Introduction Universal Root Myths

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Universal Root Myths

Introduction to Universal Root Myths

Since ancient times there has been a powerful desire to define myth, legend, and fable, to separate the apocryphal story and unlikely tale from true description. Enormous effort has gone into demonstrating that myths are the symbolic cloaking of fundamental truths, and, just as forcefully, that myths are the transposition of cosmic forces into beings possessed of intention. It has also been claimed that myths are based on transformations in which vaguely historical characters are elevated to the status of heroes or gods. Much theoretical work has gone into uncovering the objective realities underlying these distortions of reason, as much as into research to discover the profound psychological conflict assumed to be embedded in those projections. All of this labor has turned out to be useful, at least insofar as it has helped us to understand, as if in vitro, how new myths struggle to gain space, taking the place of old ones.

It is even possible for scientific theories to become detached from the ambit of science and, though stripped of any proof, gain wide acceptance. When this happens, it is because this theory has become established at the level of social belief. It has acquired the plastic force of the image—a characteristic of paramount importance in allowing it to act as a reference and to orient behavior. And in this new image that bursts onto the scene we can see the avatars of old myths rejuvenated by the changes in the social landscape—a landscape to which people respond according to the demands of the times.

Saying that the system of vital tensions to which a people is subjected is translated as an image is not enough to provide a full explanation unless we are thinking only in simplistic terms of challenge and response. It is necessary to comprehend that in every culture, group, and individual there lives a memory, a historical accumulation on the basis of which the world in which they live is interpreted. This interpretation is what configures for us the landscape that, in perceiving, we take as external. We grasp this landscape according to the vital tensions that correspond to this historical moment or, although they arose long ago, residually form part of our interpretive scheme of present-day reality.

It is only when we discover in a given people their fundamental historical tensions that we come close to an understanding of their ideals, of their apprehensions and hopes. These do not exist within their horizon as cold ideas, but rather as dynamic images that impel behavior in a particular direction. Of course, to the degree that ideas are more closely related to the landscape in question, those ideas will be accepted with greater ease. As much as love or hate, these ideas will be experienced with the full flavor of commitment and truth, their internal register unquestionable for one who lives that experience—even when, objectively, it is not justified.

For example, consider how the fears of certain peoples have been translated into images of a mythical future in which everything will collapse: the gods will fall; the heavens, the rainbow, and all that has been built will collapse; the air will become unbreathable and the waters poisonous; the great tree of the world, responsible for universal equilibrium, will die, and with it the animals and human beings. In critical moments, these peoples have translated their tensions into troubling images of contamination and a world that is being undermined. Yet this is the very thing that has impelled them, in their best moments, to build so solidly in so many fields. Other peoples have been formed in the painful register of abandonment and exclusion from lost paradises—and that is the very thing that has propelled them tirelessly to improve and to learn in the attempt to reach the center of knowledge. There are peoples who seem marked by the guilt of having killed their gods, and others who feel affected by a multifaceted and changing vision. This has led one to seek redemption through action, and the other to a reflective search for a permanent and transcendental truth.

Certainly these fragmentary observations do not explain the extraordinary richness of human behavior, and in proposing them we do not wish to propagate stereotypes. We simply want to broaden the vision that is normally held of myths and the psychosocial function that they serve.

Today the isolation of cultures is disappearing, and with it their mythic heritage. Profound changes can be observed in the members of all communities of the Earth under the impact not only of information and technology but also of social usage, customs, values, images, and behaviors that reach them from all over the planet. This displacement will not diminish the proposals for solutions that find expression in more or less scientific theories or formulations, nor will it lessen the anguish or the hope—all of which still carry at their core ancient myths unknown to the citizens of today’s world.

For us, approaching the great myths has meant once again revaluing all peoples, but from the optic of trying to comprehend their basic beliefs. In this work we have not touched upon the beautiful stories and legends that describe the deeds of the demigods and extraordinary mortals. Instead, we have circumscribed our work, limiting it to the myths in which the nucleus is occupied by the gods, even when humankind may play an important role in the plot. Moreover, as far as possible we have not dealt with questions of particular religious cults, considering that practical and daily religion should not be confused with the plastic images of poetic mythology.

In this work we have tried to take as our reference the original texts of each mythos, an approach that has left us facing a number of problems. For example, we might note how the mythological richness of the Cretan and Mycenaean civilizations has been subsumed in one generic chapter—Greco-Roman myths—precisely because we did not have access to the original texts of those other cultures. The same occurred with the myths of Africa, Oceania, and, to some degree, the Americas. In any case, the continuing advances of anthropologists and specialists in comparative mythology encourage us to consider a future work based on developments in these fields.

