Epic of Gilgamesh

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While composed nearly five thousand years ago (2500-1500 BCE), Gilgamesh seems very as contemporary in its thematic concerns as it is alien in many of its cultural practices. Many of these themes emerge from a lost mythological tradition and a culture that is equally non-extant, the bonds of friendship, fear of death, and the quest for worldly renown still strike chords with us even in the twenty-first century.


Humans Gods Creatures

Historical Context

Gilgamesh is a primary epic, composed over a thousand years by cultural stories of the legendary king, Gilgamesh, who is thought to have historically ruled Uruk circa 2700 BCE. The oral stories were probably assembled by a poet and cast into the narrative form of the epic between 2000 and 1600 BCE and finally written on clay tablets in cuneiform during the reign of Assurbanipol in 668-627 BCE.[citation needed]

Gilgamesh as Epic

Can Gilgamesh be called an Epic? Yes and No.

No, because the term epic is usually applied to exceptionally long poems that are narrated by someone else. Gilgamesh has three entries that one may consider to be poems. On page 34 Gilgamesh cries out to the counsellors of Uruk in what I would call a short prayer. On page 43 Ea speaks to Enlil about his misdeeds, the words that are indented have the characteristics of an epic poem. Ea words center on Enlil whose deeds can control the fate of human mankind.

Then again yes, Gilgamesh could be called a Primary Epic. The story of Gilgamesh has several episodes that are legendary. The first sentence of the story states, "Gilgamesh is a poem of unparalleled antiquity, the first great heroic narrative of world literature" (Norton). A "primary epic" "focuses on the personal concept of heroism, and the self-fulfillment and identity of the individual hero." Gilgamesh was definitely out for self-fulfillment. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains everything we can expect from a great epic literature. It portrays fantastic geographies, exotic characters, exhausting quests, heroic battles with monsters, supernatural beings and natural forces. Most important of all, it is an outstanding story of a great epic hero who is compelled to meet his destiny and who rises to every challenge with courage and determination.

The Role of Enkidu

When the god Anu heard the city of Uruk lamenting the cruelty of their king, he responded by demanding of the goddess of creation: “You made him, O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart” (19). Thus Enkidu was created to counterbalance the despotic Gilgamesh: whereas Gilgamesh was two thirds god and one third man, Enkidu was two thirds beast and one third man. Enkidu also acts as a reflection to Gilgamesh in that both must learn what it means to be human. In order to do this, each must distance himself from his animal or godly instincts. As for Enkidu, Jager states that “the wild man who is about to enter the human city must…forego living in a state of absolute unity with a savage and untamed nature.” Enkidu must break the bond between himself and the wilderness in order to be cultured and civilized. Similarly, Jager notes that “The king seeking to humanly inhabit his realm must forego treating that realm as a mere physical extension of himself to which he has completely unrestricted access.” Gilgamesh, like a weaning child, must recognize the break between himself as a ruler and the kingdom he reigns over. Both must learn how to properly inhabit the human realm before they can be considered human.

Thematic Concerns

The epic takes as its primary concern Gilgamesh’s wisdom that he acquires during his journeys and the monuments that he constructs upon his return. Like the Homeric epics, Gilgamesh begins in medias res during the rule of a wild king, two-thirds god and one-third man. While Gilgamesh is strong and an obvious stud — at least in his own mind, his is cruel and naive, needing to discover what it means to be human if he is to become a good ruler and father.

Bonds of Friendship

His first lesson is one of friendship through the wild man Enkidu, more of an animal than man. Like all good, lasting friendships, Gilgamesh and Enkidu first attempt to kill each other when the latter comes to Uruk. Fortunately, they do not, yet Gilgamesh does get the slight upper-hand, and they become great friends. Indeed, while there is an implicit suggestion of Gilgamesh’s superiority over Enkidu, something akin most friendships, there is one who is dominant, choosing adventures, making decisions, and directing the ultimate course of the friendship. Gilgamesh, since he is the epic hero, seems to take this role, perhaps also suggesting the superiority of the cultured and civilized to the animal, or natural. This motif becomes even more apparent in their first adventure.

