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Fear and Ambivalence in Ancient Stories: Ideas for World History Discussions

Stephen Ortega, Emily A. Graham, and Sharon Parrington Wright


"Dragonflies drift on the river,
Their faces look upon the face of the Sun,
(But then) suddenly there is nothing."1

     This reflection, taken from "The Epic of Gilgamesh," illustrates the transient nature of life. As the dragonflies proceed down the stream seemingly unfettered, in a glance they are gone. Fleeting and unpredictable, life does not offer any tangible guarantees, and while humans strive to find meaning and to gain security from these uncertainties, the possibility of death hovers over daily existence, threatening to strike at any moment.

     If the central theme of the story of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, surrounds the problem of impending death, in order to confront this threat, the corresponding concerns of the central character are to gain an understanding of the unknown and to gain insight into the intentions of the gods. This pursuit though proves tricky, because neither the plans of the gods nor the secrets of nature are evident even to someone as powerful as Gilgamesh; thus, the king is forced to live in a state of fear and ambivalence.

     Fear and ambivalence are not topics usually addressed in the study and teaching of history. They seem more suited to a discipline such as psychology, because of their relationship to individual well-being and underlying causation, or to the study of literature because of their close connection to character and to plot development. Yet thinking within this framework is limited, because fear and ambivalence also represent themes that have both trans-chronological and trans-cultural significance, particularly in regard to the creation stories of the Neolithic period. Sacrifice, offerings to the gods, myths and other oral and written stories served as ways in which humans coped with their fears and dealt with uncertainty.

     One of the problems in developing curricular materials for studying fear and ambivalence during the Neolithic period is that works such as "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and the South Asian hymns collected in the Rg Veda are thought to be mythological and sketchy sources to teach history. In this sense, some have argued that the two are separate fields of study, because myths represent storytelling and history serves as form of empirical analysis. Yet are these two categorizations as separate as we might think? Arguing against the incompatibility of history and myth, the anthropologist C. Scott Littleton suggests that "…no social anthropologist today would deny that myths, as sacred narratives, inevitably reflect important social and cultural realities and are thus 'true' in the broadest sense of the word."2 Thus, the dichotomous thinking fails to recognize that truth and myth intersect at certain points and that myths serve as a portal into which different cultures can not only be understood but also compared.

     The student of the ancient world can certainly benefit by understanding early human sensibilities across different cultures. Many paleoanthropologists agree that early humans first appeared in Africa and then migrated to different parts of the world. Attempting to acclimatize themselves to different physical environments, early humans developed a variety of ways of managing their physical surroundings, of organizing themselves, and of creating belief systems.

     In thinking about how to develop a comparative framework to discuss these issues in a course on the first half of world history, three of us, two graduate students and an associate professor, sat down and talked about the best approaches to teach fear and ambivalence in ancient societies. The point was to try to approximate class discussion on diverse sources and viewpoints and to create a dialogue on how a college instructor could approach these issues in class.

The Importance of the Study of Fear and Ambivalence: Thinking Trans-Culturally and Trans-Chronologically.

Stephen: The killing of Richard Matt and the capture of David Sweat, two inmates who had escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, in late June 2015 brought a great sense of relief to the people of upstate New York and surrounding regions. The two fugitives, who were able to evade law authorities for a period of three weeks, created a tremendous sense of fear for the people living in the rural communities of the northern Adirondacks. While the state was able to marshal a significant amount of resources and personnel in pursuing the escapees, a sense of uncertainty and impending danger became pervasive.

     This uncertainty and danger undoubtedly had to do with the fact that both of the men had ended up in prison for committing gruesome murders, and thus, the chance existed that they could turn to violence again to elude the authorities. This seemingly real possibility and the uncertainty of the men's intentions touched on a fear that the many unknowns in life make the world a fundamentally dangerous place.

     While this paper is principally concerned with examining the question of fear and ambivalence in the ancient world, the subject of fear, ambivalence, and danger resonates very powerfully in the present. A good start to any discussion on these issues might begin with the question, what are the types of people, situations and uncertainties that cause us to feel fear in contemporary society? Here, a discussion could be initiated about the preponderance of disaster movies and television programs about violence, with the accompanying question how does popular culture explain the world around us and how does it instill a sense of fear and ambivalence? Encouraging students to think through the relationship of fear to issues such as natural disasters, wars, street crime and disease could also serve as jumping off point to comparisons of the types of threats that humans have faced over time. To give the class sessions a trans-chronological approach, short primary sources from people who lived through disease ravaged times such as the plague or were forced to live in times characterized by war and political strife could be included as part of an assignment. While we do not want to assume that contemporary fears equate with fears in the ancient world, we are more interested in examining the ways in which fear has been a part of the human experience.

Emily: In discussing the sense of uncertainty and impending danger caused by the escapees in the Adirondacks, I think the location––dense and swampy forest, much of it in Adirondack State Park––echoes a tradition of storytelling and myth-making in which wilderness is terra incognita, harboring malevolence and engendering fear. In Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), Margaret Atwood writes, "Although in every culture many stories are told, only some are told and retold, and that these recurring stories bear examining. [...] They hold a curious fascination both for those who tell them and for those who hear them; they are handed down and reworked, and storytellers come back to them time and time again, approaching them from various angles and discovering new and different meanings each time the story, or a part of it, is given a fresh incarnation."3 Both the Rg Veda and "The Epic of Gilgamesh" grapple with themes of ambiguity, violence, and fear in the context of place, and I think these concerns continue to be told and re-told, endlessly altered and reinvented, in the preponderance of violent movies and television shows in the twenty-first century. Like Stephen suggests, we can make this particular brand of fear and violence relatable to contemporary students through these modern narratives.

