One thing I love about studying monsters is that stories have quite literally always contained them. There is arguably something universal, or near-universal, about imagining these unique, often antagonistic beings and situating them among their non-monstrous counterparts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is the first story we know of that was written down instead of transmitted orally. Etched first in a language called Akkadian (and then in other languages), on stones that have become faded and smooth so that some parts of the story are now indecipherable, the tale of Gilgamesh (technically a poem) tells us about a warrior, Gilgamesh, and the difficulty he experiences when losing his friend Enkidu and facing the reality of his own mortality – a difficulty that at some point in our lives, we’ve probably all been able to understand. After all, the thought of dying is scary.
On Gilgamesh’s initial journey with his bestie, Enkidu, one of his goals is to slay the forest monster Humbaba – a task that is framed in different lights, depending on which version of the story you read. I find it fascinating that both the monster and the monster hunter exist in the world’s earliest written story, and this complicated binary persists through the ages, up to both early and contemporary horror films. It is interesting, I think, to consider what we can learn from monsters, monster hunters, and the relationship between the two beings. Various monster theorists take up the subject of the monster and the monster hunter, but the topic is not central to most Monster Theory. To be honest, it’s not a relationship that’s proven central to my work so far – part of the reason why I want to give it some attention tonight. I argue in this piece that the role between the monster and the monster hunter is rarely simple, and that we have much to learn from their relationship, and how it transforms through space and time.
With all that said, it would be the height of my own hubris to start discussing The Epic of Gilgamesh as if I were an expert on the story. I read it once for a mythology class while getting my master’s degree, and one or two more times when I taught it in an introductory college literature class. I operate, here, from my memory, my own imperfect observations, and internet research, which we all know can have limited reliability. In other words, I’m way out of my wheelhouse. But then, that’s the beauty of having your own blog. I’m not trying to publish this piece in an academic journal; I’m simply playing around with some ideas on my own forum. Let’s start, then, with The Epic of Gilgamesh, and see what we can discover.
We should note, first of all, that the in Western metaphysics – Western cultural thought and the way that cultural discourse has taught us to think throughout the centuries – we’re inclined to pit the monstrous not only against the human, but against the divine—because, you know, the divine is good, and the monster is bad. The devil is a monster, and the witches who were thought to ally themselves with the devil were also considered monsters. But the first written monster story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, does not display this way of thinking, in part, probably, because it precedes Western metaphysical thought.
The difference is an important one to consider. Any complication or nuance to the monster, after all, naturally has an effect on the monster’s relationship to monster hunters – those who seek to destroy the monster. And I would argue that this story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, based on its treatment of the hero and the monster, is not a story as concerned with forces of “good” and “evil” as much as many of the stories that came after it. That could be, in part, because the story has no Christian origin, and Christianity – or perhaps monotheism, in general – tends to deal more in dichotomous views of good and evil than polytheism does. We should note, after all, that the monster Humbaba, rather than be labeled solely an evil antagonist, is actually linked to the gods almost as much as Gilgamesh is.
Humbaba was tasked by divinity to guard the Cedar Forest and (according to my research – I don’t remember this for certain), the Cedar Forest is where the gods reside. We don’t see the split that we expect to see, then. The monster is not the odious “other” sitting on the opposite side of both the divine and the human. The monster is a godsend – a protector of the gods, and a sort of intermediary between the divine and the human. While Humbaba is not divine, he has a clear link to the divine, a link that is, arguably, almost as important as Gilgamesh’s own link (Gilgamesh is 2/3 human, 1/3 divine).
If this narrative positioning of Humbaba has any effect on our perception Gilgamesh, we could argue that it detracts from his heroism. It’s not necessarily that Gilgamesh is less of a hero because Humbaba is less of a monster, but in our dualistic way of thinking, the less evil, the less formidable, the less dangerous the monster seems, the less heroic the hero seems when he slays it. After all, we can name some things that Humbaba is not, and though he’s described as a formidable beast, a hybrid with the head of a lion and a different body (monsters are often hybrids), he doesn’t appear to be an aggressor on the offensive, at least not overtly in the narrative. The god Enlil described him as a “terror to human beings,” but there aren’t many details about his terrorizing, from what I recall, in the Gilgamesh narrative. He isn’t positioned as the violent and vitriolic foe that Grendel is in Beowulf years later; descriptions of Grendel’s wrath, and the wrath of his mother, flood Beowulf in a way that is absent with Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Grendel moves to the non-monsters; he leaves his lair and physically goes to Herot to murder and antagonize Hrothgar’s people every night. Conversely, to suffer Humbaba’s wrath, you have to travel to him. He is contained, spatially and thus narratively. In fact, the story reads, “who would go down into his forest?” It may even be fair to say that Gilgamesh doesn’t travel to the Cedar Forest and slay Humbaba for a concrete reason. We have no narrative motive; we don’t hear that Humbaba is killing people the way Grendel, years later in Beowulf, kills Hrothgar’s people.
