Do Jesus Christ and Gilgamesh Share Similarities or a Common Tradition?

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As was pointed out earlier, the epic of Gilgamesh is not only one of the oldest recorded stories known to man, but it was also familiar to Israel and may have been rewritten into the Old Testament. It should come as no surprise that, in addition to the New Testament, elements from the epic of Gilgamesh may have crept into several other literary creations.

According to Sumerian cosmology, when Ea had created man he mixed the blood of a god (who was slaughtered for the purpose) in with the clay, so that humans would have a divine spirit. However, the blood was not the best material. “In one tradition, at least, he was the leader of the rebels, who had instigated a mutiny” (George, xl). Therefore men were both part divine, but also flawed and wayward. It is likely that the story of Gilgamesh was used as a framework for religious rites or cult practices, as copies have been found in temples; copying the text may have been part of the training process for temple-astrologers (George, xxvii).

If Gilgamesh ever existed as an actual king (as tradition claims), he would have flourished around 2750BC (George, xxxi). According to the myth, Gilgamesh was a city tyrant whose mother was a goddess. He was a cruel ruler, forcing his people into labor and freely exercising his kingly right to sleep with girls on their wedding day. The people prayed to gods to make an equal/rival for Gilgamesh, and they created Enkidu – a creature that was half bull, half human. Enkidu was an idyllic spirit, living in harmony with nature. Gilgamesh orders the harlot Shamhat to seduce him, which will weaken him by alienating him from nature. They coupled for seven days and seven nights. In language reminiscent of the biblical garden story, Enkidu finds himself a “changed but wiser creature” (Gordon 45).

Shamhat brings him to society, but he has trouble eating bread, drinking out of glasses, or wearing clothes (could Gilgamesh also be the root of the modern Tarzan story?) Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh and they fight, but recognize each other’s greatness and decide, rather than destroy each other, to work together and practice heroic virtue. Thus begins a series of their adventures and conquests. First, they destroy the dragon (or ogre) Humbaba in the cedar forest, preferring fame to security, a dedication that may call Achilles or Beowulf to mind.

In the next episode, Gilgamesh dresses so attractively that the goddess Ishtar (Ianna) wants to marry him, but he refuses her. In retribution, she asks permission from the great father god Anu to have the ‘Bull of Heaven’ at her disposal to slay Gilgamesh. At first he says no, but she (as a goddess of the underworld) threatens to bring up all the dead, so that they outnumber and consume the living. Anu gives her the bull, however, Gilgamesh and Enkidu overpower and butcher it. Enkidu cuts off the leg of the bull and throws it at Ishtar as a terrible insult. Ishtar, after mourning the death of the bull, has the gods convene to decide on a punishment; they choose to kill Enkidu. Gilgamesh tries to bring him back to life in vain. Enkidu’s death instills in him a terrible fear of death, and so he begins a quest for immortality.
Only one man he knew of had ever been immortal – the Babylonian Noah named Utnapishti, who, along with his wife, became immortal after the flood. Therefore, Gilgamesh determines to seek him out. First, he travels to the edge of the ocean that surrounds the world, where he encounters the wise Shiduri; she tells him he must find Ur-shanabi, the ferryman of Uta-napishti. Ur-shanabi takes him to finds him to Uta-napishti’s enchanted realm, and Gilgamesh hears the flood story.

The gods had decided to destroy mankind, but one god, Ea, was friendly with Utnapishtim and determined to save him. Speaking to him indirectly (he told Utnapishtim to go into a reed hut first), he told him to disregard his possessions and construct an ark according to exact specifications; and to gather the seed of all living creatures, his wife, adequate supplies and a crew. Rains came, and then receded. The ark landed on a mountain. Utnapishtim sent out first a dove, then a swallow, then a raven, and determined that the earth was dry. He then got out and sacrificed to the gods, who hover over the sweet-smelling sacrifice like flies (Yahweh does the same thing in the Genesis version; although later in the Bible he claims to have no need of such sacrifices). Utnapishtim and his wife became immortal.

They tell Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven days to see if he is worthy of becoming immortal as well, but he fails the test. Next, they groom him and give him a magical garment that won’t get dirty, and prepare him for his return journey. Utnapishtim’s wife discloses a secret mystery of the gods – a plant at the bottom of the sea that gives immortality – so he puts rocks on his feet and goes down to get it. Unforunately he decides to save the plant for later and a snake eats it; thus his hard work goes to the serpent. Although he loses physical immortality, later versions of the story have Gilgamesh become a deified ruler of the shades in the underworld, and “give verdicts” or judge the dead (George, li).

There are few overt similarities between Gilgamesh and Jesus Christ. His journey was not into the underworld (which was ruled by Dumuzi and Ianna), but instead to a land of the immortals across the sea. In the end his quest for immortality failed; he died – but later versions of the story have Gilgamesh become a deified ruler of the shades in the underworld, and “give verdicts” or judge the dead (George, li).

Although Jesus was said to have been raised in his physical body, he quickly ‘ascended into heaven’ and judges souls. He does this because, in the beginning of time, Adam and Eve sinned by eating the tree of knowledge and thus the tree of life was taken away from them (or rather, them from it). Their fall was initiated by the temptations of a snake – so in a way, their immortality was taken by the snake, as it was in the Gilgamesh epic.