Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Corinthian Order

In comparison to the intellectual and even spiritual encodings that make the Doric and Ionic orders and their Egyptian forebears so resonant, the origins of the Corinthian order, the last of the three classical orders to emerge from Antiquity, is much more clear and its symbolic meaning much more self-evident.

The oldest known Corinthian column was found in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia, built by the architect Iktinos (who with Kallikrates designed the Parthenon) and dated to circa 420 BC. Curiously, the temple itself (above, an old photograph, before it was roofed for restoration) is Doric, with the Ionic employed within the cella, where a single, freestanding Corinthian column held pride of place. This unusual placement indicates that the column was likely meant to be a votive column and also makes the temple unique in that its architecture boasts all three of the Ancient orders.

During the next century, the Corinthian order remains an interior embellishment and its first documented exterior use occurs in Athens, at the famed Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (above and below), erected circa 334 BC. The diminutive cylindrical tempietto, raised on a cubic base, was crowned by a bronze tripod, the prize that the patron Lysicrates' choir had won in a competition in the Theatre of Dionysus.

The Greeks did not much care for the Corinthian order and employed it sparsely but the Romans used it for just about everything, and it is a bit surprising that this most practical of people chose the most ornate of the Greek orders to make their own. Doubtless, it was exactly the Corinthian order's inherent decorative qualities that most appealed to them, as well as it being the last and least-employed of the Greek orders. In a word, the Corinthian's malleability was key to its success in Imperial Rome: it could be adapted and embellished and its proportions revisited to suit any situation. (Below, a rare Greek temple using the Corinthian order, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens.)

Vitruvius credits the Corinthian sculptor and architect Callimachus with the order's invention, recounting the story that he was inspired by a grave marker for a wellborn girl left by her nurse (first illustration). She had set a basket upon the grave with a roof tile placed upon it to protect the offerings inside, the girl's favorite objects. In spring, an acanthus grew around the basket, its young stalks pressed into volutes by the overhanging tile. Callimachus happened to stroll by and had a Eureka! moment and the rest, as they say, is history—though likely mostly story.

Callimachus was famed for his bravura sculptural technique and is credited with being the first sculptor to undercut and drill marble to create greater relief in drapery, foliage and hair. The elaborately undercut acanthus foliage and volutes of the Corinthian capital, which demands just such sculptural virtuosity, does indeed argue for his authorship. (Below: an early capital from the Tholos at Epidarius.)

Admittedly, we do also find distant precursors in Assyrian architecture, following the same trail that we did for the Ionic, but the extreme ornamental complexity of the Corinthian order and its reliance on naturalistic acanthus-leaf decoration are sure signs that we should not bother to look too deeply for hidden meanings: the Corinthian is a decorative order, a product of Greece's 'baroque' period. It is a bravura flourish, a complex and contrived ornamental outburst—a self-conscious creation. Indeed it may well be that one of Vitrivius' mundane explanations finally happens to be true.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Ionic Order

The Ionic order originated, unsurprisingly, in seafaring Ionia in the early 6th century BC. Culturally, the Ionians were thoroughly Greek and quite naturally they spoke Ionian, a Greek dialect.

Ionia itself was a small but economically and culturally powerful Greek province, actually a ridiculously small coastal enclave (no more than 90 x 55 miles in extent, located near Smyrna in present-day Anatolia, Turkey) that also encompassed the islands of Samos and Chios. Its major city, Miletus, was an important commercial center and Phocaea was a great port. Both cities spawned colonies, spreading Ionian influence throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and with Samos were the backbone of Ionian power and influence.

This loose confederation for a time banded together to form the Ionian League, which was an early and great center of Greek civilization. Its legacies are staggeringly outsized: the foundations of Greek philosophy, geometry and mathematics with the Ionian school of the eminent Thales and his followers Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Archelaus, and Diogenes of Apollonia; the mystery school founded by Pythagoras of Samos, the great geometer and philosopher; and generations of brilliant artists and architects who deeply influenced the development of Hellenic art. In fact, if Western civilization was born in ancient Greece, then Greek civilization can be said to have been born in Ionia.

