Sophus Helle on Martin PuchnerF
or the past four years, two tracks have run through my life. One is Gilgamesh, an epic poem from ancient Babylonia that tells of the eponymous hero’s love and loss, his triumphs in battle and his failed quest to become immortal. I have translated the epic into both Danish and English, and it has become a constant companion in my life and my inner world.
The other track is climate change. In 2018, I helped found the main organization of climate change activism in Denmark, the Green Students’ Movement (DGSB). I watched on with pride as they shepherded the world’s most ambitious climate law through the Danish parliament, and I then watched on with horror as the Danish politicians reneged on almost every promise they had set out in that law.
For four years, my thoughts have shuttled back and forth between an ancient text and an uncertain future. Occasionally, the two tracks intersected, since Gilgamesh contains some uncanny parallels to our modern ecological concerns.
The two heroes of the tale turn the mythical Cedar Forest—a lush jungle that is home to mighty monsters and musical monkeys—into a barren wasteland, foreshadowing what has happened over the last century to the Cedar Forest’s real-life counterpart in Lebanon. This account of deforestation is followed in Gilgamesh by a disturbingly detailed depiction of what has now become our collective nightmare: the globe submerged by rising waters, the Flood wiping away all of human culture.
My climate anxieties even wormed themselves into the translation. Small choices came to matter in new ways. It felt important to me that the Akkadian word rīmu, often translated “wild cow,” should instead be rendered “aurochs,” to make clear that this was not some Babylonian ancestor of mad cow’s disease, but a now extinct species of formidable, undomesticated bovines: the aurochs (whose name means “Ur-ox”) stood six feet tall and sported horns thirty inches long. The word had to feel foreign because the species is now foreign: the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627. Future translators will face the same problem when they come to words like “tiger.”W
ith these two concerns running through my mind, it was with great enthusiasm that I heard of Martin Puchner’s new book, Literature for a Changing Planet, which explores the intersection between ecocriticism and world literature, asking how a broadened canon of literary texts might shed new light on our climate concerns. Gilgamesh is not just one case study among many in Puchner’s book, it is the lodestone and leitmotif to which he returns time and again: each new text he discusses is brought back and compared to Gilgamesh, and evaluated in light of it.
However, Puchner’s account of Gilgamesh is almost exclusively negative. For him, the epic is a parable of humanity’s conflict with the natural environment, a conflict that according to Puchner has been inevitable since we moved from a nomadic, foraging lifestyle into settled, agricultural societies. He argues that Gilgamesh is structurally committed to justifying an urban-centered worldview and a violent extraction of natural resources.
But is that true?
A common refrain among climate activists is that we need less talk and more action. But that might not be quite right. The way we think about and describe climate change paralyzes us. So, I agree with Puchner’s basic premise that the current crisis calls for new narratives that make the threat of climate change easier to conceptualize and easier to act upon. We need narratives that empower us as agents who can shape our own future, that do not cast the disaster as inevitable or psychologically overwhelming, and that bind us together in global solidarity, interweaving the local level on which we experience climate change with the global level on which it unfolds.
From this assumption, however, Puchner draws rather vague conclusions, and he does not engage with the wealth of compelling analyses that have appeared in recent years in the field of ecocriticism. The book’s focus on world literature and ancient history (as opposed to the narrower, more common focus on European modernity) is always welcome, but it forces Puchner into a problematic premise.
Puchner assumes that the fundamental problem behind climate change is our settled, agrarian life and our dependency on resource extraction, because those are the factors that have remained constant across the global, transhistorical reaches that world literature covers. But can the problem of carbon emissions really be identified with resource extraction and agriculturalism as such, as opposed to the more recent phenomena of run-away capitalism and fossil fuel overuse? If Puchner is right, the only way to save the planet is to embrace neolithic nomadism, which would be fun, but not exactly feasible.