Sharon: I think "The Epic of Gilgamesh" serves as a good starting point to discuss these issues in regard to the ancient world. Although it is the oldest of the texts we have been discussing, "The Epic of Gilgamesh" feels oddly familiar. In Gilgamesh among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic (2011), Theodore Ziolkowski argues that "The Epic of Gilgamesh" has become a reference point in Western Culture and highlights themes such as "the criticism of tyranny, the drive to achieve glory, the lure of sex, man's alienation from nature, the power of friendship, the fear of death, and the satisfactions of human achievement" which are particularly attractive and understandable to modern readers.4

     While Ziolkowski's text may be more useful for instructors than for students, I think these topics are a great place to begin a class discussion of the meaning and continued relevance of "The Epic of Gilgamesh."

Emily: That's a good point. Even the narrative structure in Gilgamesh more closely mirrors the Western narratives with which we're familiar. Across the narratives we have examined thus far—the Rg Veda, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," Margaret Atwood's commentary, the New York escapees––the landscape remains an unknown element that invites tension and fear. Why, though, are these landscapes so terrifying? In part, do we pass on these and similar stories because they reflect an ambiguous relationship with the environment that has evolutionary implications?

Sharon: I agree that we can make a useful connection here between storytelling tropes and human evolution. The sense of unease or even terror that we are describing, which we have referred to as the "fear of the forest" in our discussions, is tied to the innate flight-or-fight response. Humanity's fear circuitry has been developing since the Mesozoic Era and many common fears––of heights, darkness, and snakes––are shared by humans and other simians.5

     Comparing the cognitive modules of the human brain to fossils "preserved against the ravages of time," Daniel Lord Smail argues in On Deep History of the Brain (2008) that we have inherited the capacity to feel fear from our ancient ancestors.6 While we do not necessarily fear the same things as hunter-gatherers or our Bronze Age predecessors, storytelling is still a useful way for us to cope. For example, horror films clearly reflect both our and ancient fears. Any Dracula/Nosferatu film or the show The Walking Dead, for example, could be used as part of a class discussion about our fear of returning to being the hunted rather than the hunters. Perhaps, like the authors of the Vedas, we still feel ambivalent about our position in the food chain.

Stephen: Comparisons about fear and a threat of the unknown can also be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead was an ancient funerary set of instructions used to guide the dead through the next life and the underworld. Explaining how elites such as kings, nobles and priests might protect themselves from the dangers associated with the physical world, what is noteworthy about the text is its specific recommendations as to how to preserve the body and the self after death. One chapter contains an exhortation as to how to scare off an approaching crocodile that has come to carry away the charm from Nu, the overseer of the house of the seal,

Get thee back, return, get thee back, thou crocodile-fiend Sui; thou shalt now advance to me, for I live by reason of the magical words which I have by me….Heaven hath power over its seasons, and the magical word have power over the magical word which is therein. Hail thou that sittest within thine eyeballs upon these my magical words.7

Instead of attempting to escape imminent danger through flight, magical words were used to keep the crocodile at bay. Does this passage indicate that humans were developing the psychological means and the language necessary for confronting these types of threats? The Book of the Dead provides an interesting opportunity for students to think about how archaeological evidence can contain important textual information related to not only how fear was expressed but also to how strategies were developed for confronting the perils of the world through more persuasive as opposed to violent forms of exchange.

Emily: Strategies for confronting danger do not manifest themselves overnight, but rather develop across generations.8 In this regard, we can also interpret the Book of the Dead as reifying subconscious instincts. If they can affect neural pathways, can we read fear and ambivalence as genetically inherited from our Paleolithic ancestors, cognitively primitive and essentially unchanged? If certain genes replicate and persist across generations, then Paleolithic stasis is a myth and there is no authentic point of rupture in the historical narrative between the Paleolithic and contemporary civilization.

Stephen: In contemplating whether early people were biochemically wired like contemporary humans, we might also consider how to include materials about the ways in which local cultural expressions of fear and ambivalence functioned in a similar manner across time and space. Most people are familiar with the flood stories in Genesis and in "The Epic of Gilgamesh." Although the myths come from different time periods, they both also developed in the Near East and reflected a similar set of geographic sensibilities.

Sharon: While understanding cultural similarities is important, flood stories in Genesis and in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" depict humanity's relationship to the divine in very different ways. The gods are tangible in "The Epic of Gilgamesh," and Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, for example, is subject to the very human emotions of lust and anger. Ishtar even unleashes the Bull of Heaven out of spite.9 Ishtar is also physically present at moments in the story, since Enkidu "pulled out the Bull of Heaven's shoulder / and slapped it into her face."10 Gilgamesh himself is further evidence that humanity can interact with the gods, as he is the son of man, Lugulbanda, and the goddess Ninsun, or "Lady Wild Cow."11

Emily: Not only do the gods of Gilgamesh, like Ishtar, have very physical forms and human emotions, but despite their supposed omnipotence, the heroes do not fear them. Not only do they appear unafraid, but they blatantly insult Ishtar by lining her throne with entrails and slapping her in the face with the Bull of Heaven's shoulder. This is a particularly insulting act because Ishtar summoned the Bull of Heaven herself. In this, the gods and goddess of Mesopotamia occupy a strangely contradictory role born from society's ambivalence: they exist both within and outside of the world humanity occupies.

     Furthermore, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull, courtesans, prostitutes, and harlots weep over its dead body. Humans affiliated with Ishtar show regret, again suggesting ambivalence: despite slaughtering hundreds of men, the Bull of Heaven is not necessarily an enemy of humans.