The title of this work, Universal Root Myths, demands some clarification. We have considered as a “root” myth every myth that, in passing from people to people, has preserved in its central argument a certain timelessness. That is, it has a core that has been maintained, even when over time changes have occurred in the names and attributes of the characters and even the landscape in which the action takes place. While the central plotline, which we also call the “nucleus of ideation,” also undergoes changes, it does so at a pace that is relatively slow in relation to what may be thought of as secondary elements.

So it is that, just as we have not concerned ourselves with the variations in the secondary system of representation, neither have we attempted to determine the precise moment at which the myth arose. It is not viable to proceed otherwise, because clearly the origin of a given myth cannot be traced to one particular moment.

In any event, it is the documents and other vestiges of history that give evidence of the existence of a myth, at least those that fall within a certain historical range. By the same token, the construction of a myth is not something that appears to belong to any single author, but rather belongs to successive generations of authors and commentators who rely on material that is itself unstable and dynamic. Discoveries in archeology, anthropology, and philology that support comparative mythology demonstrate how certain myths that had been considered original to a particular culture may often turn out to pertain to earlier cultures, or to contemporary cultures that influenced them.

For this reason we have not focused on arranging the myths in chronological order, but have instead arranged them according to the importance they seem to have acquired for a particular culture, even when this culture may have come after another in which the same nucleus of ideation was already acting.

It should also be noted that the present work is in no way an attempt to be a comprehensive compilation or comparison, or to reflect a classification based on predetermined categories. Rather, our interest has been to put into evidence the enduring nuclei of ideation that have been active in different latitudes and historical moments. To this one could object that the transformation of cultural context must cause a myth’s core expressions and meanings to vary as well. And it is precisely for this reason that we have dealt here with myths that have gained a greater importance in a particular culture and moment, even when they have existed in other cultures, but without fulfilling a significant psychosocial function.

As for those myths that occur in apparently disconnected geographic points, yet display important similarities, only by thorough investigation can it be determined whether in fact such a historical disconnection really existed. In this field, research is advancing rapidly, and today it can no longer be claimed, for example, that the cultures of the Americas are totally alien to those of Asia. It could be said that the Bering Strait migrations occurred at a time, more than 20,000 years ago, before the peoples of Asia had yet developed myths, and that these took shape only after the tribes had settled. But even if that is the case, certainly the pre-mythic situation was similar for both these peoples, and perhaps in this situation models can be found that contain some common patterns, even if they developed unequally in their respective cultural contexts. Whatever the case may be, this is a discussion that is far from finished, and it would be premature to adopt any of the hypotheses that can be found in contention today. As for what concerns us here, the originality of the myth is of little consequence—what is central, as previously mentioned, is the importance that the myth has in a given culture.

This is the rapture of those beings not understood in their deepest nature, great powers who made all that is known and even all that which is still unknown.

This is the rhapsody of the external nature of the gods, of action seen and sung by human beings who could place themselves in the watchtower of the sacred.

This is what appeared as a sign fixed in eternal time, capable of disrupting the laws and order, and feeble reason. That which mortals desired, this the gods made—that which the gods spoke through human beings.

I. Sumerian-Akkadian Myths


(The Poem of Lord Kullab)

Gilgamesh and the Creation of His Double

He who knew all and who understood the root of things. He who saw everything and learned everything. He who knew the countries of the world—great was Gilgamesh!

He who built the walls of Uruk. He who undertook a long voyage and who knew all that occurred before the flood. Upon returning, he recorded his feats on a great stele. Because the great gods created him, two-thirds of his body was divine and one-third human.

When he had battled against every country, he returned to Uruk, his homeland. But the people murmured with hate because Gilgamesh claimed the flower of youth for his exploits and ruled with an iron fist. So the people took their complaints to the gods, and the gods took them to Anu. Anu carried them to Aruru, and said these words:1

“You, Aruru, who created humanity, create now a copy of Gilgamesh, so that when these two meet they will fight between themselves and leave our city in peace.” The goddess Aruru, hearing this request, concentrated within herself, moistened her hands, and, taking some clay, formed the valiant Enkidu. The hero was born with his body covered with hair as thick as the barley of the fields.2 He knew nothing of men or their countries; his mind was closed. Like a wild beast he lived on the plants of the field and drank at the watering holes with the herds.

In time, a hunter came upon Enkidu, and his face contorted in fear. He went to his father and told him of the prowess of this wild man. And so the old man sent his son to Uruk to beseech Gilgamesh for help.

When Gilgamesh heard the story from the lips of the hunter he recommended that he take a beautiful temple-girl with him, a daughter of pleasure, and leave her within reach of the intruder. “In that way, when he sees the young woman, he will be taken with her and he will forget his animals, and his animals will not recognize him.” So the king spoke, and so the hunter did. After three days he arrived at the meeting place, and there he waited. One day and then a second passed, until the animals came to the spring to drink. Among them was the intruder, and the intruder saw the temple-girl reclining there. And when she stood up and approached him, Enkidu was trapped by her beauty. Seven days he spent with her, until he decided to return to his beasts—but the gazelles and the herds of the desert fled from him. Enkidu had lost his strength and could not run, but his intelligence opened and he began to think and feel as a man does.

