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Genre - Historical Fiction
Rating - PG13 to R
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Thresholds and Boundaries
When I glanced at page 99 of my novel—the end of a chapter and only half a page long—I thought I could say little about it. But then I read it through a few more times and realized that those few sentences incorporated a major theme of the book: liminality.
“Liminality” is a scholarly term for being in limbo. It can refer to the transition between two places, social organizations, or states of being. For example, between sleeping and waking a half-awake stage often occurs. The long process of giving birth separates the state of being a nonparent and the state of being a parent. And in New Orleans, regular life is separated from six weeks of sacrifice and penitence by several weeks of eating king cake and attending Carnival parades, balls, and parties.
Societies recognize many liminal moments as crucial times of change, with new opportunities and new limitations. Societies often mark liminal moments in memorable or ceremonial ways. Examples in modern America include circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs, the purchase of new school supplies and clothes for children in August, high school graduation ceremonies, communion/mass, wedding ceremonies, widely shared birth customs such as going to the hospital and giving birth in a bed, award presentations, retirement parties, and funerals.
My historical novel Like Mayflies in a Stream takes place in ancient Mesopotamia about 4,500 years ago in the world’s first city, Uruk. This is one of the most exciting times in human history, a time of breaking and setting boundaries, a time of crossing thresholds and setting rules against doing so. The theme of liminality runs through both Like Mayflies in a Stream and the epic poem that inspired it, the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
People of ancient Mesopotamia drew a great distinction between city and wilderness. Like America’s Founding Fathers, they were creating something for the first time in history and could not be sure it would survive. To keep civilization from degrading, they hedged it in with definitions and built cultural and legal walls between the state of being civilized and the state of being uncivilized. For example, wearing clothes was civilized, so citizens did not walk about Uruk naked.
The story of Gilgamesh (both in the original epic and in my own take on the legend) highlights the vast divide between civilization and wilderness while at the same time playing with their boundaries. Gilgamesh, the king of civilized Uruk, is wild, cruel to his subjects, unthinking, and undisciplined. In contrast, the wild man Enkidu cares for the gazelles he lives with and frees animals caught in traps. Later, he guards a flock of sheep to let the shepherds rest.
The contrast between the wild man’s civilized traits and Gilgamesh’s uncivilized ones is emphasized in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” by repeated use of the epithet “Uruk the Sheepfold.” In ancient times, a leader was considered a shepherd to a flock consisting of his followers or subjects. (A more familiar example would be the common portrayal of Jesus as a shepherd.) Clearly, the “civilized” Gilgamesh needs taming more than the wild Enkidu.
Gilgamesh’s unkingly behavior upsets the natural order of things, and the persecuted people of Uruk fear that their patron deity will abandon them. Interestingly, Uruk’s patron is Inanna, the goddess of love and war. Inanna is a liminal deity; in myths she frequently tests boundaries and crosses thresholds. Sometimes she behaves like a woman and sometimes like a man (for example, she goes armed into battle). Unlike the other Sumerian gods, who are relatively static, in myths, Inanna changes from an afraid virgin dependent on her mother’s advice to an eager, lustful bride and later to a mature and vengeful woman. As a young woman, she steals the attributes of civilization from her grandfather and gives them to the city of Uruk. As a mature woman, she decides to descend into the Underworld, from which no one returns and where she is hung naked and dead on a hook—and then with the help of a servant Inanna returns triumphant to the world of the living.
The theme of liminality occurs in every paragraph on page 99 of Like Mayflies in a Stream, On that page, two of the main characters are crossing the desert as they leave the wilderness behind on their way to Uruk.
One of these characters, Shamhat, is a beautiful young priestess of Inanna from an upper-class family. She was in the wilderness because King Gilgamesh sent her there to tame a wild man and bring him back to Uruk—in other words, he ordered her to perform the uncivilized act of kidnapping. Her journey to the wilderness echoed Inanna’s descent to the Underworld: Shamhat had to progressively give up the trappings of her job, her social status, and of civilized life itself—her priestess headdress, her costly lapis lazuli necklace, her shell necklaces, her cosmetics, and her sandals—as she traveled from Uruk to the wilderness. There, she tamed the wild man first by seducing him (an action not sanctioned by her society and yet one that severs his connection with the gazelles, which no longer recognize him as one of their own) and second by introducing him to the most important aspects of civilization one by one in a reverse echo of Inanna’s descent: He receives a name (Enkidu), he is given bread to eat, he is given beer to drink, his hair is cut, his beard is trimmed, and he is given a bath.
On page 99 of Like Mayflies in a Stream, Shamhat and Enkidu travel to Uruk. Shamhat, who saw nothing but sand when she first entered the wilderness, now notices the plants and the many species of animals hunting for food. Her previous crossing the boundary from city into wilderness has led to her crossing a boundary from ignorance to knowledge of the wilderness and how to survive in it. Her inability to keep up with the tall, indefatigable Enkidu highlights the wall between what men do and what women do; she is out of shape because Sumerian society discourages women from living as active a life as men do.
To travel faster, Enkidu carries Shamhat on his back as if she were a small child. She unbinds her hair and it tangles in the wind. In this liminal space between wilderness and civilization, she feels free to temporarily throw off proper adult behavior to enjoy these childlike behaviors, and Enkidu can run for hours without encountering the obstacles he would in a city.
At the same time, at meals and at bedtime, Shamhat drills into Enkidu that Gilgamesh has hurt many innocent people. She reminds him repeatedly as well of the pleasures of Uruk compared with the wilderness he grew up in. This liminal space thus also serves as a time to prepare Enkidu for the city and to manipulate him into fighting Gilgamesh, a life-changing act.
In the last sentence on page 99, the theme of liminality is cemented by Shamhat and Enkidu’s reaching a physical threshold: “They reached the north gate of Uruk on the morning of the third day.” I purposely used Biblical-sounding language in this sentence to underline the importance of the boundary they are about to cross.
I play with liminality elsewhere in the novel too. I pit the plusses and minuses of men’s and women’s role against each other; I contrast life in the temple and life in a home; and I force Shamhat to face her competing duties to her goddess, her king, her city, her temple, her family, and herself and to decide which boundaries and rules to respect and which to break.
The hidden thread of liminality that runs through Like Mayflies in a Stream creates fractures and stresses between people, causes people to embark on journeys and quests, and otherwise adds depth to what is on the surface a tale of adventure and rebellion. I hope you enjoy Like Mayflies in a Stream, and I hope also that on second read you have fun picking out the thresholds, boundaries, and transitions that occur often in the book without catching the notice of the casual reader.