Sharon: "The Epic of Gilgamesh" also suggests that the gods are limited in terms of their power. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu attempt to kill Humbaba, Enkidu urges Gilgamesh to finish the deed quickly before the god "Ellil / hears."12 It is no accident that Humbaba is in the Pine Forest, as he had been appointed its guardian by Ellil "to keep the Pine Forest / safe, to be the terror of people."13 That Humbaba seems to be charged specifically with protecting the Pine Forest against humans indicates both that the gods are concerned about the well-being of nonhuman life to some degree and that there is some enmity between humanity and the divine. Yet the gods are unable to prevent Gilgamesh and Enkidu from slaying Humbaba or the Bull of Heaven and even Ishtar is apparently powerless to defend herself when Enkidu slaps her.

     In contrast, the Rg Veda suggests that the gods are dangerous to an unknowable degree. Although we consulted Roberto Calasso's Ardor (2010) to learn more about the understanding of the divine in the Vedas, it is worth noting that Calasso's book is more suitable for specialists than for students. For instructors, however, Calasso offers a useful description of the Vedic ritual of sacrifice as a "journey into the invisible, fraught with danger, anguish, [and the] risk of ambush even though sacrifice is also the ultimate means of self-defense against these fears.14

     Indeed, while the poets haggle and even tease the gods, they also fear the power of the divine, a concern which Gilgamesh rarely shares. In a more calculating presentation of the ritual sacrifice, Hymn IV.24 (320) suggests that men and the gods exchange sacrifices and rewards "as a matter of cold-blooded haggling," but it is clear that the gods have the upper hand.15 Indeed, Indra takes "pleasure in going (home) again" unsold, gleefully noting that his supplicant was unsuccessful in his negotiations with the god.16

     Like "The Epic of Gilgamesh," the Rg Veda also suggests that the gods may be present among humanity. Instead of appearing in a recognizable form, however, the gods often appear as other beings. The god Indra, for instance, is presented in Hymn 16, Mandala II simultaneously as the bull of the sacrifice and as the intended recipient of the hymn's praises.17 Perhaps Indra's doubled presences relates to Vedic conception of duality. If sacrificer and sacrifice, eater and eaten, slaughterer and slaughtered are inexorably linked, perhaps the intended recipient of worship and the means of that worship are connected as well.18 Similarly, the god Agni is at once a god, the sun, and the sacrificial fire in Hymn VI.1 (355).19

Emily: The cold-blooded haggling present in the sacrifice is strange, given both the Vedic's fear of the gods and the ever-present risk of being consumed by Agni in place of the offered sacrifice. Is it a matter of social survival overriding fear or an acknowledgement that the gods' wants and whims can never be understood, and so cannot be pandered to with just ritual sacrifices and supplications? On a different note, I agree that the Vedic gods rarely (if ever) appear in a recognizable form. However, I think that to say they are often disguised gives them a greater physicality than the texts. They seem to exist in an intangible otherworld, at once parallel and invisible to the human eye, and yet still threatening and powerful in a way that the gods of Gilgamesh are not. Do other origin texts depict gods in a similar way?

Sharon: Compared to the deities in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" or the Rg Veda, Jehovah/Yehovah seems both more understandable and more remote in the Hebrew Bible. Unlike Ellil, whose motivations and wishes are unclear, Jehovah provides the Israelite with a how-to guide in the form of the Ten Commandments. Jehovah offers the Israelites a straightforward covenant–– "You shall worship the LORD your God, and I will bless your bread and your water"––but much of the Hebrew Bible documents humanity's failure to uphold their end of the deal, Jehovah's anger, and eventually their reconciliation.20 While Jehovah's instructions are more explicit than those of the gods in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" or the Rg Veda, he is never tangible the way that Ishtar is. With the exception of a few instances, Jehovah exists outside of the world humans occupy. Jehovah does not have a wife like Indra does, nor does he ever take the place of the sacrifice. Similar flood myths aside, the Hebrew Bible thus presents a very different view of the divine.

Stephen: Students also might consider that the gods in the Book of the Dead were thought to possess the exemplary qualities that people needed to live in the afterlife, and though they were physically different from humans, they were also less distant than Jehovah, because the text characterizes them more as caretakers and confidants for those who would make the journey from life to death. Part of the reason for this connection is that the ritual that accompanied death was supposed to closely resemble the ritual attached to the death and burial of Osiris, the God of the underworld. One of the important responsibilities of the priest who administered the ceremony was to ensure that the deceased was able to be victorious over his enemies in a similar manner to Osiris's triumph over his opponents. The idea of enemies of the deceased raises interesting questions to discuss in class: How did the Egyptians decide which people were righteous enough to defeat their enemies and live comfortably in the underworld? Was the advice of the gods and the blessing of priests only given to the mighty and the powerful or did others stand a chance of obtaining security and prosperity in the afterlife? These questions could contain an exercise in which students would write an essay about how a polytheistic society such as Egypt compared with a monotheistic culture in articulating the divine's relationship to the deceased.

Emily: The morality described in the Book of the Dead is similar to that of Judeo-Christian beliefs. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person's heart contained all their deeds, good and bad. The gods weighed the hearts of the dead against the feather of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, they could continue into the next world. If it was heavier, the dead were eaten by the Devourer, who, like Agni, links consumption and death.21 In contrast, we do not see a strong moral system in the Rg Veda or "The Epic of Gilgamesh," which once again could be a result of ambiguity born from a tenuous and still-developing social framework. What multidisciplinary approaches do we have for making this comparison?

