After Gilgamesh’s defeat, excerpt three 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.
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.
‘Maybe time does not pass. Maybe we are exactly as we were when we travelled and lay in our reed bed. I feel the sky out there is the same, and I can smell the earth below like we did then. Don’t you think?’ She kissed Ninatta-ke’s mouth as she wanted to speak and her words drowned in their pleasure. They lay like that for hours and only kissed good bye in time before dawn woke everyone up. There was a sense of peace in both women, when they parted, each knowing the path she had to travel on, each in their very different lives. Ninatta-ke was going to build a home for two children, while Inanna had to build the Sumer state and represent the good life and how to lead it wherever she went.
The weeks that followed were occupied with travel preparations. Many visitors called from all over Sumer. Each wished to be given a guided tour to pray at the statue of Inanna, to visit her temple and to consult with her on matters of state, such as protecting the cities and the borders. What sort of army did she have? Could she assist when trouble brewed? Could she sort trade disputes when merchants brought goods and wanted unfair prices for them? Inanna had to find answers for everything. She created sound rules and imparted them to the elders who would be in charge for all daily chores, especially while she travelled. Gisham, her trusted scribe was most helpful. Her memory was excellent. She had supervised the young scribes while learning the skill of cuneiform script. She knew the library inside out. She could find the correct documents. She helped to plan journeys. One of the first was a visit to the Goddess Bau and her women’s household. Disputes and invasions were troubling her. Her husband was always far away in wars. She had to manage the whole of her large estate. She begged Inanna for help.
Gilgamesh finds the secret dogrose plant
For an immensely short moment in time Gilgamesh’s luck seemed to return to him. He was told about a magic plant with the power of rejuvenating a man or a woman. But he did not know how to take care of such a precious living thing. He had never learnt to take care of a living thing apart from himself. He was too deeply consumed by his own world to pay attention to nature around him or show care or appreciation.
‘Gilgamesh and Ur-Shanaby crewed the boat,
They launched the craft and crewed it themselves,
Said his wife to him, to Uta-Napishti the Distant,
Gilgamesh has come here by toil and travail,
What do I give for your homeward journey?
Let me disclose, o Gilgamesh, a matter most secret,
To you I will tell a mystery of the gods.
There is a plant that looks like a boxhorn,
It has prickles like a dogrose
And will prick one who plucks it,
But if you can possess this plant,
You’ll be again as you were in your youth.
Just as soon as Gilgamesh heard what he said,
He opened a channel, heavy stones he tied to his feet
And they pulled him down to the ocean below,
He took the plant and pulled it up,
The heavy stones he cut loose from his feet,
And the sea cast him up on its shore.
Said Gilgamesh to him, to Ur-shanabi the boatman:
This plant, Ur-shanabi, is the plant of Heartbeat,
With it a man can regain his vigour.
To Uruk the sheepfold I will take it,
To an ancient I will feed some and put the plant to the test.
It’s name shall be ‘Oldman grown young’.
I shall eat it myself and be again as I was in my youth.
Gilgamesh found a pool whose water was cool,
Down he went into it, to bathe in the water.
Of the plant’s fragrance a snake caught scent,
Came up in silence and bore it off.
As it turned away it sloughed it’s skin.
Then Gilgamesh sat down and wept,
Down his cheeks the tears were coursing,
Inanna visits Shagshag, the Goddess Bau
After many days of travelling Inanna and her loyal companions Miah, Tibem, two eunuchs and three warriors reached Girsu, where one of Sumer’s famous goddesses reigned. She is the goddess of feathered farm animals, and on arrival the hens were chasing each other with noisy eloquence along the enclosure pecking for barley seeds thrown to them. Shagshag, her actual name, emerged unceremoniously in her flounced and pleated dress which reached down to her ankles and was made of thick and squat material. She was a cheerful woman with a broad smile who received her visitor with a welcoming handful of freshly laid eggs.
‘Inanna, wonderful one, glory be to you, your fame has reached all the far places of Sumer. I am so glad to welcome you. Come and join me in the temple garden where we shall relish a meal with an egg soufflé, four different soft cheeses and freshly baked bread.’
Weary from her journey Inanna did not delay to follow Shagshag, the Goddess Bau into her garden. She relaxed into the friendly situation and was invited to sit down on the cushions that were spread out on a terrace overlooking a pond with reeds and birds twittering. Jugs with beer were brought and straws for them to drink, as they watched the sun setting, a giant red ball in the western distance. The nightingale began her song as soon as the sky darkened. They listened enraptured. Inanna could feel that Shagshag was a true earth mother with her strong and stocky body, muscular arms, short hair and a very direct manner of talking. She asked for her choir and musicians to present a hymn to Inanna.
‘Lengthen my days, bestow life!
Let me live, let me be well, let me proclaim your divinity.
