Fifteen Works Cited Stories do not need to inform us of anything. They do inform us of things. From The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, we know something of the people who lived in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the second and third millenniums BCE. We know they celebrated a king named Gilgamesh; we know they believed in many gods; we know they were self-conscious of their own cultivation of the natural world; and we know they were literate. These things we can fix — or establish definitely. But stories also remind us of things we cannot fix — of what it means to be human. They reflect our will to understand what we cannot understand, and reconcile us to mortality.
We read The Epic of Gilgamesh, four thousand years after it was written, in part because we are scholars, or pseudo-scholars, and wish to learn something about human history. We read it as well because we want to know the meaning of life. The meaning of life, however, is not something we can wrap up and walk away with. Discussing the philosophy of the Tao, Alan Watts explains what he believes Lao-tzu means by the line, “The five colours will blind a man’s sight.” “[T]he eye’s sensitivity to color,” Watts writes, “is impaired by the fixed idea that there are just five true colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it down into divisions with names distracts the attention from its subtlety” (27). Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to the meaning of life is impaired by fixed notions or perspectives on what it means to be human. There is an infinite continuity of meaning that can be comprehended only by seeing again, for ourselves. We read stories — and reading is a kind of re-telling — not to learn what is known but to know what cannot be known, for it is ongoing and we are in the middle of it.
To see for ourselves the meaning of a story, we need, first of all, to look carefully at what happens in the story; that is, we need to look at it as if the actions and people it describes actually took place or existed. We can articulate the questions raised by a character’s actions and discuss the implications of their consequences.
Myths, Dreams and the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh, a masterpiece of world literature, is considered to be one of the oldest epics in the world. It is called an epic, but it is really a myth. In order to be able to understand a myth, it is necessary to have an historical point of view from two perspectives, so to speak, an outer and an inner one. The outer one concerns the necessity to understand the historical form in which the archetypes appear, the historical background to which the myth is related – in our case, the Babylonian culture and religion. The inner aspect concerns the essential problems of the time, with which that particular epoch struggled consciously, or in which it was unconsciously involved. Although this is primarily a scientific task, I believe that it is nevertheless a matter of immediate necessity for us to understand such documents humains in relation to our own life, for all the ages live in us, and we cannot really understand ourselves unless we know our spiritual roots.
What particular age and what spiritual contents are evoked in us by the unconscious is, to a certain extent, a question of individual fate. Since Western culture is based to a great extent on Judaism and Christianity, Babylonian culture as one of their roots may be looked upon as of immediate psychological interest to us all. The archetypes live in their realm, beyond time and space. This builds the bridge of understanding between men of all ages, and makes it possible to realize that we ourselves with our essential problems are bound up in the continuity of the eternal problems of mankind, as they are mirrored in myths. But the form in which the archetypes appear, their garments so to speak, depends on the historical conditions: the symbols in which they appear change. In the human being these changes correspond to the development of human consciousness. Thus the myths, in my opinion, represent not only eternal archetypal events, but a certain level of the development of human consciousness. During my work on this remarkably rich material this connection thrust itself more and more into my mind, so that I should like to define it as the basic idea, as the starting point of my attempt to explain this myth.
It was only in 1872 that scholars first became aware of this myth, when the English Assyriologist George Smith made public “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge,” as he titled his translation of the eleventh tablet of the epic.