The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic
“You, the wisest and bravest of the gods,
how did it happen that you so recklessly sent the Great Flood to destroy mankind?”
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Sin-liqe-unninni (version) circa 1300 B. C.
The oldest story has once again become the newest story, in the waning days of a year that has been relentlessly epic in its carnage. Cyclical tragedies of obliterating scale have always been part of the human condition and are in fact responsible for many key historical bifurcation points, but 2004 seemed to hit a new benchmark in human suffering. It was as if the Riders of the Apocalypse had once again been unleashed to thunder across the blood-soaked dust of a withering world, leaving Darfur, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Fallujah in their wake. Weakened and fractured by the relentless pounding of the great war horses’ hooves, the earth’s crust heaves, sending vast waves to suck tens of thousands of innocents into the roiling blue oblivion of a suddenly angered sea.
To try to comprehend the incomprehensible, humanity turns to its ancient texts. The most ancient of all is the almost 4,000 year-old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, which Stephen Mitchell has exquisitely revivified in his Gilgamesh – A New English Version. Gilgamesh, on which large parts of so many ‘upstart’ later works such as the Bible and the Iliad were based, comes to us from a series of clay tablets that were lost for almost two thousand years, until serendipitously rediscovered in 1853, buried under the ancient ruins of Nineveh in what is now Iraq.
Mitchell describes the epic’s hero Gilgamesh as:
an antihero, a superman (a superpower one might say) who doesn’t know the difference between strength and arrogance. By preemptively attacking a monster, he brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing journey, a quest that results in wisdom by proving its own futility.
Suddenly terrified of death, Gilgamesh travels to the underworld to seek out Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of The Great Flood, who alone among men has achieved immortality.
“Must I die too?” he asks Utnapishtim
“But man’s life *is* short, at any moment it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman- in their prime, death comes and drags them away. Though no one has seen death’s face or heard deaths’s voice, suddenly, savagely death destroys us, all of us, old or young. And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers divide their inheritance, conflicts occur- as though this human life lasted forever. The river rises, flows over its banks and carries us all away like mayflies floating downstream: They stare at the sun, then all at once there is nothing.”
Incredibly, Utnapishtim had been tipped off to the Great Flood by the gods, who exhorted him to build a reed ship and to “gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.”
This week’s horrific earthquake/tsunami disaster with its unprecedentedly immense loss of human life was made all the more disturbingly Gilgameshian by the revelation that for some reason, there appeared to be no recorded animal deaths in the tsunami zone, despite the fact that areas with abundant wildlife such as Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park had been inundated, and the surrounding human population decimated.
“The strange thing is we haven’t recorded any dead animals,”
H.D. Ratnayake, deputy director of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Department, told Reuters.
“No elephants are dead, not even a dead hare or rabbit,” he added.
“I think animals can sense disaster. They have a sixth sense. They know when things are happening.”
Perhaps the wily Untnapishtim had carried them off on his reed ship.
For the rest of us, as for Gilgamesh, there is still no escape.
It’s winter here and the sky has tucked the land and sea in under its thick grey quilt.
Mostly it rains. It rains lightly. It rains heavily. It rains pretty well every way that it can rain and then it rains some more. The days, which are already absurdly short, have a strangely crepuscular quality about them – mere “less dark” punctuations to a default condition of deeper darkness. South-east gales howling in from the Straight of Georgia, knock down the power lines at least once a week and my wooden house moans and creaks like a recalcitrant ship, straining against its mossy moorings. I scuttle around the darkened halls, like a mole in its warren, pausing from time-to-time to squint incredulously out a fogged-up window, at the meteorological havoc raging outside. The sun is ephemeral and insipid, showing itself seemingly only once every few weeks. When it *does* show its timid face, it barely peeks out over the southern horizon, illuminating the towering fir trees from such a low angle that their bases seem to float on a pale cloud of topaz light.
The season’s pervasive shadows have, however, seemed like a bit of a refuge from the frenetic world of summer light, giving me some time to reflect and look critically into the deep, dark pool of the fading year, to see what has been lurking below the surface.
