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''...
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(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 face two superhuman threats to his kingdom: Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh's campaign against Humbaba, the giant who protects the Cedar Forest, not only puts into action both Gilgamesh's renewed sense of self and his new relationship to Enkidu, it also reinvigorates his sense of kingship. Until their journey into the forest, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have grown complacent in Uruk. Once active and vital, Enkidu has become weak and is "oppressed by idleness" (1.70). Gilgamesh also seeks new adventure, for he says, "I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed'' (1.70). In terms of the Heroic Code, only a battle in a distant and threatening place against a formidable and evil foe will secure Gilgamesh's lasting reputation and quench his thirst for esteem.
The First Test: Humbaba of the Forest Notice, however, that Gilgamesh's personal quest for everlasting fame is at the same time a royal mission to free the land of evil: ''Because of the evil that is in the land, we will go to the forest and destroy the evil, for in the forest lives Humbaba who name is 'Hugeness,' a ferocious giant" (1. 71). Humbaba represents wild and destructive nature apart from any civilizing tendencies, for as Humbaba says as he begs for his life, "I have never known a mother, no, nor a father who reared me. I was born of the mountain" (1. 82).
Now, Gilgamesh's desires are no longer at odds with Uruk's needs. In contrast to his earlier abuse of his people, Gilgamesh, now a true shepherd to his people, seeks to protect Uruk from Humbaba's evil and secure the vital natural resources Uruk needs to thrive. Some scholars see in Gilgamesh's journey to the Cedar Forest the historical echo of the cities of southern Mesopotamia infiltrating the more mountainous north and west for the lumber and minerals necessary to support their thriving economies. In fact, the cedar timbers are used to create one of Uruk's monumental city gates, "Seventy-two cubits high and twenty-four wide, the pivot and the ferrule and the jamb are perfect. A master craftsman from Nippur has made you" (1. 90). The city gates of ancient cities served a dual purpose: in their size and strength they offered the city protection from invaders, and in their craft and beauty they advertised their city's wealth much in the same way a modern corporate tower might celebrate a company's affluence and status. The forest he protects thus provides the raw materials for Uruk's protection. Ancient cities like Uruk needed to harness both forest and flood in order to survive, and Humbaba's defeat marks both Gilgamesh's prowess and Uruk's prosperity.
The Second Test: The Bull of Heaven Although Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat Humbaba, the fearsome giant of the forest, their success triggers another fateful test: the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk, and Ishtar wantGilgamesh as her lover. However, much in the same way Enkidu could not return to the embrace of the wild, so Gilgamesh cannot requite the embrace of the goddess. Gilgamesh recognizes that Ishtar uses and discards her human lovers much in the same way he used and dishonored the women of Uruk, and he pointedly asks Ishtar, ''And if you and I should be lovers, should not I be served in the same fashion as all these others whom you loved once?'' (1. 87). In other words, his renewed sense of relationship with others has shaped his view of himself, and he is no longer willing to treat others badly or be abused himself.
In her rage at being turned down by a lesser being, Ishtar persuades Anu and Antun, her parents, to unleash the Bull of Heaven upon Uruk. Much in the same way that Humbaba embodied both the promise of mountain riches and the danger lurking in the deep forest, so the Bull of Heaven personifies the threat of prolonged drought and famine, or natural disaster. Anu reminds Ishtar that, "If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks'' (1. 87). Ishtar intends the Bull of Heaven to punish both Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but it is let loose upon Uruk. The Bull goes first to the river, where "with his first snorts cracks opened in the earth and a hundred young men fell down to earth" (1. 88). With the Bull's second snort, two hundred fall to their deaths, and with his third, Enkidu is struck a blow. It is difficult not to see that in the Bull of Heaven's snorts the rumbling destruction of an earthquake, which would devastate Uruk's mudbrick walls and open up crevasses in the earth. But Gilgamesh and Enkidu work together to defeat this threat and this latest venture becomes their greatest glory. Thus Gilgamesh's great victories yield the double benefit of bringing him glory and his city peace and prosperity.
