What is the significance of The Epic of Gilgamesh?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is significant because it is the oldest written literary work known to history. As such, it can essentially be considered the basis of the epic genre in literature. It also provides valuable information about the Ancient Mesopotamian culture.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Epic of Gilgamesh gives us a privileged insight into one of the earliest civilizations known to man. Thanks to this remarkable work of literature, successive generations of historians, archaeologists, and other scholars have been able to tell us quite a lot about the workings of ancient Mesopotamian society.

The Epic of Gilgamesh provides a rare glimpse into a culture radically different from modern Western culture. The culture in The Epic of Gilgamesh is untouched by the Greek, Roman, and Jewish civilizations that gave rise to the founding of Western civilization.

The central concern of the Epic is to give an account of the relationship between man and the gods. In that sense, it contributes greatly to our understanding of how ancient Mesopotamians saw their place in the world. In the various interactions between Gilgamesh and the gods, we can see the important role that the gods were thought to play in the lives of men and women.

One should recognize that The Epic of Gilgamesh is not just the earliest surviving piece of literature—which is significant enough in itself—but a religious work of great cultural importance. At that time, virtually all civilizations had their own pantheon of gods, and so the best way to understand such civilizations is through the tales they told of their deities and how they impacted people's lives. The Epic of Gilgamesh, as a religious poem, is one such tale, and it is most significant in the insights it provides into the workings of an ancient civilization.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Epic of Gilgamesh is referred to as the oldest epic poem ever written. It originates in ancient Mesopotamia, which is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and it was presumably written around 2100 BC by an unknown author.

The Epic of Gilgamesh covers themes like the power of love and friendship, the pursuit of meaning and purpose, the quest for knowledge, the differences between women and men, the loss of innocence, the existence of divine and mythical forces and entities, success and failure, death and mortality, and humility, honor and courage; these ideas have become the standard thematic representations in epic literature.

The main protagonist—Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk—is essentially the first epic hero; after losing his best friend Enkidu, he goes on a journey to uncover the meaning of life and the secret to immortality. The heroic journey of Gilgamesh has inspired numerous writers to create characters that will go on their own epic journeys; thus, The Epic of Gilgamesh is where "the heroic ideal" in epic literature stems from.

Finally, The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches us a lot about ancient Mesopotamian society; it shows us what the ancient world thought of the universe and how the people lead their lives during those times. It also gives insight into Mesopotamian religion, which heavily influenced the creation of some of the biggest monotheistic religions known today, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the development of Greek and Roman mythology. Thus, it can be concluded that The Epic of Gilgamesh has immense literary, historical, and social significance.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The significance of The Epic of Gilgamesh lies in the fact of its great age and epic trajectory. It is one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature and has influenced many subsequent works. In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the mythologist Joseph Campbell sees the The Epic of Gilgamesh as one of the earliest, and perhaps even the archetypal, "monomyth," a story with a particular structure and narrative arc that one sees again and again.

Gilgamesh's journey, which sees him leave his kingdom of Uruk, meet, battle and befriend his companion Enkidu, fight mythic monsters, and even seek out the secrets of immortality by trying to find the immortal man Utnapishtim, laying out the pattern of a "hero's journey" often repeated in literature.

Even in its time The Epic of Gilgamesh was important in Akkadian and Sumerian culture, suggesting kingship and rule could be more than mere brutality and raw power, as Gilgamesh's experiences in the epic transform him into a better, more enlightened ruler upon his return.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Epic of Gilgamesh is especially significant because of the way it helps us understand early Mesopotamian society and the development of early literary forms. While an overwhelming majority of early written works are commercial or practical in nature, including business correspondence, treaties, law codes, and tax records, the literary texts that survive from the period give us unique insights about Mesopotamian culture.

Although Gilgamesh appears on the Sumerian king lists and may possibly have existed, the narrative of the epic is mythological, involving many supernatural events. On the other hand, the narrative does realistically reflect social attitudes and beliefs. For example, given the prominent role of a prostitute in Enkidu's story and the existence of temple prostitutes in the cult of Ishtar, we can deduce that prostitution was common and that it was socially acceptable for men to visit prostitutes. We also note that mortal women otherwise play few roles in the narrative, and from that can infer a society with distinct gender roles. We also see that male friendship is highly valued.

Next, the epic shows the beliefs of the period about what made a good ruler, a picture quite similar to what we find in the law codes. In the epic, rulers are considered representatives of the gods, related to the the gods, and serving as intermediaries between gods and mortals. A good ruler acts in a moral way and does not abuse power. As we see him in the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a bad ruler, and gradually, through the friendship of Enkidu, he becomes a better ruler. This also suggests that the purpose of advisers was to encourage the king to behave in a morally good fashion. We also see that an important part of the role of the king was to serve as a war leader and that physical prowess was admired.

Finally, the epic is significant in the history of religion, especially in the way that the flood narrative has parallels to the biblical account of Noah.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team