The Fight With The Lion, an excerpt from the new historical novel The Defeat of Gilgamesh
by Dr Greta Sykes, a reinterpretation of the famous legend/myth from a woman’s point of view.
Thank you Greta for sharing this fabulous excerpt exclusively with the readers of Live Encounters Magazine.
Poet, writer and artist Greta Sykes has published her work in many anthologies. She is a member of London Voices Poetry Group and also produces art work for them. Her new volume of poetry called ‘The Shipping News and Other Poems’ came out in August 2016. The German translation of her book ‘Under charred skies’ has now been published in Germany under the title ‘Unter verbranntem Himmel’ by Eulenspiegel Verlag. She is the chair of the Socialist History Society and has organised joint poetry events for them at the Poetry Café. She is a trained child psychologist and has taught at the Institute of Education, London University, where she is now an associate researcher. Her Particular focus is now on women’s emancipation and antiquity. Twitter: @g4gaia. Facebook.com/greta.sykes. German Wikipedia: Greta Sykes.
Miah, my love, I have written these notes for you in case we shall never reach home again. Our journey was becoming so full of adventures I might also forget them. For a while we wandered along with the forest closing in on the other side of the river bed. We kept peeping into its magic range of trees, acacias, tamarisks, cypresses at the edge and oaks spreading their branches wide. Pistachio trees. We had been told that it would be difficult to move through the thick forest, especially as the path was so bad. But being between the rivers had its own dangers, as swamps could be hidden under lush grass. In the distance to our left on days of good clear weather we could make out the Taurus Mountains rising sharply into the heavens.
Days drifted by without us taking much notice. We were now marching in a routine and we lost count, although we tried to keep on top of days going by, as well trained scribes would do, making notes of the animals we saw and changes in the landscape. Every day gazelles leapt past us. We shot one and cut up the meat hanging it to dry in the sun on the back of our bags. We knew to look out for bears and boars but were surprised by another animal.
On one of those endless, wearisome days towards dusk with the sun’s rays coming at us more mildly after burning all day like a fire we were traversing the silent, wild land many miles away from the village in the forest. Maybe we were tired and had not watched out carefully enough, but suddenly we stood face to face with a lion. His coat was a smooth yellow colour. His mane was huge and black, and he looked eagerly and confidently at us, as if sure of his evening meal. We both stood stock still, shocked into sudden alertness. We had discussed how to prepare for such a situation, but when it happened it took our breath away. How enormous this creature was! We began to gather our wits briskly. We stared at it making our eyes wide open. He stared back. We used our garments to pull them wide to make ourselves look huge. I wrestled to get control of my bow and arrow with as little movement as possible; any motion could precipitate a leap. I saw Ninatta reach for her knife. My scimitar sword was to hand in case the arrow missed. I had regained my breath and pumped air into my lung breathing loud and hard. I began to feel strangely calm. I knew I wanted to achieve being the master of the lion and stayed concentrated watching him. I slowly stretched my bow and the arrow shot through the air and hit the lion between his eyes. I held my scimitar, while Ninatta had her knife in her outstretched hand. I shot a second arrow into its side near the heart. The animal roared, threw his head up in the air and pressed his paws into the desert sand as if holding on to life that way. He then dropped his head and the blood was pouring like a river in red out of his mouth, eyes and nose. We were awe struck. The proud animal in its death throes stirred conflicting feelings in me. I felt proud to have been the victor over such a powerful creature, but I also felt sad for it in its awesome beauty and oneness with nature, of oneness in life and in death. He had to die, because we had to live. We did not have a choice. We turned away from the dying animal and gave each other a hug. Exhaustion took over in my limbs and we walked on silently.
Dumuzi, the wanderer
Miah, little sister, you have to hear my next story as well. You are of an age when you can sense the power of love, so listen to me. It was not that many days later when we had made our abode with reeds and linens as usual hidden in gorse bushes with a couple of small trees nearby. In fact they were fruit trees and we ate our belly full of apricots. Some beer helped to wash it all down. We were back to love stories, when we spotted a lone wanderer with a bundle and a stick. He could not see us, but we watched him and got our bows and arrows ready. He stopped not far. We could see it was a man. He had a beard and long brown hair down to his shoulders. We saw him drop his bundle and get undressed. He walked to the edge of the Wadi el Batin river that was here close to us. We watched in awe to see him swim. He must know it is safe to swim. Should we speak to him or not? We both longed to speak to someone else and were also too curious to miss this opportunity. Anyway we were two against one. I decided to approach him first. I walked over to his bundle. He did not notice me. I heard him splash and sing unaware of my observing him. A man who sings cannot be a bad man; I decided and called out to him, now standing right at the grassy embankment. He looked up and beamed a smile at me.
