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The Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh Themes

The main themes in The Epic of Gilgamesh include the meaning of life, identity and relationship, and mortality and immortality.

  • 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.
  • Identity and relationship: Gilgamesh's friendship with Enkidu is the central relationship in the epic and is founded in Enkidu's respect for Gilgamesh, who bests him in a fight. Both characters achieves a wholeness through their bond.
  • Mortality and immortality: In his determination, Gilgamesh defies death. Ultimately, Gilgamesh fails to achieve his dream of immortality.


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Last Updated on April 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1653

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, no, nor a father who reared me" (1. 82). Together, Gilgamesh, the cultivated ruler, and Enkidu, the civilized wild man, form an inseparable bond and begin a series of exploits to conquer Humbaba, that other forest creature, and the Bull of Heaven, the embodiment of natural disaster.

Identity and Relationship

As the semi-divine creation of Shamash, the sun god, who gives him physical beauty, and Adad, the storm god, who gives him great courage, Gilgamesh is at the top of the human social ladder. As king of Uruk, Gilgamesh has access to all the riches and pleasures his society can provide. In his lofty and elevated station, Gilgamesh has no need nor desire for a relationship with others, for he seems to be complete in himself. However, Gilgamesh is also unsettled and "a man of many moods'' (1. 65), an arrogant ruler who mistreats his people. He is, in other words, incomplete, lacking an ingredient essential to becoming fully human. The people of Uruk complain to Anu, god of Uruk, to intervene on their behalf, and Aruru, the goddess of creation, responds by creating Enkidu. As Anu tells the goddess, "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 content together and leave Uruk in quiet" (1. 62). Enkidu, himself "innocent of mankind...[who knows] nothing of the cultivated land'' (1. 63), requires the moderating influences of civilization to become fully human. Incomplete when separated, but together and fulfilled in close relationship, Gilgamesh and Enkidu establish their true identities, or as the Epic puts it, their ''names,'' only through the bond of their companionship. Their identities are fulfilled through their relationship. Although Enkidu perishes before the end of the tale, the death of his friend haunts Gilgamesh and sends him on his arduous quest of immortality. Thus, Gilgamesh carries the legacy of his friend back to Uruk, where he dies a well-loved king.

Humanity and Divinity

Human interaction with the gods, and the gods' intervention in human events, is a standard hallmark of epic literature, and the Epic of Gilgamesh is no exception. From beginning to end of the tale, the supernatural world intersects the physical plane. Persons, places, and all manner of things are closely associated with patron deities: Anu is god of Uruk; Shamash oversees Gilgamesh; Ishtar inhabits the temple precincts of Eanna, the great temple of Uruk; Ereshkigal is queen of the underworld; and Ea favors Utnapishtim. The interplay of humanity and divinity is closely allied to the question of identity and relationship throughout the Epic of Gilgamesh. Characters take on the attributes of deities associated with them. Gilgamesh is a mixture of both human and divine, but emphasizing the divine: "Two thirds they made him god and one third man" (1. 61). Enkidu incarnates precisely the opposite proportions, favoring the human: two thirds natural and one third divine. Gilgamesh actualizes the beauty of Shamash, the sun god, and the ferocity of Adad, the storm god; Enkidu manifests the ferocity of Ninurta, god of war, and the long hair of Nisaba, goddess of corn. At the same time the Epic invokes the gods throughout the narrative, they seem distant from the action, interfering only when pressed or perturbed. The gods are also clearly anthropomorphic, seemingly very human in their petty jealously, bickering, and irritation with irascible humans like Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the people of Shurrupak.

Change and Transformation

Some readers of the Epic of Gilgamesh argue that Gilgamesh never really changes appreciably during the course of the tale; others find a gradual progression and deepening of his self-understanding. What is clear, however, is that although Gilgamesh remains a towering figure who seeks a secure reputation and eternal life, he finds the answer to his quest when he encounters Utnapishtim: "From the days of old there is no permanence" (1. 107). Strictly speaking in the context of the Epic, Utnapishtim is correct: Gilgamesh will not receive eternal life. However, Gilgamesh has two provocative encounters during his quest, two creatures of the natural world who change while remaining the same: the dragonfly nymph and the snake. The insect nymph, says Utnapishtim, "sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory" (1. 107); that is, she changes form but remains the same creature. Later, after Gilgamesh has recovered the magical plant of everlasting life, a "serpent sensed the sweetness of the flower. It rose out of the water and snatched it away, and immediately it sloughed off its skin and returned to the well" (1. 117). Like the insect larva, the snake sheds its exterior while remaining the same animal. At the end of his quest with Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh also literally "sheds his skins" (1. 115) and is given new clothing. Gilgamesh's lesson is that humans, though they cannot escape their mortality, can be transformed through experience.

Mortality and Immortality

During the course of the Epic, Gilgamesh, as king of Uruk, progresses from the highest social station to the lowest example of a human being— pale, starved, and clothed in skins during his encounter with Utnapishtim. During each encounter with divinities in the garden of the gods, Gilgamesh hears the refrain: ''If you are Gilgamesh...why are your cheeks so starved and why is your face so drawn? Why is despair in your heart and your face like the face of one who has made a long journey?" (1. 101). The crux of this journey is the death of Gilgamesh's beloved comrade, Enkidu. During the first half of the tale, Gilgamesh and Enkidu bring death to all enemies in their quest to establish their eternal reputations; during the second half, Gilgamesh lives with the haunting presence of Enkidu's death. As Gilgamesh tells Utnapishtim, "Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness. His fate lies heavy upon me. How can I be silent, how can I rest? He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth forever" (1. 106). Having turned to great exploits, huge building projects, and epic journeys to secure his immortality, Gilgamesh finds lasting reputation, his everlasting life, in the story of his life. As the Epic records in the final paragraph of chapter 6, "The Return" of Gilgamesh, "He went on a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story" (1. 117). The gods do not give Gilgamesh immortality; immortality comes through the stone tablets of his epic adventure.

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