Myths, Dreams and the Epic of Gilgamesh

Myths, Dreams and the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, a masterpiece of world literature, is considered to be one of the oldest epics in the world. It is called an epic, but it is really a myth. In order to be able to understand a myth, it is necessary to have an historical point of view from two perspectives, so to speak, an outer and an inner one. The outer one concerns the necessity to understand the historical form in which the archetypes appear, the historical background to which the myth is related - in our case, the Babylonian culture and religion. The inner aspect concerns the essential problems of the time, with which that particular epoch struggled consciously, or in which it was unconsciously involved. Although this is primarily a scientific task, I believe that it is nevertheless a matter of immediate necessity for us to understand such documents humains in relation to our own life, for all the ages live in us, and we cannot really understand ourselves unless we know our spiritual roots.

What particular age and what spiritual contents are evoked in us by the unconscious is, to a certain extent, a question of individual fate. Since Western culture is based to a great extent on Judaism and Christianity, Babylonian culture as one of their roots may be looked upon as of immediate psychological interest to us all. The archetypes live in their realm, beyond time and space. This builds the bridge of understanding between men of all ages, and makes it possible to realize that we ourselves with our essential problems are bound up in the continuity of the eternal problems of mankind, as they are mirrored in myths. But the form in which the archetypes appear, their garments so to speak, depends on the historical conditions: the symbols in which they appear change. In the human being these changes correspond to the development of human consciousness. Thus the myths, in my opinion, represent not only eternal archetypal events, but a certain level of the development of human consciousness. During my work on this remarkably rich material this connection thrust itself more and more into my mind, so that I should like to define it as the basic idea, as the starting point of my attempt to explain this myth.

It was only in 1872 that scholars first became aware of this myth, when the English Assyriologist George Smith made public "The Chaldean Account of the Deluge," as he titled his translation of the eleventh tablet of the epic.

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Excavations at Kouyunjik, the old Nineveh, uncovered many fragments, which were then brought to the British Museum in London. Further finds, there and elsewhere, have occupied scholars in Europe and America. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk - the Biblical Erech - had first been identified with the hunter Nimrod, to whose realm, according to Genesis 10:10, Erech belonged. Only later did it become clear, through finds of older Sumerian material, that this was not the case. As the American Sumerologist, Samuel Noah Kramer, has demonstrated, the epic contains and combines elements of older Sumerian myths, integrating the earlier disconnected material into a single plot. The oldest Sumerian fragments, found in the Mesopotamian cities Nippur, Kish, and Ur, go back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. The name Gilgamesh was shown to be not Semitic, but Sumerian. The Sumerians were the oldest inhabitants of Mesopotamia of whom we know. So far their language has not been linked up with any other. They were the inventors of cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, which was taken over by their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians, together with the whole Sumerian culture. But these gave to the Sumerian culture their own particular stamp, and typical Semitic conceptions were likewise brought into the Epic of Gilgamesh.


The epic as such is the creation of the Semitic Babylonians and its first fragments belong to the so-called Old Babylonian period, i.e., during the dynasty of Hammurabi, in the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. But this first Old Babylonian version is very fragmentary. Fortunately later copies and further elaborations of these fragments were found in the excavations at Nineveh, in the library of Assurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, who reigned in the 7th century B.C.E. The latest version is written on twelve clay tablets and is the result of at least 1800 to 2000 years of work on the epic. Further fragments have since come to light which contain valuable additions to the damaged and incomplete text. Among them are also translations into Hittite and Hurrian. An Akkadian fragment dating from approximately the l4th century B.C.E., was also found in Meggido, Canaan, thus prior to the Israelite settlement there. These finds show how widespread the Epic of Gilgamesh was, from the south of Babylonia up to Asia Minor, and in what high esteem it must have been held.


We may assume that, like other myths and folk-tales, the Epic of Gilgamesh was originally conveyed to the people orally, recited by rhapsodists, as indicated by its style and frequent repetitive passages, impressing the message on the soul of the people, where it underwent further development and transformations.

Just which particular sources were brought together, and how, does not seem to me to be a mere matter of chance. The author or authors of this composition must have had the feeling that it made sense, as did those who accepted it in this form through the centuries. The combining factor can be found in the creative unconscious of those who brought the different materials into connection with each other. Thus to attempt a psychological interpretation of this ancient epic, so pregnant with meaning, seems to be a justified endeavor. Myths are "soul-matter," like dreams, and call for symbolic understanding and translation.