Puchner’s analysis of Gilgamesh likewise begins with a genuine insight, but veers into unhelpful conclusions. The main characters of the story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, do indeed wreak terrible devastation on the natural environment, especially when they raze the Cedar Forest and kill its terrifying guardian Humbaba.B
ut Gilgamesh is in fact much more positive in its depiction of the non-urban world than most other texts from ancient Iraq. The epic was indeed born out of a culture that, as Puchner argues, was profoundly urban. The cities of ancient Iraq, such as Uruk, Ur, and Babylon, had a strong sense of cultural identity and self-governance, and cities were seen as the focal points and building blocks of human civilization. The wilderness found outside the city walls is shown as a place of danger, yes, but also of fascination and beauty. A new manuscript of the epic that was discovered in 2015 offers an entrancing depiction of the Cedar Forest as a place full of life, sounds, shadows, and scents:
They gazed on the Cedar Mountain, / home of gods, throne of goddesses. / Sumptuous cedars grew along the mountainside and cast their pleasant, joyful shades. ( . . . ) The trees were webbed with creepers a hundred feet tall, / and the resin that oozed from them fell like raindrops / to be swallowed by the ravines. / The song of a bird went through the forest, calls came back and song became clamor. ( . . . ) The stork clattered, filling the forest with joy, / the rooster crowed, filling the forest with resounding joy. / Monkey mothers sang, baby monkeys cried: / this was the concert of songs and drums / that always thundered for Humbaba.
Far from being committed to the superiority of urbanism, the epic relishes this scene of exultant wilderness. But more importantly, the new manuscript also added a scene at the end of the episode, after Gilgamesh and Enkidu have defeated Humbaba, murdered his sons, and felled his trees. Enkidu imagines himself being questioned by Enlil, the king of the gods, and says to Gilgamesh: “My friend, we have turned the forest into wasteland. / What will we say if Enlil asks us in Nippur: / ‘You used your strength to kill the guardian! / What wrath sent you trampling through the forest?’” The thought experiment reduces them to silence: the heroes cannot answer the question. They cannot account for their own motives.
As it turns out, the gods are angered by the killing of Humbaba. This is no righteous monster-slaying quest, but the murder of a sacred forest guardian. When the heroes add insult to injury by also killing the Bull of Heaven (which we know as the constellation Taurus), they sentence Enkidu to death for their crimes. Gilgamesh is thrown into a deep, agonizing grief, holding on to his beloved friend’s body and refusing to let it be buried until a maggot drops from its nose. His pain is presented as a necessary retribution for what the heroes had done, even though their quest seemed at the time an exciting adventure.T
he epic thus plays with our expectations for heroic stories, turning what seemed at first a triumphal tale into a cautionary one: do not kill the sacred guardian, do not turn his forest into a wasteland, do not let yourself be guided by blind wrath. Or you will lose what you love most. Puchner argues that Gilgamesh is intent on justifying and defending the heroes’ extraction of resources (the trees they fell and ship back to Uruk), but the epic just as easily allows for a contrary reading.
Gilgamesh emerges as an ancient eco-villain (to quote Daniel Simon), but that does not make Gilgamesh the epic blind to his violence. On the contrary, it is a central part of the poem’s depiction of the hero as a flawed, complex figure. Thus, humans have been thinking about and reacting to their environmental damage and its relation to the gods for thousands of years: these contributions should not be dismissed, but marshalled to reflect on the crisis we face now.
Unlike Enkidu, we still have the chance to change course and prevent a complete devastation of the global forest, but only if we can truthfully reflect on the harm we cause to earth. The epic suggests that, in order to change course, we must understand the connections and parallels between the local and the global.
In Gilgamesh, the destruction of the forest is matched by the much larger destruction caused by the gods: the Flood, which immediately grows out of the gods’ control. They instantly regret their decision and flee to the heavens, curling up like scared dogs and awaiting the end of the cataclysmic winds. But the story of the Flood is framed through the story of a single city, Shuruppak.
That is a more general feature of Gilgamesh. It constantly zigzags between local and global perspectives, moving from the city of Uruk out to the edges of the cosmos and back. Gilgamesh’s journeys create a connection between the city and the cosmos, between the plane of humans and that of gods, between the single forest that he fells and the entire world destroyed by the Flood.
When earth is destroyed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent at first feels nothing but numb: the scale of disaster is simply too large for him to comprehend. It is only when he brings specific examples to mind—the disappearance of all McDonalds hamburgers and Humphrey Bogart films—that he can grasp what has happened. He then immediately faints.
As the composers of Gilgamesh well understood, we cannot grieve the globe: to make cosmic disasters truly tragic, they must be interwoven with familiar, local, and personal perspectives. It is this local perspective on which we can experience global transformations, and on which we can meaningfully act against them: this is where change begins, as the ancients well knew.
Sophus Helle is a translator and cultural historian. He works on ancient literature in general, and the Babylonian epics in particular. His translation and study of Gilgamesh is out now with Yale University Press.