How might a historian use the source Gilgamesh to understand the nature of ancient Mesopotamian society? What specific themes, plot devices, characterizations, setting, symbolism, imagery, and/or language structures might be most valuable to a historian's inquiry?

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First, historians note that the protagonist of The Epic of Gilgamesh actually appears on the Uruk King List. Although many of the details of the epic are obviously fictional, historians study the text for hints about whether Gilgamesh was the name of a real king or simply a legendary founding...

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First, historians note that the protagonist of The Epic of Gilgamesh actually appears on the Uruk King List. Although many of the details of the epic are obviously fictional, historians study the text for hints about whether Gilgamesh was the name of a real king or simply a legendary founding figure.

Next, the epic shows a moral evolution from the king an as absolute power, unrestrained by law or morality, to one who learns that his role is to carry out divine justice and protect his people. Historians compare the lawless behavior of Gilgamesh at the beginning of the epic to the prohibitions found in early law codes.

Next, the treatment of Ishtar in the epic can be used to investigate her cult and the tradition of temple prostitutes. The role of Ishtar and the prostitute who seduces Enkidu are evidence of some of the traditions of gender and sexuality in Mesopotamia.

The relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh can be examined for insights about male friendship.

In the section concerning Gilgamesh's quest for immortality, the story of the flood and the snake who steals the magical herb are both investigated in relationship to the Bible, in order to learn about the origins of both religious traditions.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh was written c. 2150-1400 BCE in Babylonia/Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia. The work is regarded as one of the first or the first example of literature in the western world. In this epic, Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, starts as an oppressive leader until he meets and befriends Enkidu, a wild man. Together, they defeat the Bull of Heaven, which the goddess Ishtar sends as punishment for Gilgamesh's refusal to get involved with her. For this act, Enkidu is sentenced to death by the gods. Gilgamesh is overcome with grief by Enkidu's death and visits Utnapishtim, who has eternal life, to figure out how to become immortal. In the end, Gilgamesh does not become immortal, but he realizes that he can become great by treating his people well and being a good leader.

Some of the values reflected in the poem are the importance of good leadership, as the gods send Gilgamesh to befriend Enkidu to teach Gilgamesh to become a better leader and man. He is described in the epic as "very strong, and like a wild bull he lords it over men." In other words, Gilgamesh is likened to an animal in his instincts to mistreat others, but the gods want him to become superior to animals. In the end, he gives up the idea of immortality so that he can become a good leader. The symbol of the walls is often repeated in the epic. The beginning of the epic reads, "Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, it shines with the brilliance of copper; and the inner wall, it has no equal." The repetition of the symbol of the walls emphasizes the importance of civilization and of Gilgamesh's dedication to building his city.

From the epic, we also know that gods and goddesses were seen as having human qualities. For example, Ishtar falls in love with Gilgamesh, but when he refuses her, she "fell into a bitter rage, she went up to high heaven. Her tears poured down in front of her father Anu, and Antum her mother." Ishtar is described like a mortal, subject to feeling rejection and sadness as any human would.

From Ishtar's power, historians might also be able to surmise that women held a great deal of power in society. Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, war, and love. Fertility was very important in Sumerian society because of the importance of growing crops, so Ishtar was a very powerful goddess. The society saw women as powerful.

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