This Ionian cultural and intellectual explosion ignited in the 6th century BC, at the birth of the Ionic order, and Ionic temples began to appear on the Greek mainland in the following century. According to Vitruvius, the architects Rhoikos and Theodorus of Samos built the first of the great Ionic temples at Samos, dedicated to Hera, circa 580-560 BCE (above, its floor plan and a surviving capital). Though it stood but a decade before being leveled by an earthquake, the temple of Hera at Samos was a remarkably ambitious undertaking, famous throughout the Greek world. Quite simply, it was the first great Greek temple, its footprint large as a soccer field, rivaling in scale and architectural ambition the temples of Egypt. (Below, the temple of Artemis at Ephesius, comparable in period and scale.)

Here, at the very birth of the Ionic order, we are confronted with a truly monumental construction that forces us to rethink our notions of the scale of the Greek temple. To give some sense of this temple's massive size, the Parthenon's stylobate or plinth measures approximately 70 x 31 meters, nearly a third smaller. As Nancy Mitford would say, the temple of Hera at Samos put Greece—or more truthfully, tiny Ionia—on the map.

The Ionic Column

Ionic column shafts, more slender than the Doric, usually stand eight to nine column diameters tall and may be fluted or smooth. When fluted, they traditionally carry 24 flutes, as opposed to 20 for the Doric. The flutes are slightly separated, leaving a thin strip of unfluted column between them known as a fillet, as opposed to the Doric, where the flutes abut at an acute angle. Finally, Ionic columns have a ringed base and square pad that raises them off the stylobate, or temple plinth, an element the Doric lacks completely.

Its capital is far and away the Ionic order's most remarkable feature, and the capital's most important characteristic is its bi-fold symmetry, or directional orientation, in contrast to the Doric's radial unity. That the Ionic capital has clearly defined faces and sides is a crucial observation to keep in mind as we go digging through the byways of ancient civilizations looking for its predecessors. If it is a truism that "the lie is different at every level," then it also holds that the truth is also different at every level, and builds accretively, and the Ionic order presents us with a multitude of precedents and influences.

The Ionic capital's volutes, also popularly called "eyes," have led to the painfully simplistic speculation that the Ionic column can be interpreted anthropomorphically, with the fluted shaft depicting a woman's toga-clad body and the capital her head (and, one supposes, the volutes must then depict Princess Leia's hair).

Others have proposed that the spiraling volutes depict rams' horns or nautilus shells, and here we are moving much closer to the truth. The principle underlying both those physical forms is the Fibonacci sequence, a simple arithmetic progression that regulates and balances natural growth, including those rams' horns and nautilus shells and all matter of things from artichokes to tree branches, pine cones, fern heads and so on. You'll also find it topping the neck of classical string instruments such as violins, violas and cellos—the element called, appropriately enough, the scroll.

Fibonacci, otherwise known as Leonardo of Pisa, was the first to publish this arithmetical progression (0; 0+1=1; 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13...) in 1202, gaining him lasting fame. But alas, like just about every other bit of knowledge of this nature, he was simply publicly disseminating elements of the ancient occult knowledge of the Egyptian mystery schools for the first time. In truth, this formula was part of the Sacred Geometry of ancient Egypt and was also known to the ancient Vedic civilization as well.

Out of Egypt (again)

And how did the occult knowledge of the ancient mysteries, the precious high knowledge of the Egyptian priestly class, escape Egypt to become known to Greece and then to the West? Through those wily, intrepid seafarers, the ancient Greeks, of course. A number of very old, very famous Greeks—among them Thales, Plato and Pythagoras—made quite some names for themselves after traveling to Egypt to become initiates of the mysteries.

These renowned sages were hardly solitary pilgrims. As we mentioned in our earlier post on the Doric, Greeks and Egyptians were carrying on a robust economic and cultural trade in the Archaic period and the Ionians were at its forefront; when the first Ionic temples were being built, Ionia was in the midst of an Egyptian trade boom.