He sat down again beside the woman and she said to him: “Why do you live among the animals like a wild thing? Come, I will take you to Uruk, to the sanctuary of Anu and the goddess Ishtar, to Gilgamesh whom no one can defeat.” This pleased Enkidu because his heart yearned for a friend, and so he let the young woman lead him to the fertile fields, to the place of stables and shepherds.

Suckled on the milk of animals, he knew neither bread nor wine until the girl gave them to him. The sacred slave anointed him with oil, a barber shaved his body, and he was dressed like a young king. Taking up his lance to fight the wild animals, he freed the shepherds from their fears, allowing them to sleep undisturbed. It happened, then, that an emissary arrived, requesting Enkidu’s help in ending the injustices of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Filled with fury, Enkidu promised to change the order of things.

But Gilgamesh had seen the savage in his dreams, and comprehended that it was through combat that they would come to understand each other. So it was that when his opponent blocked his path, Gilgamesh rushed upon him with the force of a charging bull. The people gathered round, watching the ferocious battle and praising Enkidu, who so resembled the king. Before the house of the Assembly they fought. They shattered the doors into splinters, they demolished the walls. But when the king managed to throw Enkidu to the ground, Enkidu was appeased, and began to praise Gilgamesh. So the two embraced, and their friendship was sealed.

The Cedar Forest

Gilgamesh had a dream, and Enkidu said: “Here is the meaning of your dream: It is your fate to be king, but not to be immortal. So deal justly with your servants, deal justly before the eyes of the god Shamash. Use your power to liberate and not to oppress.” Gilgamesh thought about his life and realized that he had not fulfilled his destiny. So he said to Enkidu: “I should go to the country of Life where the cedars grow and inscribe my name there on a stele where is written the names of those who are worthy of glory.”

Enkidu was saddened, because as a child of the mountain he knew the roads that led to the cedar forest. He thought: “It is ten thousand leagues in any direction from the gates of the forest to its center. In the heart of the forest lives Humbaba (whose name means ‘Enormity’). His breath is fire, and when he roars it is like a tempest.” But Gilgamesh had already made up his mind to go to the forest to end the evil of the world, the evil of Humbaba. And because Gilgamesh was decided, Enkidu prepared to guide him, but not before first explaining the dangers. “A great warrior who never sleeps guards the entrance,” said Enkidu. “Only the gods are immortal, and man cannot achieve immortality—he cannot battle against Humbaba.”

Gilgamesh commended himself to Shamash, the sun-god, asking him for help in his undertaking. And Gilgamesh remembered all the bodies of the men he had seen floating in the river as he gazed down from the walls of Uruk—the bodies of enemies and friends, of acquaintances and strangers. And so he thought upon his own end and, taking two goats to the temple, a white one with no marks and a brown one, he said to Shamash:

“Without hope, a man dies, and I have my task to accomplish. It is a long road to the closed realm of Humbaba. Why, Shamash, did you fill my heart with the hope of this undertaking if it could not be realized?” And Shamash the compassionate accepted Gilgamesh’s offerings and his tears, and celebrated a solemn pact with him.

Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu gave orders to the artisans to forge their weapons, and the masters brought javelins, swords, bows, and axes. The weapons of each one weighed ten times thirty shekels, and the armor another ninety. Then the heroes set out, and in one day they walked fifty leagues. In three days they covered as much terrain as travelers do in a month and three weeks. Even before they reached the gates of the forest they had to cross seven mountains. At the end of the journey they came to the gates—they were seventy cubits high and forty-two wide. So beautiful, so dazzling was this entrance that they did not destroy it. Instead, Enkidu rushed upon it, pushing with only his bare hands until it opened wide. Then they descended until they reached the foot of the green-covered mountain.

Awestruck, they stood motionless, contemplating the mountain of cedars, the verdant slopes where the mansion of the gods stood. Forty hours they spent in ecstasy, gazing upon the forest and the magnificent path that Humbaba traveled to reach his dwelling.

Before nightfall, Gilgamesh dug a well and scattered fine meal, asking the mountain for auspicious dreams. Squatting down, his head on his knees, Gilgamesh dreamed, and Enkidu interpreted the auspicious dreams. The following night Gilgamesh asked that Enkidu in turn might have auspicious dreams, but the dreams the mountain delivered were ominous. Then Gilgamesh did not awake, and with effort Enkidu managed to raise him to his feet. Mounting their horses, they rode across the terrain, wearing their armor as if it were the lightest of garments. They reached the immense cedar, and Gilgamesh, seizing an axe in his hands, felled the great tree.

