The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh book cover
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Gilgamesh as a Character

(Epics for Students)

In essence, The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about Gilgamesh's search for identity and meaning, and readers of his story—both ancient and modern— have seen in Gilgamesh something of their own experience. These issues of identity and meaning are both personal and intimately related: if I know who I am, I can make better sense of the world in which I live; and if I can make better sense of my world, perhaps I can live a better, more satisfying life. Through its characters, themes, events, and structure, the story itself serves as a lens through which the reader may carefully examine his or her own experience. Although the specific historical, cultural, and social circumstances of the modern world differ vastly from the time of the Epic, Gilgamesh's quest to know himself and his world remains current even today.

We might view Gilgamesh's journey into self-knowledge and the meaning of life as a progression through a series of relationships, specifically his relationship to himself (the individual realm), to others (the social realm), to his kingdom (the political realm), and to the gods (the supernatural realm). Gilgamesh's experiences in each of these realms accumulate throughout the Epic and shape his development as a character.

The Individual Realm: Gilgamesh's Relationship to Himself
Gilgamesh's self-understanding develops gradually throughout the Epic. As the Epic of Gilgamesh opens, the Prologue outlines all of the hero's extraordinary qualities. He is all-knowing, wise, and experienced, he is beautiful, courageous, and powerful; and he is a noble king and expansive builder. As testimony to Gilgamesh's greatness, the narrator points to the great temple Eanna and the walls surrounding Uruk itself. No ''man alive can equal'' Gilgamesh's great ziggurat (or temple). Nearly 5,000 years later, the narrator's verse is still true. The remains of the Uruk's great wall and temple still stand in presentday Warka (the biblical Erech) in the Iraqi desert as the confirmation of Gilgamesh's political ambition and devotion to Anu and Ishtar.

Gilgamesh: An Arrogant King
The Epic which follows the Prologue recounts Gilgamesh's heroic deeds, but the hero we find at first does not measure up to these lofty goals. The most significant detail the Prologue gives us is that Gilgamesh is semi-divine: "Two thirds they [the gods] made him god and one third man" (1. 61). Rather than giving Gilgamesh a higher sense of purpose or calling as a king, his partial divinity seems to have unsettled him and given him the hallmark quality of an epic hero: pride, or hubris. Thus, the reader is faced with a contradiction at the very outset of the Epic of Gilgamesh: in contrast to the glowing testimony of the Prologue, the young ruler of Uruk is arrogant, cruel, and heedless of the consequences of his actions. The reader is left with the tantalizing problem that motivates the rest of the action: What happens to transform this cruel young ruler into a wise and celebrated king?.

Gilgamesh: An Abusive Ruler
The opening moments of the Epic make clear that Gilgamesh's self-understanding affects his relationships to others; that is, his pride in his semi-divine status elevates him above everyone else, convinces him that he needs no one else, and leads him to think only of himself and his selfish needs. Because he is so full of hubris and his abuses are so great, Gilgamesh even destroys the social and familial bonds of his subjects, isolating themselves from one another: "No son is left with his father,... His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior's daughter nor the wife of the noble'' (1. 62). Gilgamesh is not ''a shepherd to his people'' (1. 62), as he should be. Sheep were an important commodity in the ancient world, and the shepherd occupied an important place in the society, for the shepherd not only cared for the sheep, he or she kept the sheep together in a flock, kept headstrong sheep from going astray, and protected them for dangerous predators. In short, the...

(The entire section is 9,016 words.)