Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930
The Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest to have survived into the modern era. Thus the greatest value of Gilgamesh is that it opens a window for modern readers into their collective past. The tale’s content reveals much about humanity’s earliest social and religious concerns, while its form reveals equivalent insights about the relationship between instruction and entertainment in an oral culture.
The story of Gilgamesh reveals both a desire to commemorate the hero’s greatness and an obligation to learn from his flaws. The first thing the audience learns from the story is that Gilgamesh builds protective walls around the city, a great gift to his society. When the audience next learns that the king has been abusive to the young men of the city and has deflowered young maidens, their disapproval of these acts is tempered by their initial approval of his great accomplishment. Overall, the early portions of the story demonstrate that the abiding criterion for judgment is not the happiness of the individual, even if that individual is the king, but the good of society as a whole. When Gilgamesh exercises the kingly privilege in deflowering maidens, his actions may be legal, but they fail to provide any benefit for Uruk and are therefore condemned. Thus does the audience learn that greatness entails responsibility, not just strength.
Crucial to the lesson of the story is Gilgamesh’s status as two-thirds god, one-third human. Kings are more than human and therefore are revered; yet at the same time kings are imperfect, so that as they learn, their growth will serve as a model for the improvement of their subjects. One special feature of Gilgamesh is its introduction of an additional intermediary between the king and his people, Engidu. Precisely because the hero is so far above his subjects, he needs to befriend someone who is thoroughly human, though possessing heroic strength; only in this way can the audience achieve an emotional identification, or at least a profound empathy, with the hero. They can never quite see themselves as Gilgamesh, but they can see themselves as Engidu, standing by the hero’s side, supporting him, making possible his glorious triumphs. Thus when the pair are confronted by the Bull of Heaven, it is Engidu who leaps upon him, allowing Gilgamesh to make the killing blow. Gilgamesh gains a triumph, but Engidu shares in the moment—and the audience shares in both.
Nevertheless, Engidu is mortal. His death motivates the greatest feat of Gilgamesh, the hero’s quest for the secret of immortality. In his desperation, in his willingness to commit all of his strength to his search, and most of all in his willingness to share the secret of renewed youth with the people of Uruk once he has obtained it, Gilgamesh displays the true nobility of the heroic character. It is his failure in this final quest, not his ability to triumph over Khumbaba or the Bull of Heaven, that stays with the audience and teaches the final lesson of the story. If even the greatest hero of them all cannot escape his destiny, if every man and woman is doomed someday to die, then perhaps each member of the audience who hears the Gilgamesh story has done the right thing, simply by choosing life. For if the city is to thrive, its citizens must accept the will of the gods, obey the will of the king, and strive not for more than can be granted but for such happiness as is their lot. In a society such as Uruk’s, whose religion offers no travel after death to some promised land of gardens and fountains, such a lesson is the only one that can lead to success.
Nevertheless, Gilgamesh’s desire for immortality is not totally denigrated. It is what separates the long series of forgotten kings in Uruk from the heroic figure who earns the title role in his own story. When Gilgamesh expresses the desire to set his name in brick where no man’s name has ever appeared, he is articulating a yearning shared by many. This approval is clear in the large proportion of the story that is given over to the campaign against Khumbaba. This is Gilgamesh’s great triumph, the fulfillment of his desire to do what no man has ever done. Modern speculation is that this section of the tale is based on an actual expedition—perhaps one led by the historical king Gilgamesh—across the desert, into the mountains, which brought tons of precious wood back to the city and perhaps even enabled the building of the walls and temples so proudly referred to at the beginning and end of the tale.
Finally, the form of the Gilgamesh story also reveals much about the special demands of oral composition and performance. Speeches with vital plot or thematic content are repeated, to ensure that the audience gets the message or to underscore the importance of the event. In a world without written communication, messengers typically repeated back what they had been told in order to make sure they had heard correctly; when this feature is incorporated into the world of the story, it provides additional connection between the tale and its audience. Formulaic phrases are also repeated, often accumulating great power. The best example of this feature of oral composition occurs during Gilgamesh’s trip through the darkness of the mountain tunnel between his world and the world of the gods, when the hero travels many leagues with “darkness ahead of him and darkness behind him.”