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Deified Heroes: Etana and Gilgamesh

Mar 12, 2018
Ben Beck
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 13 min.


God and Heroes and the “Seven Sleepers”–Quests of Etana, Gilgamesh, Hercules, &c.–The Plant of Birth–Eagle carries Etana to Heaven–Indian Parallel–Flights of Nimrod, Alexander the Great, and a Gaelic Hero–Eagle as a God–Indian Eagle identified with Gods of Creation, Fire, Fertility, and Death–Eagle carries Roman Emperor’s Soul to Heaven–Fire and Agricultural Ceremonies–Nimrod of the Koran and John Barleycorn–Gilgamesh and the Eagle–Sargon-Tammuz Garden Myth–Ea-bani compared to Pan, Bast, and Nebuchadnezzar–Exploits of Gilgamesh and Ea-bani–Ishtar’s Vengeance–Gilgamesh journeys to Otherworld–Song of Sea Maiden and “Lay of the Harper”–Babylonian Noah and the Plant of Life–Teutonic Parallels–Alexander the Great as Gilgamesh–Water of Life in the Koran–The Indian Gilgamesh and Hercules–The Mountain Tunnel in various Mythologies–Widespread Cultural Influences.

One of the oldest forms of folk stories relates to the wanderings of a hero in distant regions. He may set forth in search of a fair lady who has been taken captive, or to obtain a magic herb or stone to relieve a sufferer, to cure diseases, and to prolong life. Invariably he is a slayer of dragons and other monsters. A friendly spirit, or a group of spirits, may assist the hero, who acts according to the advice given him by a “wise woman”, a magician, or a god. The spirits are usually wild beasts or birds–the “fates” of immemorial folk belief–and they may either carry the hero on their backs, instruct him from time to time, or come to his aid when called upon.

When a great national hero appealed by reason of his achievements to the imagination of a people, all the floating legends of antiquity were attached to his memory, and he became identified with gods and giants and knight-errants “old in story”. In Scotland, for instance, the boulder-throwing giant of Eildon hills bears the name of Wallace, the Edinburgh giant of Arthur’s Seat is called after an ancient Celtic king, and Thomas the Rhymer takes the place, in an Inverness fairy mound called Tom-na-hurich, of Finn (Fingal) as chief of the “Seven Sleepers”. Similarly Napoleon sleeps in France and Skobeleff in Russia, as do also other heroes elsewhere. In Germany the myths of Thunor (Thor) were mingled with hazy traditions of Theodoric the Goth (Dietrich), while in Greece, Egypt, and Arabia, Alexander the Great absorbed a mass of legendary matter of great antiquity, and displaced in the memories of the people the heroes of other Ages, as those heroes had previously displaced the humanized spirits of fertility and growth who alternately battled fiercely against the demons of spring, made love, gorged and drank deep and went to sleep–the sleep of winter. Certain folk tales, and the folk beliefs on which they were based, seem to have been of hoary antiquity before the close of the Late Stone Age.

There are two great heroes of Babylonian fame who link with Perseus and Hercules, Sigurd and Siegfried, Dietrich and Finn-mac-Coul. These are Etana and Gilgamesh, two legendary kings who resemble Tammuz the Patriarch referred to by Berosus, a form of Tammuz the Sleeper of the Sumerian psalms. One journeys to the Nether World to obtain the Plant of Birth and the other to obtain the Plant of Life. The floating legends with which they were associated were utilized and developed by the priests, when engaged in the process of systematizing and symbolizing religious beliefs, with purpose to unfold the secrets of creation and the Otherworld. Etana secures the assistance or a giant eagle who is an enemy of serpents like the Indian Garuda, half giant, half eagle. As Vishnu, the Indian god, rides on the back of Garuda, so does Etana ride on the back of the Babylonian Eagle. In one fragmentary legend which was preserved in the tablet-library of Ashur-banipal, the Assyrian monarch, Etana obtained the assistance of the Eagle to go in quest of the Plant of Birth. His wife was about to become a mother, and was accordingly in need of magical aid. A similar belief caused birth girdles of straw or serpent skins, and eagle stones found in eagles’ nests, to be used in ancient Britain and elsewhere throughout Europe apparently from the earliest times.