Strong bonds are usually formed when two people have a common goal, ideal, or interest. As stated in the epic, the gods created Enkidu to try to soften Gilgamesh-make him kinder and gentler. It was as if Homer wanted Gilgamesh to be perceived to be a bad little boy and provide an alter-ego to help Gilgamesh mature. People come in and out of one’s life for a purpose--some to be there for a long time and some for just a moment. Some are there to provide a particular purpose--maybe to teach a certain life’s lesson--and some to change lives forever--maybe a child or a teacher. Their time in one’s life may or may not accomplish its purpose because some are blinded by selfish desires. For Enkidu, his time with Gilgamesh was relatively short, but it was a relationship that Gilgamesh would never forget and which would affect him the rest of his own life. Even though their first meeting was stressful, they became best friends. Early in his existence, Enkidu had lost his physical strength through the trickery of sex with an encounter with a harlot. “It was Gilgamesh that sent a priestess to teach Enkidu the power of civilization, whereas by meeting Enkidu Gilgamesh felt for the first time the need to share and grow, it was through their friendship that Gilgamesh becomes less self-absorbed and most certainly, less lonely (Lishtar).” “Shamhat meets Enkidu at the watering-hole where all the wild animals gather; she offers herself to him and he submits, instantly losing his strength and wildness, but he gains understanding and knowledge. He laments for his lost state (Hooker, Tablet 1)”. Homer seemed to be presenting Enkidu in a more animalistic manner at first and then shows him becoming more human.

When Enkidu first came into the city, Gilgamesh, though not the groom, was about to go in and ravish a new bride. “Enkidu stands in front of the door of the marital chamber and blocks Gilgamesh's way. They fight furiously until Gilgamesh wins the upper hand; Enkidu concedes Gilgamesh's superiority and the two embrace and become devoted friends (Hooker, Tablet 2)”. Some believe that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were lovers, but Lishtar noted that, “…it is not implied in the text that Gilgamesh and Enkidu were lovers in the physical sense. They were though the best friends possible in all worlds, and this is a grace beyond measure (Lishtar)”. This is simply a tale, but ”the modern ideas and interpretations have been applied to it. This is not all bad because it helps relate to this ancient text, but when it comes down to it, it is not likely that this story is about sexuality (Gilgamesh).” Many friendships that start off with turmoil, wind up being the closest. Their friendship was genuine. Enkidu does seem to enjoy the camaraderie that he shares with Gilgamesh and when they enter the forest to cut down the cedar tress, he is the one who stands up to Humbaba, the great demon. “Enkidu shouts at Humbaba that the two of them are much stronger than the demon (Hooker, Tablet 5)”. “This is the real meaning of the bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh, ideal self and bright shadow that stands by wherever we are (Lishtar).” This also occurs in one’s friendships today. One person seems to relish in the glory and the other may be just along for the ride or be the one who gets things done behind the scenes--not everyone wants to be king!

Quest for Worldly Renown

Now that we are friends, we have to party. Enkidu soon gets bored in Uruk — “I am oppressed by idleness” (23) — and Gilgamesh suggests they go get medieval of some evil: Humbaba. This feat will also prove Gilgamesh a real hero by allowing stories to be told about his great feats of manhood:

I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written yet I will raise a monument to the gods.

While Humbaba lives in the Country of the Living, seemingly quite far from Uruk, and is apparently not an immediate threat to Gilgamesh’s people, this endeavor might seem a bit dubious. Perhaps this is a commentary on what men will do when they are bored: let’s go kill something. When we are at peace, we long for war? Humbaba might also represent a “holdfast,” something that while alive or existing — whether an idea or an actual threat — restricts a culture from developing beyond a certain point. Many such holdfasts pop up in western literature, cf. the dragon in Beowulf for one.

While Gilgamesh and Enkidu are successful in killing Humbaba — through episodes of fainting and friendly gibes — its death suggests more of an ambiguity in their success, as if something precious has been slain all for the pride of man (and I do mean man, here). Notice that when Humbaba is killed, the heroes begin cutting down trees: “They attacked the cedars . . . [and] cleared their roots as far as the banks of the Euphrates” (30). Like Enkidu’s education through the wiles of the harlot, this victory suggests that while the heroes accomplished their great victory, something is irrevocably lost because of their endeavor. Through the harlot, Enkidu forever loses his innocence, but what is lost in the killing of Humbaba is a bit more ambiguous. Perhaps this is an ecological statement about clearing rain forests millennia before we knew what effect that practice would have.

The ambiguity continues in the gods’ reaction to the death of Humbaba and the felling of the cedars: Enkidu must die. OK, maybe it has more to do with Gilgamesh’s arrogant dismissal of Ishtar, but regardless, the Bull of Heaven is sent to punish the heroes and Uruk. Even though the bull is defeated, Enkidu must die which precipitates Gilgamesh’s search for immortality — an escape from death. Notice that while Enkidu lays dying that he curses the city (civilization), the harlot (women that led to the destruction of his innocence), and the trapper (who precipitated the education of Enkidu). Enkidu’s curses further call into question the necessity of civilization and heroic quests: perhaps fame is not worth death.


