David Bowie, Major Tom, Gilgamesh, Myth

Ashes to Ashes, Fun to Funky: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and the Ascent of the Homo Superior

Every civilization has its founding legend, that tells of the history and the values of a shared culture. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The works of Homer. The Ramayana, the Aeneid, the Eddas. These epics tend to feature a central hero—a strong ruler, a powerful warrior, a cunning trickster—who defines through their acts what it means in that culture for someone to be great.

The author of the song cycle that defines our contemporary civilization passed away today at the age of 69.

  1. Sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE a Mesopotamian king named Gilgamesh, accompanied by the wild Enkidu (his dearest friend) and fifty unmarried men, left their home in treeless Uruk and set out for the Cedar Forest to fight Humbaba, the forest’s guardian monster, who had been set there by the god Enlil as a terror to humans. Gilgamesh and Endiku reached the Cedar Forest and slew Humbaba — this despite the defeated Humbaba’s pleas for mercy. The fifty men harvested the cedars of the forest and brought them back to Uruk, where they were used to build wonders that would, along with the story itself, establish the city’s fame for all time.
humbaba, gilgamesh, myth, major tom
A terra-cotta mask of Humbaba (courtesy: Claude Valette)

2. Sometime around 1200 BCE, the Greek military leader Odysseus, accompanied by the crews of twelve ships, spent ten years wandering the entire known world on his way back home from the Trojan War. The islands and seas that Odysseus and his men wandered through were filled with all sorts of life — sirens, witches, cyclopses, gods and demons. Most of these creatures were hostile, and only through cleverness at every turn was Odysseus able to escape death — whereas Gilgamesh and Enkidu were known for strength and daring, Odysseus was known for his intelligence and cunning.

Upon his successful return home, Odysseus used a number of trickeries to slay the men who had been courting his wife, and only the intervention of Athena herself could stop the cycle of vendettas that this act would have inevitably sparked off.

Odysseus fighting the Cyclops
Odysseus fighting the Cyclops

3. In 1969 CE, the famous Major Tom, an elite test pilot despite (or perhaps because of) his devotion to mind-altering substances, set off alone on a trip into the absolute unknown, traveling faster and farther than Homer or the Mesopotamians could even have dreamed, through space that did not hold beasts and monsters and gods, but instead just nothing, a void so vicious and cold that it would within seconds strangle and freeze and explode anyone exposed to it.

The ships that Odysseus commanded were the highest form of technology of the day — not too long after Odysseus’s story, real Athenians would use the same type of ships to set up the world’s first trade empire. Likewise, Tom’s small capsule embodied the highest form of technology the world has ever seen, technology that the two vast empires of the late 20th century, who had once been friends, had stolen from a nation ruled by hideous ogres and then developed for purposes both peaceable and warlike.

Cutaway drawing of a German V2 rocket. C 4832 Part of AIR MINISTRY SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
Cutaway drawing of a German V2 rocket.

Tom’s capsule was filled with wondrous metal machines that could support his one thin human life against the terrible cold infinity that would snuff it out without mercy. Unlike Odysseus and Gilgamesh, though, Tom traveled alone — the capsule could hold only one person, and so Tom’s only connection to humanity was an invisible radio circuit that tethered him to the brilliant scientists and engineers on the ground, scientists and engineers who humbly devoted themselves to working and praying against all odds for Tom’s safety. The paradox of Tom’s condition was that although Major Tom was vastly more alone than Homer or the authors of the Epic of Gilgamesh could even imagine, left traveling by himself in space millions of miles above the clouds and the gods and the moon, nevertheless the whole world was with him. Everyone on Earth read their newspapers and listened raptly to their radios and intently watched their TVs for every scrap of information about their great hero that they could find — how he was doing, what protein pills he was eating, even who designed the shirts he wore.

Apollo Command/Service Module
Apollo Command/Service Module

Something unknown happened during Major Tom’s first EVA from his capsule. Although Tom trusted that his spaceship knew which way to go—despite the fact that neither he nor anyone else knew where his spaceship was actually going—system after system failed, and finally the radio circuit connecting Tom to ground control and through them to the billions back on Earth failed as well.

Tom, unlike Odysseus, unlike Gilgamesh, never returned. Armed with more technoscientific power than anyone before him in history, more strength than Gilgamesh or Enkidu could dream of, more craftiness and cunning than a thousand Odysseuses, more power to act than any other man of action before him, Major Tom had to finally admit that there was nothing he could do.

Tom’s last message to Earth was an expression of love for his wife. Whereas Odysseus, driven by jealousy and the desire to rule, came back home to wreak devastation and reclaim his place as patriarch, Tom, driven instead by gentle curiosity and a love for the unknown, trusted that his love for his wife endured despite the hundred million miles or more that would forever separate them. And then he was lost forever.

One apocryphal tale, though, argues that Tom — floating, drifting, falling, weightless — was coming to his real home all along.

(Written in memory of The Sovereign… and though it may seem like a joke I mean every single word)