On this or another occasion Etana desired to ascend to highest heaven. He asked the Eagle to assist him, and the bird assented, saying: “Be glad, my friend. Let me bear thee to the highest heaven. Lay thy breast on mine and thine arms on my wings, and let my body be as thy body.” Etana did as the great bird requested him, and together they ascended towards the firmament. After a flight which extended over two hours, the Eagle asked Etana to gaze downwards. He did so, and beheld the ocean surrounding the earth, and the earth seemed like a mountainous island. The Eagle resumed its flight, and when another two hours had elapsed, it again asked Etana to look downwards. Then the hero saw that the sea resembled a girdle which clasped the land. Two hours later Etana found that he had been raised to a height from which the sea appeared to be no larger than a pond. By this time he had reached the heaven of Anu, Bel, and Ea, and found there rest and shelter.

Here the text becomes fragmentary. Further on it is gathered from the narrative that Etana is being carried still higher by the Eagle towards the heaven of Ishtar, “Queen of Heaven”, the supreme mother goddess. Three times, at intervals of two hours, the Eagle asks Etana to look downwards towards the shrinking earth. Then some disaster happens, for further onwards the broken tablet narrates that the Eagle is falling. Down and down eagle and man fall together until they strike the earth, and the Eagle’s body is shattered.

The Indian Garuda eagle

Another version of the Etana story survives among the Arabian Moslems. In the “Al Fatihat” chapter of the Koran it is related that a Babylonian king held a dispute with Abraham “concerning his Lord”. Commentators identify the monarch with Nimrod, who afterwards caused the Hebrew patriarch to be cast into a fire from which he had miraculous deliverance. Nimrod then built a tower so as to ascend to heaven “to see Abraham’s god”, and make war against Him, but the tower was overthrown. He, however, persisted in his design. The narrative states that he was “carried to heaven in a chest borne by four monstrous birds; but after wandering for some time through the air, he fell down on a mountain with such a force that he made it shake”. A reference in the Koran to “contrivances … which make mountains tremble” is believed to allude to Nimrod’s vain attempt.

Alexander the Great was also reputed to have ascended on the back of an eagle. Among the myths attached to his memory in the Ethiopic “history” is one which explains how “he knew and comprehended the length and breadth of the earth”, and how he obtained knowledge regarding the seas and mountains he would have to cross. “He made himself small and flew through the air on an eagle, and he arrived in the heights of the heavens and he explored them.” Another Alexandrian version of the Etana myth resembles the Arabic legend of Nimrod. “In the Country of Darkness” Alexander fed and tamed great birds which were larger than eagles. Then he ordered four of his soldiers to mount them. The men were carried to the “Country of the Living”, and when they returned they told Alexander “all that had happened and all that they had seen”.

In a Gaelic story a hero is carried off by a Cromhineach, “a vast bird like an eagle”. He tells that it “sprang to the clouds with me, and I was a while that I did not know which was heaven or earth for me”. The hero died, but, curiously enough, remained conscious of what was happening. Apparently exhausted, the eagle flew to an island in the midst of the ocean. It laid the hero on the sunny side. The hero proceeds: “Sleep came upon herself (the eagle) and she slept. The sun was enlivening me pretty well though I was dead.” Afterwards the eagle bathed in a healing well, and as it splashed in the water, drops fell on the hero and he came to life. “I grew stronger and more active”, he adds, “than I had ever been before.”

The eagle figures in various mythologies, and appears to have been at one time worshipped as the god or goddess of fertility, and storm and lightning, as the bringer of children, and the deity who carried souls to Hades. It was also the symbol of royalty, because the earthly ruler represented the controlling deity. Nin-Girsu, the god of Lagash, who was identified with Tammuz, was depicted as a lion-headed eagle. Zeus, the Greek sky and air god, was attended by an eagle, and may, at one time, have been simply an eagle. In Egypt the place of the eagle is taken by Nekhebit, the vulture goddess whom the Greeks identified with “Eileithyia, the goddess of birth; she was usually represented as a vulture hovering over the king”.