The most frightening and atavistic spectre, gnashing its teeth and growing fat in the darkness of my peripheral vision, has been the politics of faith and its increasing control over American public institutions. The steaming entrails of the November 2nd election have by now been picked over by anyone who has cared to, but history will no doubt see this moment as the consummation of a malignancy that had been a long time in coming. Whether due to mass psychosis or endocrine disrupters in the water supply, a disconcertingly large portion of America’s population has discarded the great secular gifts of the Enlightenment,-rationalism and empiricism-replacing them with political and religious fundamentalism. They are, in effect, checking their criticality at the doors of their churches, en masse, and letting God and the President sort it all out. Faith not reason, is now the order of the day, and we have only begun to see the consequences. “Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11”, “global warming is a myth”, “God created the world in seven days” and “Walmart always has low prices,” are now the mullet-mouthed mantras of this (to borrow Martin Bax’s phrase), “crucifixion disease.”
Evolution has long been a relatively unassailable empirical fact. The flu virus mutates and evolves every year and hospitals struggle to contain new strains of bacteria that evolve resistance to antibiotics. Fossil evidence of evolution is voluminous and genetic sequencing has confirmed empirically-deduced trajectories of common descent, for example, between chimpanzees and people. While Darwin’s original theory of evolution has proven over time to be less than comprehensive, in light of modern understandings of self-organizing systems and emergence, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that it forms a reasonable, if a bit simplistic, basis for understanding the phenomenon
Nevertheless, there has been a concerted effort by conservative think tanks in the United States to impute that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial and they have successfully lobbied school boards to mandate what they call “critical analysis” of evolution in science curricula. Wired magazine recently ran an exposee on the intelligent design movement, the latest incarnation of “stealth creationism,” whose premise is basically that evolution cannot account for the complexity of life and therefore there must be an intelligent designer, i.e. “God,” responsible for it all.
A belief in God isn’t, of course, mutually exclusive with one’s ability to accept the ubiquitous, obvious phenomenological evidence for evolution, unless one is a fundamentalist. The intelligent design movement uses the *language* of science to cast doubt on observable, empirical fact, i.e things that can be *seen* happening in the world around us, with the ultimate aim of distorting our perceptions through the fun house mirror of religious faith. This begs the question, what kind of society emerges when large numbers of people jettison their own criticality and allow themselves to be guided by their fundamentalist beliefs? Who stands to gain in such a situation? The answer of course has been played out across all of the “red states” in America. A population that has collectively given up reason for blind faith is ripe for the picking, and the conservative Christian carrion birds have swooped in to hork back their fill of the soft visceral spoils of unambiguated power.
When the level of cognitive dissonance between observable reality and fundamentalist conviction becomes untenable, the theocrat must use the levers of the state to force reality into congruence, which is what America is now in the middle of, both domestically and in its foreign policy. The anti-intellectual, “my way or the highway” state fundamentalism, promulgated by the current administration is probably the greatest threat to global stability since the nuclear arms race, and shows no sign of stopping, perhaps because facilitating the end of the world is the desired result. The Economist ran a piece on born-again Christian Armageddon cults, whose membership, it claims, now numbers in the millions. The article provides a link to “raptureready.com,” which helps prepare born-again Christians to be literally snatched up into heaven, just before the Apocalypse, which the site assures us will occur “in the near future. ” According to biblical prophesy in the Book of Revelation, non-believers will be left behind to succumb to hellfire, war and plagues.
Paradoxically, while scriptural literalism and evolution-bashing have become hallmarks of America’s governing Christian right, their beneficiary, the US defence department seems not to be so encumbered. Both The Guardian and CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition ran stories on the recruitment by the Pentagon of Andrew Parker, an Oxford evolutionary zoologist, and specialist in the Cambrian explosion– one of the key events in evolutionary history. Parker’s book “The Blink of an Eye” aroused the interest of military planners, who were interested in using the theory of evolution to create a computer program to predict future terrorist attacks. Parker was whisked off to a secret location near Chesapeake Bay Maryland, into which 20 Pentagon staffers had been brought by helicopter. There he presided over a five day discussion on how the seething seas of the Cambrian resembled an arms race, in which the pressures of explosive evolution had forced sea creatures to continually evolve new defence and predation strategies and how these ipso facto phenomena of evolutionary emergence could be computer modelled and utilized.
“One of the big surprises was how seriously I was taken,” the Guardian quotes Parker as saying.
“It was all a bit surreal.”
It must have been (sigh) . . . quite a revelation.