Death and the Supernatural Realm: Gilgamesh's Relationship to the Gods Unfortunately, Gilgamesh's remarkable triumph against Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven also enrage some members of the heavenly pantheon, and Enkidu has a dream that a council of the gods has decreed that ''Because they have killed the Bull of Heaven, and because they have killed Humbaba who guarded the Cedar Mountain one of the two must die" (1. 89). The gods choose Enkidu to die, and his last words to Gilgamesh reflect the Heroic Code around which their relationship has revolved: ''My friend, the great goddess cursed me and I must die in shame. I shall not die like a man fallen in battle; I feared to fall, but happy is the man who falls in the battle, for I must die in shame" (1. 93). The true warrior dies with his comrades in battle, not in bed, but Enkidu's death brings Gilgamesh face-to-face with his most difficult challenge: the inevitability of his own mortality. Together, Gilgamesh and Enkidu had done everything in their power to establish their reputations, their "names," but at Enkidu's death Gilgamesh realizes that even their heroic exploits do not hold the key to happiness, eternal life, or even ultimate meaning. In Enkidu's death Gilgamesh faces his own destiny, for as Gilgamesh dreamed and Enkidu interpreted, "The father of the gods has given you kingship, such is your destiny [but] everlasting life is not your destiny" (1. 70). In his rage and grief, Gilgamesh laments the passing of his friend and faces life again alone.
Although Gilgamesh is isolated again after Enkidu's death, he is not the same person he was at the beginning of the Epic. His relationship to Enkidu has changed him irreversibly, for although death separates Gilgamesh and Enkidu physically, it seems that Gilgamesh carries Enkidu's memory with him throughout the rest of the tale. Often, when critics talk about the central theme of the Epic of Gilgamesh, they describe it in the abstract: the theme of mortality or the awareness of death. Yet Gilgamesh's understanding of his mortality emerges from a very concrete and personal loss. His best fnend has died and left the great hero fearful, and that life-changing event sends him into an even more desperate quest for the answer to life's ultimate question: what will become of me?
Gilgamesh's Search for Immortality and the Meaning of Life Gilgamesh recognizes his own fate in his friend's death, and this awareness spurs him on to the ends of the earth to find Utnapishtim: "Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods" (1.97).
During Gilgamesh's search for Utnapishtim, the hero changes both emotionally and physically in ways that contrast his earlier elevated status. First, the great hero who defeated Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven is truly fearful for the first time in the tale. He is just as tentative and unsure after Enkidu's death as he was arrogant and abusive before Enkidu's coming. Second, he changes physically to the point that he appears to be a wild man just like Enkidu had previously. He roams the wilderness dressed in skins, just a haggard shadow of his former self. Furthermore, Gilgamesh's journey into the supernatural to find Utnapishtim and conquer death parallels his earlier quest into the natural world of the Cedar Forest to locate Humbaba and conquer evil.
Gilgamesh in the Garden of the Gods The earlier quest tested his divinity; this final quest tests his humanity. After passing through a great darkness into the garden of the gods, Gilgamesh encounters three supernatural beings in succession before reaching Utnapishtim. Shamash, appalled at Gilgamesh's appearance, tells him, '''You will never find the life for which you are searching'" (1. 100). Alongside the great sea of death, Siduri, goddess of wine, tells him to abandon his search and advises him instead to eat, drink, and be merry while he can (1.102). Urshanabi, Utnapishtim's boatman, at first refuses to take Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, but after Gilgamesh destroys Urshanabi's sailing gear, the boatman relents. Finally, Gilgamesh confronts Utnapishtim with a single question: "how shall I find the life for which I am searching?" (1. 106). At this moment of completion when Gilgamesh has reached the end of his final quest, Utnapishtim replies: "There is no permanence" (1. 106). Utnapishtim goes on to explain that death is humanity's great equalizer, for everything human will fall eventually and masters as well as servants face the grave.
Each of these four encounters is marked both by repetition and increasing complexity. It is as if the closer Gilgamesh gets to his goal, the more difficult his encounter. First, Shamash simply comments that Gilgamesh will not find what he's looking for. Next, Siduri supports her contention with illustrations from everyday life. Third, Urshanabi has to contend with the angry hero and give him the means to cross the waters of death to Utnapishtim. Finally, Utnapishtim not only answers Gilgamesh's query, Utnapishtim goes on to tell the story of the great flood and how he became immortal.
The Quest for Meaning and the Process of Grief At the same time, Gilgamesh's journey into the supernatural follows a numbing repetition. Each deity wonders how Gilgamesh came this way and into his deteriorated state; Gilgamesh responds each time that he is haggard and drawn because of his grief for his companion Enkidu—with whom he conquered Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven—that he fears death, and that he seeks Utnapishtim. Narratively, these repetitions summarize the action up to this point; psychologically, they recreate the haunting questions that persistently assail someone in grief. In fact, Gilgamesh's description—his "face like the face of one who has made a long journey" (1. 105)—captures the poignant weight of grief and its effects. Thus, we might view Gilgamesh's journey into the supernatural to find Utnapishtim equally as a psychological journey through grief toward understanding of his mortality and a reconciliation with his own limitations.
