The Epic of Gilgamesh Essays and Criticism

Gilgamesh as a Character

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 shepherd and sheep formed a close-knit social bond. Gilgamesh, however, has become the predator rather than the protector.

The Social Realm: Gilgamesh's Relationship to Others
Gilgamesh's pride and isolation threaten to rip his city apart, and as a last resort, his people cry out to the gods for help: '"You made him, O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second self, stormy heart for stormy heart, let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet" (1. 62). Notice that their solution to Gilgamesh's abuse is to ask the gods to give him a companion and an equal—someone with whom he can have a relationship. By giving Gilgamesh a "shadow self," someone to match his strength and passions, Gilgamesh can then leave the city, its families, and its people in peace. Although Gilgamesh's contact with the social world begins with just one other person, its effect changes Gilgamesh for the rest of his life and the rest of his story.

Enkidu: Gilgamesh's "Second Self"
Gilgamesh's mirror image is, of course, Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are antithetical or opposites in many ways. On one hand, Gilgamesh is the highest product of civilized society. He is a semi-divine king who lives in a palace and indulges himself in fine food and sensuality. On the other, Enkidu represents the basic attributes of the natural world. He is fashioned from clay, is enormously strong, and has never encountered the opposite sex; he runs with the wild animals, frees them from the hunter's snare, and eats wild grasses. The Epic says simply that Enkidu "was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land'' (1. 63). While Enkidu lives off the land and what it provides naturally, Gilgamesh and the archaic Sumerian civilization thrives because of its ability to control nature—or at least harness it—by domesticating herd animals, by cultivating crops in the rich soil, by directing the river through irrigation and channels. Enkidu, who needs the cultivating influence of civilization, represents "natural man" or "pre-civilized humanity," while Gilgamesh embodies his civilization's highest cultural attainments.

Women in the Epic of Gilgamesh: The Courtesan and lshtar
In addition, the companion's relationships to women are also different but strangely parallel. After Gilgamesh dreams of Enkidu's arrival and hears from the trapper about the wild man who runs with the animals, Gilgamesh sends a temple courtesan to initiate Enkidu into civilized society. The Courtesan "taught him the woman's art" (1. 64), and in addition to her sexual lessons, the Courtesan instructs Enkidu in the proper way to eat bread, drink wine, clothe himself, and bathe and anoint himself with oil and perfume. After Enkidu embraces the Courtesan and her civilization, he is forever changed, and when he attempts to return to the mountains, "when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with cord, his knees gave way when he started to run" (1. 65). Enkidu's "wildness" literally has been harnessed by the bonds of civilization. At the same time Enkidu joins with the Courtesan, Gilgamesh carries out his sacred duty as king to unite with Uruk's ruling goddess. The Epic here likely reflects an early stage of Sumerian development when the king embodied both the priestly and political functions. Representing the lowest scale of human development, Enkidu enters the human community through the ministrations of a courtesan, or temple prostitute, in Ishtar's sacred service. Representing the highest pinnacle of human attainment, Gilgamesh joins with Uruk's divine patroness, Ishtar.

Intimate Bonds Between Men: The Homosocial
It is important to recognize that when Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, fight, and become bound companions, their relationships to women in the story— whether divine or common women—virtually disappear. In his dreams of the meteor and the axe, Gilgamesh repeatedly emphasizes that he is drawn to these objects "and to me its attraction was like the love of a woman" (1. 66). Each time Ninsun interprets the dreams for her son Gilgamesh, she also repeats that ''you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you" (1. 66).

Contemporary readers are often uncomfortable with erotic language that is applied to same-sex relationships, and too often see strong bonds between men only in stereotypical terms like "homosexual." However, social scientists and literary critics use the term "homosocial" to denote the intense personal bonds between men. "Homosocial" also indicates the kind of behavior, social codes, and activities that unite groups of men together, and this ''Heroic Code'' often arises in the context of athletic competition, warfare, or survival.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu are united in this kind of homosocial bond, for they are faithful to one another, they are united in their dangerous quests and battles, and their relationships to others pale in comparison to their connection with one another. After their fierce struggle in the streets of Uruk, ''where they grappled, holding each other like bulls,'' shattering the door posts and shaking the temple walls (1. 69), Gilgamesh abandons Ishtar and Enkidu leaves the Courtesan. Gilgamesh, once united to the divine goddess, and Enkidu, once coupled to the lowly temple courtesan, "embraced and their friendship was sealed" (1. 69). Gilgamesh's relationship to Enkidu frees Uruk from the abuse of its king, and together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu make a complete package. Ninsun completes their union by adopting Enkidu as her own child, thus making him Gilgamesh's brother (1. 75).

The Political Realm: Gilgamesh's Relationship to His Kingdom
After finding a companion, someone whom he can accept as an equal, Gilgamesh's attitude toward the people of Uruk changes. He must then...

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Second Millennium Metaphors

As the story begins Gilgamesh shares the heroic values of his times, and his aspirations to immortality take the form of a quest for immortal fame. Death is not yet truly the enemy; it is unavoidable of course but somehow part of the game: a glorious death against a worthy opponent will cause one's name to live forever. In his pursuit of this goal Gilgamesh is extraordinarily successful and scores one gain after another. He fights Enkidu and gains a friend and helper. Together they are strong enough to overcome the famed Humbaba and to treat with disdain the city goddess of Uruk, Ishtar. At that point they have undoubtedly reached the pinnacle of human fame. And at that point their luck changes. In ruthlessly asserting themselves...

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Some Literary Motifs in the Composition of the Gilgamesh Epic

As it is still preserved for us, the material in Sumerian dealing with Gilgamesh consists of five legends, each complete within itself. "Gilgamesh and King Agga of Kish" is probably the most "historical" text. It speaks of Gilgamesh's stout-hearted refusal to submit to the mighty king of a neighboring kingdom and of his eventual triumph over the forces which threatened Uruk. "Gilgamesh and the Land of Living" is by far the masterpiece among the fragments in existence. Its mood is somber throughout, for it treats a poignant theme. These are the words of Gilgamesh to Utu, the sun god:

Utu, a word I would speak to you, to my word your ear!
I would have it reach you, give ear to it!
In my...

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