Love, Passion and Suffering in Gilgamesh and 1001 Nights

1001 nights, Gilgamesh and suffering

by Nicole Motahari

The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin term ‘passio’, meaning ‘to suffer’.  Out of the various texts that have been examined in the class over the course of the semester, two in particular stand out as portraying the concept of love being linked to suffering. In both 1001 Nights and Gilgamesh, there are various forms of love. Gilgamesh portrays familial love between Ninsun and Gilgamesh, as well as the more complicated love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. In 1001 Nights, we see the same intimate family love in the affection Shahrazad’s father and sister hold for her, as well as the other various forms of love described in Shahrazad’s stories.

The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is at base level fraternal; however, if one looks beneath that prime layer of brotherly affection, one can perceive an almost erotic relationship between the two. Upon their first meeting, Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle as a manner of fulfilling Gilgamesh’s desire. Gilgamesh had been one his way to have intercourse with a new bride before her husband could ‘know her’ in the carnal sense. However, the manner in which Enkidu wrestles seems incredibly similar to a session of rough sex. They even end up with Gilgamesh winning “by pinning Enkidu over his shoulders while keeping one foot on the ground” (II.96), which sounds remarkably similar to a sex position.

This is such a portrayal of passion, in its violence and emotion. The walls are shaking, the doorposts are shattered. This is about dominance and being on top, so to speak. They suffer physically, assuming minor injuries I’m assuming, but the emotional suffering then begins, for to love someone is an obligation, not just a feeling, in the manner that the media portrays it as today.  Ninsun realizes this, and lays an obligation upon Enkidu, taking him in and saying “I herewith take Enkidu…as my adopted son” (III.103), and “Enkidu promises Ninsun that he will bring Gilgamesh back safely” (III.111).

Enkidu’s love for Gilgamesh also illustrates a version of suffering, for when Enkidu is about to die, he curses everyone for introducing him to the human lifestyle that he lives. However, what the reader must recall is that the only reason Enkidu was torn away from his animalistic lifestyle was to tame Gilgamesh and reduce the suffering that the general population was experiencing.  When Enkidu dies, the author of Gilgamesh chooses to express Gilgamesh’s suffering to the extreme. Upon his friend’s death, Gilgamesh “paced to and fro, back and forth, tearing out and hurling away the locks of his hair, ripping off and throwing away his fine clothes like something foul” (VIII.62-64).  This passionate display is an outward manifestation of his suffering, for not only has he lost a friend, but by losing Enkidu, he has lost a brother, a protector, and even a lover.

After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh attempts to search for immortality and in this, we see a very big emphasis on repetition, perhaps striving to highlight Gilgamesh’s desperation and the urgency of his quest, for having lost what he loves, he realizes that he must reach the same fate in the end, and by running through the mountains, he attempts to escape that sad fate of death that Enkidu was not able to escape. In Tablet IX, Gilgamesh is running through the tunnel, and “when he had gone one double hour, dense was the darkness, no light was there, it would not let him look behind him, when he had gone two double hours, dense was the darkness, no light was there, it would not let him look behind him…” (IX. 80-85), and so on and so on, through line 115, when it finally states that “[When he had gone twelve double hours], he came out ahead of the sun”.  Gilgamesh’s journey through the tunnel represents his running from his guilt, his fear of death and his first experience with actual emotional hurt. In short, he is running from his suffering.

Unlike Gilgamesh, the tale of Shahrazad and 1001 Nights embraces the idea of love as suffering and realizes that sometimes one must suffer for love. Both King Shahryar and his brother Shahzaman suffer as a consequence of loving their wives. They suffer an emotional pain when their wives cuckold them, and to some extent, we can say that their pride is suffering as well, as portrayed when Shahzaman’s “spirits would sag… [and] in his depression, he neglected everything, looks pale and wasted away.” When Shahryar starts executing women, and Shahrazad offers herself up as a bride to him, she is potentially putting herself and her family in a place of great suffering, all for a form of patriotism, Shahrazad’s love of her country.

Shahrazad’s father loves her, so he does not wish to place his daughter in the position of the Shah’s wife. He reminds her of the saying “I would be sitting pretty, were it not for my curiosity”, warning her against marrying the king and being too confident in her own plans. His love for her makes him suffer with paternal worry that his daughter has miscalculated and the next woman’s head to be cut off will be his daughter’s. Nevertheless, we must attribute Shahrazad’s success not only to her own stories, but also to her sister, Dinarzad. For after the king has his way with Shahrazad, Dinarzad is the one to speak up with the same line every night, saying “Please sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night,” (1064).

The repetition is a cue, a reminder to Shahrazad of the role she must play. The king could easily choose to have Shahrazad executed and to take her sister as his next wife, but Shahrazad’s stories are saving not only her life, but the lives of all other single women in the kingdom. At the end of the tale, when dawn overtakes them, Dinarzad always says “What a strange and wonderful story,” to which Shahrazad replies, “Tomorrow night I shall tell something even stranger and more wonderful than this,” which in turn is a reminder to the king (1066). By doing so, she keeps him strung along for just one more night, and in turn, makes him fall in love with her.

Shahrazad’s love for her country, her sister and the king is not an easy one. She has to go to bed every night, wondering if the king will spare her for one more day, having to scour her mind for yet another story. After two years and 271 days, we can safely assume that Shahrazad falls in love with the king as well, but she had to tame him, to build up his ego once more. Simply put, she was his therapist. Shahrazad suffered in uncertainty each night, but through her love, she tamed Shahryar’s cruel temper and taught him mercy. Each time she begins a story, we can see her addressing him in different ways of endearing him towards her, with terms such as “dear king” (1068) and “happy king” (1070).

In both of these stories, we are presented with the same general story: that of a loved one taming the wild royal temper. It is that of Shahrazad’s love for her country. It’s the story of Enkidu’s love for Gilgamesh. Both tamers go into the story to save their countrymen, with the patriotic love and love in general for the fundamental rights of human beings. Once they are taming and have tamed their charges, love ensues, but not without suffering. Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a very violent physical passion that burns quickly, but results in suffering for them both at the end with death as the only ending point. Shahrazad’s tale begins with suffering, and her suffering is stretched out over the course of 1001 nights, but in return, her reward is life and her goal is accomplished without any more blood being shed. What is love, but a strong emotion, a passion for something that is cared about deeply, thereby emboldening and impassioning us to act for what may be seen as the greater good? There are so many different types of love, but all of them require some type of suffering, whether it is putting yourself in bodily danger, or assisting the one you love in saving a country. To love is to feel, to feel is to suffer, and to suffer is to be human, no matter if you’re royalty, or a divine figure.