The Oldest Story Ever Told

With plenty of time to reflect on the journey as a metaphor for the search for meaning, I turned once more to the oldest story ever told. A story about wealth, power and violence, greed and ignorance. And as the narrative unfolds, a tale of love and loss, and a quest to find a way back from grief and then, in the end, awakening and acceptance. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a despotic ruler, and how the gods attempt to temper his excesses by sending a wild man, Enkidu, to be his equal and to tame him. After an initial wrestling match that threatened to bring down the house, quite literally, the two set out to vanquish Humbaba, the giant who guards the sacred cedar groves. On their return, and revelling in their own success, and showing disrespect to the gods, Gilgamesh is punished by them, not through his own death, but by the slaying of his by now beloved Enkidu. In his grief, the eponymous hero, part man, part god he sets out to find the secret of eternal life, but by the end of the Epic accepts that live is to be lived, and not thrown away on the pursuit of power or on matters of vanity and pride.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, pre-dates Homer by more than a millennium, and in many ways is the model for all literature which follows. A man brought to enlightenment in the arms of a woman (see Hesse and Siddhartha) A great king or warrior finding redemption by laying aside his weapons (see Ashoka and Columba). A return to home and hearth (see Odysseus). The power of grief (see Auden, Shakespeare, Almodovar, variously) A quest to understand the meaning of life (see any library anywhere in the world).

It is also a tale about a journey and through that journey arriving at the acceptance that like every other living thing, even the greatest among us is only passing through. Scores of versions of the Epic have been reconstructed from the stone tablets found in Mesopotamia in the 19th century, and my current favourite is Jenny Lewis’s lyrical and engaging ‘Gilgamesh Retold’. Here, as the Epic comes to an end, as all stories must, we learn that the gods, finally pitying Gilgamesh in his helplessness and remorse, send down a ‘shower of healing rain that ‘cleansed his heart so he could start afresh, turning mourning into morning once again’.

We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston is available from all on-line retailers and Kindle.

Suffolk oaks in new leaf – image V.Preston – LeicaQ

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