To further question the narrative positioning of Gilgamesh and Humbaba, we may turn to everyone’s favorite semi-reliable encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and learn about the various narrative renditions of The Epic of Gilgamesh. On a tablet that was sold in 2011 (but of course written on thousands of years earlier), Humbaba is spoken of in a positive light; he is a benevolent king of the forest and a favorite of the gods. Because the nature of the monster at hand always, necessarily, affects how we see the monster hunter, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that in this version of the story, Gilgamesh is portrayed as an “aggressor who destroys a forest unnecessarily.” Judith Halberstam, in her book Skin Shows, makes the argument that monster-hunters become the more untrustworthy foe in post-modern horror, and this is not wrong. It’s interesting, though, to consider that the blurring of the lines between good and evil actually occurred in the earliest monster narratives, not just the most contemporary, post-modern horror. The contested spaces that are the monster and the monster hunter can shift and vary from the telling of one story to another, indicating that our earliest monster narratives interrogated simplistic conceptions of absolute evil and absolute monstrosity, whether or not they did so intentionally.
Gilgamesh was written in 2100 B.C. (which is, to think about it, an astonishingly long time ago). Beowulf, first penned anywhere from the 6th century to the 11th century BCE, is much more recent, comparatively, and was written in England about Scandinavia, during, I think, a time when paganism met Christianity, and Christian thought was starting to influence Europe. Western thought has rested on binaries for a long time – the binary between men and women, the binary between East and West, the binary between good and evil, and so forth. This binary-based thinking may have roots further back than Christianity, but it was certainly solidified and amplified by the binary positioning of Christian deities and enemies. Conceptions of good and evil were, I would infer, less mutable and contested than they were in the place and historical moment in which Gilgamesh was written. Instead of paganism’s pantheon of gods who had diverse personalities that defied mere notions of good and evil, Christianity provided a clear picture of what absolute good was, and conceptualized absolute evil in a way paganism, arguably, could not. (I am not a theologist and am way out of my bounds here, but bear with me). It makes sense that Western metaphysical thought, and Christianity, especially, would have Grendel (and Grendel’s mother) be raging, antagonistic forces of malevolence that ripped mercilessly through Herot. Grendel, after all, is the son of Cain, and Cain’s slaying of Abel was, as Michael explained to me “scriptures first murder.” Both Cain and Grendel become placeholders for absolute evil in an almost Hitlerian way (In I Wear the Black Hat Chuck Klosterman argues that Hitler is a placeholder for absolute evil in contemporary culture, much more so than the devil). Such narrative positioning of the monster makes the hero all the more valiant, all the more heroic, all the less questionable. After all, until John Gardner penned the novel Grendel in 1970 and dared to tell the story from the monster’s side – rife with all of poor Grendel’s loneliness and existential angst – most people would have probably agreed that Grendel deserved to die, that Beowulf’s actions and motives weren’t questionable. In fact, if we had to vote, a lot of people, I think, would still be inclined to vote this way.
Indeed, there is something very posthuman about Gardner’s attempt to pen the world from Grendel’s perspective. Posthumanism is cautious and wary of any line of thought that favors humans, places humans above animals, or positions humans as the center of the universe. It makes sense, then, in this not only post-modern, but post-human age, we are hesitant –quickly and by default—to deem the monster hunter as solely good and assume the monster is solely evil. Scholar Bernadette Marie Calafell admits that in most movies, she tends to side with the monster. Along similar lines, Nick Groom, in his book about the gothic, insists on being on the goth’s side. In contemporary culture, aligning with marginalized beings is a weird mixture of subversive and socially acceptable; in any case, it’s common, and it raises interesting questions about the monster and the monster hunter in more recent years.
If we want to compare and contrast Gilgamesh and Beowulf, it might make sense, after doing so, to fast-forward to early, and then late 19th century England and compare and contrast Frankenstein and Dracula. While Mary Shelley has two versions of Frankenstein, and I’m not an expert on each version’s similarities and differences, I think it is fair to say that the contemporary reader is likely to feel considerable sympathy for the creature that Victor Frankenstein created. Since the monster and the monster hunter are always linked, the creature’s pitiful state causes us to hate the uncaring Frankenstein, who leaves the creature to fend for himself. Indeed, Michael Chemers makes the argument that Frankenstein is less an indictment of hubristic scientific exploration, and more an indictment of the uncaring society that produces a monster like the creature. By the end of the book, we are likely to think that Victor Frankenstein is at least as much of a monster – if not more of a monster – than his creation. Conversely, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the count is pretty evil and unsympathetic, much like Grendel in Beowulf. It should be no surprise, then, that we’re completely comfortable with his destruction, and that Van Helsing is thus a brilliant, highly revered character whose name, even in 2021, has a kind of badass connotation to it.
Most simplistically, we might say that we love the monster hunter to the same degree that we hate the monster they approach. That equation might be unreliable, but I would argue there is at least a bit of a discernable pattern in our perception of these two beings. In any case, studying this relationship in more literature throughout the ages, and in contemporary horror films, would be an interesting undertaking, and one that I might pursue more on this blog. After all, at times in my life, I’ve felt like a monster, and as a scholar of monsters, in some sense of the word, I am a monster hunter – only, I hunt them to study them, not to kill them. As such, I’ll probably do some more hunting later, and consider contemporary monsters, and those who hunt them.