What is the significance of the Epic of Gilgamesh?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

academe23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.