"Humbaba whose name is 'Hugeness,' a ferocious giant. Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard the forest and has armed him in sevenfold terrors, terrible to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself. He guards the cedars so well that when the wild heifer stirs in the forest, though she is sixty leagues distant, he hears her. Humbaba is a great warrior, a battering ram. Humbaba, the watchman of the forest never sleeps." (The Norton Anthology, 23)

Humbaba was also know as Huwawa. Humbaba is a monster in the epic of Gilgamesh who guards the cedar forest in the Lebanon mountains. He is a giant being and is sometimes shown with lion's claws, long hair, and a monstrous, hairy face. Humbaba is killed by the hero Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu who journey to the forest to cut down cedar trees. (http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/explore/humbaba.html, 2005)

Escape from Death

After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh rips his clothes from his body and dons animal skins, symbolic of his repudiation of civilization and renown — that which caused the death of his friend. Gilgamesh’s subsequent journey is a psychological descent into his own psyche to discover his own meaning in a life that must end in death. His epic journey is pretty pathetic as far as epic journeys go: full of tantrums and failed tasks, Gilgamesh seems to return to Uruk empty-handed. Yet, he brings the story of his travel and carves it on the bricks that make up the foundation of Uruk, suggesting that civilization is ultimately built on stories: the written text is the key to progress, friendship, and immortality. Gilgamesh, then, becomes a scapegoat: he journeyed to meet Utnapishtim so his people did not have to. Though his journeys proved ostensibly unsuccessful, he returned humanized, ready to accept his place in the world and finally death when it would come.

Gilgamesh leaves us with its moral: Do not abuse power, “deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun” (46). Gilgamesh is both “the darkness and the light of mankind” in that he brought suffering, but ultimately brought life to his people in the form of the story. What directions for life are contained within the epic? How many of these myths do we still live with today? These stories represent the good and the bad of humanity. What do we ultimately think of the stories, myths, codes for life that Gilgamesh ultimately passes on?

Importance of Food and Drink

When we are first introduced to Enkindu, it is when “he was innocent of mankind, he knew nothing of the cultivated land” (19). He also “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes” (19). Though he is biologically human, he lives like a wild animal. One aspect of his animalism is his eating habits. The food we eat, the ways it is prepared and consumed, and the rituals of hospitality are all forms of culture and civilization. In order for Enkindu to learn to be human, he must learn to eat as one. When the shepherds originally present food to him the text states that, “Enkindu could only suck the milk of wild animals. He fumbled and gaped, at a loss what to do or how he should eat the bread and drink the strong wine” (22). Because he only knows how to eat as an animal, he is an animal.

Immediately after the harlot explains to him the way of human eating, and he consumes the bread and wine like a man, “He rubbed down the matted hair of his body and anointed himself with oil. Enkindu had become a man” (22). His new discovery of human eating has led to his humanization. According to Jager, Enkindu’s “exodus from an older and more primitive and confluent world and his entrance into a human cosmos is marked by a distinctly different way of…eating and drinking.” His new understanding of how humans prepare and eat food has granted him the capacity to act as a man, and therefore be admitted into human civilization. Jager also explains that “Fully human eating begins by domesticating natural grasses, roots and berries and by transforming them into agricultural crops.” Farming shows human advancement and technology. A refined taste for food and drink and an understanding of cultivation reflects cultural appreciation. Now that Enkindu can properly eat human food, he can acknowledge the society which produces it.

Attitudes Toward Women

Gilgamesh's view of women is that of a male chauvinist (according to today’s standards). Not only is he a male chauvinist, but he "is the epitome of a bad ruler: arrogant, oppressive, and brutal." (The Norton Anthology, 17)"His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute." (The Norton Anthology, 19) The men of Uruk were not happy with his behavior. Even noble Enkidu is upset at the news that Gilgamesh was to take a bride’s virginity before her marriage to her groom.

When Ishtar see Gilgamesh's great beauty she exclaims in glory, "Come to me Gilgamesh, and be my bridegroom; grant me seed of you body, let me be your bride and you shall be my husband."(The Norton Anthology, 30) “She tried to make Gilgamesh her husband, but he refused her and reminded her of her former lovers, whom she mercilessly killed or left injured.” (Lindemans, Micha F. \ “Ishtar” \ www.pantheon.org \ July 25, 2004) He states that he doesn’t just want to be another piece of meat in her escapades of having sex with many men and leaving them. So he declines.

Gilgamesh is a control freak and if he were to marry Ishtar, he would lose that control. Also, Gilgamesh loves virgins and not loose women. This is seen in the opening statements listed above.

As we look at attitudes toward women, we cannot just look at Gilgamesh as an individual but at the whole story. The trapper's son was scared of Enkidu at first. The trapper's son went to Gilgamesh and got a harlot, (loose woman), to take to the watering hole to seduce Enkidu so his peers, the animals, would repel against him.

