Gilgamesh and Prometheus


«  ... quand les esprits bienheureux

Dans la Voie de Laict auront fait

nouveaux feux . . .


Agrippa d’Aubigné


FIRE IS, INDEED, a key word, deserving a special inquiry. For the time being, however, it is not essential to understand everything about the different norms and measures, rules and regulations which have to be procured by gods or heroes who are destined to open "new ways." One can ignore here the true nature and identity of the various "treasures," whether they are called "oar" or "ferry man," or "hvarna-melammu," or. "golden fleece," or "fire." This is not to say that all these terms are different names for the same thing, but that they identify several parts of the frame [n1 Even a superficial study of the Chinese novel Feng Shen Yen I (i.e., Popular Account of the Promotion to Divinity) which, under the disguise of "historiography" dealing with the end of the Shang Dynasty and the beginning of the Chou, presents us with a fantastic description of a major crisis between world-ages, will reveal to the attentive reader the amount of "new deities"—responsible for old cosmic functions—who have to be appointed at a new Zero, beginning with 365 gods, 28 new lunar mansions, etc.].


It will be useful to recapitulate the ideas of the frame, as it has been traced through the Greek precedents. It started out, innocently enough, with the frame of a ship (see above, pp. 230f.), as the Greeks did, and finally ended up with the bewildering "world tree" called the skambha, which even Plato might have found intractable. In the end, it is nothing more than the structure of world colures, even if it rustles with many centuries of Hindu verbiage.




Another point to bear in mind is the cosmological relevance of "way-openers" and "path-finders" like Gilgamesh. They are the ones who bring the manifold measures from that mysterious center, called Canopus or Eridu, or "the seat of Rita." One can illustrate the general scheme by means of two adventures.


The Argonauts, with the Golden Fleece on board, had to pass the Symplegades, the clashing rocks. Once a ship with its crew came through unharmed [n2 The Symplegades cut off, however, the ornament of the ship's stern (aphla­stoio akra korymba), where the "soul" of the ship was understood to dwell. We do not know yet the precise meaning of this trait. Cf. H. Diels, "Das Aphlaston der antiken Schiffe," in Zeitschrift des Vereins fur Volkskunde (1915), pp. 61-80. It should be emphasized that, contrary to a widespread opinion, the planktai and the symplegades are not identical.]—so the "blessed ones" (makaroi) had decided long ago—the Symplegades would stay fixed, and be clashing rocks no longer [n3 Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautica 2.592-606; Pindar, Pyth. 4.210: "but that voyage of the demigods made them stand still in death."]. After that "accepting the novel laws of the fixed earth," they should "offer an easy passage to all ships, once they had learnt defeat." [n4 Claudianus 26.8-11.]. This is only one station on the long "opening travel" of the Argonauts transporting the Golden Fleece (of a ram), undertaken in all probability to introduce the Age of Aries [n5 See the First Vatican Mythographer (c. 24, ed. Bode, vol. 1, p. 9) stating about "Pelias vel Peleus" that he sent Jason to Colchis, "ut inde detulisset pellem auream, in qua Juppiter in caelum ascendit," i.e., to fetch the Golden Fleece, in which Jupiter climbs the sky. See also A. B. Cook, "The European Sky-God," Folk-Lore 15 (1904), pp. 271f., for comparable material.], but it demonstrates best the relevant point, namely, "the novel laws."


Another instance—in fact, a crucial one—of an Opening of the Way comes to us from the Catlo'ltq in British Columbia [n6 F. Boas, lndianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Kuste Amerikas (1895), pp. 80f. Cf. Frazer, Myths from the Origin of Fire (1930), pp. 164f.; also L. Frobenius, The Childhood of Man (1960), pp. 395f.]. We would call it a pocket encyclopedia of myth:


A man had a daughter who possessed a wonderful bow and arrow, with which she was able to bring down everything she wanted. But she was lazy and was constantly sleeping. At this her father was angry and said: "Do not be always sleeping, but take thy bow and shoot at the navel of the ocean, so that we may get fire."




The navel of the ocean was a vast whirlpool in which sticks for making fire by friction were drifting about. At that time men were still without fire. Now the maiden seized her bow, shot into the navel of the ocean, and the material for fire-rubbing sprang ashore.


