Before we talk about The Epic of Gilgamesh, I want to touch on folklore, myths, and religion. As stated previously, my goal with this column is to present a history of horror fiction from primitive man up to today’s Kindle revolution. In doing that, I will undoubtedly anger some people. (Indeed, judging by the recent histrionics of the addled S.T. Joshi, I already have.) But while I’m happy to piss people off by claiming there’s common ground between quiet horror and splatterpunk, or discussing the possibility that America’s oldest mass market paperback publisher was partially funded by organized crime, it is not my intent to anger or offend anyone by disparaging their personal religious beliefs.
And yet, it’s impossible to discuss the history of horror fiction without also discussing religion, mythology, and folklore. Most religions, after all, are simply the belief in, and worship of, a supernatural controlling power, be it an individual God, a pantheon of gods, a group of extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings, or unseen paranormal forces that seemingly defy our understood laws of physics, space, time, and natural order. Mythology is considered a component of religion, alongside other components such as rituals and theology. The religion of the ancient Greeks was once just that—a religion. But as time passed, and people no longer believed in that religion, its stories became mythology.
Religion, mythology, legend, and folklore all tend to borrow from one another. They also overlap. Horror authors borrow from one another, as well. We build on what was done before us—we transmute it, lend our voice to it, put our stamp on it. Bram Stoker isn’t the last word on vampires. Neither are Anne Rice, Les Whitten, Yvonne Navarro, Simon Clark, Laurell K. Hamilton, or anyone else who has written a vampire novel. Critics often credit my 2003 novel, The Rising, as “reinventing zombies,” and sure, maybe I added to the zombie mythos overall, but I didn’t invent them. Neither did Max Brooks, David Wellington, Phil Nutman, Kim Newman, Armand Rosamilia, or even George Romero. All of us merely borrowed things that had come before us, and used them in new ways.
Horror fiction often borrows from folklore, mythology, and religion, who in turn borrow from each other. As a result, all are populated by supernatural creatures and evil forces—vampires, demons, witches, monsters and more.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (or at least portions of it) pre-dates many of the world’s religions, myths, and folktales, and informs some of humanity’s earliest holy texts. Christianity’s Old Testament, Islam’s Qur’an, and Judaism’s Tanakh all feature a Great Flood myth, as do Hinduism’s Manu Vedas, Greek mythology’s Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Chinese Gun-Yu, Australia’s aboriginal tribes, Norse mythology, the Mayans and Cañar of South America, the Native Americans of North America, and countless others. The Epic of Gilgamesh also features a Great Flood story. Indeed, the character of Noah, called Utnapishtim in the text, even makes an appearance. But it’s not just our religious mythology that The Epic of Gilgamesh inspired. Scholars state it had a substantial influence on Homer’s The Odyssey, the Greek legend of Perseus and Medusa, the Alexander the Great legend, and many others. It has also had an influence on horror fiction—an influence that is perhaps underappreciated.
A secular story told in the form of poetry, and never recited as part of a religious ritual or prayer, The Epic of Gilgamesh is not only one of the first known literary writings of human civilization—it’s also a work of horror fiction. Scholars and historians are divided on whether Gilgamesh was a real figure (there is some evidence to indicate the existence of a Mesopotamian king with that name), the feats attributed to him and the monsters that he fights are purely the work of fiction—the fevered writings of one of Thurg’s direct descendants, perhaps, but transcending those earlier cave drawings, which simply depicted things the people of that time feared. Don’t get me wrong. The Epic of Gilgamesh certainly deals with those endless themes we discussed in my last column, particularly death and morality. Remember Thurg, wondering what happened to his friend after a cave bear killed him? Gilgamesh wonders the same thing. But then he sets out to make sure that it never has to happen again. The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t just spotlight those fears. The story is meant to entertain and inspire. Had The Sumerian Times existed back then, you can bet The Epic of Gilgamesh would have been number one on their bestseller list for many years.
Gilgamesh is the semi-divine king of a city called Uruk. He’s more god than man, and those two sides are at war within him. He’s the world’s first antihero, having more in common with Stephen King’s Larry Underwood than he does with the gunslinger Roland Deschain. Or, if you want to put it in comic book terms, Gilgamesh would be more comfortable alongside John Constantine or the Punisher than he would Captain America or Superman. He was a prehistoric Walter White, a Sumerian Tony Soprano, who, at the beginning of the tale…is an asshole. He’s oppressive to his people, and likes to claim bride-rights, raping any woman who happens to catch his eye, regardless of their position in the community. Uruk has towering ziggurats, massive protective walls to hold back all invaders, and beautiful, prosperous orchards and fields. All of these have been built with slave labor, and it is Gilgamesh’s hand that wields the whip.