Gilgamesh and the Loaves of Bread Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a rather simple test to see if he is worthy of immortality: remain awake for seven days. However, sleep quickly overcomes the hero, and Utnapishtim's wife bakes a loaf of bread for each day Gilgamesh sleeps. In a fascinating descriptive sequence, the story describes how the loaves of bread age and decay over seven days (1.114), paralleling Enkidu's seven-day spiral of decay "until the worm fastened on him" after his death (1. 96). The symbolic nature of the decaying bread is not lost on Gilgamesh, for it confirms again that "death inhabits my room" (1.115).
Gilgamesh, the Flower of Youth, and the Serpent at the Well After Gilgamesh fails the test, the Epic presents two strangely parallel scenes. In the first, Utnapishtim give Urshanabi the charge to "take him to the washing place" (1. 115). There Urshanabi helps Gilgamesh clean himself up, literally sloughing-off ''his skins, which the sea carried away, and showed [again] the beauty of his body" (1. 115). Despite Gilgamesh's apparent failure, the king of Uruk is once again transformed, and this physical metamorphosis hints toward his awareness of human limitation. Utnapishtim banishes Urshanabi, and at the urging of his wife, reveals to Gilgamesh the whereabouts of an underwater plant whose bloom can renew old people to their lost youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and wants to share its benefits with the people of Uruk, but a snake hiding at the bottom of a well eats the bloom, sheds its skin, and returns to the well, leaving Gilgamesh bereft once again.
The End is the Beginning: Gilgamesh in Relationship and in Death Many critics believe that the story ends on a note of loss, for Gilgamesh loses the life-giving plant and returns to Uruk empty-handed. However, the tale leaves us with two more positive images. First, although Gilgamesh does not earn everlasting life, he is physically renewed like the snake that sloughs off its skin. The clothes Utnapishtim gives him "would show no sign of age, but would wear like a new garment till he reached his own city, and his journey was accomplished" (1. 115). Physical change and decay, like the loaves of bread, is inevitable, but change is not necessarily to be equated with death.
Second, Gilgamesh actually does not return empty-handed. Urshanabi returns to Uruk with him. Here we see the beauty of the Epic's consistently parallel but antithetical structure. In the first half of the story, Gilgamesh begins as a ruthless prince and ends as grieving friend. The second half reverses the first. Gilgamesh begins as a haggard, wild wanderer and returns with a new companion. Gilgamesh may not have eternal life, the ultimate object of his quest, but he does have understanding and relationships with others, two things he lacked at the beginning.
The final chapter of the Epic, the brief "The Death of Gilgamesh" (11. 118-19), completes Gilgamesh's cycle from haughty young king to beloved old ruler. The opening of the tale found Gilgamesh to be selfish and arrogant, using the women of Uruk for his own pleasure and the men for his ambitions. He lived outside of meaningful human relationships, and he was completely without companionship except for those he dominated. Gilgamesh was restless and ''a man of many moods'' until he found an equal and a companion. Indeed, he was no shepherd to his people. The story's conclusion finds just the opposite. Gilgamesh has fulfilled the destiny which Enlil had decreed, and he has achieved great victories. But instead of dying alone on his bed, Gilgamesh is surrounded by love of his family; by his extended household, servants, courtiers, and friends; by the people of Uruk "great and small," and even by a host of gods, including Dumuzi, the god of shepherds and sheepfolds (1. 119). All of creation is united in their lament for Gilgamesh's death, and although he did not find eternal life, his story has endured, etched in stone and now on the page, in the memory of his people and his readers alike.
Source: Daniel T Kline, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
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 and seeking ever-new ways to prove their prowess, they have grievously offended the gods, paying no heed to them whatever. Humbaba was the servant of Enlil, appointed by him to guard the cedar forest. Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's treatment of Ishtar was the height of arrogance. Now the gods' displeasure catches up with them, and Enkidu dies.
When he loses his friend, Gilgamesh for the first time comprehends death in all its stark reality. And with that new comprehension comes the realization that eventually he himself will die. With that, all his previous values collapse; an enduring name and immortal fame suddenly mean nothing to him any more. Dread, inconquerable fear of death holds him in its grip; he is obsessed with its terror and the desirability, nay, the necessity of living forever. Real immortality—an impossible goal—is the only thing Gilgamesh can now see.
