Do i need to warn for spoilers here? If so, spoilers for anything in the Gilgamesh epic, and for Star Trek for the episode "The Galileo Seven" and for The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, mainly.
UPDATE: This has now been updated with the final version of the paper. Thanks to user Milton Perry for all the of the help and advice in improving this! I didn't get around to everything, but I did what I could and I'm happier with the paper now. :)
Star Trek as Myth Through an Analysis of the Similarities and Differences Between the Gilgamesh/Enkidu and Kirk/Spock Relationships
It's a chilly night on a distant planet that looks much like Earth. A single fire crackles in a small clearing in the tall grass, its orange light shared by two men from very different backgrounds. Both of them captain great starships, but their cultures are so different that it causes difficulty in communicating. They are stranded here together. One of them is human, from our own planet, and the other is not. The alien's language is one of metaphors; he and his people speak by examples. Often these examples come from their history and mythology.
The alien captain shares a story of two great warriors, Darmok and Jalad, who met by chance on an island called Tanagra. They were there for the same purpose: to defeat the terrible beast that lived there. Together, they defeated the monster, and they left the island together as friends. After this gift of story, the human captain shares the great Sumerian Earth myth of Gilgamesh; Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu, who also defeated many enemies together. As it so happens, there is a dangerous monster on this alien plain that puts these two disparate captains in a situation similar to those of the heroes in their tales. As they work together against this enemy, they are building trust and a new mythology between their peoples. All is connected.
The framing narrative comes not out of literature, but from an episode of a television show. The episode is "Darmok," and the show is Star Trek: The Next Generation. The human captain is Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise NCC 1701-D. The alien captain is called Dathan. These two characters are part of a phenomenon that began in 1966, when Gene Roddenberry created the original television show Star Trek. The episode in question concerns mythology and its importance in culture, but there is also a subtler message: Star Trek, in what it is and how it has operated in our culture since its beginning, can and should be considered mythology for our time. The validity of that idea is what this paper addresses.
As two authors put it in their 1999 book Star Trek on the Brain, "to say that Star Trek is about space exploration is like saying that sex is about making babies. Both statements contain a kernel of truth, but each misses the point" (Sekuler and Blake, 2). Star Trek has always been about so much more than that. It is not only about exploring space in a fictional future, but about exploring ourselves as human beings. It's about what we are and what we could be, which is also a large part of the role mythology plays. Star Trek even takes a similar approach. Popular mythology, such as Greek mythology, often shows us who we are by way of telling stories of gods and other mythical creatures. These stories show us how these fantastic characters are still just like us in many ways, and face the same sorts of problems and decisions. They are really stories about and explorations of ourselves. Star Trek uses aliens, but the idea is the same (Guaraldi; Sekuler and Blake, 2-3).
The only real difference? Star Trek is now. It relates to our current culture, rather than to the culture of the Greeks or to the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia as Gilgamesh does. It "defines and is defined by our culture in the way that only true mythic canvas can be" (Guaraldi). In truth, this makes it function even more efficiently as mythology. To completely understand the messages myths of old are trying to give us, we often have to learn enough about the culture in which they were created to completely understand. That, of course, isn't a bad thing. The messages still apply, even if sometimes we have to work a bit harder to find them. That universality of meaning makes good mythology good mythology. With Star Trek, however, we don't have to learn more to understand. The form it takes is aimed at us, today; Star Trek, as any good myth, has adapted to the times and taken on new skins to reach today's population.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines myth in one way as "a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something." Further clarifications in another of the same dictionary's definitions explains myth as "a person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious)" and/or "a popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth." That, of course, sounds exactly like the Greek myths anyone is familiar with. That also sounds like the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh that Picard related to Dathan, and like Star Trek as the show as a cultural phenomenon is described above.
For example, just as Gilgamesh and other myths began as told stories and repeated songs that were eventually put down in a canon form, Star Trek too exists far beyond its canon. Perhaps it went about it backwards, with the canon existing first, but other forms such as novels and fan fiction and stories told around the proverbial campfires of fans continue to expand the Star Trek mythos (Bacon-Smith, 55-67). This category of the phenomenon's universe is dubbed "fanon." It consists of expanded stories and pieces of the characters' lives, etc, that are now generally accepted by most fans but do not come from the source material. Examples of this are the alien Spock's unpronounceable last name, Xtmprsqzntwlfb, and the idea—in homage to the actor Leonard Nimoy's ethnicity—that his human mother's ancestry, somewhere along the line, was Jewish. Such things were never said or even hinted at on the show or in any Star Trek movie, but ask any fan and they will tell you these things are so. This expanding world is much like what happened with mythology in the ancient world, as new plays, songs and other things were continually written about the same stories, subjects and characters.
