Friday, July 20, 2007

Back to the Classics (1): Gilgamesh

Just how fundamental is musicking and dancing to human experience? To be sure, 'music', 'dance' and indeed 'human' have meant different things to people in different times and places, but it is also clear there are continuities across time and space. As one of my favourite DJs might say, let's get back to the classics and have a look.

First up, there's Gilgamesh, arguably the oldest surviving substantial work of literature. Various tellings of this Babylonian epic tale have been found written on stone tablets some four thousand years ago. The story tells of a king who goes on various monster-slaying, goddess-defying adventures in search of the secret of eternal life only to discover the futility of his quest in the face of human mortality.

In this tale, music and dancing are presented as being very much part of the good life. Making offerings to deities and heroes, Gilgamesh presents ‘A flute of carnelian… for Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar'. Another character is tempted into Gilgamesh's city with the promise that 'Every Day in Uruk there is a festival, The drums there rap out the beat, And there are harlots, most comely of figure, Graced with charm and full of delights'.

The most remarkable section for me is where Gilgamesh encounters Shiduri, a goddess who keeps a tavern at the edge of the world. She urges him to abandon his quest and focus instead on human pleasures:

'But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, enjoy yourself always by day and by night! Make merry each day, Dance and play day and night! Let your clothes be clean, Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water! Gaze on the child who holds your hand, Let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!'.

This is timeless advice and arguably still holds true for those fighting today in the land where this story was first written (present day Iraq), as well as for the rest of us.

Quotes from the 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' translated by Andrew George (Allen Lane, 1999)

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