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...

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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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.