In further relation to the forms myths take with their various and expanding incarnations, in some cases fanon has even become canon. The most famous instance, of this, perhaps, is in the case of Lieutenant Uhura's first name. Her first name was never given in the source material, but there were two or three names used in circulation in the fan fiction and fanzine world. The names Penda and Nyota were among them, with Nyota finally winning out in prominence over the years of fan activity. First it was used in at least one officially licensed novel, and the name recently became real canon when it was used in the reboot Star Trek movie that was released in 2009 (Star Trek, dir. J.J. Abrams).
That movie itself—a reimagining of the original Star Trek series with those characters recast—is further evidence that Star Trek exists well outside its original form. The movie was widely successful even without the original cast and with the changes in the backstories of the characters. Before it came the other four television shows in the franchise, all set in the same universe but with different casts of characters in varying situations. All of this shows how the phenomenon can and has survived change and even thrives on it. This, too, must be inherent of good mythology (Guaraldi).
Another important characteristic of myth is its employment of symbols to help portray its messages. As Joseph Campbell wrote, it "has always been the prime function of mythology…to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward" (11). Picard and Dathan seemed very aware of this, and of the fact that of the most vital of these symbols, of course, is the hero. Heroes come in many forms: Homer's Odysseus, Gilgamesh's epic is named for him, and Star Trek began with Captain James T. Kirk. Star Trek, along with Kirk, has always been meant to "carry the human spirit forward" into the future of mankind. The remainder of this exploration looks to compare Kirk and his closest friend, Spock, to the classic epic hero Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. Through the analysis of these two heroic duos, new and old, the similarities and even the differences illustrate just how well Star Trek fits into the world of myth.
"The hero, as a rule, always fulfills a cultural task of his time. He sets up something new with which his name remains connected" (Kluger, 86). Both Gilgamesh and James T. Kirk do this well. In Gilgamesh, it is embodied by acts such as killing the great guardian of the cedars, Humbaba, and Gilgamesh's refusal to become paramour to the goddess Ishtar when she asked him. These were brave, independent actions—defiance of the gods—that no one in his society would have dared to do. Star Trek, similarly, opened a brave new world. Captain Kirk led the crew of the original starship Enterprise NCC 1701—"no bloody A, B, C, or D"—on a mission to "explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before" ("Relics." ST:TNG; Star Trek: The Original Series opening credits). On this mission, working together on this starship, were people of both genders and of all races and cultures. A Japanese-American man and a Russian sat at the vital helm and navigation stations. A black woman played a key role as communications officer. The ship's executive officer, Kirk's friend and colleague Spock, was born on another planet entirely. All of these people lived and worked together in an equality and harmony the likes of which wasn't known in the late 1960s when the show first aired. The crew of the Enterprise, with Kirk in command, showed the world what society could and should become.
In this way Gilgamesh and Kirk are very similar. They have the will and the drive to do things that no one else would. However, both need a companion to balance their personalities; to make them better and to help them reach their potential. They need these helpers for different reasons, and that is where their differences begin. Gilgamesh, the king of the great city of Uruk, begins as a tyrannical leader; he is two-thirds god and one-third man, stronger than any normal man, and he uses his power to do whatever he wants to do. He builds great walls and temples and does other great things, but he also terrorizes the people. This is why he needs balance. He needs a companion to temper his violence and to make him a better man. Kirk, conversely, is a more noble character on his own. He is virtuous and idealistic, but at the same time realistic and cunning. He is a good commander, but because of his virtues and his desire to do the right thing he can also be emotional and impulsive. This is why Kirk needs balance. He needs a companion to keep him from acting rashly, offer him alternatives, and help him balance emotion with logic.