To humanize Enkidu, the harlot, was sent to seduce him. Enkidu, who ran with the animals and was basically one of them, came upon the harlot at the drinking hole where she exposed her breasts, got naked with him and had sex with him for six days and seven nights. After this, Enkidu had his fill and returned to be with the animals that rejected him and ran off. We hear of Enkidu being weak legged after his sexual escapades and unable to keep up with the animals. (The Norton Anthology, 20)

Women were looked at basically as sexual elements from the beginning of this tale and this has continued throughout time. So, is Gilgamesh really as bad as he was made out to be or is he just the same as some of the men in today's society? Women throughout modern day have used sex to get what they want. This is just an example of how women even back then used sex to get what they desired even if it was for someone else.

Archetypes in Gilgamesh

An archetype in Gilgamesh was the number seven. The author used this archetype, very deliberately. After taking a closer look at this literary work it was discovered the number seven was used thirty-seven times. (Norton Anthology, 18-47) By taking a collaborative view of literary works throughout history it is revealed the continued use of the number seven. The number seven was used 700 times in The Bible (Harris) and twenty-five times in The Qu’ran (Sahibzada). There is no mistake about the author’s reference to this particular number based upon its cultural and religious significance. It has become evident the number seven held a sacred or significant meaning. But to better understand the significance of the continued reference to a particular number, one would have to take a closer look at the historical implications.

“Most cultures of the world hold certain numbers to be especially significant, even symbolic, and this is reflected in their religions. In the Abrahamic traditions, which originate in the Middle East, the number seven is of particular importance. Some of its significance stems from the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations, which identified seven planets and framed seven days of the week around them. Very early among Middle Eastern peoples, seven became known as a "perfect" number, symbolic of completeness and goodness.” (Sahibzada).

It is believed the origin of the number seven was established by the planets that were transformed into deities. The ancient Egyptians had seven original gods; the Phoenicians seven Kabiris; the Persians seven sacred horses of Mithra with seven gates, seven alters, and seven mysteries; the Parsees seven angels opposed by seven demons, seven celestial abodes paralleled by seven lower regions. The seven gods were often represented as one seven-headed deity. The whole heaven was subjected to seven planets; hence, in nearly all the religious systems we find seven heavens. The number seven was also used in demonical religions as well. A contract with the devil had to contain seven paragraphs, was concluded for seven years and signed by the person seven times. (Blavatsky)

Religious peoples were not the only ones to reference this number. There were cultural, architectural, and ceremonial implications as well. The Cherokee Indians regard the number seven as sacred. The ceremonial significance in their culture is captured in their seven ancient ceremonies with the seventh ceremony celebrated every seven years. (Lewis & Kneberg, 175) A few of the ceremonies focus on the number seven. The first moon of spring ceremony is seven days long. The Green Corn ceremony began on the seventh of August. During this ceremony the Chief and his seven councilors fasted while the tribe gathered seven ears of corn, each from a different clan’s field. (Lewis & Kneberg, 176-177) The Cherokee’s also have purification ceremonies in which a person is immersed seven times. (Mooney, 230).

Architecture has also been influenced by the number seven. The famous pagoda of Churingham is surrounded by seven square walls, painted in seven different colors, and in the middle of each wall is a seven storied pyramid. The Buddhist use seven-tier pagoda’s to signify the seven treasures that are the blessings from the seven northern stars. (Blavatsky) Along with the most impressive monuments known to exist, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World http://ce.eng.usf.edu/pharos/wonders/map.html

The military’s 21-gun salute is centered on the number seven. The use of this symbol is traced to early warriors demonstrating peaceful intentions and was used universally. The act varied with time, place, and the weapon being used. Originally warships fired a seven-gun salute. The number seven was probably used because of astrological and Biblical importance. There were seven planets identified and the moon changed phases every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year. (Headquarters, Military District of Washington)

Works Cited

Also see the bibliography.

  • Headquarters, Military District of Washington, Fact Sheet: Gun Salutes, May 1969.
  • Hooker, Richard. “Mesopotamia – Gilagamesh.” World Civilizations. Washington State University. Updated 6, July 1999. Tablets 1, 2, 5. 16 February, 2005. <http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/GILG.HTM>
  • Jager, Bernd. “Eating as natural event and as intersubjective phenomenon: Towards a phenomenology of eating." Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. Spring 1999, Vol. 30 Issue 1: 66-118. EBSCOhost. GALILEO. 6 Feb. 2005 <http://www.galileo.usg.edu/>.
  • Lewis, Thomas M. N. and Madeline Kneberg. “Tribes that Slumber Indians of the Tennessee Region.” Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press,tenth printing (1994).
  • Mooney, James. History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Asheville, North Carolina, 1992.
  • The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. 7th ed., New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.