Since Jung's discovery of the collective unconscious and its contents, the archetypes (the basic typical forms of human thought, feelings, and reactions which underlie and determine the boundless variety of individual experiences), new light has fallen on the essence of myths. Finding mythological motifs turning up in the dreams of modern man, Jung recognized that myths, like dreams, are manifestations of the unconscious. It became evident in practice that bringing in mythological parallels as amplification of archetypal dreams not only deepens the understanding of the latter, but also leads to a further psychological understanding of the myth. His path-breaking work, Symbols of Transformation, laid the foundation for a wide field of psychological research on myths and their relevance for modern man.


Myths, so far as their origin is concerned, are, like dreams, spontaneous expressions of the unconscious. Just as dreams, as Jung has shown, are related in a compensatory way to the current state of the consciousness of the dreamer, so the myths, we may assume, are related to the collective state of consciousness of a certain time. But who is its dreamer? We could presume to say the collective ego of the tribe or populace, that is, the commonly held beliefs and attitudes, the collective consciousness. But this leads to another question which is important for the interpretation of a myth taken as a collective dream: there is no individual ego to whom one could turn for associations to help establish the context in which the dream occurs. How can we interpret a myth without the particular point of reference we have for individual dreams in the person of the dreamer? Here the only context available is the culture of the time in which the myth arose and was valued. Myths are therefore like reflections or mirrorings of certain cultural situations of mankind, and like great, archetypal individual dreams, they contain deep intuitions and anticipations of further developments, and thus they can be considered as milestones in the development of human consciousness.


When we interpret an individual dream we can look at the figures occurring in it (apart from that of the dreamer himself, which generally represents his ego) under the aspect of their so-called objective or subjective significance, the latter referring to the inner, largely unconscious, aspect of the dreamer's personality. The more collective and archetypal a dream is, the more the subjective level of interpretation suggests itself. This is all the more the case with a myth, where, to begin with, there is no individual ego of a dreamer to which to refer. But there are individuals, divine and human, appearing and acting in the myth, and they can be understood as aspects of the projected wholeness of the human psyche, be it individual or carried by the community, the collective. In the hero myth in particular, there is one character, the hero, who is the actor in a continuous sequence of events. The hero can, therefore, be considered as the anticipation of a development of ego-consciousness, and what he goes through in the myth as an indication of the process of moving toward the wholeness which is implicit and innate in the psyche; in the individual, the individuation process. That is apparently why archetypal dreams occur frequently in crucial times in our lives, in states of transition. Old myths can then become not only valuable amplifications for such dreams, but the very key for their understanding. For we are consciously or unconsciously living or being lived by archetypal patterns, and it is mythological images which are usually behind the deepest experiences of meaning in our lives.


It doesn't seem to be mere chance that in modern times publications on the Epic of Gilgamesh have multiplied, not only in the field of Assyriology, but also in poetic works, literary compositions, and artistic representations. It is as though our time has to find its own understanding of such statements of eternal human concern, in order to find the specific meaning or place of our own epoch in the process of a growing enlargement of consciousness, which is the ultimate meaning and goal of myth. As Jung has said in his introduction to "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (par. 267):

"... we can never legitimately cut loose from our archetypal foundations unless we are prepared to pay the price of a neurosis, any more than we can rid ourselves of our body and its organs without committing suicide. If we cannot deny the archetypes or otherwise neutralize them, we are confronted, at every new stage in the differentiation of consciousness to which civilization attains, with the task of finding a new interpretation appropriate to this stage, in order to connect the life of the past that still exists in us with the life of the present, which threatens to slip away from it. If this link-up does not take place, a kind of rootless consciousness comes into being no longer oriented to the past, a consciousness which succumbs helplessly to all manner of suggestions, and, in practice, is susceptible to psychic epidemics."

To how great an extent "the life of the past still exists in us" we shall discover as we pursue our psychological investigation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because of the broken and damaged state of the tablets the text has many gaps, which leave questions open, the solution of which must await the finding of additional fragments of the epic. But the fascination exerted by the Epic of Gilgamesh, rooted in its psychological depth, overrides these obstacles. It requires but little phantasy and intuition to fill the lacunae, for enough of the text has remained to give a feeling of meaningful continuity to the happenings in the story, and of the wholeness of an inner process behind the myth.

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