Preparing the temple for the final ritual drama of the weekend is always bittersweet. It is the last stage of a journey that has been years in the making. This story, the tale of Gilgamesh, is older than any other we have used; the three years we have worked with it are but a drop in the ocean compared to the thousands of years it has been in existence.
The stories that we use, whether based on ancient texts or written specifically for the workshops, illustrate aspects of the human journey to awareness, which is the spiritual journey by another name. Not all stories have happy endings, but it is our job, when preparing the rituals, to end on a note of hope, and although the character of Gilgamesh seems to leave little scope for anything other than continuing disaster, there is always hope.
The character of the King, Gilgamesh, is so exaggerated that it is almost a caricature of the worst excesses of the human ego, but, like all good caricatures, elements of the depiction are recognisable and, to greater or lesser degree, present in every one of us. The incredulous horror with which we watch the King fall into every trap the ego presents, is made all the more poignant when we realise that we might all do the same, in essence if not in scale. We are left with the hope that whatever light he finds at the end of his personal tunnel will be bright enough to shine for us all.
Steve had done a magnificent job of embodying the difficult character of Gilgamesh. It is not easy to portray such a gamut of emotion. He cannot be played as a pantomime villain, gleefully indulging in evil machinations… he is, rather, a man who has an absolute belief in his own rightness and in the divine right of his kingship. As such, in spite of his Machiavellian manipulation of others and his rewriting of events to cast glory upon himself, he is, in an odd way, as innocent as a babe. He has no experience of being less than the best… in his own eyes at least. The very traits that have made him a strong warrior-king have prevented him from growing as a man. He simply knows no other way to be.
As the story has unfolded, we have watched Gilgamesh begin to learn that there is another way… beginning to see the consequences of his actions and, at least for a moment, accept them as his responsibility. But, whenever he takes a step towards awareness, he is drawn back as soon as the ego reasserts its hold.
At the start of the final ritual drama, we find Gilgamesh roaming the wilderness on his quest to find Utnapishtim, the immortal. Gilgamesh wishes to conquer death itself, and truly believes in his own affirmation that he does this only for his people. It will not be long, however, before that fallacy is exposed…
In spite of his preparations, his crown and the fine robes he donned when he set out upon his quest, by the time we meet the King, his travels have rendered him unkempt and the burden of grief weighs heavily upon him. He seems almost a ‘wild man’, like Enkidu… his Other Self, twice-slain as a result of Gilgamesh’s own actions.
As he wanders, Gilgamesh is seen by Shiduri, the ale-wife, who watches over her golden brewing pot. There is that in his demeanour that makes her think him a murderer, but she does not flee. Instead, she locks the golden lid of her vat and awaits his coming.
She asks his purpose; Gilgamesh gives her his name and titles, telling her that he seeks Utnapishtim and the Herb of Immortality. Shiduri, looking beyond his words to the core of his being, responds with a question,
“Why is there so much grief in your heart?”
Gilgamesh says that his beloved friend, Enkidu, is ‘turned to clay’. “Won’t I too, one day, lay down in the dirt like him and never rise again?”
The words are telling. In spite of his avowal that he seeks the Herb only for his people, he is revealing his own fear, both of dying and the condemnation of his body to ‘lay down in the dirt’, rather than of its natural return to earth as part of the great cycle of life.
Almost as if he seeks to counter this revelation, when Shiduri tells him that none but Shamash, the god of the Sun, can cross the Great Ocean to where Utnapishtim resides, Gilgamesh draws his sword and tells her how he slew ‘the demon’, Humbaba, and tore the Bull of Heaven limb from limb.
Shiduri considers for a moment then tells him that there may be a way ‘for one such as you’… Urshanabi, the boatman of Utnapishtim, is nearby… but he is with the fearsome Stone Men…