I shall smash the gates of the Netherworld, right down to its dwelling,
to the world below I shall grant manumission,
I shall bring up the dead to consume the living,
I shall make the dead outnumber the living.
— the goddess Ishtar, in The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story known to humanity. It began as a collection of episodic poems written about Gilgamesh, a legendary Mesopotamian king, around 2000 BCE. These were then compiled into a single, cohesive narrative (from which the above quote is taken) by 1100 BCE. Although it’s often difficult to pinpoint exact dates so far back in history, Gilgamesh quite likely precedes the writing of the Hebrew Bible by several centuries.
There are written works older than the Gilgamesh poems, but they describe isolated acts of a legal, commercial, or devotional character. They don’t narrate a sequence of events occurring in chronological order, in which earlier actions have later consequences; in other words, those older documents don’t tell stories. As the above quote indicates, people living in ancient Mesopotamia more than 3000 years ago could imagine a story in which the undead rose up and exterminated humanity.
People have been writing about the Zombie Apocalypse longer than they have been writing about God.
Let that sink in for a minute.
That The Epic of Gilgamesh should contain the oldest recorded depiction of the zombie apocalypse is logical, considering the broader theme of the work, namely how people cope with the inevitability of death. The story begins with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, two men with super-strength, who team up to go fight monsters and have adventures. That in itself provided the template for countless stories told all the way up until the present day.
Ishtar, the goddess of love and sex, attempts to seduce Gilgamesh, but he spurns her advances, as Ishtar’s mortal lovers had a tendency to meet unpleasant fates. (She turned her last boyfriend into a dwarf, for example.) Ishtar then asks her father, Anu, god of the sky, for permission to unleash the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh. When Anu hesitates to comply with his daughter’s whims, Ishtar threatens to create a horde of undead to destroy civilization. Anu relents, but the monstrous bull proves to be little threat against the combined powers of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
In spite of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s great strength, both of them were ultimately mortal. Gilgamesh learned this when Enkidu died of an unexplained illness, surely an everyday occurrence before the development of modern medicine. Terrified by the realization that what happened to Enkidu will someday happen to him as well, Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find a magic plant that will grant him immortality.
Gilgamesh succeeds in finding the plant, but he drops it and it gets eaten by a snake. His chances of eternal life gone forever, Gilgamesh’s only option is to accept the inevitability of his own death.
Here we begin to sense the significance of the undead as a source of horror. Life and death are the only certain categories of human experience, the only aspects of that experience that are truly universal. They are the categories that provide the basic framework for everything else that we understand about ourselves and our place in the world.
After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh rejects the idea that those universal human categories apply to him, but in the end he cannot make good on his desire for eternal life. He has to come to terms with the fact that he will leave this world the same as anyone else, even though he is a king, even though he is gifted with superhuman abilities. None of that will grant him release from humanity’s common fate.
On the surface, it may not be a comforting lesson, but it is at least a reassuring one. It tells its audience that not only is there a universal human experience, but that those categories of “living” and “dead” provide a solid foundation upon which to construct a belief system.
The idea of the undead represents the possibility that the basic categories upon which all of human existence is predicated are completely wrong. Stories of the zombie apocalypse explore what can happen to a society when those categories turn out to be invalid. All traditional institutions collapse, all ideas about law and morality go out the window.
By tossing aside the basic categories of “living” and “dead,” stories of a zombie apocalypse can subject characters (and through them, the audience) to a greater level of existential horror than those dealing with nuclear war, plague, environmental catastrophe, or other common fictional scenarios of global disaster. Those other scenarios don’t throw into question the fundamental framework of nature and morality the way a zombie apocalypse does.
The characters in The Walking Dead comic book series, its companion TV show, and now the spin-off premiering on Sunday, exist in a world in which humanity’s most basic assumption about life has been proven demonstrably false. Beyond the simple thrills of action, gore, and suspense, these stories depict the consequences of the sudden and irreparable loss of all previously held beliefs, a scenario that people have been pondering since the beginning of civilization.
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