How Wrestling Explains the World: Gilgamesh

With the Great YouTube Purge of 2014 making most of the work we do with Wrestlers of the Week somewhere between “impossible” and “totally and completely impossible”, we’ve decided to officially (quasi) retire the feature. In its place will be something we are calling Is Wrestling _____?, where we will attempt to make a connection between professional wrestling and something from the world outside of Kayfabe. We will try to post at least one thing per day, though we obviously can’t promise anything because we’re not so secretly the worst. And to start everything off, we’ll look at where it all — meaning, all of literature as we currently understand it —  with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Imagine a man already great on his own merits, but completely unsatisfied. Possesses with an insatiable desire for immortality only the most competitive and selfish can even understand. He regards those below him with contempt, adding insult to the injury that is their existence. Jealous of those equal or greater than him, with a growing discontent for being a king, he is terrified that he might not be remembered, yearning to achieve the status of a god.

To a student of the last 15 years of wrestling history, it might seem obvious that our man is Triple H, or rather Paul Levesque, the man behind the character. The average of Levesque’s speaking and wrestling ability is in the top five of his generation, but his jealous machinations on and off camera earned him the less-complimentary-than-announcers-present it moniker of “The Cerebral Assassin.” Levesque can brag up without hubris the roster of stars he’s helped elevate: Randy Orton, Dave Bautista, John Cena, and the entire NXT roster, just to name a few. Conversely, the list of potential stars who lay broken and diminished in Triple H’s wake is equally impressive: Chris Jericho, Test, and the entire WCW roster, just to name a few.

A historian or literary critic, however, would quickly identify our man as Gilgamesh, the (probably) mythical king of Uruk and antihero of one of the world’s earliest recorded narratives, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was a king unequaled in power, but he asserted his dominance over his people in the cruelest possible way: literally raping any helpless serf who struck his fancy. Once faced with his own mortality, Gilgamesh’s obsession shifted from one kind of sickness to another, as he developed a fear of death so great that he journeyed to the very edge of the world in an attempt to learn the secret of everlasting life.

Almost 40 centuries later, The Epic of Gilgamesh stands up as one of the great wrestling angles of all time. Gilgamesh is quickly established as the all-time heel, an abusive, sexually deviant, power-hungry madman. The situation becomes so dire that no babyface on earth is righteous or powerful enough to stand up to him, and so the gods must create the superhuman wildman Enkidu to rise to the challenge. The gods created Enkidu just as a skilled booker crafts a new babyface, and years of growing up in the wild and being tamed by a human woman honed Enkidu’s skills just like the steady build of months or year increases a wrestling hero’s skills and connection to the crowd.

In a moment straight out of Wrestlemania, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu finally do clash, their battle literally shakes the walls of the city of Uruk. In a perfectly timed swerve, however, Gilgamesh and Enkidu find respect for each other as opponents and become the sort of super close male friends that dominate ancient literature. From a wrestling perspective, this is both a face turn for Gilgamesh and the formation of a new tag team. Just as Dusty Rhodes and Nikita Koloff — the American Dream and the Russian Nightmare — found common ground through their respect and sadness for Magnum T.A.’s, Gilgamesh and Enkidu formed a bond born of strong emotions and absolute respect.

But, as we all know, the smiling babyfaces can only be happy and without a care in the world for so long, or they become John Cena. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay several monsters (in wrestling metaphor, looking strong in a few monthly pay-per-view main events), the team falls apart when Enkidu is killed by a curse from the very gods who created him. This leaves Gilgamesh a man alone; he’s learned too much to resume his heel rapist ways, but he also lacks purpose since the person who brought out the best in him is now gone. Gilgamesh emerges as a lone wolf tweener, a bowl-cut A.J. Styles who wants to do good in the world but is filled with fear of failure (death) and distrust in the fundamental goodness of the earth – or the heavens for that matter.

Gilgamesh travels the world, desperate to learn the secret of immortality just as a wrestler hungers to become World Heavyweight Champion. As he gets closer and closer to the other side of the world where Utnapishtim, the man who lives forever, resides, Gilgamesh becomes an increasingly sympathetic figure step by step. As selfish as his desire to be immortal may seem, the sheer pathos of Gilgamesh’s journey cements him as a babyface once again, just like A.J. Styles.

Then, in a moment of sheer literary beauty and cultural insight that all but the very best wrestling lacks, Gilgamesh fails in his quest. He cannot and will not live forever, but he returns home with a new perspective and a clearly-cemented identity. He accepts his warts and faces his failures, rededicating himself to being the best possible king for his city and people. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a character profile of a man who slowly transitions from being most inhuman, terrible king possible to the most human, likable king possible.

Gilgamesh knew that going from being the biggest heel in the territory to the biggest babyface wasn’t just a matter of doing good for the sake of good but rather sacrificing your personal goals for that of the community. It’s this sacrifice — no matter how reasonable it would be not to endanger your own well-being or how fun it might be to do whatever you want — that allowed Gilgamesh to be a hero to his people.

The parallels between Gilgamesh and Triple H or elements of The Epic of Gilgamesh and wrestling booking are certainly unintentional, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. As much as artists and writers fetishize originality, there is without question a kit of tools that worked in 2014BC, works in 2014AD, and will work up to the very last day that people tell each other stories and create art. Ancient myths and epics inspire popular drama like wrestling in direct, obviously ways (heck, there have been wrestlers named Zeus, Hercules, and Madusa), but more importantly ancient texts and modern forms of entertainment both help us understand what we want to hear or believe as human beings.


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