According to Pliny, the very form of the great temple of Hera at Samos, a grid of 8 x 21 columns covering roughly 50 x 100 meters, evokes the Egyptian Labyrinth at Hawara, a vast mortuary complex of twelve courtyards (and according to Heroditus, who had visited) over 3000 rooms built for Pharaoh Amenemhat III, the last great king of the 12th dynasty. The Labyrinth (above, a recent computer-generated reconstruction) was one of the wonders of the Ancient world and far more famous in antiquity than the Great Pyramid. Tragically, the Romans used Hawara as a quarry and with customary thoroughness so completely effaced the complex that, even after major excavations, reconstructions of the Labyrinth are still based almost entirely on ancient descriptions. Nonetheless, Pliny specifically mentions the temple of Hera at Samos, with its dense grid of columns, as one of the world's great labyrinths, comparable to the Egyptian Labyrinth, famed for being so bewildering that one had to visit with a ball of string or a native guide. (Below, a view of the pronaos of the temple of Artemis at Ephesius.)

When we seek out the earliest recognizable Archaic precursors to Ionic columns, we first find ourselves on the isles of Lesbos and Troas, birthplace of the Aeolic capital, composed of two robust volutes bracketing a palmette. The Lesvs were great poets and pre-eminent seafarers and colonized the coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia, or contemporary Turkey), and the Aeolian city of Smyrna was admitted to the Ionian league circa 650 BC, unsurprisingly bringing us full circle back to Ionia's doorstep. (Below, an Aeolian capital from Neandria in Troas, an ancient city on the Turkish coast not far from Ionia).

Obviously, this abstracted floral motif is an adaptation of Egyptian lotus and papyrus capitals, and indeed one of the earliest recognizably Ionic capitals, which rotates the Aeolian volutes to link them horizontally, creating a pad, has been found in the Greek enclave of Naukratis in Egypt (below).

Assyrian Roots

Formally, the Ionic capital's directionality indicates that its earliest precursors were cap blocks meant to span and support beams and lintels, a construction technique most elaborated in Assyrian architecture. Egypt had fallen under control of the Assyrian empire in Archaic times, and a simple glance at early Assyrian capitals and particularly those used at Persepolis (both below), indicates that the ultimate inspiration for the Ionic springs from Assyria. (Though Persepolis was begun a century after the appearance of the Ionic, its architecture exhibits an extremely high level of refinement, indicating a long prior tradition.)

In fact direct proof of influence and exchange can be found in the remnants of the temple of Hera at Samos, where one finds sculpted stones bearing much the same doubled volutes as at Persepolis (below).

Clearly, the Assyrian capital holds a welter of meanings—those at Persepolis have three tiers of symbols: bulls, volutes and lotuses, like a triple-scoop ice cream cone. Other Assyrian precursors depict flowers, humans and rolled papyrus or parchment scrolls (below).

The Ionic abstracts and conflates all these symbols, and this was its genius. The horned bull of Taurus of the Assyrians; the Egyptian lotus; the papyrus scroll, symbol of human intellect; the Fibonacci sequence, sacred geometry encoding nature's growth—all these meanings come together in the volutes of the Ionic capital—a great fusion of ancient knowledge and a symbol above all of the glory of ancient Ionia.

Next: the Corinthian order

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Doric Order

The Doric order is the earliest of the classical orders developed by Archaic Greek civilization and was by far the most popular of the three. The eponymous Dorians were the dominant tribe of the four main peoples forming ancient Greece and the Dorian dialect was spoken in a great southward arc stretching across the Aegean from Corfu to the lower Peloponnesian Peninsula and on to the islands of Crete and Rhodes. (Above, the Hephaisteion or Theseion, a remarkably preserved Doric temple located on the north-west side of the Agora of Athens.)

Already well-established in the 7th century BC, the Doric order reached its apotheosis with the stunning achievement of the Parthenon in 438 BC but eventually fell from favor by the end of the 2nd century BC. It would spawn both the Roman Doric, an embellished version with lighter proportions and the addition of the Ionic column base, and much later the highly simplified Tuscan order, developed in 16th century Italy by Serlio and Palladio and employed principally for rural architecture, as embodied by Palladio's villas.

