Eminem and Theology: Cold Wind Blows and The Epic of Gilgamesh
“Only the gods live for ever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind.” — The Epic of Gilgamesh
I’m no musician, but I am a writer. When I hear music, I focus on the lyrics, what’s being said and how it’s being conveyed. This is why I’ve become so fascinated with hip-hop and rap. Yes, the music stuff is absolutely important, but rapping is largely focused on its lyrics, conveying words clearly, concisely, and cleverly. And when it comes to lyricists, I find myself in awe of Eminem.
Eminem has demonstrated a mastery over language that makes me envious. He uses the rhetoric of hip-hop culture while playing with puns like an evil scientist mixing chemicals. Although it’s up for debate whether he’s the best rapper (and what, indeed, are the qualifications for “best rapper”), he’s certainly one of the cleverest.
But the thing that gets me about Eminem is not his fancy wordplay or his music awards or anything of that sort—for me, it’s the stories he tells in his music. Rap is a place for both hyperbole and vulnerability. In his rapping, Eminem expresses his thoughts and experiences, his doubts and hopes. He talks big, like most hip-hop artists—and is vulgar throughout—but in his songs he also expresses interesting snippets of his personal life.
I’m a strange fan, because I started listening to Eminem when Recovery was released. The album is usually frowned upon as one of Eminem’s “meh” albums, but for me it was a great starting point. Throughout the album, Eminem is incredibly introspective, focusing on what brought him to needing rehab, and who he plans to be now that he’s recovered. And it all starts on the first track: “Cold Wind Blows”.
Eminem—Cold Wind Blows
“Cold Wind Blows” is still one of my favorite Eminem tracks. Especially as a Christian it grabs my attention, because it addresses both who Eminem is, and what he believes.
That’s the thing about theology—everybody has it. You believe something, whether you think consciously or not about it. You have an opinion (and usually a strong one) about the way the world works, and what—or who—is running it. In art, we get neat little glimpses of personal beliefs, whether an artist intended or not to share those beliefs.
Anyways, in “Cold Wind Blows” Eminem talks directly to God, claiming to be struck by lightning for his wicked ways. And God talks directly to him on the track, explaining, “This is for your sins / I told you, / you can repent but I warn you, / if you continue, / to hell I send you.”
So here we go. Eminem starts this entire album, an album focused on him recovering from his past, and he’s already condemned by God Himself. Eminem’s clearly acknowledging that he knows he’s in the wrong, that God will punish him for his sins, but also that he’d be forgiven if he repents.
But he doesn’t repent, because he’s Eminem. His response to God is the chorus: that he’s as cold as the cold wind blows. He won’t change who he is or what he’s after. Later in the song, he says so himself: “How long will I be this way? Shady until my dying day…”
Eminem won’t change, even if that means he’ll be damned, and God directly speaking to him won’t change his mind, or his heart. He’s committed to his goals, even if those goals lead straight to hell.
This story of Man vs. God is not a new concept. In fact, it’s one of the oldest stories ever written down.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written on tablets somewhere between 2100 B.C. – 1800 B.C. This ancient collection of stories is about Gilgamesh, King of Ur, and his many adventures. In summary, Gilgamesh is an ancient hero: he saves the city, fights monsters, offends gods, and so forth. He’s incredibly powerful, brave, and a well-loved ruler. However, after the death of his dear friend, Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with discovering a way to avoid death, the fate of all men.
Gilgamesh prays to his god, Shamash, “O Shamash, hear me, hear me, Shamash, let my voice be heard. Here in the city man dies oppressed at heart, man perishes with despair in his heart. I have looked over the wall and I see the bodies floating on the river, and that will be my lost also. Indeed I know it is so, for whoever is tallest among men cannot reach the heavens, and the greatest cannot encompass the earth.”
After this, Gilgamesh pleas with Shamash for help, for aiding him in his mission for immortality. And like “Cold Wind Blows”, Shamash shows up, giving Gilgamesh an answer: “You will never find the life for which you are searching.”
Both gods give similar replies. Shamash is telling Gilgamesh his purpose—eternal life—is impossible. God, likewise, tells Eminem he can repent, but if he continues the path he set for himself, he will be damned to hell. Both are saying that both men’s pursuits will only end in misery.
But more interesting to me is that Eminem and Gilgamesh respond in the same way. Eminem makes it clear that he’s staying cold, unchanging even if he doesn’t know why he behaves the way he behaves. Gilgamesh continues on his adventure, disregarding the truth Shamash told him of his quest, convinced that there must be a way to live forever. Thousands of years apart, both rapper and hero have set their feet in their own paths, and will not change their ways even when the gods themselves intervene.
For both of them, the reason why is the same: immortality.
Recovery is not only a reference to Eminem going clean—he’s recovering his lost throne, taking back his place at the top of hip-hop, aiming to take that seat and claim it forever. Immortality is the common ground between the ancient hero and the modern rapper. It’s the primary goal in mind, haunting their actions until they achieve life eternal, or die trying.
When put in this perspective, I find I sympathize with both Eminem and Gilgamesh. In striving to reach immortality, both find it simply impossible to obey their gods.
Which is completely understandable—I mean why serve a god, when you fully believe you can become one?