‘Hey join me. The river is good and fresh. Water from the mountain,’ he called. It was too tempting. I stripped my clothes off and was in the cool of the river in moments. It was delightful. I felt a rush of excitement feeling my naked body, caressed by the soft water, my breasts wet and shiny, nipples sticking out in the ripples. I felt warmth between my legs and thought I had not been with a man for some weeks now. He swam nearer. He was young with smiling eyes, his hair glistening in the evening glow. It turned the water to silver and gold.
What are you doing here, sister? Are you on your own and so far from habitation?
There are two of us. Ninatta! I called. Come and join us.
No sign of her. I indulged in a swim, diving under and watching the fishes and saw him dolphin like with his maleness looking so fragile, I wanted to kiss him. We gave each other a race between the embankments, to and fro and laughed full of bliss. We swam next to each other as we returned to the embankment. I could feel the sand under my feet and stood up. So did he. He was as tall as I. My longing was so powerful that I flung my arms around him and kissed him. He responded making me feel even more amorous. We wriggled and writhed squeezing the water out between us. He held my breasts and kissed them. My breath came in sharp bursts and so did his. We heaved each other out of the water and he entered between my legs with warmth and strength. I did not let him inside, but held his forceful member and pressed it between my thighs, until the juice streamed out and it softened. I then ran my hand over my wet garden and pressed my fingers into my vulva until I exploded into a violent spasm. He held me tight and pushed his tongue into my mouth filling me up and giving me another spasm, when he also strengthened again and pushed himself between my legs. He made no attempt to enter, and I realised he was a good man. He had learnt that you have to ask special permission to enter a woman’s deep swamp. We might have been there for hours. Time was lost on us. The darkness had long enveloped us. We embraced. I did not even know his name. Eventually we must have fallen asleep among the reeds and only woke when growls from some wild animals could be heard. We quickly got up grabbed our clothes and made our way to the campsite. Ninatta was fast asleep. I took out my bow, but he had already taken a shot at some creature in the dark and the noise abated. No moon lit up the night, but a million stars shone and life felt like heaven. Kisses sent us to sleep. Love I thought and fell asleep in his arms.
The sharp rays of the sun distributed a thousand tiny sparkles through the cloth that covered our make shift. I looked for Ninatta, but she was gone. Next to me lay a man. First I was shocked by his presence. It was rare indeed for me to have a man next to me when I wake up. Then I remembered his name, Dumuzi. He must have said to me during our embraces, and then I spoke it to myself many times in my dreams. Dumuzi. Dumuzi. It was the first time I met him, but I knew it was not the last. I would meet him again and again. It was written in the stars and in Nannar’s predictions.
I looked at his bronze arms in the sparkles from the sun. He lay on one of them and had the other one stretched out near me. His skin looked soft and supple. I slid my hand along his arm feeling his muscles, the firmness of his skin, over his shoulder and down his back. His warmth made me feel longing for him, but I knew I had to send him away. I got up wrapped myself in my travel garments and looked for Ninatta. She held a cup out for me with fresh water. A cheeky smile on her face reassured me that she was not offended.
‘So you found him to be a good lover, Inanna? You know you were out for hours, I was worried about you but found the two of you wrapped around each other with not a care in the world.’
I laughed the laugh of the happily sated woman who has had her fill with a man. What could I say. I was still full of sexual juices that stirred my senses.
I will send him away as soon as we pack up.
‘You don’t need to. He can join us and be helpful.’
‘Actually, he is a shepherd and needs to go back to his flock so we let him go, as much as I would like him to stay.’ I smiled at her meaningfully and she had her cheeky smile again.