In Di Architectura, Vitruvius, a Roman architect who practiced during the reign of Augustus Caesar, remarked that the Doric was masculine in character and wrote that its fundamental proportion, a column shaft six times its diameter, deliberately mirrored "the proportions, strength and beauty of a man's body." (The length of actual shafts varied between 4½ and 7 column diameters, with the shaft almost uniformly bearing 20 flutes.) He also noted that the Doric was suitable for temples dedicated to such masculine gods as Hercules and Mars, while the Ionic and Corinthian were more feminine.

Though in truth the Romans used the Corinthian order for just about everything, Vitruvius's comments reflect the Doric order's thicker, squatter proportions, its traditional lack of naturalistic or floral ornament and its underlying static, rectilinear æsthetic logic. There is no point in cataloguing Doric elements here for the umpteenth time, rather we will examine the Doric column and its all-important capital and attempt to discern greater meaning than the ancient tidbit Vitruvius has tossed us—and also something beyond the obvious modern observation that many of its rectilinear elements (triglyphs, abacus, mutules, and so on) almost certainly are inspired from earlier timber-frame construction techniques, translated into stone decoration.

The first things to remark about the Doric capital (above and below, examples from the Parthenon) are its remarkable simplicity and unity. In contrast to the elegant, complex bifold geometry of the Ionic and the florid outburst that is the Corinthian, the Doric capital is composed of two visually balanced elemental elements: a thick, squared slab called the abacus and a flaring, circular pillow beneath named the echinus. Usually, but not always, three concentric fillets transition the echinus to the shaft, known as annulets.

Even more so than the Ionic order, the origin of the Doric is too diffuse to pinpoint, but the Archaic Greek impetus to erect monumental dressed stone temples to their gods obviously sprang from the example of the sacred architecture of ancient Egypt, a civilization then already in terminal decline. In the late Archaic period the Greeks and Egypt were carrying out extensive trade and by the 7th century BC Greek neighborhoods and trading centers had become established in Egypt's most important cities.

The general influence of Egypt is clear, as is the direct precedent of the colonnade at Saqqara (above). We find fluting, inverted from the bowed ribs at Saqqara , and the same æsthetic/geometric/volumetric rigor, elegance and abstraction. What is so fascinating with the Doric is exactly this deliberate abstraction, this remarkable renunciation of naturalistic ornament—exactly as we find at Saqqara. In fact, the Doric appears deliberately conceived to embody austere geometry and clear, rectilinear volumetrics.

A circular echinus supporting a square abacus. (Above, a capital at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.) The circle and the square: Heaven and Earth. The ancient Egyptian principle of "as above, so below" has been purified and abstracted and, I believe, a unity of opposites is being expressed. The Egyptian duality is transformed into a single, fusional idea, most clearly palpable in the overarching æsthetic sense—this volumetric, geometric, abstract rigor I keep referring to—that is the glue that bonds these constituent ideograms together: the concept of consciousness itself. Man, the abstract thinker.

It is no coincidence that the Doric temple makes its appearance in the midst of the intellectual ferment that also sees philosophy's tandem birth. In a nutshell, the Doric order expresses, quite self-consciously and deliberately, the celebration of man's conscious rationality, the blossoming of Greek thought. In fact a parallel to the first recorded Western cosmology, that of Anaximander of Miletus (an Ionian, about which we'll have more to say in our next post on the Ionic), can and indeed has been drawn, but I'm not in agreement with Robert Hahn that Anaximander's vision of the earth as a thick, cylindrical wafer suspended in space finds a literal equivalent in the actual cylindrical stone blocks, or "drums" that make up a Greek column—first of all, because they are construction components and not the column itself. This is like some future archeo-anthropologist concluding that skeletons from our era exhumed with polyester clothing were doubtless acolytes of string theory, because their garments are composed of a complex interweaving of imperishable threads. Columns were conceived to be—and were preferably executed as—monoliths; assembling them from stacked drums was an expedient, a quite-literal "short-cut" never meant to bring attention to itself, let alone be celebrated as a metaphor for the divine order of creation!