Both heroes need a companion, a foil, and Gilgamesh and Kirk find those companions in Enkidu and Spock, respectively. These two companions also share several fascinating similarities. In Gilgamesh the gods hear the people crying out about Gilgamesh's tyranny, and the gods in turn call "to Aruru, the goddess of creation, 'You made him, O Aruru, now create his equal…his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart. Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet'" (Gilgamesh PDF, 19/2). So the goddess creates Enkidu to be Gilgamesh's match. Enkidu begins as a wild man living in the wilderness with the animals, until lying with a temple prostitute begins to give him human reason. In Star Trek, Spock is a half-human, half-Vulcan alien, but it is only his alien heritage he fully lays claim to in the beginning. This alien heritage, his Vulcan ancestry, is a history fraught with violence. Vulcan society as he knows it is logical and ordered; Vulcans suppress emotion entirely, preferring logic over all. They adopted this philosophy because strong emotion and violence nearly destroyed them in their war-like past.
Both companions, then, are men with uncivilized pasts. For Enkidu it is his own past and for Spock it is the past of his people, but it is there for both nonetheless. Enkidu himself and the Vulcan race both had to go through a civilizing process before the companions could join their heroes. Because of their pasts, too, both companions have a great respect for life. Enkidu grew up with animals in the wilderness, and spent much time destroying traps, etc, while the Vulcan people respect life through the understanding and value of logic. These backgrounds, for both characters—Enkidu's origins in nature and Spock's logical upbringing—inform and shape their relationships with the heroes they meet later.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu, when they meet, start off fighting. Enkidu hears of the king's tyranny and of a particular horrible act Gilgamesh is about to perform, and goes to Uruk to stop him. Enkidu confronts him and they fight in the streets, and though Enkidu is defeated he sees the greatness that is in Gilgamesh. He sees what the king can become. That section of the text ends with the very simple but powerful statement, "Gilgamesh and Enkidu embraced and their friendship was sealed" (Gilgamesh PDF, 23/4). Gilgamesh's goddess mother, Ninsun, foretold this earlier in the story. She told her son the meaning of two dreams that he had. She told him they meant that the gods would send him a "strong companion, powerful as a star," who "will not forsake you…he will protect and guard you with his life" (Gilgamesh, trans. David Ferry, 10-11).
Kirk and Spock, on the other hand, in the original Star Trek television series, do not start off that way. We do not even see their meeting. The show begins and they are officers on a starship; they are mature, adjusted individuals assigned to serve together. Kirk knows that Spock is a Vulcan and thus denies emotion and embraces logic. Spock knows that James T. Kirk is an illogical, emotional human being. They know they are different, and both of them accept that. Their "conflict" is more subtle, logic vs. emotion underlying everything, but it isn't a point of contention between them. They both, even Spock, seem to find amusement in it more than anything. In the reboot movie, however, both characters are several years younger when they meet, and the source material shows this meeting. The circumstances of their lives have been slightly different from their counterparts in the original series, and their meeting takes place in a much more strained situation. It is similar to the way Gilgamesh and Enkidu's meeting was an inherently violent situation. In this version of the Star Trek story their differences lead to obvious and vocal disagreement. Eventually there is even a physical fight as there is in Gilgamesh—Vulcan's uncivilized past showing itself through Spock's outburst of violent anger—though here there is no clear winner. In the end, though, all of this still leads to a strong relationship; a bond of equals and opposites, as both Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their counterparts in the original Star Trek series have. The existence of this alternate story serves to expand the mythology.
Together, the Gilgamesh/Enkidu and Kirk/Spock pairs are unstoppable as only true mythic duos can be. They defeat great enemies, perform great deeds, and all the while cheat death while doing it. Gilgamesh and Kirk are made better men through their relationships with these close friends and companions who are better than themselves in some ways. Gilgamesh becomes a beloved king rather than a hated one, and Kirk becomes the most legendary and revered starship captain of his century.
Enkidu and Spock are also changed. Both are drawn into doing things they would not otherwise have done if they had not met Gilgamesh and Kirk, respectively. Enkidu eventually agrees to the quest to kill the giant Humbaba who protects the cedar forest. He acts against his reverence for life because of Gilgamesh's encouragement and the danger the giant poses to those who would wish to cut down and take any of the cedars. He does not relinquish his beliefs, but he learns to make exception for the greater good. Spock, through his friendship with Kirk, learns to utilize and eventually to accept his human side and the emotions inherent in it. He learns that emotion and illogical humanity can be an asset in some situations, such as the predicament in which he and crew of the shuttle Galileo found themselves in the episode "The Galileo Seven." If Spock had not made the emotional decision to dump and ignite the remainder of the lost and damaged shuttle's fuel, in hopes that the Enterprise would see the flare, the stranded crew would never have been rescued. Never does Spock forsake his Vulcan heritage, but in this way and at Kirk's encouragement he learns to also incorporate his human half into his life.
