Origins of Western Fear: The Epic of Gilgamesh

In The Way of the Human Being Calvin Luther Martin introduces two discrete ontologies: an “ontology of trust” and an “ontology of fear” (Martin, 205). In the former, exchange is perceived as gift, while the latter, as theft (Martin, 62). For context, in the above noted portion of The Way of the Human Being, Martin is observing tensions between what may be discussed as “indigenous” and “western” ontologies during early colonization of this continent. What I mean to observe here is a similar tension in Gilgamesh, that of Enkidu’s transition from an ontology of trust and gift to one of fear and theft unintentionally engineered by Gilgamesh himself.

Among other early observations of Enkidu lies what is the most important thought here, that:

Enkidu was ignorant of oldness,

He ran with the animals,

Drank at their springs,

Not knowing fear or wisdom. (Mason, 16)

    Immediately after what could be described as Enkidu’s fall to humanness - his departure from his animal ways, his sleeping with the prostitute, and his subsequent stalemate battling with Gilgamesh - when it is suggested that they go kill Humbaba the first reaction from Enkidu is “Enkidu was afraid of the forest of Humbaba/And urged [Gilgamesh] not to go” (Mason, 27). This is a stark and an immediate contrast with how he was described pre-fall, again, “Not knowing fear or wisdom.” In fact, fear is a recurring talking point between the two throughout the epic.

In the same discussion, Gilgamesh commands Enkidu to, “[Not] be afraid...We are together. There is nothing/We should fear” and later, “What men do is nothing, so fear is never/Justified.” Gilgamesh then questions Enkidu, “What happened to your power/That once could challenge and equal mine?” implying some transition or loss of a former source of strength. Once in the forest, a notable arc is illustrated when Mason writes, “Of the forest where Humbaba’s watchmen stood. Suddenly it was Gilgamesh who was afraid, Enkidu who reminded him to be fearless.” It is clear that fear is a major theme throughout the epic, but although it may be exhilarating to explore each and every exchange during which it is discussed, what I mean to say is that, beyond fear’s importance to this epic, fear is an emotion apparently innate in Gilgamesh but learned by Enkidu.

Interestingly, in Gilgamesh’s mind, and perhaps in Gilgamesh’s culture, it seems that fear is nearly synonymous with a fear of death. Again, at one point Gilgamesh asks of Enkidu, “Why are you worried about death...What men do is nothing, so fear is never/Justified” linking the two specifically. This of course is Gilgamesh’s theoretical posturings, because, as we know, Gilgamesh spends a large majority of the epic either in fear, alone, or in fear of being alone.

On his deathbed, upon recollecting on his life before his fall, Enkidu exclaims that:

 

Everything had life to me, he heard Enkidu murmur

The sky, the storm, the earth, water, wandering,

The moon and its three children, salt, even my hand

Had life. Its gone. Its gone. I have seen death

As a total stranger sees another person’s world,

Or as a freak sees whom the gods created

When they were drunk on too much wine

And had a contest to show off” (Mason, 48).


    I argue that, on his deathbed, Enkidu becomes aware of his transformation from an ontology of trust to one of fear. He notes that before his encounters in the world of man, he saw everything in the world as having life, and after, from the perspective of man, or rather the perspective of  “a total stranger”, he sees only death. And on his deathbed, the biggest frustration Enkidu has, he blames it on Gilgamesh.
    Fear as a taught emotion, as an experience that is not a definite throughout cultures was also discussed by Mary Jane Zimmerman in her 2006 essay Being Nature’s Mind. She mentions that there is evidence that during early encounters between European and Native cultures, “in which a worldview of fear [was] taught” (Zimmerman, 12). I argue that this exchange between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is paramount to their relationship and to Enkidu’s disdain for Gilgamesh during his last moments. Throughout the epic Enkidu went from seeing a world in which “Everything had life to [him]” to a world characterized best by death and theft.

 

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