Here, then, begins a new quest: not for immortality in fame, but for immortality, literally, in the flesh. As with his former quest for fame, Gilgamesh's heroic stature and indomitable purpose take him from one success to another. Setting out to find his ancestor, Utnapishtim, in order to learn how to achieve, like him, eternal life, he gains the help of the scorpion-man and his wife, Siduri, the alewife, and Urshanabi. When after great travail he stands before Utnapishtim it is only to have the whole basis for his hopes collapse. The story of the flood shows that the case of Utnapishtim was unique and can never happen again and—to make his point—Utnapishtim's challenging him to resist sleep, proves how utterly impossible is his hope for vigor strong enough to overcome death.
However, at the point of the seemingly total and irreversible failure of his quest, new hope is unexpectedly held out to Gilgamesh. Moved by pity, Utnapishtim's wife asks her husband to give Gilgamesh a parting gift for his journey home, and Utnapishtim reveals a secret. Down in the fresh watery deep grows a plant that will make an oldster into a child again. Gilgamesh dives down and plucks the plant. He has his wish. He holds life in his hand. Any time he grows old he can again return to childhood and begin life anew. Then on the way back there is the inviting pool and the serpent who snatches the plant when he carelessly leaves it on the bank.
Gilgamesh's first quest for immortality in fame defied the gods and brought their retribution on him; this quest for actual immortality is even more deeply defiant; it defies human nature itself, the very condition of being human, finite, mortal. And in the end it is Gilgamesh's own human nature that reasserts itself; it is a basic human weakness, a moment of carelessness, that defeats him. He has nobody to blame but himself; he has ingloriously blundered. And it is perhaps this very lack of heroic stature in his failure that brings him to his senses. The panic leaves him, he sees himself as pitiful and weeps. Then, as the irony of the situation strikes him, he can smile at himself. His superhuman efforts have produced an almost comical result. This smile, this saving sense of humor, is the sign that he has, at last, come through. He is finally able to accept reality and with it a new possible scale of value. The immortality he now seeks, in which he now takes pride, is the relative immortality of lasting achievement, as symbolized by the walls of Uruk.
The movement from heroic idealism to the everyday courage of realism illustrated by [the hero of] the Gilgamesh story gains further depth if one analyzes it not only positively as a quest, but also negatively as a flight, an avoidance. A flight from death rather than a quest for life—but a flight in what terms?
Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh appears as young, a mere boy, and he holds on to that status, refusing to exchange it for adulthood as represented by marriage and parenthood. Like Barrie's Peter Pan, he will not grow up. His first meeting with Enkidu is a rejection of marriage for a boyhood friendship, and in the episode of the bull of heaven he refuses—almost unnecessarily violently— Ishtar's proposal of marriage. She spells disaster and death to him. So when Enkidu dies, he does not move forward seeking a new companionship in marriage, but backward in an imaginary flight toward the security of childhood. At the gate of the scorpion-man he leaves reality; he passes literally "out of this world." In the encounter with the alewife he again firmly rejects marriage and children as an acceptable goal, and eventually, safely navigating the waters of death, he reaches the ancestors, the father and mother figures of Utnapishtim and his wife, on their island where, as in childhood, age and death do not exist. True to his images, Utnapishtim sternly attempts to make Gilgamesh grow up to responsibility; he proposes an object lesson, the contest with sleep, and is ready to let Gilgamesh face the consequences. The wife of Utnapishtim, as mother, is more indulgent, willing for Gilgamesh to remain a child, and she eventually makes it possible for him to reach his goal with the plant "As Oldster Man Becomes Child." Gilgamesh is fleeing death by fleeing old age, even maturity; he is reaching back to security in childhood. The loss of the plant stands thus for the loss of the illusion that one can go back to being a child. It brings home the necessity for growing up, for facing and accepting reality. And in the loss Gilgamesh for the first time can take himself less seriously, even smile ruefully at himself; he has at last become mature.
For whose sake, Urshanabi, did my arms tire? For whose sake has my heart's blood been spent? I brought no blessing on myself, I did the serpent underground good service
The Gilgamesh epic is a story about growing up.
Source: Thorkild Jacobson,"Second Millennium Metaphors: 'And Death the Journey's End,' The Gilgamesh Epic," in The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, Yale University Press, 1976, pp. 193-219.
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 city man dies, oppressed is the heart, Man perishes, heavy is the heart, I peered over the wall, Saw the dead bodies floating in the river's water As for me, I too will be served thus, verily it is so! Man, the tallest, cannot reach to heaven, Man, the widest, cannot cover the earth Brick and stamp have not yet brought forth the fated end, I would enter the "land," would set up my name; In its places where the names have been raised up, I would raise up my name. In its places where the names have not been raised up, I would raise up the names of the Gods.
