The Epic of Gilgamesh Analysis

The Epic of Gilgamesh Analysis

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic in the classical sense: its hero is larger than life, performs superhuman feats in battle, and attracts the attention of the gods, for better or worse. As a demigod, Gilgamesh is strong and handsome but not infallible. In the course of the epic, he learns a lot about himself and about being a ruler. He dies a beloved king.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is a product of a long oral tradition and shares its narrative sensibilities with other epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Gilgamesh's story begins in medias res (in the middle of the story), when Gilgamesh is a young, myopic king unable to recognize the suffering of his citizens. In the course of the epic, Gilgamesh becomes a more intelligent and mature version of the character readers first meet.
  • A first-person narrator introduces The Epic of Gilgamesh, inviting readers to imagine the walls of Uruk and the glory of Gilgamesh's reign. After the prologue, the "I" slips away, and the narrative is told in the third person.

Analysis

The Definition of an Epic

In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams lists five essential characteristics of epic literature: (1) "The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance;" (2) "The setting of the poem is ample in scale, and may be worldwide, or even larger;" (3) "The action involves superhuman deeds in battle;" (4) ''In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or even an active part;" and (5) ''An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality of the heroic subject and epic architecture'' (p. 52). The Epic of Gilgamesh fulfills each of these characteristics in its own distinct way.

Orality and Performance

One of the key attributes of the Epic of Gilgamesh is the sense of breathless immediacy of the story. The Epic achieves this effect by placing the story in a setting that simulates the oral performance in which the story was originally performed. The opening lines provide a sense that this is not an ancient story, but one just now occurring. The narrative "I" of the Prologue places the reader at Uruk's city walls and erases the distance between that ancient time and the present time of telling the story, inviting the hearer (and reader) to touch the walls, feel their strength, and sense their glory. These walls, the narrative voice proclaims, are those of the great Gilgamesh and now I will tell you his story. This sense of immediacy continues throughout the Epic.

In medias res

Traditionally, epics begin "in medias res" or "in the middle of things." Although this characteristic was originally applied to Greek and Roman epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad, it is equally true of The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story begins not at the beginning of Gilgamesh's life, but somewhere in the middle. He is initially portrayed as a young, hot-headed king, heedless of the effect of actions and desires on the well-being of his people. One of the effects of this technique is to allow the reader to gauge the extent of Gilgamesh's development as a character.

The Epithet

Another key technique of the epic style is the use of "epithets," usually adjectives or persistent adjective phrases that reveal the attributes or personality of people, places, and things in the story: "strong-walled Uruk" (1. 68), "Humbaba whose name is 'Hugeness'" (1.71), "Shamash the Protector" (1.78), and Utnapishtim "the Faraway" (1.97). Epic epithets provide a good way of keeping track of a character and that character's development.

Literary Formulae and Set-Pieces in the High Style

A third literary characteristic of the epic style is found in the elevated, formal language and repeated formulaic phrases. In fact, the dialogue sounds stilted and rehearsed, as if read for a formal occasion. During chapter 2, "The Forest Journey," Gilgamesh calls out for assistance: "By the life of my mother Ninsun who gave me birth, and by the life of my father, divine Lugulbanda, let me live to be the wonder of my mother, as when she nursed me on her lap" (1. 80). These formal invocations of deity give the task an elevated stature and a sense of being a holy mission which Gilgamesh undertakes for his city and his divine heritage. In another example, a bit later as he faces Humbaba in battle, Gilgamesh beseeches his patron god: ''O glorious Shamash, I have followed the road you commanded but now if you send no succor how shall I escape?'' (1. 81). The use of "apostrophe," a figure of speech indicated by "O," indicates a formal invocation of a person or personification who is not otherwise present.

Another important element of the elevated style of the Epic is its inclusion of ''laments,'' the formal poems of praise and songs of grief that the living give on behalf of the dead. The finest example in the poem is Gilgamesh's lament for Enkidu, which begins (on line 94):

Hear me, great ones of Uruk, I weep for Enkidu, my friend, Bitterly moaning like a woman mourning I weep for my brother. You were the axe at my side, My hand's strength, the sword in my belt, the shield before me, A glorious...

(The entire section is 1770 words.)

Settings

*Uruk

*Uruk (EW-rewk). Ancient city in what is now Iraq (now called Tall al-Warka) over which the demigod Gilgamesh rules. During the period in which the epic is set (c. 2600 b.c.e.), Uruk was one of the largest cities in the world. Protected by brick walls, it preserved urban technology and order. In all versions of The Gilgamesh Epic, the city’s king or “shepherd,” Gilgamesh (also known as Bilgamesh), combines within himself civilization and fierce lawlessness, so that he can relate both to the city and to the barbarous rest of the world.

The split within Gilgamesh’s character helps the urbanites, since it gives Gilgamesh the ferocity to defend them. Nonetheless, they resent his disorderliness, particularly his leading the young in revels throughout such sacred precincts as Egalmah, the temple complex governed by the goddess Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother. Because of public resentment, Gilgamesh’s Uruk appears to be a grim totalitarian state. However, the prostitute whom he employs to lure Engidu (also called Enkidu) there, extols Uruk as a joyous place in which people wear wide belts and attend festivals every day that are celebrated with beautiful music.

Nagbu

Nagbu (NAHG-bew). Chaotic abyss, believed to exist at the center of the earth. It is the source of all rivers and maintains the aboriginal condition before order (and mortality) came to the world. Its most characteristic figure is Utnapishtim, a Noah-like being who survived a world-wide flood, thus preparing him to dwell forever amid Nagbu’s timeless waters. Appropriately, Gilgamesh finds within the abyss the plant of immortality. In the best-known and fullest version of Gilgamesh, that composed by the exorcist priest Sin-leqi-uninni (c. 1600-1000 b.c.e.), Nagbu is especially important, with Gilgamesh identified in the very first line of the poem as the one who saw this abyss. Knowledge of it is presumably why he is then described as the “lord of wisdom” who knows everything.

Edin

Edin (AY-din). Grassland surrounding Uruk. Embodying the almost total wildness and contradictoriness of that hinterland, Engidu, its heaven-appointed guardian eats grass with gazelles and releases animals from traps but also defends shepherds from wolves. A primordial savage, Engidu reflects the vitality of the region, thus threatening Gilgamesh, who therefore introduces Engidu to a human relationship...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Historical Context

History and Recovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The critical reception of the Epic of Gilgamesh parallels the history of ancient...

(The entire section is 2670 words.)

Compare and Contrast

Ancient Mesopotamia: Credited with the invention of the first writing system (cuneiform), the widespread use of wheeled...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Topics for Further Study

Compare and contrast an episode in N. K. Sandars' narrative version of the Epic of Gilgamesh with David Ferry's poetic version or one...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Media Adaptations

The Epic of Gilgamesh has not yet received the attention given to Greek and Roman epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad....

(The entire section is 157 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

Samuel Noah Kramer's History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History, (3rd rev. ed., Philadelphia:...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources for Further Study
Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, and Others, Oxford World...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)