Go, set off to Uruk, tell Gilgamesh of this Man of Might (Enkidu). He will give you the harlot Shamhat, take her with you. The woman will overcome the fellow as if she were strong. When the animals are drinking at the watering place have her take off her robe and expose her sex. When he sees her, he will draw near to her, and his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him…She went and disrobed in front of Enkidu and performed the primitive task of womanhood…When Enkidu finished with her, he turned his attention to his animals. The gazelles saw Enkidu and darted off, the wild animals distanced themselves from his body… Now becoming aware of himself, he became lonely and sought a friend in the city. -Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1
In order to get some understanding of our current situation as a species, we must look to the past for context and reference. Ancient Sumer was not the first or only city to materialize during the earliest stages of the Neolithic revolution. They were, however, the first to record their thoughts on clay tablets that have survived time to be found and deciphered by contemporary eyes. Their thoughts took the form of a story, as most early writings not for legalistic or economic purposes tended to be expressed as narrative. The story, with its easy to understand plots and characters, was the most efficient medium for conveying cultural information for early Neolithic humans. It turned the indecipherable chaos of natural reality into a manageable series of events and decisions, into the ordered categories of cultural reality. So what does the Epic of Gilgamesh reveal about humanity’s transition from pre-civilized hunting/gathering tribes into city dwelling farmers/traders/artisans/etc.? For one thing, we see that it was not a particularly easy or unambiguously welcome change. Enkidu is no doubt devastated that his former animal friends no long want anything to do with him. He no doubt embraces woman, lusting after her beauty, but in so doing becomes all the more aware of his own ugliness. He longs for union with nature again, for return to the forest, but his new self-consciousness frightens both the animals and himself. The darkness of the forest is no longer a welcoming, motherly womb, but a dark and threatening abyss made more ominous by its contrast with the bright, walled-in city. The fact that woman seemingly caused man’s fall from nature is no surprise, though we must be cautious not to take the exoteric meaning of the story too seriously. It was most likely written by men, and therefore we should not be surprised that they would lay the blame upon woman. If we pierce the surface of the narrative, though, and see its esoteric meaning, we begin to recognize that man made woman his surrogate mother, replacing nature with its human/cultural recapitulation. Man could not survive totally removed and alienated from the natural world. He still required the nourishment and care provided by women, and indeed it is woman who is responsible for most of the development of “his” culture. Before the Neolithic revolution, in the Pleistocene, man busied himself with hunting while woman stayed home to gather food and raise the children. While her gathering made up about 90% of the tribes food supply, her even greater contribution was the babbling games she played with the babies. These games gave rise to our language, which allowed more complex cultural development and gave the human species the boost it needed to eventually organize into great settlements. Woman, therefore, is the bedrock upon which all man’s achievements are built. Being that the birth of civilization was so painful for humanity, might we assume that its death will be the same? It is possible, however we must distinguish between animal-man becoming cultured-man in the beginning, and cultured-man becoming… what? after the ending. Man has long ago lost his innocence, so he cannot simply return to nature as before. Post-civilized man is something new, but rather than ask what shape he may take, we must look at ourselves and ask what shape he has already taken. The ending of civilization is already upon us and probably has been so since the world wars of the 20th century made the failure of civilized life known once and for all. If they weren’t enough to prove this, the environmental peril and increasing decadence of the so-called “civilized people” now living in the developed world should be. The apocalyptic archetype has infected society as a whole, but the most sensitive among us experience a disproportional dose of its powers. What then, are we to make of ourselves? Who are we? Who am I? Such questions have no easy answers, and it is quite possible that they have no answers at all. It may be that they are posited in such a way that answering them conclusively is impossible. This kind of ambiguity seems to be a common theme for post-civilized humanity. We know not where we stand, nor even what it is that stands somewhere unknown. As Sir Arthur Eddington once remarked, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what. That is the extent of our knowledge.” How then, are we to transition into a new age without knowing what form we must take? It is clear that animal-man similarly had no foreknowledge of what the transition to cultured-man held for him. It was, as it were, a blind leap of faith, though it was taken in near unconsciousness, man only realizing what he had done after the fact. For us, however, with our self-consciousness having increased to such a degree that we can barely move without second guessing ourselves, such a leap must be taken in full understanding of its possible consequences and implications. For cultured-man to become spiritual-man, he must leave the assurance and protection of city life behind and leap, not back into the depths of the forest, but into the furthest reaches of inner (or possibly outer, or possibly both) space. It will not be an easy transition, and no doubt we will experience birth pains. But nothing truly new can come about without the total destruction of the old. Apocalypse brings with it such destruction, but great opportunity follows in its wake.