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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Analyze a recurring image in The Epic of Gilgamesh and how it evolves to guide a major theme.

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One recurring image within The Epic of Gilgamesh is humanity as a corrupting force within nature. Enkidu is a wild, beast-like figure who lives among the animals, but is one day tempted by a beautiful human woman and loses his natural purity. Humanity ultimately weakens Enkidu, and he yearns to return to his previous state.

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One of the unique themes that runs throughout the Gilgamesh epic is the interplay between wild “savagery” and civilization. The contrast made between these two images is made most clear in the beginning of the poem, which traces Enkidu’s evolution in the forest. However, other elements of savagery vs. civilization can also be seen at the poems very end.

Enkidu, a beastly figure fashioned out of clay and water, lives the life of an animal. Alone in the forest with only the other animals to occupy his attention, Enkidu's mightiness and fearful visage worry the surrounding villagers. They devise a plot to strip Enkidu of his bestial qualities by bringing a harlot, Shamhat, into the forest so that she can expose her “sex” to him. When Shamhat reveals herself to Enkidu, he is momentarily smitten, but upon returning to look at the animals they flee from him. As the text reads,

But when he turned his attention to his animals, the gazelles saw Enkidu and darted off, the wild animals distanced themselves from his body. Enkidu... his utterly depleted body, his knees that wanted to go off with his animals went rigid; Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before.

Thus, it is after being exposed to Shamhata harlot and a woman of the city; a representative of human civilizationthat Enkidu loses his primeval strength and passes into the realm of humanity. The imagery that this first passage evokes is that of the corrupting influence of humanity, embodied in the person of the harlot, over Enkidu, who loses his natural purity and sense of place among the creatures of the wild.

The image of the wilderness appears again at the very end of the poem whenever Gilgamesh tries to bring home a plant that will supposedly return him to his youth (and thus prevent him from ever having to die). However, as he refreshes himself at a spring, a snake smells the fragrance of the plant and carries it away. This completely breaks the hero, who cries out:

“Counsel me, O ferryman Urshanabi! For whom have my arms labored, Urshanabi! For whom has my heart’s blood roiled! I have not secured any good deed for myself, but done a good deed for the ‘lion of the ground!’”

This is the final point in the epic where Gilgamesh’s initial arrogance and cavalier spirit has been entirely broken, and it was a feature of the natural environment that did it. Both an article of nature (the plant) gave him hope, and another (the snake) snatched it away. In contrast to Enkidu, whose inner purity is stolen away by the guilefulness of human civilization, it is the wilderness that reduces Gilgamesh’s pride and destroys a fundamental aspect of his personality.

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