In order to accomplish this task, Gilgamesh and his servant Enkidu travel to the Cedar-forest, the land of the Living. There they attack and kill Humbaba, its monstrous guardian. But not before some of the most felicitous imageries in cuneiform literature were preserved on clay.
"Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld," sometimes called "Gilgamesh and the Huluppu-tree," begins with an act of creation. This is not especially remarkable for, to the Mesopotamian as well as to the Hebrew, almost every existing element, be it animate or inanimate, resulted from a genesis that was tailor-made to fit its special nature. This, incidentally, helps to explain the many acts of creation, often dashingly different, that have been preserved in almost every Ancient Near Eastern civilization. To return to our story, a huluppu-tree, some sort of willow, had been nurtured by the goddess Inanna. Sadly enough it soon became the haunt of repulsive creatures. Gilgamesh is called upon to banish these intruders and is rewarded with same symbols of kingship produced from the huluppu's wood. When these objects accidentally fall into the Netherworld, heroic Gilgamesh sends his companion Enkidu to regain them. The latter's descent into Hades offers the Sumerian poet a chance to describe life among the dead. "The Death of Gilgamesh" and "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven" are two additional tales from the Sumerian which exist in an extremely poor state of preservation.
Because of the episodic nature of the Sumerian material at our disposal, we are faced with yet another difficulty. Did the Sumerian poets know of a cycle of tales whose protagonist was Gilgamesh, or were they content just to chant his praises in a series of single, complete adventures? In other words, was there as early as Sumerian times a unified epic with a major theme woven within the succession of encounters? With the possibility that future discoveries may force drastic revision in current opinions, the answer will have to be "No!" A meticulous reading of the Sumerian fragments summarized above will show very little internal evidence to suggest that even the humblest idea was followed or elaborated. As a matter of fact, one suspects an ulterior motive to have influenced the forging of some of these songs. This is best noted in ''Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld,'' where the act of creating the huluppu-tree and the subsequent conversion of some of its wood into symbols of kingship requires as many lines as the visit of Enkidu to the underworld.
It is nearly inescapable, one is forced to conclude, that man's first written epic was wrought by a Semitic genius who probably lived during the time of Hammurabi. To be sure, our poet must have been acquainted with some important emendations brought about by an Assyrian predecessor some generations earlier. The following will be no more than an educated guess, but it is ventured that some of the more bombastic episodes of faraway conquest, such as the expedition to the Cedar-forest to destroy Humbaba, may have been patterned after historical events which occurred around 2350 B.C. Then Sargon of Agade, a Semitic dynast, deeply penetrated the Amanus ranges and Anatolia. His exploits were remembered with special relish by the Assyrians, one of whose famous kings took the same name. The intensely nationalistic Babylonians, on the other hand, never quite forgave Sargon for having rejected Babylon as a capital city in favor of Agade. For this reason, they would be loath to devise exploits for their Gilgamesh based upon the career of Sargon. It would be another matter, of course, to accept a ready-made adventure and to incorporate it within existing collections.
A question might be raised at this point. If the adventure of Gilgamesh in the Cedar mountain is of Assyrian origin, how does one explain its presence in "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living," a Sumerian text? It should brought to attention that despite its preservation in Sumerian, a language which became obsolete as a mode of oral communication in the late third millennium, ''Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living" dates from the era of Hammurabi. By then, Sumerian was employed by priests and scribes much as Latin is used today in the Catholic church. I would like to hazard a guess which might be realized through stylistic evidence that ''Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living'' was a translation from the Semitic Akkadian into an ornate Sumerian.
To return to the old Babylonian poet, he seems to have introduced two elements into the collection which he inherited both from Sumer and Assyria. One of these, the transformation of Enkidu from the status of a passive servant to that of an active and often competitive companion, is probably the most inspired literary achievement in the annals of Mesopotamian creative thinking. In the Sumerian rendition, Enkidu was conceived as a static servant whose every move depended upon the whim of his master. In the Babylonian version, however, Enkidu stands, at least at the outset, as Gilgamesh's opponent.
The other theme introduced by the Semitic bard is the quest for immortality, or more precisely, for rejuvenation. This theme has been encountered tangentially in the Sumerian version, but this occurs precisely in the text which is suspected of being a rendering from the Semitic. No doubt, the important role which Shamash, the Sun-god, plays in the Babylonian renditions has something to do with inspiring this theme. As the god of Justice, a notion which included the apportioning of life, Shamash came to prominence among the Semites. His cult was particularly strong during the Old Babylonian era of ca. 1750 B.C.