Then the old man was glad. He kindled a large fire; and as he wanted to keep it to himself, he built a house with a door which snapped up and down like jaws and killed everybody that wanted to get in. But the people knew that he was in possession of the fire, and the stag determined to steal it for them. He took resinous wood, split it and stuck the splinters in his hair. Then he lashed two boats together, covered them with planks, danced and sang on them, and so he came to the old man's house. He sang: "O, I go and will fetch the fire." The old man's daughter heard him singing, and said to her father: "O, let the stranger come into the house; he sings and dances so beautifully."


The stag landed and drew near the door, singing and dancing, and at the same time sprang to the door and made as if he wanted to enter the house. Then the door snapped to, without however touching him. But while it was again opening, he sprang quickly into the house. Here he seated himself at the fire, as if he wanted to dry himself, and continued singing. At the same time he let his head bend forward over the fire, so that he became quite sooty, and at last the splinters in his hair took fire. Then he sprang out, ran off and brought the fire to the people.


Such is the story of Prometheus in Catlo'ltq. It is more than that. For the stag has stood for a long time for Kronos. In the Hindu tradition he is Yama who has been met before as Yama Agastya, and who, "following the course of the great rivers, discovered the way for many." This stag is spread far and wide in the archaic world, with the same connotations. And he is the archaic Prometheus- Kronos, "you who consume all and increase it again by the unlimited order of the Aion, wily-minded, you of crooked counsel, venerable Prometheus." In Greek, semne Prometheu. It leaves no doubts. The Orphic invocation to Kronos, quoted in the very beginning on p. 12, defines him as "venerable" and couples him with the name of Kronos the Titan, and we did not go on to quote the awful name of Prometheus so as not to confuse the issue. To avoid confusing matters gratuitously, the name Prometheus has so far been used sparingly. It summons up a formidable implex.




The scholiast of Sophocles who gave the reference, quoting Polemon and Lysimachides who are now lost sources, explains: "Prometheus was the first and the older who held in his right hand the scepter, but Hephaistos later and second." [n7 Schol. Soph. O. C. 56 (Mayer, Giganten und Titanen, p. 95).].


These are the underground regions of Greek mythology, still barely noticed by the school of Frazer and Harrison in their search for prehistoric cults and symbols in the classical world. Yet here ancient Greek myth suddenly emerges in full light among Indian tribes in America, miraculously preserved. The very unnaturalness of the narrative shows how steps were telescoped or omitted through the ages. In one moment the Whirlpool emerges as the bearer of the fire-sticks of Pramantha and Tezcatlipoca. But why should they be in the whirl? Myth has its own shorthand logic to relate those floating fire-sticks to the cosmic whirl. And that logic goes on tying together the basic themes, the bow and the arrow of celestial kingship, the bow and arrow aimed at (or ending in) Sirius, stella maris (compare appendix # 2 on Orendel).


The singing and dancing of the stag is intricately involved with a proto-Pythagorean theme. And the theme appears full-fledged in still another tale from the Northwest. The Son of Woodpecker, before shooting his bow, intoned a song, and as soon as he had found the right note, the flying arrows stuck in each other's necks until they built the bridge of arrows to heaven; Sir James Frazer himself identified this theme with that of the scaling of Olympus in the Gigantomachy. But there is more. Although it is not stated explicitly that the "clashing doors" (the precessing equinoxes) of the old owner of fire ceased to clash, surely the stag opened a new passage by passing the door at the predestined right moment in his quest for the "fire."


There was little room for invention and variation in this solemn play with the great themes, although imagination did retain some freedom. Thus one might feel tempted to see pure imagination in the feckless laziness of the Old Man's Daughter. And yet, was it imagination, if one discovers in her the prototype of Ishtar, of whom it was said (see above, p. 215) that she "stirs up the apsu before Ea"?




Lady-archers being a rare species, it is worth consideration that the great Babylonian astronomical text, the so-called "Series mulAPIN" (= Series Plough-Star, the Plough-Star being Triangulum), states: "the Bow-star is the Ishtar of Elam, daughter of Enlil." There has been mention of the constellation of the Bow, built by stars of Argo and Canis Major, Sirius serving as "Arrow... Star" (see above, p. 216 and figure on p. 290). It is no less significant that the Egyptian divine archeress, Satit, aims her arrow at Sirius, as can be seen on the round Zodiac of Dendera.


