What Gilgamesh and What Apes?

Article by Wilfried HoujeBek on a translation of Gilgamesh for apes (2008), re-published in the Wild Things e-pub (2011).

What Gilgamesh and What Apes?

From Gilgamesh for Apes


Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic that is regarded as the oldest piece of literature known, is here presented in the pictorial language used by American and Japanese primate centres teaching language to great apes. While reworking Gilgamesh for apes I was mostly thinking about the chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Ohio. It is far from certain what these apes would make of this text if it would be presented to them. Hopefully they would recognize the lexigrams as similar to those they have been taught to use, but I do not know if the convention of reading (from left to right and from top to bottom) means anything to them. Apes like to watch TV and they can understand a story. ‘They especially like to watch interactions between apes as well as between apes and humans. Themes of danger and danger resolved rivet their attention’, write Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin in their joint book about bonobo-poet Kanzi. Gilgamesh must hold great appeal for them as it contains many moments of danger and of danger resolved, often through interaction between animals of apish descent. The very idea of translating human literature for apes seems so tantalizing that I don’t think it can be done: somebody would have done it already and we would know about it. When Kanzi is watching TV all the information he needs he gets from body language and contextual clues, this suggests that Gilgamesh for Apes would be more successful as a film or as a theatre production. But I do present this version of Gilgamesh in the good faith that someday, many generations from now, some ape will enjoy the experience of reading this. Perhaps this story will appear to them like the Jabberwocky poem appeared to Alice (in wonderland): ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, SOMEBODY killed SOMETHING: that’s clear, at any rate--’.


The Lexigrams

The vocabulary of Ape-Esperanto is 384 lexigrams big. The first 120 lexigrams were drafted in 1977 by Ernst von Glaserfeld. His beautiful collection of symbols, all combinations of the same small set of lines, rectangles and twirls, could easily have appeared on the sleeve of a Kraftwerk record. They are however hard to tell apart and once used in actual research they were found wanting. If you study the three displays collecting all the available lexigrams, downloadable from the Great Ape Trust website, you will find a variety of designs enriching the original set: Japanese characters, English words and funky freehand drawings. The designers clearly had little concern for preserving the original consistency of style, and though sometimes ugly visually, practically they are the better for it. All in all the entire vocabulary looks like a mess, pardon me, like a real language. Most lexigrams carry the word for what they are meant to represent, in my amateurish redrawing of them in the lovely Microsoft Paint, these do not return. for food (noodles, jello, taco, burrito, M&Ms etc. it does makes you wonder about their diet), 17 are used for locations inside the primate centre (play room, Sue’s office, etc.), 15 are used for names of staff and primates (Panbanisha, Liz, etc.) and 9 are unreadable or of (to me) incomprehensible meaning. I can imagine that a different tally (on another day or by someone else) might yield slightly different results. The way these lexigrams are actually used is, as far as I can tell, poorly documented. There is no guide or dictionary available and the correct interpretation for some signs remains unclear. When pointing to the lexigram for ‘like’ does an ape understand it as ‘being alike’ or as ‘liking something or someone’? Or both depending on the context? There does not seem to be a document to refer to. The real question is: do these lexigrams name enough of the world to allow translation of human writing in a way that someone we know to have full language competence (another human) can ‘read’ it. I leave it to the reader to answer this question.

For the rest of the Gilgamesh for Apes text, please refer to: http://fightthegooglejugend.com/ primatepoetics/primatepoetics.html

I have invented three new lexigrams. One for Gilgamesh, a bony face and one for Enkidu, a shadowy trooper. The third one is for ‘forest’. Kanzi is very fond of hiking in the woods but I have not been able to find a lexigram for it. I could have done without it all together but the strange, nearly criminal situation of a languagetrained ape not knowing the word for the place he or she is supposed to live in the wild persuaded me to add four diagonal lines to the symbol for ‘outdoors’ and instate this as the ‘forest’ lexigram. If it does turn out to exist, and I hope it does, I blame stupidity and blindness on my part.