Sharon: We can connect "The Epic of Gilgamesh" to a significant body of archaeological evidence. Excavations of Uruk, the city Gilgamesh rules, suggest that the city contained a population of more than 50,000 people at its peak in 2900 BCE.22 The initial singers of the Vedas, as seasonal pastoralists, left fewer traces of themselves behind.

     The Rg Veda also gives instructors the opportunity to discuss the impact of technological innovations on historical research. For instance, archaeologists have recently used satellite imagery to corroborate the Rg Veda's description of the ancient Sarasvati River, which dried up around 1900 BCE.23

Emily: As Sharon has described, archeological evidence provides useful information about tool use, crop variety and distribution, flora and fauna domestication, vegetation density, and a myriad of other subjects, which can contextualize ancient texts.34 Museums, again, can again be a location for students to learn how technological advances uncover new information. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for instance, there is a terracotta plaque from the Old Babylonian Period in Iraq depicting the demon Humbaba (c. 1800-1600 BC). It reads, "In Sumerian epics, Humbaba was the giant who guarded the Cedar Forest on behalf of the storm god, Enlil. Images of Humbaba's grimacing face were commonly used as household charms to frighten away the demons that might harm the home and its residents." Items like this contextualize myths, hopefully bridging some of the gap between contemporary students and ancient culture. Teachers might ask their students how we reconcile Humbaba as a terror to humans in "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and Humbaba as a household charm to ward away demons.

Sharon: Artifacts also provide opportunities to discuss the relationship between humans and the natural world. One of the oldest pieces in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's collection, believed to have been created between 6400–5900 BCE, is a vessel shaped like a hare that was uncovered during the excavation of a Neolithic village in Syria.24 Did the vessel's creator chose to depict a hare because he or she felt a sense of kinship with an animal that is typically thought of as prey? While we cannot know the what the artist's intent was, the vessel is another important reminder that human history cannot be separated from that of the environment.

Violence and Early Humans

     Fear and ambivalence for early humans undoubtedly reflected the fragility and the uncertainty everyday life; thus any commentary on early culture, religion and social organization must include a discussion on the levels of violence that early humans experienced.

Stephen: One way to capture the violence of hunter-gatherer society would be to have students watch the film Quest for Fire directed by Jean Jacque Annaud. Set in Paleolithic Europe 80,000 years ago, the story focuses on a small tribe of homo sapiens quest for survival. The tribe is confronted with a variety of threats from other species, different tribes and the physical environment. The movie touches on the question of how the experiences and the harsh environment of early humans contribute to our own world view. Further, a discussion could focus on the ways in which people in the film are like us and also fundamentally different.

     The film could act as a starting point, a way to discuss a more popular view of violence during the Paleolithic period that could lead to a discussion of the scholarly debate. Another source that could serve as an entry point to how scholars view the question of violence is Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. Taking a macro-view over centuries, Pinker argues that over time humans have become less violent; adding that historically states have had an interest in protecting their subjects and citizens from both external and internal threats.25 Along these lines, Pinker posits that early hunter-gatherer societies engaged in a higher frequency of violence because they competed against one another for resources and control of particular territories without a central authority to intervene.26

     The long arc of the book allows an instructor to talk about the nature of violence over time. Students are introduced to the idea that in Pinker's view modern times are relatively secure in contrast to times in the past. This perspective allows a class to think about the level of the threat that early humans faced and allows them to consider the nature of early warfare. To support his claims, Pinker provides examples of archeological finds of early human skeletons which contain evidence that these individuals had been brutally murdered.27 Other examples are provided from ancient texts such as the Bible and the works of Homer to show textual evidence of the brutal nature of early society. While Pinker admits that settled societies and hunter gatherer bands "cannot be dichotomized," he does note that non-state societies, including contemporary ones, do have identifiable characteristics.28 For instance, he argues that "men in non-state societies are deadly serious about war, not just in their tactics but in their armaments, which include chemical, biological and antipersonnel weapons."29 Pinker's assertion raises the question, does using contemporary hunter-gatherer groups as evidence of the warlike nature of early non-sedentary people create the assumption that hunter-gatherer groups have remained the same over time?

Sharon: While Pinker offers useful background information on the history of violence, he focuses on one type of expression of violence in hunter-gatherer societies: between humans. Calasso points out that the "description hunting and gathering" conflates two distinct phases. Before becoming hunters and gatherers, people had to be gathers [sic] and hunted."30 I think the distinction between these two periods in history is worth bringing up in a classroom setting because it allows students to consider how violence shaped interactions not only between hunter-gatherer societies, but also between humans and animals.

     Calasso defines early history in terms of the relationship between humans and animals, enabling an instructor to introduce students to the idea that human history is connected to, rather than separate from, the history of the natural world. Eschewing the term hunter-gatherer, Calasso instead divides human history into two stages: an earlier interval in which humans lived with animals, "killing them and being killed by them," and a later period when, through domestication, humans lived on animals.31

Stephen: Calasso's designation of two distinct stages raises the question, how do we periodize history and how do these periodizations reflect different forms of consciousness such as fear? Peter Stearns notes in "Fear and Contemporary History: A Review Essay" that the history of fear is tied to a history of emotions that can be divided into historical periodizations that reflect different threats; thus the 1930s was a time of fear connected to the depression and the current period is a time characterized by the threat of international terrorism.32 Sara Ahmed also believes that fear is developed within an "affective economy" and that certain societies and systems have a greater tendency to promote threats and dangers.33

     But given both the general presence of fear in all different types of societies and the problem of understanding fear within particular cultural contexts, a good question to pose is how can we apply both the general and the specific to early humans and to the ancient period? One way to tackle this question is to raise the possibility that both the biological roots of fear and particular cultural manifestations warrant strong consideration and require debate. In "On the Nature of Violence" (2001) Pat Shipman agrees with Calasso in stating that "humans are fundamentally primates, and primates are fundamentally prey species….For millions of years our ancestors were far more worried about being eaten than about killing something to eat, which came later."34 Humans banded together out of a need to protect themselves against more dangerous predators. This creation of a sense of togetherness connected to group security and later a group mentality led to differentiation related to a variety of affiliations. Yet cultural differences also developed that allowed people to distinguish themselves, and personal adornments, body paint and clothing were ways in one group could identify itself in relation to another group. Ultimately, according to Shipman, these distinctions and the idea of an us vs. them sensibility explains the origins of violence between different groups.35 Considering how these groups relationship to violence and to control over resources changed over time could serve as a good subject of a class discussion on the relationship between violence and fear as both a human and more culturally specific phenomenon.