The gods, taking pity on Gilgamesh’s subjects, send a wild man named Enkidu to fight him. Enkidu lives out in the forest with the animals, suckling from their teats, grazing in the meadows, and drinking at their watering holes. Today, we might call him a Bigfoot, but this is no dumb creature from Boggy Creek. No, not at all. Enkidu comes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh, just as the king is about to rape another bride on her wedding day. Enkidu punches him—thus cementing his place in history as the world’s first social justice warrior—and a fight ensues. After a rousing battle, the two become dear friends, and Gilgamesh begins the long journey toward self-development and personal growth, ultimately changing his ways.
The two hit the road together, and decide to go fight some monsters. In a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals, they encounter the demon Humbaba, described as a vicious giant or ogre, who has—among other accoutrements—a snake for a penis. Gilgamesh tricks the monster into letting his guard down, and then sucker punches him. Before Humbaba can recover, Enkidu beheads him.
Impressed by this deed, the goddess Ishtar falls in lust with Gilgamesh, but he spurns her advances. In retaliation, she asks her father to send Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, to destroy him. When the elder god declines, Ishtar threatens to send an army of zombies. She says she’ll raise the dead, and that these reanimated corpses will outnumber—and devour—the living. See? Remember what I said above about borrowing and building on what had come before? There are zombies in The Epic of Gilgamesh!
Not wanting his daughter to start the zombie apocalypse, Ishtar’s father relents, and Gugalanna lays siege to Uruk—because the Bull of Heaven is a Godzilla-sized minotaur; a second century kaiju. His footfalls shake the ground, causing widespread destruction. Yawning pits open in the earth, swallowing up three hundred soldiers. The Euphrates river drops, and the marshes dry up. Doom has come to Uruk. But no…Gilgamesh and Enkidu arrive just in time, and slay the beast. Then they disembowel Gugalanna, and cut out his heart. When Ishtar shows up atop the city walls, Gilgamesh tosses one of the monster’s legs at her.
The gods have had enough of this nonsense, and so they sicken Enkidu with an illness, and he dies. Grieving, Gilgamesh abandons his kingdom and retreats into the wilderness, intent upon seeking out the mysterious Utnapishtim. Now, as it turns out, Utnapishtim and his wife survived a Great Flood that wiped out a previous incarnation of humanity, and as a result the gods have granted them immortality. Gilgamesh wants to know that secret. He doesn’t want to die like his friend. Unfortunately, Utnapishtim’s mountaintop cave is guarded by scorpion-men, and Gilgamesh has to face them. Rather than fighting, he pleads his case, and the monsters let him pass. He then journeys through a pitch-black nightmarish tunnel. I mentioned Stephen King’s The Stand above. This scene will be familiar to anyone who remembers Larry Underwood’s harrowing journey through the Lincoln Tunnel, except that it’s taking place back when people can still ask their grandparents what it was like to grow up without having discovered fire or the wheel.
Eventually, Gilgamesh emerges from the tunnel and meets the two immortals. They test him to see if he’s worthy of the secret of immortality. Gilgamesh fails, and Utnapishtim refuses. But the old man’s wife takes pity on our antihero, and they then give him a plant which will grant eternal life. Gilgamesh intends to transport it back to Uruk and share it with his people, but a snake steals the plant while he’s still in Utnapishtim’s garden (and yes, if this sounds like the Garden of Eden story to you, then you’ve been paying attention in class).
The story ends with Gilgamesh’s realization that while no human can live forever, humankind will. To quote a scholarly summation of the text, “When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he can’t live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement—the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.”
In the previous column, I mentioned anthropologist and geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who once wrote, “In every study of the human individual and human society, fear is a theme.” I also quoted Douglas E. Winter and H.P. Lovecraft, the latter of which wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
We fear death. We fear our own mortality. We fear the unknown that comes with it. Yes, religions give us faith, but faith is not a known. It is an unknown. That’s the whole point of faith—you believe it without proof. That’s a scary thing, late at night, when you’re alone with your soul.
Thurg wrote about that fear at the end of the Stone Age.
The author of The Epic of Gilgamesh wrote about it in 2100 B.C.
And we’ve been writing about it ever since. But in that time between 2100 B.C. and 2017 A.D., we’ve been given some tools to express that fear with—monsters and themes that we borrow and bend and shape to our will. Monsters that we adapt to our own voice and our own style. Monsters that show up in all the world’s folklore and religions. Monsters that have been around for as long as humanity has walked this planet.
Religion, when you strip away the mythology, rituals, and theology, comes down to just two things.
Faith and Fear.
Horror fiction comes down to those two things, as well.
Food for thought, until next month’s column…when we’ll take a look at 1500 B.C.’s Theseus and the Minotaur, the aforementioned tale of Perseus and The Odyssey, The Iliad, 458 B.C.’s The Oresteia, Beowulf, and more.
Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.