The Epic

There does not exist one authoritative version of Gilgamesh. The oldest Cuneiform tablets date from around 2000 BC, while the youngest fragments date from roughly 130 BC. The epic comes to us in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite and Babylonian, all translations are in effect recreations from different sources from different times in different languages. From Nancy Sandars prose translation, published as a 1960 Penguin Pocket, I have selected three stories to retell: The Coming of Enkidu, The Forest Journey and The Story of The Flood. The English of Sandars is stately to the point where you wonder if she is not falsifying the original feel of the story with her exalted style. As they say, a myth is only a myth for as long as it is transformed to correspond with the symbolic world of the teller. There does not exist a ‘correct’ version and my version is therefore just as good as any other. The scarcity of lexigrams can only serve to condense the complexities of Gilgamesh into something more to the point. It begins as simple as I could simplify. Slowly, as Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu discover the world, the storytelling changes. Repetition signals the passing of time (a device we find in the original), the structure of sentences becomes more complex, objects and persons cease to be named directly but are referenced to; the rhythm-wise the story opens with a steady metronomic beat which slowly morphs into a junglified breakbeat at the end. We are after all not only telling a story, we are also trying to explain what a story is and what it can do to a different type of mind.

Coming of Enkidu (Enkidu is Coming)

Gilgamesh, ‘He who saw the deep’, is a king and a god who lives in a palace in the city. He is all-powerful, a dictator, cruel because he knows his cruelty will remain unpunished. Every woman (Gilgamesh is not for the prudent) is forced to have sex with him the day that she marries. This is translated as ‘If Gilgamesh groom it hurt’. Enkidu is a wild man who lives on the other side, together with the beasts in the forest. ‘He was innocent of mankind, he knew nothing of the cultivated land’. Gilgamesh sees Enkidu in a dream. Apes, like all mammals dream, but can they remember them?? Gilgamesh sends a prostitute to the forest to sleep with Enkidu. When he falls for her charms it is his Paradise Lost: gone is his feral innocence, no longer is he able to live free and undomesticated. This is the key moment in the story but how do you go about telling this to an ape? And do you even want to? Let us save the apes from our idiotic moral values, besides, the idea of a bonobo problematizing sex is clearly ridiculous. In my version Gilgamesh sends an orang-utan to Enkidu and when they groom Enkidu becomes unhappy because he lost his joy in the outdoors. I do apologize, especially to all urangs, for this silly solution. When Enkidu finally goes to Gilgamesh he warns him on arrival that Gilgamesh should no longer abuse his power. Gilgamesh attracted to Enkidu’s natural righteousness inclines. The two have become friends and now the god and the wild man set out on a both real and allegorical journey to become human. This symbolism is the reason for choosing Gilgamesh: read ‘primatologist’ for Gilgamesh and read ‘ape’ for Enkidu.

The Forest Journey (Go-To Forest)

Gilgamesh represents the corrupting effect of power, Enkidu the benevolence that same power can also be used for. The Forest Journey at first presents Gilgamesh on a power trip with Enkidu first trying to talk him out of it only to talk him into it when the catastrophe of monstercide is about to be circumvented. The exact motivations for Gilgamesh deeds are impersonal, he is driven by the gods of his bicameral mind (to borrow a term from Julian Jaynes). To us it all seems pointless and this is why it is pointless in my version. Gilgamesh needs cedar wood to enlarge his palace, but the forest he wants to plunder is guarded by Humbaba, a terrible monster, pure evil, who is left unnamed. When the monster meets Gilgamesh he pleads and prays that he is actually done with the forest and Gilgamesh is free to take from it what he needs. Why this sudden meek obedience? In the story it is because godsend winds have reprogrammed Humbaba, in my version it is because of the ‘Hello Face’, the natural authority of Gilgamesh. In response to the appropriate low ranking posture assumed by the monster Gilgamesh changes his mind. Instead of hurting him (actually killing but murder does not have a lexigram) he wants to take him to his house. Enkidu however, because he is jealous, or maybe because he sees through the devilish plot of the monster, brings Gilgamesh back to his original thought: the monster is hurt real bad. ‘Wood’ I translated by combining the lexigrams for forest and stick, thus ‘forest-stick’. This in the fashion of many apes observed to have invented their own names for objects by combining two words they already know.