Emily: While Pinker argues that humanity is becoming increasingly less violent, Clive Ponting argues the opposite in A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (2007). In fact, he asserts that agriculture ushered in an age of greater societal tension.36 He posits that hunter-gatherer societies shared resources equally among their members, and that when there was abundant food, everyone had equal access.37 According to Ponting, this transition led to the development of greater inequality.38 However, I think the allocation of resources would always have been a problem. If hunter-gatherer societies had an abundance of food to share with everyone and spent a majority of time in leisure, why transition to an agricultural society?

Sharon: Ponting's description of hunting and gathering as a successful adaptive strategy would be an interesting topic for class discussion. Ponting argues that hunter-gatherers would have been able to collect sufficient food with relative ease, allowing ample time for leisure and ceremonial activities.39 Furthermore, Ponting contends that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle causes the least amount of damage to natural ecosystems.40 While this does sound ideal, Ponting also suggests that hunter-gatherer groups practiced infanticide, targeting twins, the handicapped, and female offspring in particular.44 With these considerations in mind, how do we define a "successful" society?

Emily: Defining a successful society involves considering different cross-cultural points of view and different historical trajectories. Ponting assumes that agricultural societies developed more or less identically and at the same point in time, but his argument cannot account for every change related to agriculture, which makes me suspect of his argument.

Sharon: I agree that I am not comfortable assuming that agricultural societies developed in the same way simultaneously, but Ponting's text is useful in that it allows us to consider how the transition from a hunter-gatherer to a settled lifestyle relates to our themes of fear and ambivalence. We have already discussed some of the dangers and hardships hunter-gathers faced, but the agriculturalists had a lot to fear as well. Ponting argues that, until about two centuries ago, most people lived on the brink of starvation.41 While agriculture could support more people than in hunter-gatherer societies, agriculturalist were particularly vulnerable to crop failure.42

     Although I am not eager to adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the growing survivalist and prepper movements suggests that many people do find the idea appealing or at least worth preparing for. Perhaps televisions shows such as the National Geographic Channel's Doomsday Preppers are rating successes because they remind us of the way our species survived for "ninety-nine percent of human history."43

Emily: Doomsday preppers and survivalists also parallel "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and Rg Veda in that all four may have some origin in political motives. The doomsday preppers, at least as depicted on television, often seem to be reacting to feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in the world. In a way, their behaviors are synonymous with the complex sacrifice rituals in the Vedas. In "Class Conflict in Ancient Mesopotamia: Between Knowledge of History and Historicizing Knowledge," Reinhard Bernbeck argues that the study of history is always political, and that historiography in Near Eastern archaeology has a bias toward the upper classes of the past, leaving the subaltern unvoiced.44 In particular, he writes that "The Epic of Gilgamesh" provides an example of an "officially propagated" narrative.45 What can we find in the Rg Veda?

Stephen: The politics of the Rg Veda have been debated for a significant period of time. Here students might consider the different ways in which historical texts are interpreted to serve certain interests.

Sacrificial Rituals in the Rg Veda and "The Epic of Gilgamesh"

Stephen: Ambivalence towards other groups of people and civilizations was one way in which fear manifested itself, but if other humans represented one threat, the non-human and spiritual worlds also represented a source of uncertainty and anxiety. In order to cope with this threat, in a number different historical settings humans looked to sacrifice as a way of satisfying both spirits and the natural world. Here a comparison and an analysis of different texts helps students gain a deeper understanding of the significance of sacrifice.

Sharon: Although much of the Rg Veda is difficult to parse, a discussion centered around the Vedic ritual of sacrifice is easy entry point for students and instructors alike. As Calasso notes, the singers of the Vedas left no temples or palaces, only words; hymns, invocations and incantations documenting the rites of sacrifice.46 Vedic sacrifice seems to have been understood as a redemptive act, one that saved both the sacrifice and the sacrificer and reinforced the bond between humans and the natural world.47

Emily: While sacrifice played an important role in Vedic society, few of the hymns explicitly address the sacrificed or the act of killing. Rather, they talk around the subject by focusing on the ritual, the gods, and the sacrificer's human desires. Even Hymn V1.23, which is dedicated to describing the sacrifices that please Indra, does not name a single species or describe the act of killing.48 What does this omission signify?49 As Nerissa Russell articulates in Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory, "the surprise some feel at the lack of focus on the slaughter itself may say more about the nature of the modern west, where animal slaughter is hidden and its ritualization therefore dramatic, than societies where animal slaughter is a familiar part of meat production that does not seem out of the ordinary."50 It is plausible that this could account for at least some of the absence in the Rg Veda.