The double-headed eagle of the Hittites, which figures in the royal arms of Germany and Russia, appears to have symbolized the deity of whom the king was an incarnation or son. In Indian mythology Garuda, the eagle giant, which destroyed serpents like the Babylonian Etana eagle, issued from its egg like a flame of fire; its eyes flashed the lightning and its voice was the thunder. This bird is identified in a hymn with Agni, god of fire, who has the attributes of Tammuz and Mithra, with Brahma, the creator, with Indra, god of thunder and fertility, and with Yama, god of the dead, who carries off souls to Hades. It is also called “the steed-necked incarnation of Vishnu”, the “Preserver” of the Hindu trinity who rode on its back. The hymn referred to lauds Garuda as “the bird of life, the presiding spirit of the animate and inanimate universe … destroyer of all, creator of all”. It burns all “as the sun in his anger burneth all creatures”.

Birds were not only fates, from whose movements in flight omens were drawn, but also spirits of fertility. When the childless Indian sage Mandapala of the Mahabharata was refused admittance to heaven until a son was born to him, he “pondered deeply” and “came to know that of all creatures birds alone were blest with fecundity”; so he became a bird.

It is of interest, therefore, to find the Etana eagle figuring as a symbol of royalty at Rome. The deified Roman Emperor’s waxen image was burned on a pyre after his death, and an eagle was let loose from the great pile to carry his soul to heaven. Doves were burned to Adonis. The burning of straw figures, representing gods of fertility, on May-Day bonfires may have been a fertility rite, and perhaps explains the use of straw birth-girdles.

According to the commentators of the Koran, Nimrod, the Babylonian king, who cast victims in his annual bonfires at Cuthah, died on the eighth day of the Tammuz month, which, according to the Syrian calendar, fell on 13th July.

They laid him down upon his back

And cudgelled him full sore;

They hung him up before a storm

And turned him o’er and o’er.

They filled up a darksome pit

With water to the brim,

They heaved in John Barleycorn–

There let him sink or swim.

They wasted o’er a scorching flame

The marrow of his bones,

But the miller used him worst of all,

For he crushed him between two stones.

Hercules, after performing many mythical exploits, had himself burned alive on the pyre which he built upon Mount Oeta, and was borne to Olympus amidst peals of thunder.

Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Hercules, who links with Etana, Nimrod, and Sandan, is associated with the eagle, which in India, as has been shown, was identified with the gods of fertility, fire, and death. According to a legend related by Aelian, Evidently Gilgamesh was a heroic form of the god Tammuz, the slayer of the demons of winter and storm, who passed one part of the year in the world and another in Hades (Chapter VI).

Like Hercules, Gilgamesh figured chiefly in legendary narrative as a mighty hero. He was apparently of great antiquity, so that it is impossible to identify him with any forerunner of Sargon of Akkad, or Alexander the Great. His exploits were depicted on cylinder seals of the Sumerian period, and he is shown wrestling with a lion as Hercules wrestled with the monstrous lion in the valley of Nemea. The story of his adventures was narrated on twelve clay tablets, which were preserved in the library of Ashur-banipal, the Assyrian emperor. In the first tablet, which is badly mutilated, Gilgamesh is referred to as the man who beheld the world, and had great wisdom because he peered into the mysteries. He travelled to distant places, and was informed regarding the flood and the primitive race which the gods destroyed; he also obtained the plant of life, which his enemy, the earth-lion, in the form of a serpent or well demon, afterwards carried away.

Gilgamesh was associated with Erech, where he reigned as “the lord”. There Ishtar had a great temple, but her worldly wealth had decreased. The fortifications of the city were crumbling, and for three years the Elamites besieged it. The gods had turned to flies and the winged bulls had become like mice. Men wailed like wild beasts and maidens moaned like doves. Ultimately the people prayed to the goddess Aruru to create a liberator. Bel, Shamash, and Ishtar also came to their aid.

Aruru heard the cries of her worshippers. She dipped her hands in water and then formed a warrior with clay. He was named Ea-bani, which signifies “Ea is my creator”. It is possible, therefore, that an ancient myth of Eridu forms the basis of the narrative.

Ea-bani is depicted on the cylinder seals as a hairy man-monster resembling the god Pan. He ate grass with the gazelles and drank water with wild beasts, and he is compared to the corn god, which suggests that he was an early form of Tammuz, and of character somewhat resembling the Egyptian Bast, the half-bestial god of fertility. A hunter was sent out from Erech to search for the man-monster, and found him beside a stream in a savage place drinking with his associates, the wild animals. The description of Ea-bani recalls that of Nebuchadnezzar when he was stricken with madness. “He was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.”

