New Mythologies for Modern Humans
Words, Non-fiction
Beirut, Lebanon

Generally speaking, I hate flags. National flags in particular, because anything that serves to bring together a very particular group of people only serves to separate them from other peoples. Rifts become bigger and borders become stronger, and I really don’t believe in borders.

One flag I have a bit of a soft spot for though is the flag of Lebanon. Where most flags attempt to represent notions that are all too abstract, and quite frankly fabricated, the flag of Lebanon depicts a very real facet of the country’s geography. Colors aside, the central feature of the Lebanese flag is the Cedar Tree, an undisputed feature of this part of the world since time immemorial. Of course there are those who only see in the Lebanese flag the circumstances surrounding its creation, and times when it might have been raised by one particular sector of society and not the other, thus only seeing in it its relevance to some Lebanese and not others. Those people are clearly missing the bigger picture. The oldest surviving mention of Lebanese Cedar that we know of is in the Epic of Gilgamesh which dates back to roughly the 18th century B.C, which makes it the oldest surviving work of literature in human history. One of the central parts in the epic involves Gilgamesh’s journey to the Cedar forest (which most historians agree must’ve been in Lebanon). This journey is undertaken with Gilgamesh’s friend (or lover, depending on your reading of the tale) Enkidu for the sole purpose of glorifying their names. This glorification is to be achieved by doing two things:
1) Slaying Humbaba; protector of the forest and devote servant of Enlil, god of Earth, Wind, and Air.
2) Cutting down the tallest tree in the forest and using it to build a new gate for the Kingdom of Uruk.

More trees are chopped to build a colossal ship by which to carry the gate and Humbaba’s head back to Uruk.

There are a couple things we learn from this story; that if you want to build something sturdy that will stand the test of time, and glorify your name long after you’re dead, well then wood from the tallest tree in Lebanon’s Cedar forest will likely do the trick. We also learn that Lebanese Cedar can be used to build really great boats. A testament to this is Khufu’s “Solar Ark”, buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza in around 2500 BC. The wood of this boat, which survived for over 4000 years under the Earth is comprised almost entirely of Lebanese Cedar.

Another thing the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us is to beware of destroying the environment in the name of “progress”. As the king of Uruk, arguably the largest and most advanced city in existence circa 2900 BC, Gilgamesh represents not only progress but human civilization itself. Humbaba, as the guardian of the Cedar forest is a shorthand for nature itself. Before Humbaba is slain by Gilgamesh, he warns him that his murder will only bring a curse upon Gilgamesh. In other words, environmental destruction will only bring ruin upon civilization. And indeed that is sort of how the Epic goes: Gilgamesh’s friend falls ill and eventually dies. Overtaken by grief, Gilgamesh tears off his royal garb, rips his own eyes out, and wanders the Earth aimlessly void of glory or vision.

The more I think of it, the more it becomes evident to me that the first work of Science Fiction is in fact not Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, but rather THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH. When it comes down to it, there are really two things that make a work of fiction Science Fiction:
1) Extrapolation of a future technology from a contemporary technology.
2) Its commentary on the human condition, in particular human progress, ideally serving (as Warren Ellis once put it) as a kind of early-warning station for the Future.

Both these points fit the EPIC OF GILGAMESH like a T. We forget that boat-building was a formidable scientific feat of the civilizations of old. And the boat described in the Epic of Gilgamesh is exceptionally large. We don’t think much of it now, not in the age of battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruise-ships capable of accommodating 5000 passengers, but at the time of its writing, such a boat would not be feasible to build, and the act of imagining it couldn’t be described as anything other than a Sci-Fi practice.

Think about it; if you live in an age where city-obliterating warheads are commonplace, and you want to deliver some kind of commentary on it in the form of Science Fiction, well then you come up with something capable of obliterating entire planets: a Death Star (that’s right folks, STAR WARS has always been a critique of U.S. imperialism). Passenger planes are commonplace? Well then how about space vessels the size of entire cities (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA). Fishing boats are what’s common? Then imagine a big enough boat to carry a gateway for the largest city on Earth. Oh, and also, to transport the decapitated head of a giant as well.

Of course, the fact that the epic warns us of our demise as a civilization in the event of our encroachment upon nature in the name of civilization is still a warning we can all very much relate to today, and something only the very best works of science fiction ever manage to tackle.  