     The Rg Veda also describes three lords: the Lord of the Forest, the Lord of the Field, and the Lord of Settlements.51 These express three clearly delineated geographies for the Vedic people. On the other hand, they seem to loosely organize animals into two groups: threats, such as wolves and snakes, and assets, such as cows and horses. One of the few exceptions to this dichotomy was the Promethean tale of a falcon who stealthily stole soma and delivered it to Manu, the first sacrificer, who calls it the best of the birds.52 While the falcon is active, it is not anthropomorphized; like the horse, it is only valued for speed. In this, the Vedas strictly adhere to a human-animal boundary.

Sharon: A potential topic for class conversation is the need that the singers of the Vedas met through the ritual sacrifice of animals, plants, and libations which were at the center of their lives. allowed them to meet. Calasso argues that Vedic sacrifices were performed to control and compartmentalize their feelings of guilt.53 That guilt, according to Calasso, had two sources: the slaughter and consumption of domesticated meat as an important but disturbing need in the human diet, and the "guilt of imitation, of that distant decision that had led a species of beings who have been prey to assume the behavior typical of their predator enemies."54

     I am concerned, however, that our focus on guilt is too reflective of a Judeo-Christian worldview to give us much insight into the understanding of Vedic sacrifice, and I suspect that these rituals were influenced by more complicated emotions. Indeed, Calasso's argument that the ritualized the act of killing in the Vedas was a response to a "radical and devastating" upheaval––namely humanity's transition from the hunted to hunter––suggests that Vedic rituals were motivated by a fear of the implications of this transformation and ambivalence about the human race's new role.55

     "The Epic of Gilgamesh" reflects a similar sense of ambivalence about humanity's transition from hunter-gatherers to settled societies in its depiction of Enkidu. Enkidu is a "primitive man" created by the goddess Aruru to help restrain Gilgamesh who at first has more in common with wild animals than the people of Uruk.56 Indeed, Enkidu is virtually indistinguishable from the beasts he roams with, since he is "shaggy with hair," "dressed as cattle," eats vegetables with the gazelles, and "presses forward for water" alongside animals.57 More than a companion, Enkidu also assists the animals he lives with by helping them to escape the traps set by hunters, indicating where his allegiance lies.58

Emily: At the beginning of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," Enkidu both inhabits and embodies the forest; he is described as being both "from the mountain" and "a murderous youth."59 Initially, he inhabits the liminal space between the human and animal world. However, he does not remain there for long.

Sharon: Enkidu is eventually tamed by Shamhat, a prostitute in the service of Ishtar, who seduces Enkidu and makes his cattle, "who have grown up in open / country with him…become alien to him."60

Emily: Not only do the cattle become alien to him, but they "become afraid."61 Both parties reject each other––the cattle suddenly become incomprehensibly other while they, in turn, fear Enkidu as they would any other human.

Sharon: Rejected by the wild animals he once roamed with, Enkidu seems ambivalent about his transformation, with the suggestion that he "had been diminished" even though he acquired judgement and wisdom.62 Does Enkidu's reaction reflect a deeper ambivalence about humanity's shift from nomadic to settled lifestyles?

     A related classroom discussion could focus on what actually "civilizes" Enkidu. I suspect that it is religion rather than simply sex that transforms Enkidu, as Shamhat is a representative of Ishtar, but there could be a gender component here as well, with women helping to alter primitive men.

Emily: After sex with Shamhat, Enkidu becomes like a god, profound, and knows his own mind. Later, Enkidu says that Shamhat defiled him in the open country, where he had been pure.63 In these descriptions, we can read ambivalence regarding humanity's transition from the animal kingdom to settled society. This separation is not just psychological, but also physical. In settled society, boundaries demarcate what is home-safe-settled from what is other: the dangerous, the wild, and the unknown. Fear of an uncertain future in the face of a known past traps Enkidu in a state of ambivalence.

Sharon: Enkidu's seemingly contradictory transformation––reduced yet god-like––is quite similar to the fall of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Like Enkidu, Adam and Eve's eyes are opened when they eat the forbidden fruit, but they also become afraid, having suddenly become aware of their vulnerability.64 In Adam and Eve's case, as in Enkidu's, newfound knowledge will also result in their deaths.

Emily: After Ishtar sentences Enkidu to death, he curses her, despite the suggestion that her religion was the civilizing influence. When he dies, all the animals weep, despite previously fearing him.65 In a funeral monologue, Gilgamesh describes Enkidu as part of wilderness: "My friend was the hunted mule, wild ass of the / mountains, leopard of the open country. Enkidu the strong man was the hunted wild ass of [the mountains, leopard of open country]."66 As a sign of his mourning, Gilgamesh vows to neglect his appearance after Enkidu's death, clad himself only in lion skin, and roam the open country.67 These details taken together suggest ambivalence about settled society in the face of death.

Sharon: Perhaps we can use the similarity between Enkidu's awakening and that of Adam and Eve to shed some light on the reasons for this ambivalence. Outlining Adam's punishment, and by extension that of all his descendants, Jehovah curses the ground so that Adam and his offspring will need to toil for food.68 Is Adam's curse, in other words agriculture, related to Enkidu's ambivalence? After acquiring wisdom, Enkidu not only loses his connection with animals, but also must leave the wilderness for Uruk.

Emily: In "The Epic of Gilgamesh," the only agriculture described is arboriculture, wherein the pine trees have mystical properties. In the Rg Veda, wood is also imbued with mystical properties, which can be carved into the Lord of the Forest (a wooden post), and used to channel the gods.69 Even when physically altered by humans, the Lord of the Forest intrinsically remains part of the forest, beyond the control of humans. It has "the horns of the horned beasts" because it remains a threat to the sacrificer, who is always at risk of becoming the sacrificed.70 Yet here, too, is ambivalence: in Hymn V.7, Agni diminishes the Lords of the Forest, acknowledging multiple "lords" instead of the usual singular.71 Perhaps it describes a wild fire literally diminishing the forest to ash, but it could also mean that the connection between the natural world and the gods is not consistent, as the society creating and supporting this belief system is in itself constantly shifting.

