So we have a comic strip released every Tuesday and Thursday while running a blog series on Game of Thrones. We at Cambrian Comics thought it would be a fun idea to spend each Saturday talking about superheroes in the rather unimaginatively named “Super Saturday” (seriously, if anyone has a better name for it please let us know) where we are going to talk about superheroes and super villains in all their big, colorful, and sometimes really stupid, glory.
If we’re going to talk about super heroes what better place to start then the very beginning? For our inaugural post we are going to talk about the world’s very first supermen.
Oh, were we expecting something a bit different? Someone with a cape, red underwear, and a big “S” on his chest? Well we’ll get to him later but for now we have these two. This is a carving of the two main characters from one of the world’s first written stories: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Now the entire story has been translated from a series of clay tablets. It is very long and you can find a translated version here but I’ll summarize the story here. Gilgamesh is the king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. He is incredibly strong, incredibly vain, and incredibly bored since he doesn’t have a friend who he can share his life with. He winds up sleeping with all the women in the city (he’s also a love making machine) and their husbands aren’t happy about it. In desperation the people pray to the gods to deliver them from their king and in response the gods create Enkidu from clay. Enkidu is a wild man, covered in hair and is the one with horns in the picture above. Enkidu is eventually lured to Uruk by a prostitute (after six days of continuous lovemaking) and when he and Gilgamesh meet they wrestle.
The match ends in a draw and the two men become good friends, saving the city from Gilgamesh’s frustrations. After Gilgamesh winds up rejecting the Sumerian goddess of love Ishtar she demands that both men be killed. In order to do this she convinces her father Anu to summon the winged Bull of Heaven to trample the men and the city. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight the god but Enkidu winds up dying.
Distraught over the death of his friend and fearful for his life Gilgamesh decides to venture into the Underworld and attempt to discover the secret of immortality. He ultimately succeeds by discovering a special flower that gives him eternal youth but is eventually foiled when a serpent steals the flower.
If it seems the story ends rather abruptly it is because a good portion of the story is missing. This is a story that is thousands of years old and record keeping wasn’t as good as it is today. There are some versions of the story where it ends with the failure of Gilgamesh and there are some where Gilgamesh brings Enkidu back to life. Either way there are several superhero tropes that show up in one of the world’s first stories. First, it is about two men who have superhuman abilities, in this case super strength and sexual prowess and they spend most of the story proving it. Also, both heroes face and defeat otherworldly threats to their people and their existence, something we’ve seen time and time again as Superman has saved Metropolis from aliens and Spiderman has saved yet another orphan from a falling car.
Now we’ve talked about the physical abilities of Enkidu and Gilgamesh but we can go a bit deeper with our comparison. First, in a historical first that will play out in a lot of modern day superhero stories, both Enkidu and Gilgamesh are representations of larger social and political issues. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written as humanity was organizing itself and forming cities and farms. Naturally the resources consuming and progressive cities faced some conflict with the resource producing and conservative countryside. The Epic of Gilgamesh is not just a story about two men it is a story of civilization and man vs. nature. When he is created by the gods Enkidu is a wild man, uncivilized and covered in hair, and hates the royal Gilgamesh. The wild country boy attempts to take down the city boy but winds up becoming good friends with him and becomes civilized. Likewise, most of our modern day superheros (the good ones at least) usually represent something bigger then themselves. Iron man represents science and technological progress.
While a hero like Batman represents the power of human will and desire for order.
The idea that there are beings that are bigger and stronger than any ordinary human and can represent something bigger than themselves is the very foundation of the modern day superhero, and they all owe it the world’s first superheroes in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
We hope you enjoyed our first post in this series. If you have a topic or hero you’d like to talk about please let us know on Facebook or Twitter @Cambriancomics. If you want to yell at us, tell us how wrong we are, or just insult us…yeah sure you can do that too.
2 thoughts on “The Primordial Soup: The first superheroes”
Hi, this is lovely, but you’ve left out the bit about Gilgamesh and Enkidu being the first recorded gay lovers 🙂
That’s true, but I like to think it was more fraternal love than romantic love. The simple fact of the matter is that “love” meant something different five thousand years ago than it does today.