But Hahn's thesis isn't totally wrong, though misplaced (and mostly irrelevant as Anaximander was born too late to have any decisive influence on the development of either the Doric or Ionic orders): Anaximander's cosmology is congruent with the column's symbolism, as both share the idea of a centered infinity and, just as importantly, an axiality that can be linked to the cosmic axis of earth and the zodiac. Vitruvius is much closer to the nub of things in symbolically equating the Doric column with man, and thus the capital with man's head, the locus of consciousness. The columns (humanity) support the roof (heaven) which shelters the sanctuary (the abode of the gods). This is the fundamental cosmology being expressed in any Greco-Roman temple. Not by accident is the word pediment, denoting the triangularly shaped wall found between the cornice and the sloping roof ends of a Greek temple, a workman's corruption of the word pyramid.

Vitruvius was certainly correct, the Doric order is the measure of man, but not in the literal sense: What is being measured is not man's body but his mind.

Coming soon: the Ionic order.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Origin of the Orders: Egypt

The origin and meaning of the classical columnar orders has been debated for centuries, with quite some fanciful ideas tossed about to explain how the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders came to be.

This is the first in a series of posts that will re-examine the elements and origins of the classical orders and posit new interpretations of their meanings. But before we look at the classical orders, we should first examine the sacred architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who after all invented the column (not to mention architecture itself), and who were also the source and wellspring for high learning in the Classical world.

The first historical architect (and also engineer and physician) is Imhotep ("he who comes in peace"), one of the greatest intellects ever to walk the earth. Imhotep (2635-2595 B.C.) served as chancellor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djozer and was high priest of the sun god Ra at On (better known by its Greek name of Heliopsis, or "city of the sun"). He was also a poet and philosopher (of course), and was one of the few non-Pharaohs in the entire history of Egypt ever to be depicted in stone. Eventually, 1400 years after his death, he was deified.

In traditional Egyptology (though the simple existence of the Osirion at Abydos, as well as the advanced erosion of the Great Sphinx and Valley Temples at Giza should give one great pause in blindly accepting the conventional, increasingly untenable chronology), Imhotep is credited with the first systematic use of dressed stone construction, embodied in the design and construction of Djozer's stepped pyramid and temple complex at Saqqara from 2630 to 2611 BCE (above), and the invention of the column is often attributed to him as well. An altogether astounding personage.

The concept of the column is ultimately traceable to the Djed pillar, a truly ancient phallic fertility symbol depicting the base of the spine of Osiris (and also that of a bull, or Taurus). The ceremony of the raising of the Djed (above) was a festival of fertility and renewal (Djedu was the Egyptian name for Busiris, a center of cult worship for the Pharaoh, and many pharaohs, Djozer among them, bore the title of Djed among their honorifics).

It is also, I suspect, the origin of the phrase "raising the dead" and the traditional English-language wordplay of confounding death with ejaculation. For example, that learned and leering Elizabethan thug, Shakespeare, was quite fond of the phrase "I die in your lap," which appears both in Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing ("nothing" also referred to a woman's sexual organs). If you'll allow me one more digression, this use of double entendre, hominyms, and multiple meanings in language and literature was a major element of occult and esoteric knowledge. Philology and etymology are rife with such codes; to give but one well-known example, right and left: right comes from the root reg- and means good, straight, righteous and wise, and it is also the opposite of left. Then there are write and rite, right? Left derives from the Old English lyft, foolish or weak, and ultimately from OE slinken, to crawl (like a snake). Left in German is links and in Latin it is sinister, a modern English synonym for evil, and finally left is the past participle of to leave.

Now that we've dealt with how Shakespeare entertained the groundlings, let us return to consider the surprise of surprises: columns are ultimately phallic symbols. (Who ever would have guessed?) To underscore the symbolism of fertility, even the earliest columns were depicted with abstracted vegetal motifs. Though much of the architecture of Saqqara is remarkably modern in its abstract geometry and volumetric lucidity, its columns are among the few elements that incorporate recognizable decoration, all of it vegetal in inspiration.