Just at that moment Dumuzi appeared like a god out of our abode. I had to turn my eyes from him to stop myself lusting after him. He walked towards us and embraced me with his strong arms and kissed me passionately while Ninatta was watching. I freed myself although I felt like melting into his arms. I asked him to join us for food and drink and explained that we had to be on our way. I said it very slowly and looked deep into his eyes by way of pleading with him that he would understand that we had to part company.
He looked at me, and I think he understood. We shared flat bread, grapes, figs and dates and a drink of fresh water.
‘May the divine element of the plant world contained in the food I eat from this bowl fill me with fertile power’ he said softly and we all three bowed our heads in prayer to Ishtar.
Gracious Ishtar, who rules over the universe,
Heroic Ishtar, who creates humankind,
Who walks before cattle, who loves the shepherd.
I walked him a short way and said that I knew we were destined for each other and that we would meet again. He took my hands and kissed them. He kissed my neck and whispered he would look for me all the way to the end of earth.
We packed our belongings silently each following our own train of thoughts. I had to use my utmost self control not to burst into tears at having to let Dumuzi go, and Ninatta knew I felt aggrieved. But I soon managed to control my desires for him and walked on holding my head high and feeling the joy of love between my thighs. With our packs on our back we headed south on a path meandering through shrubs of wormwood, juniper and heather, the magic forest fading into the distance and in front of us uncertain terrain. We knew hidden bogs might be there and were told to look out for the characteristic soft and sweet looking bog herb with woolly white cotton flowers. We marched slowly and carefully, aware that any step could open up into muddy, boggy ground from which you can slip off into treachery.
The wild boar
While the women’s attention was focused on the path before them they missed a wild boar with young who emerged out of the shrubs looking at them with aggressive eyes. They could be her enemies by taking young ones from her. She sped towards the travellers at a relentless speed. Looking at such an animal was a waste of time. She had in mind to drive into them to save her young, come what may.
Ninatta had her knife ready. Inanna roared like a lion which stopped her for a moment, her knife in her hand. Both drove their knives into her neck as she tried to ram them with her huge teeth. She collapsed instantly and her young tried to scatter. They managed to shoot one with arrows. It would make a couple of nourishing meals. While they cut the animal and cleaned it out and cut it into chunks Inanna suddenly felt her foot sink right down into a hole with her whole leg. She was about to topple over and screamed for Ninatta to help. The bag had already slipped precariously and was tilting into the reed bog. She grabbed the bag with all her might but felt herself sink sideways with the other leg losing ground. Ninatta cut two strong reeds with her sharp knife and, being careful not to step closer to her companion she held both sticks towards her to get a hold on with her hands. The bag slung over her back Inanna grabbed the reeds with the desperation of a drowning woman. She held on them with all my might. Ninatta leaned back and inched away from her friend thus dragging her bit by bit gradually with her. Inanna reached the solid ground and sat down on it feeling sheer exhaustion. Two emergencies one after another were a bit overwhelming. They hugged and breathed a sigh of relief. Inside them they both wondered if disaster might strike a third time. But they did not say anything to each other.
‘Goodness, me! That was a terrible shock. I‘d rather have any wild animal than these bogs,’ Inanna exclaimed.
‘Don’t be too certain about that. We don’t want to tempt fate. Wild animals are just as dangerous. It’s just that we have learnt how to cope. Do you remember how our mothers showed us how to eye the enemy with a stare. We did not even use song, but that works well too.’
Neither of those methods works with a swamp like these ones. How long has the water stayed here, they wondered and how many men or women have sunk into them.
‘I suggest we have something strengthening to eat and then march promptly to reach a safe area for the night. We can’t be too far now.’ Ninatta was right to urge them on, even if they were tired already. This place was perhaps the worst. They had been forewarned. They ate some of the meat charcoaled on the fire, followed by dates and almonds and drank their fill of fresh water. Ninatta complained about a swollen ankle, which she might have twisted pulling Inanna out of the swamp. Inanna covered it in Arnica, and they moved on. They had reeds with them, their knives ready and glared at the plants for tell tale signs of further swamps. It must have been past four in the afternoon. The sun was striking down at their necks with force, and both of them pulled shawls tight to stop it making them faint. Ninatta was limping and it worried Inanna.
© Dr Greta Sykes