Humbaba left his mansion and cast the eye of death upon Gilgamesh. But the sun-god Shamash raised terrible hurricanes against Humbaba—the cyclone and the whirlwind. Eight tempests he hurled against Humbaba, so that he could neither advance nor retreat, while Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut the cedars to enter his dominion. And so Humbaba, now meek and fearful, presented himself before the heroes, promising them great honors. Gilgamesh put aside his weapons and was about to assent when Enkidu interrupted: “Do not listen to him! No, my friend, evil speaks through his mouth. He must die by our hands!” And thanks to the warning of his friend, Gilgamesh recovered. Taking up the axe and unsheathing his sword, he wounded Humbaba in the neck. Enkidu also fell upon Humbaba and struck the second blow. On the third blow Humbaba fell over, silent and dead. And so they took his head from his body.

At that moment chaos was unleashed, for he who lay dead was the Guardian of the Cedar Forest. And so Enkidu felled the trees of the forest—all the way to the banks of the Euphrates he pulled them up by their roots.

Then, removing the head from a shroud, they showed it to the gods. But when Enlil, god of the storms, saw the lifeless body of Humbaba, he was filled with rage, and he took from these profaners the power and the glory that had been Humbaba’s and gave them to the lion, the barbarian, and the desert. Then the two friends left the forest of cedars.

Gilgamesh washed his body, casting his bloodied clothes far away and even burning those that were unstained. The royal crown shone upon his head, and the goddess Ishtar looked upon him with desire. But Gilgamesh spurned her because she had lost all of her husbands, and had, through love, reduced them to the most abject servitude. And so Gilgamesh said: “You are a ruin that offers no shelter from the storm, you are the palace jewels that have been plundered by thieves, you are the poison hidden in the meal. You are a foundation made of soft stone, you are an amulet incapable of warding off danger, you are a sandal that trips its owner in the midst of the race.”

The Celestial Bull, the Death of Enkidu
and the Descent to the Hells

Furious, the princess Ishtar went to her father, Anu, and threatened to break open the doors of Hell and unleash an army of the dead more numerous than that of the living. She cried: “If you do not set the Celestial Bull upon Gilgamesh, I will do so.” And in exchange for seven years of fertile fields, Anu agreed. At once he created the Celestial Bull, which fell to Earth. In the first attack the beast killed three hundred men. In the second, hundreds more fell. In the third it charged Enkidu but, grasping the horns and leaping astride it, he knocked the Celestial Bull to the ground.

While the beast spewed bloody foam from its mouth, Enkidu managed to hold on and, almost fainting from the struggle, cried out: “Gilgamesh, we have promised the gods that we will leave enduring names—sink your sword into the body of our enemy!” Then Gilgamesh attacked and killed the Celestial Bull, driving his sharp sword between the horns and nape of its neck. Immediately, the friends removed the still-beating heart and offered it up to Shamash. But from the highest wall of Uruk, the goddess Ishtar put a curse on Gilgamesh. Hearing the princess, Enkidu could not control his fury, and sealed his fate by ripping out the genitals of the Celestial Bull and hurling them at the divine face.

When the new day arrived, Enkidu awoke from a dream that had troubled his sleep. In this dream the gods Anu, Enlil, Shamash, and Ea held council together. The gods argued about the death of Humbaba and the Celestial Bull, and in the end they decreed that of the two friends, it was Enkidu who must die. After the dream, he awoke and recounted what he had seen. He went back to dreaming, and this is what he related:

“The musical instruments of Gilgamesh fell into a great pit. Gilgamesh searched for them, but could not reach the depths where they had fallen. With his hands he sought the harp and the flute; with his feet he tried to reach them. Seated before the entrance to the subterranean worlds, Gilgamesh cried bitterly, pleading for someone to return the instruments from the depths of the hells. Then Enkidu said: ‘I will go down and seek your flute.’ At once the pit leading to the hells opened, and Enkidu descended. Time passed, and a saddened Gilgamesh implored: ‘Let Enkidu return and speak with me!’ The spirit of Enkidu flew from the depths like an arrow, and the two brothers spoke: ‘You who know the subterranean world, tell me: Have you seen those who died in the fury of battle and those who died abandoned in the fields?’ Enkidu answered: ‘Those who have died in battle are sustained by their parents, but those whose bodies are abandoned in the fields find no peace in the underworld. I have also seen those who wander, whose spirit is not remembered—they are always restless, prowling around and feeding on the refuse that people have left behind.’ Then the two brothers fell silent.3

Enkidu fell ill and died. Then Gilgamesh said: “To suffer and die—life has no other meaning! Will I also die like Enkidu? I must seek Utnapishtim, he whom they call ‘The Distant,’ so that he may explain how he came to be immortal. First I will play my lute, and then I will dress in the skin of a lion, and, invoking Sin, I will go on my way.”

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