The hunter had no desire to combat with Ea-bani, so he had him lured from the wilds by a beautiful woman. Love broke the spell which kept Ea-bani in his savage state, and the wild beasts fled from him. Then the temptress pleaded with him to go with her to Erech, where Anu and Ishtar had their temples, and the mighty Gilgamesh lived in his palace. Ea-bani, deserted by his bestial companions, felt lonely and desired human friendship. So he consented to accompany his bride. Having heard of Gilgamesh from the hunter, he proposed to test his strength in single combat, but Shamash, god of the sun, warned Ea-bani that he was the protector of Gilgamesh, who had been endowed with great knowledge by Bel and Anu and Ea. Gilgamesh was also counselled in a vision of night to receive Ea-bani as an ally.

Ea-bani was not attracted by city life and desired to return to the wilds, but Shamash prevailed upon him to remain as the friend of Gilgamesh, promising that he would be greatly honoured and exalted to high rank.

The two heroes became close friends, and when the narrative becomes clear again, they are found to be setting forth to wage war against Chumbaba, the King of Elam. Their journey was long and perilous. In time they entered a thick forest, and wondered greatly at the numerous and lofty cedars. They saw the great road which the king had caused to be made, the high mountain, and the temple of the god. Beautiful were the trees about the mountain, and there were many shady retreats that were fragrant and alluring.

At this point the narrative breaks off, for the tablet is mutilated. When it is resumed a reference is made to “the head of Chumbaba”, who has apparently been slain by the heroes. Erech was thus freed from the oppression of its fierce enemy.

Gilgamesh and Ea-bani appear to have become prosperous and happy. But in the hour of triumph a shadow falls. Gilgamesh is robed in royal splendour and wears his dazzling crown. He is admired by all men, but suddenly it becomes known that the goddess Ishtar has been stricken with love for him. She “loved him with that love which was his doom”. Those who are loved by celestials or demons become, in folk tales, melancholy wanderers and “night wailers”. The “wretched wight” in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a typical example.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

\* \* \* \* *

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful–a faery’s child;

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

\* \* \* \* *

She found me roots of relish sweet,

And honey wild and manna dew;

And sure in language strange she said,

“I love thee true”.

Having kissed her lover to sleep, the fairy woman vanished. The “knight” then saw in a dream the ghosts of knights and warriors, her previous victims, who warned him of his fate.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide;

And I awoke and found me here

On the cold hill’s side.

The goddess Ishtar appeared as “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” before Gilgamesh and addressed him tenderly, saying: “Come, O Gilgamesh, and be my consort. Gift thy strength unto me. Be thou my husband and I will be thy bride. Thou shalt have a chariot of gold and lapis lazuli with golden wheels and gem-adorned. Thy steeds shall be fair and white and powerful. Into my dwelling thou shalt come amidst the fragrant cedars. Every king and every prince will bow down before thee, O Gilgamesh, to kiss thy feet, and all people will become subject unto thee.”

Gilgamesh feared the fate which would attend him as the lover of Ishtar, and made answer saying: “To what husband hast thou ever remained faithful? Each year Tammuz, the lover of thy youth, is caused by thee to weep. Thou didst love the Allala bird and then broke his wings, and he moans in the woods crying, ‘O my wings!’ Thou didst love the lion and then snared him. Thou didst love the horse, and then laid harness on him and made him gallop half a hundred miles so that he suffered great distress, and thou didst oppress his mother Silili. Thou didst love a shepherd who sacrificed kids unto thee, and then thou didst smite him so that he became a jackal (or leopard); his own herd boy drove him away and his dogs rent him in pieces. Thou didst love Ishullanu, the gardener of Anu, who made offerings unto thee, and then smote him so that he was unable to move. Alas! if thou wouldst love me, my fate would be like unto the fates of those on whom thou hast laid affliction.”

Ishtar’s heart was filled with wrath when she heard the words which Gilgamesh had spoken, and she prevailed upon her father Anu to create a fierce bull which she sent against the lord of Erech.

This monster, however, was slain by Gilgamesh and Ea-bani, but their triumph was shortlived. Ishtar cursed Gilgamesh. Ea-bani then defied her and threatened to deal with her as he had dealt with the bull, with the result that he was cursed by the goddess also.

by Gutenberg.org

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