Anticipations - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

It is as much a truism to say that supernaturalism enters literature at the very dawn of literary history as it is to say that the lack of a distinction, until relatively recent times, between what is understood to be “natural” and what is “supernatural” makes any examination of antecedents or predecessors to the genre of supernatural fiction that commenced with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) highly problematical. This difficulty confronts us in what is among the earliest surviving literary documents, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the “old version” of which probably dates to around 1700 B.C.E. Although this text includes such staples of later weird fiction as a descent to the underworld, prophetic dreams, and ghosts and monsters of various sorts, the precise degree of the author’s—or, more precisely, the contemporaneous Babylonian culture’s—awareness that these phenomena are “supernatural” is notoriously difficult to determine.

Gilgamesh himself comes across as a kind of superhero, since he is of impressive physical stature (“A triple cubic foot was his foot, half a rod his leg, / Six cubits was his stride” [3]) and has other attributes far in excess of ordinary mortals; but, although he is initially portrayed as a tyrant, he undertakes a Faust-like quest for eternal life. As a result of several prophetic dreams, Gilgamesh sets out to kill the fire-breathing ogre Humbaba. Tablet V of Gilgamesh, depicting the battle between Gilgamesh and Humbaba, is highly mutilated, so the details of the conflict are cloudy; but a bronze situla depicting the battle indicates that Humbaba is humanoid in shape (see Andrew George’s translation [45]). There are later battles with a “Bull of Heaven” and a scorpion monster. In spite of his defeat of these entities, Gilgamesh fails in his ultimate quest and comes to the realisation that he must die.

Although Gilgamesh is obviously a work of fiction, it is still not sufficiently distinct from its religious tradition to constitute an independent literary work in which the “supernatural” is employed for its own sake. Gilgamesh himself, although mortal, is declared to be “two-thirds … god” (2). In any event, aside from its role in influencing the biblical account of the Deluge, Gilgamesh had little influence upon subsequent literature in the West. As such, it is fitting to begin our discussion of antecedents to supernaturalism with the Greeks.