns the bar gives him a cup of beer, and tells him that across the sea lives an old man named Utnapishtim and his wife. They are believed to be immortal. Gilgamesh takes a ferry across the sea, hoping Utnapishtim will make him immortal as well. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how he survived a great flood which the gods sent to destroy the world. He then tells Gilgamesh that he will be granted immortality if he can stay awake for seven days and nights. This is where the bargaining phase of grief begins. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but falls asleep immediately and sleeps for seven days and nights. When he wakes up Utnapishtim tells him there is no immortality. All things must pass. Finally there is acceptance. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, and takes the ferryman with him. As they approach the city Gilgamesh points and says, "See the walls of my city, which I built."
It’s an enigmatic ending. Unlike The Odyssey or Beowulf there’s no final battle, no stirring conclusion. Nothing is really resolved at the end of the epic of Gilgamesh. For a long time I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Of course interpretation is always personal, but, to me, the walls are the walls we all build within ourselves, not to keep anything out, but to encircle and keep and connect the things that really matter to us, the things that we cling to even when we’re lost in the darkness, and that, when it breaks, are the light. And that is no joke.