The development of these two motifs, reinforcing each other, necessitated rearrangement of the available material and permitted the forging of a new pattern, that of a unified epic. Such a statement should, of course, be taken with a liberal dash of salt, for it treads upon tortuous territory: the origins of literary creativity. We can, however, stand on firmer ground when we consider the techniques employed by the poet to translate inspiration into the written word. In this paper, I would like to concentrate on one literary device, irony, and will attempt to demonstrate a subtlety on the part of the Semitic poet which might rank him with Homer, with slight exaggeration of course (pp. 263-65).
Of irony's many qualities, I shall describe the Semitic poet's employment of two devices which have commonly been called "dramatic irony" and "irony in the use of character." In some sense, dramatic irony is almost always playful, intellectual, and esoteric. Passages containing the ironic elements operate on two seemingly independent levels. On the one hand, the characters are shown by their utterances or deeds to be unaware of having fallen victims to a rush of events beyond their control. On the other hand, the audience, forewarned of subsequent developments by an omniscient author, evaluates differently the same passage. This discrepancy between the ultimate reality, as it is known to the audience, and the immediate situation, as it is understood by the characters, constitutes dramatic irony, well-known to us from the works of the Greek dramatists, of Shakespeare, and of Ibsen, among many others.
The Gilgamesh epic actually opens by offering a capsule summary, a sort of Miltonian argument, of the complete drama that is to unfold:
Let me proclaim to the land (the feats) of him who has seen the deep Of him who knows the seas, let me inform it fully He has (seen/visited) the... The wise (one) who knows everything. Secret things he has seen, what is hidden to man (he knows) And he brought tidings from before the Flood He also took the Long Journey, wearisome and under difficulties All his experiences, he engraved in a stone stela.
The poet thus assures his listeners that he will be telling a "true" tale since its essence is derived from Gilgamesh's own inscription. He also reminds them that his hero will come back from a long journey, weary and worn, and lightly suggests it to have been an unsuccessful enterprise. Lest the audience be caught in a despairing mood, one which could inhibit its response to his storytelling, the Mesopotamian bard quickly adds praises of Gilgamesh's earthly, tangible achievements.
Of ramparted Uruk, the wall he built Of hollowed Eanna, the pure sanctuary Behold its outer wall, whose cornice is like copper Peer at its inner wall, which none can equal Seize upon the threshold, which is from old Draw near to Eanna, the dwelling of Ishtar, Which no future king, no man can equal Go up and walk on the walls of Uruk, Inspect the substructure, examine the brickwork: Is not its core of baked brick? Did not the Seven (Sages) lay its foundations?
The above passage can be considered as the poet's editorial comment upon Gilgamesh's search for immortality. It is futile, he seems to argue, to be content with more than earthly accomplishments. When this notion is alluded to again, it comes at the end of the epic, after the long and fruitless odyssey is over. One cannot but admire the poet's cleverness in choosing a resigned Gilgamesh to utter the following:
Go up, Urshanabi, walk up on the ramparts of Uruk. Inspect the base terrace, examine its brickwork (See) if its core is not of baked brick, And if the Seven Wise Ones laid not its foundation!
Nor is the audience allowed a lapse of memory, for the poet repeatedly calls attention to Gilgamesh's eventual failure. Before every new venture, the hero is made to hear the truth about the success of his forthcoming enterprise. But the blinded and tragic protagonist fails to perceive it. In the first cluster of episodes, it is Enkidu who ironically is chosen to deliver the poet's messages. In two instances before the warriors' meeting with Humbaba, an encounter which could be considered as the prolegomenon to Enkidu's death, this brave companion has a series of premonitions. The first occurs immediately after Enkidu and Gilgamesh, appreciating each other's vigor: ''kissed each other and formed a friendship." "My friend," says Gilgamesh, "why do your eyes fill with tears? (Why) is your heart ill, as bitterly you sigh?" "A cry, my friend," replies Enkidu, "chokes my throat. My arms are limp, and my strength has turned to weakness." As the two approach the lair of Humbaba, Enkidu has a presentiment once more: ''Let us not go down into the heart of the forest," he implores Gilgamesh. ''In opening the gate, my hand becomes limp."