The Story of the Flood (the Water-Blanket)

The Gilgamesh epic contains a flood story that is older than the one in the Bible. Most cultures have a flood story, presumably all based on the same pre-literate ur-myth. In my wilder moments I like to think that apes in the wild do tell each other stories and that the great catastrophe told and remembered by the story of the flood is also present in an ape story. Within the epic this story stands apart, it does not mention Gilgamesh and Enkidu is already dead. The gods are unhappy with the humans and they create a flood that covers even the highest mountain and wipes out the entire race of man. One man only is saved, the voices tell him to make a boat out of his house. Once the water covers everything, every day a different bird is released to find dry land, and for a long time the bird returns. One day the bird does not return and we know that the water is residing because the bird must have found a place to land. But once dried up the world has changed for good, its new, awful and yet sublime shapes, forever remind us of the power of the gods and the absolute need not to fall back into our old habits. That strange perpetual human desire to see the world destroyed! The story of the flood is impossible to tell in lexigrams and not just because nearly all important words are absent from its vocabulary. Instead I have taken the freedom to create a little lexigram prose-poem out of it, an opium dream for ape-literati, a mini-storm of words raging through the mind with unrelenting force, a firework display of what language can be, or in other words: a true piece of PrimatePoetics.


Enkidu is an Ape.

The Gilgamesh of the epic can be traced to a real Babylonian king. Nobody however doubts that the stories as they are found inscribed are based on stories much older than the earliest date for the kingship of Gilgamesh (2600 BC). The king has been written into it for political reasons. It is my belief that in The Coming of Enkidu, hidden under later paraphernalia, we find an ancient memory that dates back to the time when the genetic lines of man and chimpanzee/bonobo had just separated or were about to separate. The period of active speciation in which fertile hybrids might still be conceived but in which the differences between the (almost) two species were obvious to both. Recorded in Gilgamesh is the shock of the human line suddenly realizing that the ape is not at a furry nephew or niece but another beast. Enkidu is an ape and Gilgamesh is a human and together they tried bringing their separating paths back into a joint future. All this in a Me Tarzan, You Enkidu kind of way.


PrimatePoetics as History

Oral history and mythology are usually believed to contain traces of events as old as 12.000 years, scanty evidence suggests that South- American folklore recorded events as old as 20.000 years, but here its ends. The identification of Enkidu as an ape suggests that hidden under a blanket of distortion and later additions literature does remember events that happened millions of years ago (the human line diverged from the great ape 6 million years ago). For this to be true we need more sources than just this one. Surprisingly Rumbaugh and Lewin have this to say: What were we like before we invented language? I thought of those vague references to ‘dreamtime’ people in aboriginal culture, and the reference in our own culture to the absence of ‘knowledge of good and evil’ before eve consumed the proverbial apple. I also recalled those references to some African and Indian cultures in which it is said that the older brother and younger brother decided upon different paths long ago when they first became aware that it was possible to control fire. It is said that the older brother elected to remain in the forest, following the old ways and eschewing fire and language. The apes of today are descended from older brother. Younger brother went out from the forest and kept fire with him, becoming the progenitor of all humans today. Could cultural myths such as these hark back to a murky time in our distant past when we possessed human minds but no language. A lingering memory of the human-ape before language can also be found in Jewish lore that tells that god, by way of damnation, changed the builders of the Tower of Babel into apes (and evil spirits, demons and ghosts). I like this story not only for the fact that it recognizes apes as part of our linguistic heritage, even if the role assigned them is that of the outlaw, but because it double-binds the first memory of the ape as different from us with the origin of horror.


Socialfiction.org (Wilfried Hou Je Bek) Utrecht August 2008. Edit: November 2008.

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