The EPIC OF GILGAMESH is a phenomenal accomplishment, and within it is not only the DNA for Science Fiction, but all fiction. And as humanity’s oldest surviving work of literature, it is kind of astounding that it is not deemed essential reading to everyone capable of reading (if you’re reading it in English, I recommend the 2003 translation by Andrew George).

The same Lebanese Cedar which made up Gilgamesh’s boat of the future, the same which made up Khufu’s Solar Ark in Egypt, may have also been used to construct the boat embarked by King Psamtik during his quest for the owner of a single slipper sometime between 664-610 BC. Fragments of this story first appeared in Herodotus’ THE HISTORIES around 440 BC, and then later in the writing of Greek historian Strabo when he journeyed up the Nile in 25 BC, and then even later in Aelian’s VARIOUS HISTORIES between 175-235 AD. Increasingly mythologized with each retelling, the story goes that the slipper fit no foot in the entire kingdom other than that of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl in the Egyptian city of Naucratis, upon which the great Pharoah decided to take her as a wife.

Aside from being an incredibly early version of what has been popularized as the CINDERELLA story, the importance of this tale lies in that it may very well be one of the earliest anti-xenophobic stories in history. Incestuous practices were all too common in Ancient Egypt, especially among royalty, the reasons of which were not just practicality but also a severe sense of disdain held against other “races”. What Psamtik’s story served to do was to redefine Ancient Egyptian identity to encompass other “ethnicities”, and indeed we find actual historical indications of such a shift taking place. During Psamtik’s reign, Greek immigrants were in fact encouraged to live and work in Egypt, as well as serve in the Egyptian military, 300 years prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great.

Of course it is well known that Alexander’s “campaign” in Egypt was only really successful because he was welcomed in Egypt. One can’t help but wonder if Alexander’s arrival would’ve been welcomed by Egyptians at all had it not been for Psamtik’s efforts 300 years prior, and if those efforts would’ve been successful had it not been for the story of the slipper.

And if Alexander were not welcomed in Egypt, would he have gone on to conquer Babylon, Persia, and make it all the way to the Indus River? Playing the “what if” game is futile, but it isn’t inconceivable that history as we know it could’ve turned out very differently had a certain story involving the slipper of a Greek slave girl never been told.

Stories matter, not because they entertain us, but because they shape us. And in shaping us, they go on to shape the world we live in.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why I’ve been making the transition from “fine art” (whatever the hell that is) to fiction, there’s you’re answer right there.

If you’ve ever wondered why I’ve been making the shift to Science Fiction in particular, well, Science Fiction as a genre for the mythology of the present and the future makes perfect sense in the age of technological lust we live in. Another reason, of course, is that a great deal of Sci-Fi output seems to be largely dominated by the propaganda of White America. It’s kind of hard to disassociate science fiction from the image of the white male protagonist who speaks American English and goes off to save the rest of the planet from an Alien invasion or Robotic dominance. How is it possible for any non-American, completely dis-included from these stories that involve the fate of the entire human race to not feel (at least subconsciously) somewhat inferior?

We are in desperate need of new mythologies. Mythologies that dismantle the idea of any one person’s superiority over any other. Mythologies that cross cultures and celebrate human diversity. Mythologies that re-calibrate our relationship with the environment, that do not promote notions of genocide (even if it’s the genocide of “aliens”), that explore modes of existence beyond abusive capitalism, that do not equate human happiness with fame and fortune, where the point of the story isn’t for the hero to get with the princess (or hottest girl in school). And above all, we need mythologies that aren’t a mere perpetuation of a greedy corporation’s “intellectual property”, existent for the sole purpose of generating income while offering “consumers” little more than a handful of laughs.

Storytellers are generators of culture. Let’s never forget that.

This is just one reason I decided to go off and do THE SOLAR GRID. But then again, I am in no way delusional enough to think that a single comicbook by me (no matter how fat) will have any cultural impact to speak of, but a small part of me would like to think that if within the fictional world of THE SOLAR GRID I manage to figure out how to get two miserable orphans on Earth to destroy a massively oppressive structure in outer space, a structure that is the result of generations upon generations of greed and imperialism, then maybe… just maybe… it might be possible to accomplish something similar right here in the real world.