But fate is not to be cheated, and the poet digs deeper into his bag of literary tricks, producing a fresh and sharper collection of ironical episodes. As the fateful confrontation with Humbaba draws even nearer, it is Gilgamesh's turn to be forewarned. In one remarkable statement intended to give courage to Enkidu, he is made to say: "Who, my friend, can scale heaven? Only the gods dwell forever with the Sun-god. As for mankind, numbered are its days; whatever they achieve is but wind. Even here you are afraid of death.'' It becomes Gilgamesh's tragedy that having enunciated the facts of mortal life, he did not perceive and learn from them. Moreover, Gilgamesh fails to heed significant warnings. Nocturnal messages were valued by all ancient civilizations as vehicles in which the gods counseled their creations. For this reason, Gilgamesh requested and was granted a series of three dreams. As it is conjectured by Oppenheim [in The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East], the first contains an admonition to leave the mountainous area of the Cedar-forest. In the second, a mountain collapses upon our hero, but miraculously he manages to escape injuries. In the third, the catastrophe is complete. With almost cynical irony, however, the poet assigns Enkidu the task of favorably interpreting these visions of obviously calamitous portent. Thus, an encounter with Humbaba which will bring great unhappiness to both the heroes is inexorably encouraged. Finally, when the monster evokes a response of mercy in the heart of Gilgamesh, the audience, by then thoroughly prepared, watches helplessly as Enkidu seals his own fate by counseling: "To the word which Humbaba (has spoken), hark not. Let not Humbaba (live)."
The examples offered above have all been chosen from one single, albeit major, episode. It can be demonstrated, however, that the Mesopotamian lyricist was able to invoke irony as one of many devices intended to bind his many tales into a single integrated cycle. This is done by carefully choosing the secondary characters and assigning each a task which heightens the contrast between reality and aspiration.
Except for Utnapishtim's wife, who originally may have played a larger role than the one she is assigned in Tablet Eleven, four females are prominent in the epic: two divinities, Ishtar and Ninsun, and two attendants of the gods, the hierodule and the divinized Siduri, barmaid to the immortals. Before we enter this topic, however, it might be of interest to say a few words concerning the characterization of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
Departing radically from his Sumerian counterpart, the Semitic poet seems to have consciously attempted to fashion one personality who would combine the idiosyncrasies of his two major protagonists. At the outset, Gilgamesh is described as a king of unequaled potential and of boundless, though undirected, energy. He is haughty, spoiled, and egocentric. Once Enkidu is given what Oppenheim calls an education sentimentale —in itself a master touch of irony, for Enkidu's sexual excess is destined to end Gilgamesh's—he becomes gentle, experienced, calm, and concerned with "justice." Not unlike the friendship which developed between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, as the story unfolds we witness a rapprochement in temperament, a meeting of the minds between the two friends. So that, as Enkidu lies on his funerary couch, punished for acting with the impetuosity and hubris characteristic of Gilgamesh, the latter has been tamed to the point of embodying his friend's gentler spirit within his own. It is not accidental, I think, that Gilgamesh then recognizes that his fate will henceforth be to roam over the steppe, precisely the region, foreign to the urbane Gilgamesh, where Enkidu was created. To be sure, the poet strews all sorts of hints that despite the apparent differences in their early behavior, Enkidu was conceived as alter-ego to Gilgamesh. His creation in the hands of the goddess Aruru was to have been a zikru, a replica of Gilgamesh. Instead, she decided to fashion him in the image of the god Anu, perhaps to instill in him a divinity equivalent to, once the hierodule's instruction is completed, yet different from, Gilgamesh's. Exceedingly handsome and strong, Enkidu "looks like Gilgamesh to a hair; though shorter in stature, he is more massive in frame.'' Repeatedly he is said to be Gilgamesh's equal. In his dreams, Gilgamesh encounters his ''double'' and responds to him not as a stranger, but as one who is uncannily familiar. Witness also the important events in Tablet Eleven. Gilgamesh had just been tested by Utnapishtim and his wife. He was to remain awake for six days and seven nights, a period which, incidentally, equals the length of Enkidu's consortings with the hierodule. But Gilgamesh fails, for "sleep fans him like a whirlwind." It should not be doubted that sleep and ritual bathing were often considered to be rites de passage, transitions from one state to another. In this case Gilgamesh, upon his reawakening, was to undergo a transformation, one that duplicated wild Enkidu's metamorphosis toward civilization. To quote the epic:
Utnapishtim (said to him,) to Urshanabi, the boatman: "Urshanabi, (may) the qua(y) reject you, may the ferry landing refuse you forever! May you, who used to frequent its shore, be denied its shore The man before whose face thou didst walk, whose body is covered with grime, The grace of whose body the pelts have hidden, Take him, Urshanabi, and bring him to the place of washing; Let him wash off his dirt in water like a clean (priest), Let him throw off his pelts and let the sea carry (them) away, that his body may come to look resplendent, Let the band around his head be replaced with a new one. Let the garment he wears be his best garment. Until he gets to his city, Until he finishes his journey, May (his) garment have no crease, but may it (always) be new."