Let me achieve what I desire .’
She picked up the conversation with one of those topics that entertain many women.
‘Men, you say! Well, I call them children. They are great, and will do as told, if you are strict and strong and if you don’t allow any nonsense. If you just give way a bit, they start to harass you, become demanding, picky and choosy and finally dissatisfied. I do have some very good men around me. They respect me one hundred percent. One of them is Urukagina, my scribe. He is diligent, reliable and totally loyal. It’s rare even amongst women to get such loyalty. And to rule well that is what you need. Then there are my eunuchs. They are fast, quiet and attentive. The shepherds and peasants are free to run their land as they wish, but we have accountability exercised by our scribes who won’t tolerate muddle and inconsistencies. Everything is written down. Urukagina makes sure of that.’
‘Tell me about your glorious temples, Shagshag.’
You have seen, I guess, our ziggurats. Yes, they were built by our men. You should have seen them enjoy the work. The tall and mighty structure made them feel good. We laughed watching them standing, their chest out, legs wide apart, admiring their building work. They made thousands of sun-dried bricks to create an artificial mountain and then erected the temple, palaces and the ziggurat on top. We prayed to Enlil and thanked him. But our men were the proudest of them all. They felt they were God Enlil himself.’
The days at Bau were enlightening and refreshing. As it happened her worries about invasions had lessened. The battles took place a long way from home. It meant that the warriors could rest and relax. Miah and Tibem were looked after by Shagshag’s priestesses, while she and Inanna talked about how to preserve the good life for all. It meant to stick to the rules and write them down for all to remember. How easy would it be to forget what Shagshag had achieved, if it was not written down? They shuddered, if such fate could befall women in later years. Shagshag told Inanna that the women who held the reigns of power in Girsu were Dimtur, Baranatama and Sasha. Their men were most of the time in foreign lands conducting military campaigns. These men like fighting. They go away sometimes for years. When they come back some of them are surprised that they have no role to play locally. We give them administrative jobs to do and a role as an elder of the city. Some of them manage to adapt quite well. Others run off again and get killed in another battle. Our women rule over forty-six square kilometres of land, excluding our orchards, and reed-beds. Inanna learnt a great deal as they marched together over the fertile land and inspected the work of the peasants and shepherds. The agricultural activity included sowing, animal husbandry, fishing and canal maintenance. Weaving mills are used to produce cloth for men, women and children. Surplus is used to trade with travelling merchants for goods they do not have. Inanna learnt that Baranatama had diplomatic relations with women in other cities to exchange news and views about financial management and trade and to warn about nomadic invaders.
‘We use the status of god or goddess to elevate the status of a queen or king when the person is competent and good at their job to protect the good life of the citizens. The elders determine such elevations. Usually the people are pleased as they feel proud of having a god or goddess rule their city,’ Shagshag explained. They were sipping beer from a straw and ate olives and dates when they had come to a rest under a large apricot tree.
‘I am glad to hear from you that your women have a high status in your city, and that you control the distribution of food when people are needy, as you told me. It suggests to me that everyone is taken care of, so that all can participate in the good life,’ Inanna commented. She added,
‘I shall have to leave you in a couple of days and return to my home town, but I have a present for you which I hear has just arrived in the Bau temple. It is a statue of myself as Goddess which my good friend and seal maker Nafen from Uruk has constructed. Shall we go to see it?’
With these words the two women ambled to the temple entrance where indeed a large statue was just being lifted from a chariot. Shagshag called her priestesses and a noisy welcome emanated from the women to the Goddess Inanna cut in stone, shown in battle dress, with wings, weapons and one foot positioned on a lion. It was placed opposite of Shagshag’s own statue in the town square so the two Goddesses could be viewed in conversation with each other. The Bau Goddess statue was small and of dark shiny stone. The figure was seated on a throne, supported by geese. A delicate gold crown was fastened to her head.
‘We need to erect plenty of statues and plaques for ourselves,’ Shagshag commented, ‘so that future generations will be reminded that here we had a good life for women. May it last long.’ Inanna wholeheartedly agreed.
That evening they sat again in the orchard together with Miah and Tibem and talked about the ways of the gods and goddesses and how they were a phenomenon of nature made visible and comprehensible. They reflected on how time was always in the present, the gods of old times as present as the gods and goddess in the now time, which included Shagshag and Inanna. They watched the horizon and infinity darken as the blood red ball of the sun slowly vanished, and they prayed for a continuation of their lucky fate by reciting the hymn of the Goddess Ningal when she witnessed the coming of the flood:
‘When I was grieving for the day of storm,
That day of storm, destined for me, laid upon me, heavy with tears.
Though I was trembling for that day of storm, that day of storm,
Destined for me, laid upon me, heavy with tears.’
© Dr Greta Sykes