     In order to defeat Humbaba, Gilgamesh and Enkidu cannot allow him to go down to the forest; his weakness lies in his separation from the trees.72 Perhaps this separation is a geopolitical metaphor for the control of limited natural resources. Once separated from the trees, Humbaba's forest can be consumed. Consumption is an interesting thread during the fight between the two protagonists and Humbaba. While Humbaba threatens to consume Gilgamesh, it is Humbaba's forest that is consumed instead.73

Sharon: Perhaps we can make a connection between resource consumption and sacrifice. After all, an offering is understood to be "consumed" during the ritual of sacrifice, by a god or by fire. Is violence, or at least destruction, disguised as ritual, how we really cope with our fears?

Emily: Gilgamesh describes the violent killing of the Bull of Heaven, its evisceration, and the substantial slabs of meat taken from its body, and the Bull of Heaven embodied a fearful and destructive entity for humans. In its death and butchering, greater attention is given to the body's tangible, physical form than in the Rg Veda. In "Body, Meat, Spirit: Becoming Animal" (2003), Gilles Deleuze describes meat as "the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility."74 The physical body––the meat and blood–– of people and animals are analogous, and may further blur the tenuous boundary between animals and humans.

Sharon: The explicit description of the Bull of Heaven's death could indicate that the ancient Mesopotamians felt a more immediate sense of danger from nature than the people of the Vedas. Calasso argues that, for the people of the Vedas, "nature was the place where the powers were manifest and where exchanges between the powers took place. Society was a cautious attempt at becoming a part of those exchanges, without disturbing them too much and without being annihilated by them."75

     "The Epic of Gilgamesh," however, suggests that the relationship between humanity and nature, and by extension the gods, was much more combative. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the aggressors, deliberately seeking out and killing Humbaba despite the warnings delivered by the counsellors of Uruk.76 Although Ishtar dispatches the Bull of Heaven in response to Gilgamesh's rejection, I think the death of Humbaba and the appearance of the Bull of Heaven are nonetheless related. After all, Ishtar propositions Gilgamesh only after he has killed Humbaba, in defiance of the gods no less.77 Spurning Ishtar's advances is thus the second time Gilgamesh has disrespected the gods. The Bull of Heaven also represents a different kind of threat than Gilgamesh has faced before.

     To punish Gilgamesh, the goddess Aruru creates Enkidu in "open country."78 Although the hunter who first encounters Enkidu is perplexed and afraid, Enkidu does not appear to be a danger to humans.79 Even Humbaba, as terrifying a creature as he is, lives in a forest so far from Uruk that Gilgamesh and Enkidu have to travel dozens of leagues before they reach it.80 In contrast, the Bull of Heaven seems to materialize in a settled area.81 At Ishtar's direction, the Bull of Heaven arrives "in the land of Uruk," thereby posing a direct threat to Gilgamesh's people.82 The Bull of Heaven represents the threat of a return to uncontrolled nature, one which must be subjugated and continuously guarded against by settled society.


Emily: A settled society provides basic safeguards against the danger of the forest; at this moment, civilization and wilderness stop sharing the psychological space of the hunted. Without a binding commonality, do we lose access to that which "goes well beyond any feeling of empathy."83 Is guilt a natural outcome of loss? Perhaps this guilt comes from escaping a position of fear previously shared with the animals; an escape that necessitated a new hierarchy wherein animals exist at a lower order. And yet, in spite of our new-found safety, we have not lost our fear of the unknown.

Sharon: While we have inherited some fears, we have also developed new ones. The fear of the forest we have discussed in connection to "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and the Rg Veda may not be as prevalent anymore, but with concerns over climate change we are now becoming afraid of the absence of the forest. In addition to its devastating impact on biodiversity, deforestation in tropical rainforests releases huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, with scientists estimating that the trees in the Amazon alone "contain more carbon than ten years' worth of human-produced greenhouse gases."84 Gilgamesh is not an ideal role model, given his tendency to celebrate victories by felling trees, but can the example the Vedas set help us to address these contemporary anxieties? Calasso suggests not, arguing that modern secular society has abandoned ritual ceremonies and a result lost the opportunity to "wonder at the world."85

         Perhaps we have also lost a way, tried and tested for millennia, of coping with our fears through rituals. Fear has always been part of the human experience, but, as we compare early human sensibilities to our own, I think it is worth considering whether or not they succeeded where we have not.

Stephen: One wonders also whether the immediacy of death and recognition of the dangers constantly present in the world made Vedic society more comfortable with the impermanence of life. In our discussion, we have talked about the ways that popular culture has attempted to explain the existence of ongoing threats, dangers that lurk in the metaphorical darkness. While admittedly the dangers presented on popular television are used to boost television ratings and generate more viewers, do these programs also make us aware that what defines life even in places where prosperity is prevalent is not the possibility of ever achieving iron-clad security but instead the constant presence of uncertainty, fear and unpredictability? If the answer to this question is yes, we can see that the ancient texts like "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and the Rg Veda not only represent a bridge to the past but also a way of understanding our own psychology and our own uneasiness in the world. This uneasiness needs be explained both in contemporary cultural terms and in humans' long-term neurological history.