When one discovers a brief tale that miraculously encapsulates great myths in a few words, one is led to the suspicion that such tales are fragments of long and intricate recitals meant to hold their audience for hours; that, actually they represent something like "Apollodorus'" or "Hyginus" who passed on the essential information in brief abstracts. But behind them stood a fully shaped and powerful literary tradition along with the Greek poets to give the ideas flesh and blood, whereas with an illiterate neolithic people such as the Catlo'ltq only the bare skeleton, even "Hygini Fabulae," appears to have survived, unless we assume the informants withheld from the ethnologists the richer versions. (A colleague once told us about a Tibetan minstrel who, bidden to recite the saga of Bogda Gesser Khan, asked whether he should do the large version or the small one: the large would have taken weeks to recite properly.)


It was stated earlier and should be re-stated here that "fire" was thought of as a great circle reaching from one celestial pole to the other, and also that the fire sticks belong to the skambha (Atharva Veda 10.8.20), as an essential part of the frame. Among the things which helped us to recognize "fire" as the equinoctial colure, only one fact needs mention here, that the Aztecs took Castor and Pollux (alpha beta Geminorum) for the first fire sticks, from which mankind learned how to drill fire. This is known from Sahagun. [n8 Florentine Codex (trans. Anderson and Dibble), vol. 7, p. 60. See also R. Simeon, Dictionnaire de la Langue Nabuatl (1885) s.v. "mamalhuaztli: Les Geameaux, constellation," who does not mention, though, that Sahagun identified mamalhuaztli with "astijellos," fire sticks. Also, the Tasmanians felt indebted to Castor and Pollux for the first fire (see J. G. Frazer, Myths of the Origin of Fire [1930], pp.3f.).].




Considering that the equinoctial colure of the Golden Age ran through Gemini (and Sagittarius), the fire sticks in Gemini offer a correct rhyme to a verse in a Mongolian nuptial prayer which says: "Fire was born, when Heaven and Earth separated" [n9 U. Holmberg, Die religiasen Vorstellungen der altaischen Volker (1938), p. 99.]; in other words, before the falling apart of ecliptic and equator, there was no "fire," the first being kindled in the Golden Age of the Twins.


There is no certainty yet whether. or not there are fixed rules, according to which one fire has to be fetched from the North, and the other from the South; both methods are employed. The Finns, for example, insist on the fire's "cradle on the navel of the sky," whence it rushes through seven or nine skies into the sea, to the bottom if it, in fact [n10 K. Krohn, Magische Ursprungsrunen der Finnen (1924), p. 115.]. And Tezcatlipoca is claimed to be sitting at the celestial North Pole also, when drilling fire in the year 2-Reed, after the flood. Whereas it is said of the so-called fire-god of Mesopotamia:


Gibil, the exalted hero whom Ea adorned with terrible brilliance [= melammu], who grew up in the pure apsu, who in Eridu, the place of (determining) fates, is unfailingly prepared, whose pure light reaches heaven—his bright tongue flashes like lightning; Gibil's light flares up like the day.


[n11 W. F. Albright, "The Mouth of the Rivers," AJSL 35 (1919), p. 165; see also K. Tallqvist, Akkadische Gotterepitheta (1939), p. 313.]


Gibil is also called, briefly, "hero, child of the Apsu." If the "fire," adorned with "terrible brilliance" —melammu/hvarna—is prepared in Eridu, one should be permitted to conclude that it has to be procured from there, just as the Rigvedic Agni-Matarishvan, one among the Agnis, "fires," had to be sought at the "confluence of the rivers" (appendix # 38)



But whether the "fire" comes from "above" or from "below," the divine or semidivine (or two-thirds divine as Gilgamesh) beings who bring it from either topos could all be named after their common function, as is done in Mexico, where Quetzalcouatl is also called "Ce acatl" = I-Reed [n12 Acatl/Reed represents, indeed, the arrow-stick, the drill stick of the fire drill and the "symbol of juridical power." See E. Seier, Gesammelte Abhandlungen (1960-61), vol. 2, pp. 996,1102; vol. 4, p. 224.], and Tezcatlipoca "Omacatl (Ome acatl) = 2-Reed.




In the same way we might call the corresponding heroes of the Old World "I-Narthex," "2-Narthex," and so forth, after the "reed," in which the stolen fire was brought by the most famous Titan, Prometheus, a "portion" of Saturn.