Actual Djed columns appear as ornamental motifs at Saqqara (above, repeated as a frieze), but others, such as the magnificent colonnade (below, and initial photo), are quite abstract, while the elongated engaged columns decorating the false shrines of the so-called Jubilee (Heb Sed) Court (below, bottom) feature exaggerated lotus-flower capitals.

The convex fluting of the majestic colonnade at Saqqara, one of the most beautiful spaces in all of Egypt (initial photo and first photo above), represents bundled papyrus stalks, and in Egyptian cosmology, the papyrus, along with the lotus flower that gives its form to so many Egyptian capitals, was found at the primordial mound at the beginning of time. Papyrus stalks held up the goddess Nut, the sky, just as the lotus flower opened to give birth to the sun. The papyrus also symbolized Lower Egypt, while the lotus represented Upper Egypt; thus the two main symbols incorporated into the columns that held up the roof or sky of Egyptian temples also symbolically united the Two Lands of Egypt itself and encapsulated the origins of the universe. As above, so below.

But we should not stop there. The papyrus is also the source of paper and thus also a cipher for knowledge and for civilization itself, the pillar of consciousness which holds up the vault of Heaven and shelters man (above, Nut the sky goddess arching over her lover Geb, the earth god; note the Djed pillar at left, found just beneath an Ankh). Below, a bas-relief of Isis at far right, bearing a papyrus staff, indicating her divine stature, from Kom-Ombo.

In turn, the sacred lotus, or the blue water lily (Nymphaea Caerulea, below), also held feminine attributes and was linked to fertility, as well as the sun, rebirth and resurrection. It is also intimately related to the goddess Isis, wife and sister of Osiris and daughter of Geb and Nut.

Its flower has also recently been recognized to contain mild psychoactive properties when steeped or eaten, offering episodes of mildly heightened awareness and introspection, and a new generation of Egyptian researchers posit that the lotus flower, known in ancient Egypt for its healing properties, may also have been used in divination rituals, much like the well-known sacred hallucinogens of native North and South American cultures. Though this thesis may shock those who might reflexively attribute our own society's condemnation of psychoactive substances to other cultures, the ancients had no such scruples.

(Below, the great hall of Amun-Re at the temple complex of Karnak, ancient Thebes.)

The column is an Egyptian invention and so must embody the unity of opposites that is the basis of all Egyptian thought, just as it must also incarnate Egyptian cosmology. The male Djed is wed to the female vegetal symbols, just as Geb is wed with Nut and Osiris is wed with Isis. Papyrus, symbol of divinity, logic and civilization itself, is wed to the spiritual and the mystical, embodied by the sacred lotus.

As above, so below.

Coming soon, the Doric order.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

AD Features our Holiday Cards

Our friends at Architectural Digest have released their December issue and we're delighted to finally be able to report that our holiday cards are featured in their Christmas gift and shopping pages.

There are a baker's dozen of our architectural and garden-themed note cards that are exclusively available at our online boutique, link here. (Our other cards are found in a few select retail stores, such as the Frick Collection gift shop and Archivia Books in Manhattan, and Librarie Galignani here in Paris.)

They are large format, 6 x 8 inch folding cards, richly printed on a sturdy, heavyweight laid paper with matching envelopes, and the motifs are meant to be a refreshing change from the normal seasonal subjects.

There are four themes, and hopefully enough motifs for any taste: Chinoiserie Pagodas, Garden Tents, Treillage Pavilions, and Silver & Gold. Each card is bordered by deep red or forest green fillet lines to give them a seasonal snap.

Orders are shipped worldwide next day, just be sure to place your order earlier rather than later to receive them before the holiday rush.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gilgamesh, a new interpretation

This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

The Sumerian story known today as the Epic of Gilgamesh is among the world's oldest surviving texts, commonly dated to the seventeenth to eighteenth century BC, though the earliest Sumerian poems can be traced to the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC). The Akkadian version, consisting of twelve tablets edited by the scribe Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC, was rediscovered in 1853 in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Sin-liqe-unninni conflated several much more ancient stories to create the Epic of Gilgamesh we know today, and he is also the oldest known 'author' in history, being the first to sign his name to his work.

