Standing proudly as two of the great pillars of world literature, particularly ancient world literature, the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh provide a great deal of insight into the nature of early human-animal relationships. In particular, the documentary hypothesis, which persuasively postulates that the Pentateuch is comprised of the writings of four different sources, means that the place and date of authorship of parts within the text (e. g. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) vary significantly from each other.
That said, it is a safe estimate that Genesis 1, which was written by the Priestly source, was composed in approximately 500 BCE by Jewish priests exiled in Babylon (Encyclopedia Britannica). Likewise, Genesis 2, written by the Yahwistic source, dates to around 950 BCE and was produced in Judaea (Encyclopedia Britannica). Affixing a specific date to the authorship of Gilgamesh is likewise challenging since oral and written traditions extend as far back as 2100 BCE in Sumer (Mitchell 2004, 5). The first recognizable Epic of Gilgamesh was completed in about 1700 BCE in Babylon (Mitchell 2004, 6).
As the product of ancient oral and written traditions, Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Gilgamesh all depict a symbiotic relationship of humans and animals within the “state of nature”. Despite this significant similarity there still exist marked differences between human-animal relations in these works. Likely arising due to their more rigidly constructed monotheistic, or at least monolatrous theology, the ancient Israeli viewpoint expressed in Genesis, particularly Genesis 1, reflects a more firmly hierarchal view of nature than that read in Gilgamesh, which features more fluid relations between different forms of beings.
Thus, in contrast to their predecessors and neighbors to the east, the Hebrew sources present a world in which the distinctions between god(s), men, and animals are relatively, if not completely, impassible. In contrast to modern Hobbesian conception of a life in the “state of nature” as “nasty, brutish, and short,” both the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh reveal that both ancient Hebrew and Babylonian societies believed that, at some point in human history, there existed an almost idyllic relationship between mankind and animals (Hobbes 1651).
This closer proximity between mankind and animals, though more explicitly illustrated in Gilgamesh, is nevertheless revealed in both narratives through the physical characteristics of the men involved (i. e. Adam and Enkidu). Described matter-of-factly as two-thirds animal, Enkidu exemplifies a sort-of serene, gentle naturalism. A gargantuan man, with “muscles like rock” and thick hair all over his body, Enkidu is said to wander through the wilderness completely naked and, like Adam and Eve, is “not ashamed” of this fact. Prior to becoming civilized, Enkidu is depicted as both a close companion and protector of surrounding animals.
Living with animals and eating grass with gazelles, Enkidu, in addition to his herbivore diet, also thwarts the attempts of hunters to harm or entrap his animal compatriots (Mitchell 2004, 76). Thus, in contrast to the exploitative attitudes and behaviors toward animals exhibited by civilized society,, the state of nature, represented by Enkidu, is one of relative harmony and mutuality between humans and animals. Similar to the authors of Gilgamesh, both the Priestly and Yahwistic sources conceive of the first humans as vegetarian or herbivores, thereby negating much of the exploitation, which characterizes human-animal relationships.
Providing man with food from “every plant yield seed… and every tree with seed in its fruit,” and animals with “every green plant for food,” the absence of any provision for meat consumption leads scholars, including scholars who annotated the HarperCollins Study Bible, to regard this passage as insisting upon a “rule of vegetarianism” (Genesis (NRSV) 1:29-30). Likewise, no reference to carnivorous or omnivorous behavior is contained in Genesis 2, with God’s only directive being to “freely eat of every tree of the garden,” except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil of course (Genesis (NRSV) 2:16-17).
Though neither the Book of Genesis nor the Epic of Gilgamesh indicate widespread vegetarianism within ancient Hebrew or Babylonian society, both texts harken back to a time, perhaps mythological, in which pre-civilized man coexisted peaceably with other animals. In discussing the portrayal of human-animal relationships in Genesis and Gilgamesh, it is important to inspect the manner in which these portrayals are shaped by considerations of god-animal relationships.
Analyzing godanimal relationships, the distinct differences between ancient Hebrew and Babylonian beliefs concerning the fluidity of creation become clearly evident. While there are certainly not enough texts surveyed in this paper to demonstrate any sense of causation, there does appear to be, within the context of analyzing Genesis and Gilgamesh, a positive correlation between the date-of-authorship and the rigidity of the hierarchy of creation.
Thus, more recently composed texts, such as Genesis 1, present a better-defined hierarchy in which God is superior to mankind, and mankind is superior to animals. So, whereas the God presented in Genesis 2 as walking and talking in the Garden of Eden is considerably anthropomorphized, the God presented in Genesis 1 exhibits no signs of corporeality or other such traits. Yet even the anthropomorphized God of Genesis 2 is dwarfed in comparison to the gods portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh. If there is a divide between gods and men in Gilgamesh it is only to be seen in the fact that the gods are immortal.
Truly indicative of the dynamic nature with which the Babylonians viewed gods, men, and animals, is the passionate desire that the goddess Ishtar displays toward Gilgamesh, and is said to have previously displayed toward other men and animals. Not merely attracted to men or demigods, the gods also fall in love with, and even marry, animals. Ishtar herself is said to have married, among others, the bright-speckled roller bird, the lion, the “hot-blooded, war-bold stallion”, and the gardener Ishullanu, whom she later turned into a toad (Mitchell 2004, 133). All of these lovers of Ishtar are in some fashion cursed in the end.
Similar to the curse with which God, in Genesis 2, forces the serpent to crawl on its belly and be at enmity with mankind forever, the curses that Ishtar enacts may be easily understood as attempts by humans to explain the phenomena they experienced around them. Thus, by appealing to the actions of God or the gods, ancient Hebrews and Babylonians attempted to answer confounding questions about nature and animals. All the products of the ancient Near East experience of human-animal relations, Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and the Epic of Gilgamesh reveal the developments, and variations of this experience across time and space.
While certain elements of this experience, such as man’s origins as a vegetarian or herbivore, are preserved throughout these works, other details changed significantly as both God and mankind became elevated above the animals they were once companions with. Thus, as the Jewish tradition develops over time, and mankind increasingly exalted God above creation, so too was God, as understood by the tradition, increasingly exalting mankind to its newfound place at the pinnacle of creation.