Lastly, just as the people of Uruk petition the gods for relief from Gilgamesh's rapaciousness, so do the hunters beg for respite from Enkidu's repeated interference with their trapping activities.
Characteristic of this earliest of epics, incidentally, we meet with the rudiments of all subsequent Doppelganger narratives, very popular in western culture, in which two dramatized personalities are forged into one, "two characters (are made) to complement each other both physically and psychologically and who together are projections of the crippled or struggling personalities of a third character with whom the author is primarily concerned."
In interpreting the omina of Enkidu's arrival into Uruk, the divine Ninsun is chosen by the poet to fulfill an important function. In an unfortunately damaged section, it is she who solicitously binds Enkidu's fate to that of her son, Gilgamesh: '"Mighty Enkidu, you are not my womb's issue. I (have) herewith adopted you with the devotees of Gilgamesh, the priestesses, the votaries, and the cult women.' An indu-tag she placed round the neck of Enkidu.'' It is not without a certain amount of irony, I think, that this relationship is broken as a direct result of another goddess's ire. When, after killing the Bull of Heaven sent by Ishtar to punish Gilgamesh for his insolence, Enkidu flings the animal's right side toward the proud deity, he draws upon himself the brunt of celestial retribution. To be sure, this is not the only act of defiance in which Enkidu becomes involved. [Tablet VIII] specifically credits him with the killing of Humbaba. In that version, Enkidu adds salt to the wound by foolishly taunting Enlil, Humbaba's protector. He who was created by the gods to control violence, please note, is now forsaken by them for glorying in it.
More pointed is the Mesopotamian poet's skillful use of the other two females. The role of the hierodule in civilizing Enkidu is well-known. In a sense, the harlot's instructions destroyed the innocence of the "noble savage" by presenting him with the realities of human life. It was through her unflinching devotion to duty that Enkidu was made to realize the amenities and the advantages that only a civilized man can extract out of existence. Faced with imminent death, Enkidu manages to gather enough strength with which to curse this woman who had led him away from the idyllic life of an uncivilized creature. But the Sun-god Shamash urges him to withdraw his powerful malediction, reminding him of the many benefits which were showered upon him by the ardors of the hierodule:
Why, O Enkidu, [Shamash rhetorically asks] do you curse the harlot Who made you eat food fit for divinity, And gave you to drink wine fit for royalty, Who clothed you with noble garments, And made you have fair Gilgamesh for a comrade'' And has (not) now Gilgamesh, your bosom friend Made you lie on a noble couch? He has made you lie on a couch of honor, He placed you on the seat of ease, the seat at the left, That the princes of the earth may kiss your feet He will make Uruk's people weep over you (and) the courtesans mourn for you, Will fill (the) people with woe over you And when you are gone, He will invest his body with uncut hair, Will don a lion skin and roam over the steppe
To eat, to drink, to be well clothed, and have lasting companionship were among the gifts that the gods gave to mankind. Beyond that nothing more can be obtained. How foolish of Gilgamesh to want more, the so-to-speak "existentialist" poet seems to say. When Gilgamesh appears, haggard and bedraggled, with "woe in his belly, his face (like) that of a way-farer from afar," he had plainly forsaken these pleasures which an assiduous hierodule, sent ironically enough by Gilgamesh himself, had taught Enkidu, his alter ego. Instead, Gilgamesh now sought rejuvenation. To bring Gilgamesh back to his reality, the poet elects another pragmatic personality, Siduri, barmaid of the gods. The following famous passage reminds the king of Uruk that eating, drinking, clothing, and companionship are the only achievable goals of man:
Gilgamesh, for what purpose do you wander? You will not find the life for which you search. When the gods created mankind, Death for mankind they set aside, Retaining life in their own hands. You, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full Be happy day and night Throw a party every day, Dance and play day and night! Let your garment be sparkling fresh Your head be washed; bathe in water Pay heed to the little one that holds on to your hand Let your spouse delight in your bosom. For this is the task of mankind.
Source: Jack M. Sasson, "Some Literary Motifs in the Composition of the Gilgamesh Epic," Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIX, No. 3, July 1972, pp. 259-79.