At heart, Gilgamesh combines two stories, that of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and later, Gilgamesh's odyssey in search of immortality. Here, we will examine the first part of the epic: the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, "two-thirds god and one-third human... terrifying" in his perfection, and his "noble" companion Enkidu, the domesticated savage, his name literally meaning [the god] Enki's creation, formed of "a pinch of clay, let fall into the wilderness."

Such primal word pictures indicate that Gilgamesh is much more than a mere work of fiction; it is clearly a myth: a story that encodes, preserves and transmits truths about the origins and prehistory of humanity in allusive form.

We know today that we are actually a hybrid species: ancient homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals until their extinction some 30,000 years ago. Our Neanderthal genetic inheritance ranges from 1% to 5% of our DNA, with the highest percentages found in modern Europeans. With this in mind, the story of the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu takes on an entirely new meaning and is, I believe, in great part a parable recording ancient man's cohabitation with Neanderthals and their subsequent extinction.

Let us first consider Gilgamesh's attributes:
When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man...

...none can withstand his arms. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all; and is this the king, the shepherd of his people? His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble.

All this is very clear: Gilgamesh is the "perfect" man, his parentage two-thirds from the gods and the rest from earlier men, with massive strength and lust to match. His fecundity was so boundless and disruptive that the gods needed to quell it by creating "his equal, like him as his own reflection, a second self" as a counterbalance to Gilgamesh's "stormy heart."

That task fell to Araru, goddess of creation, apparently bidden by Enki (above, who also created mankind to serve the gods and saved them from the flood):

She dipped her hands in water and pinched off clay, she let it fall in the wilderness, and noble Enkidu was created... There was virtue in him of the god of war, of Ninurta himself. His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman's; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Samugan's, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land... Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.

Well, this is all quite obvious, really: Enkidu = Neanderthal. But Enkidu, the wild man, was causing civilized men great trouble by interfering with their hunts. A trapper recounts, "there is a man, unlike any other, who comes down from the hills... He fills in the pits which I dig and tears up my traps; he helps the beasts to escape and now they slip through my fingers." So a clever plot is hatched by the trapper's father; Enkidu will be seduced to sleep with a whore, and once tamed, he will "change the old order" and put King Gilgamesh in his place.

[The whore] was not ashamed to take him, she made herself naked and welcomed his eagerness; as he lay on her murmuring love she taught him the woman's art. For six days and seven nights they lay together, for Enkidu had forgotten his home in the hills; but when he was satisfied he went back to the wild beasts. Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone. And now the wild creatures had all fled away; Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart.

Interbreeding with ancient humans has civilized the Neanderthals, but also weakened and deracinated them, estranging them from nature. Indeed, the process is cast as a seduction and wisdom a degenerative corruption perpetrated by a whore (the whore of civilization, who will later reappear as the Biblical whore of Babylon, and their "six days and seven nights" of fornication will echo in the creation story of Genesis. Likewise, Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge proffered by Eve also finds a thematic foreshadowing.)

The whore then convinces Enkidu to come to Uruk (above, the city's legendary brick ramparts today), to meet Gilgamesh:
Enkidu was pleased; he longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart. ‘Come, woman, and take me to that holy temple, to the house of Anu and of Ishtar, and to the place where Gilgamesh lords himself over the people. I will challenge him boldly, I will cry out aloud in Uruk, "I am the strongest here, I have come to change the old order, I am he who was born in the hills, I am he who is strongest of all."'

But the whore knows already which man will dominate; Gilgamesh, whose mind is more variable, who is more perfect, stronger and wiser and with greater intuition. And after all, it is Gilgamesh who is king:

"O Enkidu, you who love life, I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of many moods; you shall look at him well in his radiant manhood. His body is perfect in strength and maturity; he never rests by night or day. He is stronger than you, so leave your boasting. Shamash the glorious sun has given favours to Gilgamesh, and Anu of the heavens, and Enlil, and Ea the wise has given him deep understanding. I tell you, even before you have left the wilderness, Gilgamesh will know in his dreams that you are coming."