In this way both characters, through their friendships, go through a dramatic process of learning from experience that alters their point of view on the world. Yet they remain true to themselves and to their integrity, and to what it is that makes them different from and useful to their respective heroes. Kirk offered an insightful view of this in the sixth Star Trek film, in something he said to Spock while they were mutually apologizing over a disagreement: "You're a great one for logic. I'm a great one for rushing in where angels fear to tread. We're both extremists. Reality is probably somewhere in between" (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). This is not untrue, too, of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Together they balance those extremes, and both pairs are able to accomplish more together.
All of this is well and good, of course, but as the saying goes all things must end. The end of the adventures for both of these pairs comes, sadly, in the death of the companion. These deaths come not out of any failure on the part of the heroes, but out of situations beyond their control. Gilgamesh angers Ishtar in rightly refusing to marry her, and she sends the Bull of Heaven to terrorize Uruk. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the beast and save the city, but the gods are angered by their actions. Enkidu is struck down with a fatal sickness. In the second Star Trek movie, an old enemy from the first season of the television show returns to seek revenge on Kirk (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). The enemy, Khan, is defeated, but the damaged Enterprise barely escapes an explosion the villain set to occur before he died. It is only thanks to Spock that the ship escapes in one piece at all, and in the process of affecting repairs quickly enough he is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. Spock knows this will happen when he places himself in that situation; he willingly gives his life to save Kirk and everyone else on board. Effectively, both companions die in the place of their hero.
What is telling about our two heroes is the way they react to the deaths of their friends. Both begin with denial, but their paths differ greatly from there. Even in their denial, they differ. Gilgamesh weeps openly and rages and refuses to release his friend's body for burial until a worm falls out of his nose; until it is clear that Enkidu has begun to return to the earth and is dead (Gilgamesh, trans. David Ferry, 44, 56). Kirk, after Spock's last breath, merely utters the single word "No" and stares blankly as the scene fades to his friend's memorial service (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Gilgamesh reacts in a juvenile fashion, while Kirk also does not wish to accept his companion's death but knows he ultimately must. He is a starship captain. To remain in command of himself and his crew is his duty, and he responds to his duty as captain much more solemnly than Gilgamesh has ever responded to his duties as king.
For both heroes the death of their friend will result in a great quest, but these quests will be very different in spirit and nature. Perhaps it is their differences in personality and acceptance of personal responsibility that leads to the differences in their journeys from that point on. Kirk is not without his flaws—impulsiveness and occasional arrogance among them—but Gilgamesh is far more human and flawed even than Kirk. Despite his two-thirds godhood Gilgamesh is more the everyman, with anyone's selfishness and fear, while most of the time Kirk is more larger-than-life on the moral and noble front. Gilgamesh most often acts thinking of himself, while Kirk acts thinking of others.
So it is that the death of their companion, to lead to the quest that follows for each, brings both to face the reality of death. They each do something very different with that knowledge. "How can I rest, how can I be at peace?" Gilgamesh cries. "Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim" (Gilgamesh PDF, 36/11). Utnapishtim is the Sumerian version of Noah, who in this epic has become the only man granted eternal life by the gods. Gilgamesh fears death now that he has truly seen and known it, since it has happened to someone so close to him. He does not wish to die, and goes to find this man to learn how he can become immortal. Kirk, on the other hand, better understands the lesson of death. "I haven't faced death; I've cheated death, tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing," he says (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). He has learned something about death, but he is not gripped by a sudden overwhelming fear of it as Gilgamesh is. He grieves, and begins to move forward.
Kirk's quest begins when he learns from Spock's father that his friend has an immortal soul that has been placed within a carrier (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). The carrier is another of their friends, Doctor Leonard McCoy. Having two "souls" within his body at once—his own and Spock's—is causing the good doctor to go rather mad. Spock's father tells Kirk that his son's soul must be returned to Vulcan where it will be saved, and that his body must also be brought to Vulcan for proper internment. However, there is more than one problem. McCoy has been locked away in the 23rd century's version of a loony bin, and Spock was buried in space due to the radiation still permeating his body at the time of his death. Kirk and crew rescue McCoy, but cannot legally acquire a ship to retrieve Spock's body; the experimental device that Khan detonated in that area of space has made it dangerous and off-limits to all but specifically assigned scientific personnel. Kirk, therefore, has to break the rules, and he doesn't hesitate. "If Spock has an eternal soul, then it's my responsibility," he says firmly. "As surely as if it were my very own" (ST III).