Emily A. Graham has a Master's degree in History and in Library Science. She works as a curatorial assistant at a natural history museum. She can be reached at

Stephen Ortega is an Associate Professor at Simmons College, where he teaches world and cross-cultural history. He has written two books: Negotiating Transcultural Relations in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Ottoman-Venetian Encounters and The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750 (co-authored with Adrian Cole). He can be reached at

Sharon Parrington Wright is an Adult Services Librarian and graduate of Simmons College, where she earned master's degrees in History and Archives Management. She can be reached at


1 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, trans. Stephanie Dalley, revised edition, 39-153 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 109.

2 C. Scott Littleton, "A Two-Dimensional Scheme for the Classification of Narratives," The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 78, no. 307 (Jan-March, 1965), pp. 21-27.

3 Margaret Atwood, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 11.

4 Theodore Ziolkowski, Gilgamesh Among Us: Modern Encounters with the Ancient Epic, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Kindle Edition): locations 77, 84, 197, and 276.

5 H. Stefan Bracha, "Human brain Evolution and the 'Neuroevolutionary Time-depth Principle': Implications for the Reclassification of Fear-Circuitry-related Traits in DSM-V and for Studying Resilience to Warzone-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 30 (2006): 827–853.

6 Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007): 139.

7 E.A Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead (London: British Museum Press, 1985): 153.

8 Bracha, "Human brain Evolution," 827–830.

9 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 77-81.

10 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 82.

11 Introduction, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 40; "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 51.

12 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 75.

13 Ibid., 62.

14 Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014): 7 and 75.

15 Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, eds. and trans, "IV.24 (320) Indra," in The Rigveda, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014): 596-598.

16 Jamison and Brereton, "IV.24 (320) Indra," vol. 1, 598.

17 Jamison and Brereton, "II.16 (207) Indra," vol. 1, 423-424.

18 Calasso, Ardor, 49.

19 Jamison and Brereton, "VI.1 (355) Agni," vol. 2, verses 1-3, 773-774.

20 Exod. 23:25.

21 "Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer," British Museum collection online, accessed September 20, 2016,

22 Andrew Lawler, "The Everlasting City," Archaeology 66, no. 5 (Sep/Oct 2013): 28, accessed September 20, 2015,

23 David Osborn, "Scientific Verification of Vedic Knowledge: Archaeology Online," accessed September 20, 2015,

24 "Vessel in the Form of a Hare," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accessed September 30, 2016,

25 Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York: Viking Press, 2011): 55-56

26 Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, 52-55

27 Ibid., 2-3.

28 Ibid., 41

29 Ibid., 44.

30 Calasso, Ardor, 63.

31 Ibid., 62.

32 Peter Stearns, "Fear and Contemporary History," Journal of Social History 40, no. 2, (Winter 2006): 477-484.

33 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004): 64.

34 Pat Shipman, "On the Nature of Violence," American Scientist, 89, no. 6 (November-December, 2001): 488-89.

35 Shipman, "On the Nature of Violence," 489.

36Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, rev. edition (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007): 54.

37 Ponting, A New Green History of the World, 19.

38 Ibid., 52.

39 Ibid., 22.

40 Ibid., 87.

41 Ibid., 88.

42 Ibid., 88.

43 Ibid., 17.

44 Reinhard Bernbeck, "Class Conflict in Ancient Mesopotamia: Between Knowledge of History and Historicising Knowledge," Anthropology of the Middle East 4, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 38, accessed May 26, 2015,

45 Bernbeck, "Class Conflict in Ancient Mesopotamia," 38.

46 Calasso, Ardor, 3-5.

47 Ibid., 12.

48 Jamison and Brereton, "VI.23 (464) Indra," vol. 2, 805-806. For an additional hymn that includes an offering with no explicit reference to the sacrificed animal or plant, see also "VII.17 (533) Agni," vol. 2, 902.

49 Although hymn "VI.23 (464) Indra" ends with a horse sacrifice, it only indirectly references the physical act of killing.

50 Nerissa Russell, Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012): 126.

51 Jamison and Brereton, "II.I (192) Agni," vol. 1, 400-402; "IV.57 (353) Agricultural Divinities," vol. 1, 642-643; and "V.27 (381) Agni," vol. 2, 688-689.

52 Ibid., "IV.26 (322) Indra (1-3), Praise of Falcon (4-7) [Soma Theft]," vol. 1, 600-601 and "IV.27 (323) Falcon (1-4), Falcon of Indra (5) [Soma Theft]," vol. 1, 601-602.

53 Calasso, Ardor, 50-51.

54 Ibid., 50-51.

55 Calasso, Ardor, 50-51.

56 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 52-53.

57 Ibid., 53.

58 Ibid., 53.

59 Ibid., 55.

60 Ibid., 54-55.

61 Ibid., 56.

62 Ibid., 56.

63 Ibid., 87.

64 Gen. 3:5 and 10.

65 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 91.

66 Ibid., 92.

67 Ibid., 93.

68 Gen. 3:17-18.

69 Jamison and Brereton, "II.I (192) Agni," vol. 1, 400-402 and Calasso, Ardor, 12.

70 Calasso, Ardor, 12.

71 Jamison and Brereton, "V.7 (361) Agni," vol. 2, 669-671.

72 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 61.

73 Ibid., 75 and 77.

74 Gilles Deleuze, "Body, Meat, Spirit: Becoming-animal," in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation,
trans. Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 21.

75 Calasso, Ardor, 350

76 "The Epic of Gilgamesh," 63.

77 Ibid., 76.

78 Ibid., 52.

79 Ibid., 53.

80 Ibid., 67-68.

81 Ibid., 84.

82 Ibid., 81.

83 Calasso, Ardor, 53.

84 Rebecca Lindsey, Tropical Deforestation," March 30, 2007, NASA Earth Observatory, accessed September 20, 2015,

85 Calasso, Ardor, 346-347.

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