Gazing on the cedar mountain

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem that presents a cautionary tale for the main characters in its story. Unlike them, we are not the villain in the presently unfolding story of ecological destruction, but the poem does offer wise counsel for what we can do, and how we can generate productive ruptures for change.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. Recounting the tale of its hero-king Gilgamesh, it weaves together stories of relationships, friendships, loss, love, revenge, death, and much more. In this grand tale, Gilgamesh meets a man named Enkidu, who eventually becomes a treasured companion. Together they seek an adventure, and they decide to steal trees from a mythical cedar forest. Not only do they successfully steal the trees, they also slay the terrifying demon Humbaba who guards the forest. Translator and cultural historian Sophus Helle describes our heroes’ actions as not just an act of theft, but turning the forest “a lush jungle that is home to mighty monsters and musical monkeys—into a barren wasteland”.

Unsurprisingly, then, “the gods are angered by the killing of Humbaba. This is [...] the murder of a sacred forest guardian. When the heroes add insult to injury by also killing the Bull of Heaven, 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 [...] His pain is presented as a necessary retribution for what the heroes had done”. While some interpret the epic poem as a justification of resource extraction and sacrilegious deforestation, others like Sophus Helle see the Epic of Gilgamesh as a cautionary tale for ecological violence.

The lesson is simple, straightforward, and familiar: “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.” There was a new manuscript of the epic discovered in 2015 that further confirmed the interpretation of the story as a cautionary tale, because it added the detail of Enkidu saying 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?’” To which the heroes have no answer.

What wrath sent you trampling through the forest?

The question hanging in the air represents a moment of rude awakening, a clarity that comes with guilt—a reckoning. This story is awfully familiar for us observing the destructive events in our present: a handful of corporations extract tens of billions of dollars of raw materials from the world’s largest tropical rainforest; the last remaining intact forests are being degraded in places like Sweden and Canada; war continues to devastate forests and communities from Ukraine to Syria to Armenia; and land defenders, especially in Latin America, who already make up a small population of the planet, are losing their lives every day.

But in the wake of this ecological violence, the parallels with the tale of Gilgamesh has its limits. Ordinary people aren’t the heroes of this tale: Gilgamesh and Enkidu are not us. Believing the narrative that humanity in general is the cause and using cautionary tales to evoke guilt would be being oblivious to the larger forces, political, structural, and otherwise, at play on the world’s stage. That said, we are not absolved from the problems entirely either. The pause that Enkidu and Gilgamesh come to when looking at the sacred trees they have felled and the sacred guardian they murdered, is perhaps useful for us to come to, too.

We need to reckon with the scale and depth of the crises we are facing and be present with them, during which the ‘what next’ may emerge.

In the epic, the gods were angered by the killing of Humbaba, the sacred forest guardian, and therein lies a possible first step. Around the world, forest guardians remain and guard not just the forest themselves, but are keepers of the wisdom the trees hold, protectors of the seeds, and storytellers of sacred scripture and cosmological and mythological tales.

The Kichwa people of Sarayaku, located in the Amazonian region of eastern Ecuador, for example, are every day defending their living territory from extractive activities, and have been actively working to construct a global agreement to strengthen Indigenous strategies of protection and protect the rights of Indigenous communities, based on a declaration that recognises the living forest as a conscious, living being and subject of rights. Frontline communities like theirs safeguard forests, water and mountains, with their bodies, across the world.

These sacred guardians also come in the form of keepers of ancient technologies: one of them being milpa, a complex Mesoamerican system of crop association that dates back to the Neolithic period. It has ensured food security and health for many Indigenous and rural populations specifically in Mexico, and has kept safe and reproduced ancestral seeds, all through traditional farming practices that are harmonious with nature. However, industrialised monoculture and modern practices of extraction have come up against these ancient practices, and threatening their existence.

Standing in solidarity with forest guardians is crucial, but of course most of us live far away from these communities, and so the moment of reckoning can also look like reckoning with our individual relationships with trees, and re-cognising the giants closest to us. In the new manuscript of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sophus Helle shares the entracing depiction of the sacred cedar forest as the two heroes come upon it:

“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.”

Granted, not all of us have access to such a lush forest, but we do probably have trees nearby, and perhaps a park if we venture out far enough—count yourself lucky if the woods are within walking distance for you.

Whichever tree is calling out to you, answer them, and begin to cultivate a relationship with them, experiencing life with them through the seasons, meditate with them, observe what other beings, two-leggeds, four-leggeds, winged ones, insect ones, are drawn to them too. What happens when you are just present with them? What happens when a kinship forms?

Even a simple moment of being taken is life-changing, narrative-shifting, and deeply generative. When we give ourselves over to the forest, to a tree, as So Sinopoulos-Lloyd and Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd write in their essay, “Eco-Mysticism for Apocalyptic Times”: “Enchantment as possession by an ‘other’ is also a means to flip the colonial & capitalist story that measures our lives by what we are able to possess.” This radical act in itself already changes so much. And then, as we observe and engage, in that moment of pause like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, we feel the despair of the moment, and the awe too, openings that act as productive ruptures, pathways towards the kinds of sacred activism we need in these times, an antidote to the destruction we are seeing.

Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff from the Proteus Initiative write: “We bring something to the world and it brings something to us, and through this relationship both we and the world become enlarged – become more than each was before – and through this dynamic and creative conversation the relationship becomes a sublime and almost magical one (yet real, so very real; this strange arising-through-conversation is indeed the real world, at last).”

So: when will you begin?

On the upcoming course, the Tree of Life, you will learn and appreciate the trees around the world, their centuries-old cosmological and mythological stories, and their myriad of ecological functions. You will be invited to journey with and come into sacred agreement with trees, and deepen your relational awareness of them, in addition to standing in solidarity with global forest guardians.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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