The main themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh include the meaning of life, death, and friendship.
- The meaning of life: Enkidu's death forces Gilgamesh to face his own mortality. He travels the earth, hoping to unlock the secret of immortality, only to return home empty-handed.
- Death: In his determination, Gilgamesh defies death. Ultimately, Gilgamesh fails to achieve his dream of immortality.
- Friendship: Gilgamesh's friendship with Enkidu is the central relationship in the epic. Their friendship is founded in Enkidu's respect for Gilgamesh, who bests him in a fight. The loss of Enkidu inspires Gilgamesh to search for the meaning of life.
The story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his companion, Enkidu, a civilized wild man, falls essentially into two halves: during the first half of the Epic, Gilgamesh meets Enkidu and the two defeat both Humbaba the giant in the Forest of the Cedars and the Bull of Heaven, who Ishtar has sent to plague Uruk. After their victories the gods decree that Enkidu must die. In the second half of the epic, prodded by Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh pursues the secret of immortality first in the garden of the gods and then with Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah, who recounts his own story of survival during the great flood that destroyed humanity. Although Gilgamesh fails to gain eternal life, he ends his journeys a wise man and celebrated ruler.
The Motif of the Journey and the Search for the Meaning of Life
On one hand, at its foundation, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of action in the world and of movement out into the physical realm. After their meeting, Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel out into the sacred and mysterious Forest of the Cedars to face Humbaba, the embodiment of evil. They then return to Uruk to face the Bull of Heaven, who comes as the wrath of Ishtar, goddess of love and war. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are men of action who define life according to the obstacles they overcome, and they find their greatest fulfillment in facing challenges. On the other hand, the outward journeys of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the first half of the epic are matched by the internal struggle Gilgamesh faces in the second half of the story. After Enkidu dies at the will of the gods, Gilgamesh commences a parallel journey into the spiritual realm. He literally goes into the earth at the mountains of Mashu to find the realm of the gods, and although Enkidu is not physically present with Gilgamesh, the memory of his friend's death continues to impel Gilgamesh's search for meaning and immortality. Thus, the journeys that structure the Epic of Gilgamesh need to be read on two levels: first, at the narrative level of physical action in the world, and second, at the symbolic level of supernatural meaning and fulfillment.
Culture and Nature
The internal balance between physical and spiritual journeys in the Epic of Gilgamesh is matched by the contrast in the two main characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the Epic's opening, Gilgamesh embodies both the arrogance and the cultivation of high Sumerian culture. He is the king and the height of power, he is physically gifted and beautiful, but he is also haughty and abusive: he deflowers the maidens of his kingdom for his own pleasure and he presses the young men into his service. When Enkidu enters the story, he incarnates the coarse physicality and vitality of the natural world: he is immensely strong, he lives and runs with the wild beasts, and he destroys the traps set by hunters. At a crucial early juncture in the Epic, Gilgamesh, having heard about this "wildman," sends a Courtesan to Enkidu. She transforms Enkidu's wildness through her sexual charms and she teaches him table manners and correct behavior. Afterwards, the wild animals run away from Enkidu. The Courtesan thereby brings him into the civilized world, or as the Epic reads, "Enkidu had become a man" (1.67). In contrast to Enkidu, Humbaba, the forest giant is considered a monster and enemy, for he says, "I have never known a mother,...
(The entire section is 1,653 words.)