Gilgamesh: Man's First Story

by Bernarda Bryson

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

As is usual of epics, there are three types of characters in Gilgamesh—the human, the divine, and those who partake in the natures of both. The hero Gilgamesh is two-thirds god andone-thirdd man, a fact that has special significance during his final quest.

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The main "human" characters are Ninsun, a skilled interpreter of dreams; Sabitu, the sensible wine maiden; Utnapishtim, who escapes the destruction of a great flood like the biblical Noah; Harim, the temple priestess; and Enkidu, the friend and companion of Gilgamesh. Enkidu was "created" out of clay by one of the gods and is, therefore, reminiscent of the biblical Adam.

I like Gilgamesh. He is a very fine fellow and perfectly fearless. He wrestles with lions; he tames them with his bare hands ...
Of greater interest to many readers are the gods and goddesses, who are led by Anu, the Lord of the Skies. The god Ea rules the "deep waters," and Enlil is ruler over the earth. In the plot of the story, the two most active deities are the benevolent Shamash, god of the sun, and Ishtar, goddess of love. Ishtar is unreliable and often painfully willful and eccentric. These traits bring about the death of Gilgamesh's companion, Enkidu.

The lesser gods are still impressive— the fearsome Anunnaki, the demons of the Underworld with. their "torches of lightning"; Aruru, who creates Enkidu simply by scooping up a handful of clay and shaping it into the desired form; and the quasi-divine monster Humbaba, thought by some scholars to be a precursor of the fire-breathing dragons found in many tales and legends. Humbaba, who has enormous strength, is the divinely appointed guardian of the cedar forests. The episode in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu vanquish Humbaba contains some of the liveliest action in the epic.

Bryson has helpfully divided the text into two parts, aptly titled 'The Temper of the Gods" and "The Wanderings of Gilgamesh." Each of these two sections is further divided into episodes, and the titles of these short chapters suggest the movement of the story. Although the narrative is episodic, the incidents are connected by their focus on the hero and by the story's underlying themes.

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Several themes are typical of ancient tales in general and of epics in particular. Perhaps the most popular of these is the quest motif. Human life seems to have appeared to the ancients as a never-ending quest for some valued treasure, whether material or symbolic. From the very start, where the elders of the city undertake a kind of verbal quest to persuade the gods to create a mighty foe to oppose their overactive king, to Gilgamesh's final journey to discover the secret of eternal life, each incident can be interpreted as a search for an important element of truth or a precious goal.

A second theme appears at the heart of the chapter entitled "The Terrible Battle between Gilgamesh and Enkidu." During this violent combat, much is made of points of honor involving noninterference and the refusal to take unfair advantage of an opponent. For example, the elders order the citizens of Uruk not to intercede even when Gilgamesh appears to be losing. Because Enkidu is unarmed, Gilgamesh refuses to resort to his axe or spear, which would clinch the victory but cost him honor. Because he has been such a worthy and honorable opponent, the struggle ends with Enkidu embracing Gilgamesh as a new-found comrade, praising him instead of killing him. Honor and "fairness" are essential traits for a worthy hero.

Other themes recur forcefully, such as the need for sleep. During Gilgamesh's quest for eternal life, which is a characteristic only of divinities, his "ancestor" Utnapishtim tells him that the gods do not need sleep. Gilgamesh struggles to remain awake, but soon falls into a sound slumber. This causes Utnapishtim to remark that unless Gilgamesh rids himself of this weakness he will not be able to attain eternal life.

Closely related to the need for sleep are repeated references to dreams and their significance. The principal activity of Ninsun is interpreting dreams, although Gilgamesh and Enkidu both practice the art when the need arises. For example, when they approach the domain of Humbaba, Gilgamesh proposes that they sleep, dream, and then try to understand the meaning of their dreams. Clearly, as is true of many other societies, the Mesopotamians took dreams very seriously and believed that they conveyed significant information about the future and the plans of the gods.

Readers may more readily grasp the epic's emphasis on material objects and physical achievements. This stress emerges first in the tendency towards exaggeration. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are presented as about twelve feet tall, and their deeds require superhuman abilities. Gilgamesh earns the reputation of being a great builder by erecting the astoundingly high walls of Uruk, and he takes considerable pride in his skills. At the end of the story after he has failed in his quest, he returns to be comforted by the magnificence of the city he has built.

At different points in the story, both Ninsun and Gilgamesh accuse Shamash of instilling the hero with lofty and dangerous ambitions that lead to perilous exploits. This indicates a recurring literary theme that emerges in later epics, such as Homer's Odyssey and Vergil's Aeneid. How much free will can be attributed to even the greatest of heroes as opposed to some degree of control by fate, destiny, or the gods?

If one were to summarize the central theme of this epic, it might be that life is given meaning by the pursuit of worthy, honorable, and virtuous activities, not of unrealistic goals nor vain glory. This is movingly depicted at the epic's climax when Gilgamesh renounces his worldly power and possessions and joins Enkidu in death.

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