The Neanderthal extinction

As "servant" of King Gilgamesh, Enkidu weakens living in the city:
The eyes of Enkidu were full of tears and his heart was sick. He sighed bitterly and Gilgamesh met his eye and said, 'My friend, why do you sigh so bitterly? But Enkidu replied, 'I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.'

Gilgamesh, seeking both challenge and renown, decides that together they will kill the evil Humbaba, "a great warrior, a battering-ram... the watchman of the cedar forest who never sleeps." They set off on their quest to the cedar-forested mountain and are ultimately victorious in battle, capturing Humbaba. Gilgamesh, swayed by Humbaba's pleas for mercy, considers sparing him, but Enkidu urges his death, warning of future treachery, and Humbaba curses Enkidu, saying, "May he not live the longer of the two."

They cut off his head; trees were felled, including the Great Cedar whose crown scraped the sky. From its timber a door was made—72 cubits high, 24 cubits wide and one cubit thick—for Enlil's temple in Nippur. Gilgamesh and Enkidu: their names will now be remembered by posterity, and by the gods.

Upon their return, the goddess Ishtar, "queen of Heaven," proposes marriage to Gilgamesh, who rejects it, citing her inconstancy and the horrible ends met by her discarded lovers. Enraged, she demands that her father Anu set the bull of heaven (the constellation Taurus) to wreak havoc upon Uruk, but together Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaughter the bull, and Endiku mocks Ishtar by tossing its severed leg at her. (The thigh of the bull was an important constellation to the ancient Egyptians, appearing countless times in their texts, and is assumed by Egyptologists to refer to the "imperishable stars.")

These killings enrage the gods (the bull Taurus was often depicted accompanying man's creator, Enki) and Anu passes judgment upon Enkidu, who sickens and dies over 12 days, and in his delerium curses Enlil: "what ingratitude for the sake of a door!"

As Enkidu slept alone in his sickness, in bitterness of spirit he poured out his heart to his friend. "It was I who cut down the cedar, I who leveled the forest, I who slew Humbaba, and now see what has become of me."

The bull of heaven episode can be understood as a marker for the actual zodiacal age when the epic was composed, the Age of Taurus, which spanned from circa 4300 BC to circa 2150 BC. However, if we accept that Enkidu = Neanderthals, then it appears that the bull story, which leads to Enkidu's death, is more probably encoding the time of the Neanderthal extinction.

To reach that prior Taurean Age requires the completion of a full cycle of precession of the equinoxes, a "Great Year" or "Great Return" of nearly 26,000 years, placing the Neanderthal extinction some 32,000 years ago—exactly in line with current estimates.

According to those who interpret myth in relation to ancient astronomical knowledge, massive trees such as the Great Cedar often symbolize the earth's polar axis and are markers for information about the Great Year—the earth's long, slow axial "wobble" through the twelve houses of the zodiac.

72 (the height in cubits of the temple door hewn from the Great Cedar) is the pre-eminent number in this numerical encoding, since 72 is the closest whole-number value for the number of years (71.6) required for a precessional shift of one degree along the ecliptic. (In Egyptian mythology, for example, Osiris is killed by 72 lackeys of Set.)

Twelve, recurrent in the text (most notably as the number of days of Enkidu's sickness) along with its double 24 (the width of the temple door), is of course the number of constellations in the zodiac, and the linkage of 72 with 24, not 12, may very well have been employed to indicate the second, earlier Age of Taurus. 30, appearing in the text as 300, the number of citizens of Uruk killed by the bull (100 then 200), is the number of arc-degrees each constellation occupies along the ecliptic. Thus 72 years x 12 constellations x 30 degrees of arc = 25,920 years, or one Great Year.

The prologue that begins this post is apparently quite literally true: Gilgamesh did indeed know secret things and brought us a story from a time before the flood (i.e., the end of the last ice age), preserving our earliest history in stone.