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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Moral lessons and their significance in The Epic of Gilgamesh


The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches several moral lessons, including the value of friendship, the inevitability of death, and the importance of wisdom and humility. These lessons are significant as they highlight the journey of Gilgamesh from a tyrannical king to a wise and self-aware ruler who understands the limits of human life and the value of human connections.

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How might The Epic of Gilgamesh offer moral instruction for its audience?

Throughout Gilgamesh's journey, he learns to accept his fate and role in the universe while simultaneously taking pleasure in being a benevolent, moral king. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is portrayed as a tyrannical ruler, who is harsh toward his subjects and is feared rather than respected. As the epic progresses, Gilgamesh develops a close relationship with Enkidu and is terribly heartbroken after his friend's death. Gilgamesh then travels to the ends of the earth in search of immortality but loses the magical plant on his journey back to Uruk. However, Gilgamesh returns home as a changed demigod with a renewed outlook on life. Throughout his various quests, Gilgamesh has learned that he cannot challenge his fate and acquires a new respect for the gods.

The audience learns that challenging the gods can have disastrous effects, like when Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeat the Bull of Heaven. The audience also gains an appreciation and respect for nature, which is reinforced by Enkidu's fate after defeating the protector of the forest, Humbaba. Similar to Gilgamesh, the audience also learns that while they cannot escape their mortality, they can be transformed through their life journey and take pleasure in acting benevolent toward others.

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How might The Epic of Gilgamesh offer moral instruction for its audience?

The Epic of Gilgamesh serves as a foundation myth for the city of Uruk, and in doing so sets out concepts of the proper role of the ruler in relation to nature, his subjects, and the gods. In a sense, the epic recounts an educational journey of Gilgamesh, transforming him from a bad ruler to a good one, and therefore providing simultaneous good and bad exempla for his successors. With respect to the gods, Gilgamesh learns that the king is subordinate to them and cannot escape fate or obtain or confer immortality. With respect to the land, Gilgamesh learns through the allegory of Humbaba the lesson of what we now think of as sustainability – i.e. hunting displays prowess but if overdone can lead to trouble. Finally, he learns to treat his subjects fairly.

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What moral lessons can be learned from The Epic of Gilgamesh?

The big moral lesson that Gilgamesh learns in The Epic of Gilgameshis to be a kinder, better, wiser king. Instead of running off to fight monsters and seek immortality, the Epic is saying that the key to living the most meaningful life you can is to be the best version of yourself toward the people around you, and accept your limitations.

There are many other morals to be taken from the epic as well. One is undoubtedly that immortality (the way Gilgamesh desires it) is impossible to achieve. Because it was Enkidu’s death and Gilgamesh’s fear for his own death that set him on his quest, the real moral here is to accept that death will come, and if possible, not to fear it.

The power of friendship is also a big theme in Gilgamesh. Enkidu is the catalyst for change within Gilgamesh’s character. Before his arrival, Gilgamesh is essentially alone. He is the king of Uruk with nobody to match him physically. When Enkidu arrives, however, the two become friends and Gilgamesh learns to care about someone other than himself.

A lesson that might not feel so pertinent anymore but certainly was at the time was warning about hubris. Even though Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the Bull of Ishtar, the Epic teaches that it is wrong and foolhardy to try to topple and oppose the gods.

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