Gilgamesh and Kirk's quests, then, are very different. Both are on a quest for immortality, but Kirk's motivation is external while Gilgamesh's is selfish (Saraphyn). Gilgamesh still must learn that immortality does not mean never dying. His quest, after failing to gain eternal life, leads him back home to his great walls and temples that will live on after him and to the people who now love him. Finally he understands the truth and accepts it. Kirk is able to all but skip that step, because he accepts this truth much earlier. He realizes what true immortality is, and his quest is to act on it. He acts to preserve his friend's immortality by bringing Spock's soul home to Vulcan where it belongs.
This leads us back to Star Trek as a modern myth, which has changed and adapted and grown from the original forms of myth. Gilgamesh, as an early myth, is addressing the question of what is true immortality? What sort of immortality is it that mortal men can expect to have? It is not living forever, but what we leave behind. Gilgamesh spends his last great quest reaching this truth. Kirk doesn't have to. It is Spock, through their friendship and his death for a higher cause, who teaches Kirk this. The point of Kirk's quest, then, is a step above Gilgamesh's journey. He is a modern hero with a modern story, for the modern population that has progressed in culture and understanding from where we were 4,500 years ago when Gilgamesh first circulated.
The most fascinating thing, perhaps—following from the idea that Star Trek is something of a next step from Gilgamesh—is that in Star Trek the story has a further culmination. When Kirk and crew finally find Spock's body, it is no longer dead. The strange effects of the device Khan detonated in space have created a new planet, which in turn has regenerated Spock's body. Spock is alive, but mindless, and the quest becomes to return him and McCoy to Vulcan to have soul and mind refused with body. They succeed, and Kirk's companion is returned to him whole. The hero is reward in this way for his nobility and selflessness, which are qualities Gilgamesh never mastered on his own because he had to spend his quest and life looking for the truth that Kirk realized almost immediately.
Myths are meant to "tell us where we are" and how to "deal with great human problems" (Campbell, qtd. in Guaraldi). As Kirk and Spock show us, Star Trek does this just as well as Gilgamesh or any other myth. Like Kirk's quest in The Search for Spock it can even take us a step farther than the mythology of old. It can take us into the future; into what is and what might be. Should not Star Trek, then, be considered mythology just as much as any of these commonly known myths that we take for granted? It is a new mythology for our time. It can give us just as much guidance when we need it. As author David Marinaccio wrote, "everything you need to know is in there somewhere. It may be dressed in some real lame costume. But it's there. Every situation you will face in life has already been faced by the crew of the Starship Enterprise NCC 1701" (9). Perhaps on that dark plain that night, in the light of their campfire, Picard should have told Dathan about Kirk and Spock, too.
Works Cited (note: there are links for the web sources, but of course they're not showing here on FFN)
-Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Print.
-Campbell, Jospeh. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books, 1949. Print.
-Gilgamesh PDF (From professor.)
-Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse. Trans. David Ferry. New York: The Noonday Press, 1991. Print.
-Guaraldi, Ben. "Star Trek: A Myth for Our Time." Web.
-Kluger, Rivkah Scharf. The Archetypal Significance of Gilgamesh. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag, 1991. Print.
-Marinaccio, Dave. All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek. New York: Gramercy Books, 1994. Print.
-Oxford English Dictionary. Web.
-Saraphyn. "Gilgamesh versus Captain Kirk." Web.
-Sekuler, Robert, and Randolph Blake. Star Trek On the Brain: Alien Minds, Human Minds. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999. Print.
-"The Galileo Seven." Star Trek: The Original Series – The Complete First Season. CBS Paramount International Television, 2004. DVD.
-Star Trek: The Original Series. CBS Paramount International Television, 1966-1969. Television.
-Star Trek. Dir. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto. Paramount, 2009. DVD.
-Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Paramount, 1982. DVD.
-Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Dir. Leonard Nimoy. Paramount, 1984. DVD.
-Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Paramount, 1989. DVD.
-"Darmok." Star Trek: The Next Generation. Paramount. 28 Spt. 1991. Television.
-"Relics." Star Trek: The Next Generation. Paramount. 10 Oct. 1992. Television.