Without taking part in the heated discussion on the interpretation of the very name Gilgamesh—dGIS.GIN.MEZ/MAS, and other forms—one can mention that GIS means "wood, tree," and MEZ/ MAS a particular kind of wood [n13 See R. Labat, Manuel d'Epigraphie Akkadienne (4th ed., 1963), nos. 296, 314; also F. Delitzch, Assyrischisches Handworterbuch (1896), p. 420 s.y. miskannu; Tallqyist, S.Y. Gilgamesh. Albright calls Gilgamesh "torch-fecundating hero" (JAOS 40, p. 318).], and that there are reasons for understanding our hero as a true Prometheus.


Here it is worth turning briefly to a text recently translated anew and edited by P. Gassmann, the tablets of the Era-Epos. This is a grim poem, whose appalling fierceness emerges in almost every word, dedicated as it is to the god of Death, Era (also spelled Irra), a part of Nergal. The subject matter is wholly mythological, handling the end of a world in terms which would hardly disgrace the Edda, and dealing again with the Flood to end all floods in the gloomy spirit of Genesis. But here something shines out unmistakably that the commentators on Genesis have missed. They have missed it so completely that even in our day some well-intentioned Fundamentalists applied for permission to search for the remains of the Ark on Mount Ararat. They were impatiently denied access by the Soviet authorities, who suspected espionage with a CIA cover name. No one, they figured, could be that simpleminded. The simplemindedness obviously extends to the researchers of the Sumerological Institutes, who went looking for Eridu in the Persian Gulf, and for the dwelling of the divine barmaid Siduri on the shores of the Mediterranean. But it is evident that the events of the Flood in the Era Epic, however vivid their language, apply unmistakably to events in the austral heavens and to nothing else.




It becomes evident that all the adventures of Gilgamesh, even if ever so earthily described, have no conceivable counterpart on earth. They are astronomically conceived from A to Z—even as the fury of Era does not apply to some meteorological "Lord Storm” but to events which are imagined to take place among constellations. The authors of Sumer and Babylon describe their hair-raising catastrophes of the Flood without a thought of earthly events. Their imagination and calculations as well as their thought belong wholly among the stars. Their capacity for transposition seems to have been utterly lost to us earthlings, of the earth earthy, who think only of "primitive" images and primitive experiences, which could account for the narrative so intensely and humanly projected. Perhaps they are mutants from our type. In any case they seem beyond the comprehension of mature contemporary intellects, who have adjusted comfortably to the mental standards of Desmond Morris' Naked Ape of their own devising.


These phantoms being now laid to rest, one finds oneself dealing with utterly unknown ancestors, whose biblical rages and passions have to be read in an entirely new context. To be sure, the planets are still neighbors: Mars, who is Era and Nergal, is only a few light-minutes away, Marduk-Jupiter about eight minutes, Saturn an hour. But they are all equally lost in cosmic space, their optical evidence, like that of ghosts, equally unseizable, equally potent or impotent in terms of present physical standards, equally and dread­fully present according to those other standards.


Era is sternly reprimanded by Jupiter/Marduk for having sent his weapons forth to destroy what remained after the Flood (Ea once spoke in the same vein to Enlil after the earlier Flood) but Marduk saved seven wise ones (ummani) by causing them to descend to the Apsu or Abyss, and to the precious mes-trees by changing their places. "Because of this work, O hero, which thou didst command to be done, where is the mes-tree, flesh of the gods, adornment of kings?" "The mesu-tree," says Marduk, "had its roots in the wide sea, in the depth of Arallu, and its top attained to high heaven." He asks Era where are the lapis lazuli, the gods of the arts, and the seven wise ones of the Apsu. He might well ask where is Gilgamesh himself, that deceptively human hero, now transformed into a beacon of light from a mes-tree of other-worldly dimensions.




Such is the fate of heroes, as they have been followed from Amlodhi onwards, whether they come as a spark hiding in a narthex like Prometheus, or fire from the wood splinters in Stag's hairs, or become a beam from Canopus-Eridu. Lost in the depths of the Southern Ocean, they were capable of giving the Depths of the Sea to our forefathers, and now are able to have the directional systems of our missiles lock on them for interplanetary flight-they remain points, circles, geometries of light to guide mankind past and future on its way.


And so under the present circumstances it is necessary to leave Era's somber prophecy unfulfilled, relating as it does to a coming world age:


Open the way, I will take the road,

The days are ended, the fixed time has past.


But with it comes the clearest statement ever uttered by men or gods concerning the Precession. Says Marduk:


When I stood up from my seat and let the flood break in,

then the judgement of Earth and Heaven went out of joint. . .


The gods, which trembled, the stars of heaven­

their position changed, and I did not bring them back.




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