The Epic of Gilgamesh
Anyone hungry? We are, because food is all over The Epic of Gilgamesh. What's the deal with that? One of the most striking symbolic meanings of food in the epic is as what divides humans from animals. For example, when Enkidu is living in the wilderness, he eats only grass and drinks only water—just like (herbivorous) animals.
This makes it super important when, in Tablet 2, Shamhat brings Enkidu to the shepherds' picnic, and he gets his first taste of bread and beer—which he drinks out of a jug, a totally new experience for him. Lo and behold, Enkidu discovers that he really likes bread and beer—especially beer.
Could this symbolize the advantages of the civilized life over the wild-man life that Enkidu was used to before? Fun fact: scholars basically agree that civilization came about as we know it because of the agricultural revolution. And the agricultural revolution came about—just maybe—because people wanted beer. (And bread, naturally.)
And remember, we spend a lot of time in this poem hearing about how fantabulous it is to be civilized—you know, with livestock and farms to produce your food, instead of having to hunter-gather everything. (And yes, we know, this scene takes place in the Old Babylonian Version, not the Standard Version, so Sinleqqiunninni can't be held responsible for this one.)
Then later, in Tablet 8, after Enkidu has died, when Gilgamesh is lamenting his friend and telling the entire universe to lament him too, he takes the time to mention all the good food and drink the friends enjoyed, which underlines the connection between prepared food and Enkidu's new, civilized life: "May the herder …, who prepared butter and light beer for your mouth, mourn you" (8.21).
So, that bread = civilization thing? Not so far-fetched.
Food of the Underworld
But maybe the point Gilgamesh is trying to make in talking about all this food is about life itself rather than just civilized life. When Enkidu is recounting his macabre dream of the underworld in Tablet 7 (lines 173-197), perhaps the most horrible moment is when he tells how, for the dead people there, "dirt is their drink, their food is of clay" (7.179). What could give a stronger picture of the sharp divide between the living and the dead than what they eat?
We might get a similar idea in Tablet 9, when Gilgamesh goes beyond the edge of the earth into the underworld. The first thing he sees when he arrives is an orchard of trees—which bear precious stones instead of fruit. Could this also symbolize the difference between the underworld and the world above? In this strange realm, where nobody dies, nobody seems to feel the need to eat fruit.
In fact, one of the few uses people in the underworld seem to have for food is as a symbol of decay—as when, in Tablet 11, Utanapishtim gets his wife to bake a loaf of bread for each of the days that Gilgamesh is conked out after failing the staying-awake contest. When he wakes up, he can tell from the different degrees of spoilage in the different loaves how many days he was in his coma.
Think about it: your computer can't decay because it is made out of inorganic things like plastics and copper wires. On the other hand, that awful smell wafting your way is coming from the rotting organic matter in the trash you still haven't taken out. So, what's the connection?
Well, in the underworld everything is dead, right? Really, death is the one entrance criteria for the underworld. So, food—a very organic thing that usually works to keep the living alive—in the underworld is just made out of inorganic things (like clay) because the dead don't need anything to keep them living, seeing as how they are dead and all. And who wants to chow down on clay all day?