The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to a type of heroic poem that originated from ancient Mesopotamia and can trace its roots from the 3rd Ur dynasty. While it is often perceived to be the first great literary composition, this heroic poem integrates five significant Sumerian poems that talk about Bilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk. These autonomous poems were later used as a reference material for a comprehensive epic. The first version of this comprehensive epic is often referred to as “The Old Babylonian” and it traces its history from the 18th Century BC. This version was titled Shutur Eli Sharri, which translates to Exceeding All Other Kings, and it only has very few tablets. The later version of this epic is known as “The Standard Version” and it traces its history from the 13th Century BC. It is titled Sha naqba imuru, which translates to he who sees the mysterious. Over twelve tablets of this version have already been recovered including those that were discovered from the Assyrian library ruins at the end of the seventh century BC. The first portion of the story unveils Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk as well as Enkidu, a wild being that was created by gods to solely stop Gilgamesh from subjugating residents of Uruk. The second portion of the story reveals how Enkidu’s death influences Gilgamesh’s decision to take a long and dangerous journal to explore the hidden truth about eternal life. The epic exists in different languages and it has, in recent years, appeared among the famous works of fiction.
Overview and analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh begins by giving a general description of Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, a partially mortal and partially immortal being. He had built magnificent temple towers, bordered his city with great walls and established its orchards as well as the fields. Gilgamesh was physically attractive, immensely strong and very intelligent. Although two-thirds of his body and mind was godlike, he began his lordship with cruelty as he oppressed his subjects and raped any women that caught his attention irrespective of whether she was one of his soldier’s wife or a nobleman’s offspring. He completed his construction work using forced labors and he did not care that his subjects moaned under his severe oppression. The gods however heard the subjects’ supplication and resolved to create a wild man that was as superior as Gilgamesh to prevent him from oppressing the subjects. The wild man, by the name of Enkidu, became Gilgamesh’s best friend and Gilgamesh was greatly troubled when Enkidu was inflicted with a severe illness by the gods and died. As a result of Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh resolved to travel to the end of the world where he learnt about various secrets kept by the gods and documented them on stone tablets.
The story begins by portraying Enkidu as a wild being that coexists with animals, grazing along them in the meadows, drinking from their water points as well as suckling their breasts. A hunter discovers him and conspires with a temple prostitute who goes into the wilderness to trap him. The plan is expected to work out smoothly as women are considered to have calming sex powers that can tame any wild man and bring him into the enlightened world. Enkidu sleeps with the temple prostitutes and the wild animals reject him as he ceases to be one of them. The woman then coaches him everything he needs to be conversant with to be a complete man as well as fit into the human world. When the woman unveils everything she knows about Gilgamesh, Enkidu is outranged and he resolves to travel to the land of Uruk to dare him. When he reaches Uruk, he finds Gilgamesh trying to force his way into a bride’s room and he steps in front of him to block his passage. The two men engage into a fight for a while before Gilgamesh prevails. After the fight, the two men become friends and they set out looking for an activity they can venture together. They resolve to steal trees from a distant forest that is forbidden to mortals and is guarded by a frightening demon known as Humbaba. They confront the monster and, securing support from the sun god, they subdue and kill him.
After stealing the trees, they sail back to Uruk where they meet Ishtar, the love goddess, who is overwhelmed by passion for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, however, rejects her and she is enraged and therefore asks her father to send heavenly bulls to attack him. The bulls descend from heaven and bring along seven years of drought but Gilgamesh and his friend subdue and kill it. This causes the gods to gather in a council where they decide to take Enkidu’s life as a form of punishment for their sin. When Enkidu finally dies, Gilgamesh mourns him for a long time and even contemplates about the possibility of equally escalating to death. He trades his royal clothes for animal skins and takes off to the wilderness to look for Utnapishtim, also known as the Mesopotamian Noah, so he can inquire how he can avoid death. Utnapishtim, who is said to have acquired eternal life after the floods, lives beyond a double-peaked mountain whose entryway is guard by two scary monsters. The monsters deny him access but they relent after pleading with them. On taking the harrow entrance towards Utnapishtim’s residence, he meets a veiled inn keeper who tries to convince him to be contented with pleasures of the world and stop seeking immortality. Unable to convince him, the inn keeper directs Gilgamesh to a ferryman who sails with him across Waters of Death to where Utnapishtim lives. Utnapishtim narrates how gods, after the floods, met in a council and resolved to never destroy mankind even if men would continue to die. He also narrates how the gods cautioned him about the floods, instructed him how he could construct a gigantic boat in which he and his family would escape the floods as well as how he was eventually rewarded with everlasting life. Gilgamesh however pleads to be granted eternal life too and he is given a test to stay awake for one week. He fails the test and is instructed to clean himself and sail back to Uruk. He is given a plat that he can use to stay younger. The plant is however stolen by a snake that uses it to shed its old skin and obtains a youthful skin. Gilgamesh returns to his people empty handed but he is enlightened about the continuity of human kind. This way, he is reconciled to his mortality and he sees the city that he once ruled in grief and terror as a great achievement and the only thing resembling immortality that a mortal being can aspire.
Gilgamesh’s story celebrates the ancient people’s deeds while on the other hand bringing into light Gilgamesh’s transition through heroism, anguish, and wisdom, which is an everlasting universal process. Although this character is portrayed as legendary, the author is quick to notify us that he was not always perfect. This is because an equal being that could counter as well as control his powers was discovered. Although Gilgamesh is to a large extent godlike, his equivalent being, Enkidu, is represented as an extraordinary force of nature that is primarily intended to reverse the oppressive aspect of human nature. Enkidu is hairy, grazes in meadows with other animals and does not have the capacity to talk. In a religious aspect, Enkidu represents the hairy Esau as recorded in the Bible as well as Ishmael, who is described as the “untamed ass” of a human being. He facilitates the animals’ capacity to escape human supremacy, which violates the world’s equilibrium. When he has to depart from his natural habitation to a civilized world, his redemption comes through a woman. He deals with a strong force characterizing a woman’s sexuality. The fact that the woman is a temple prostitute epitomizes the values characterizing a sophisticated urban society. Enkidu’s story anticipates the story of humankind, which entails transition from simple animal existence to self-consciousness and culture. His transition from his natural habitation foreshadows a significant biblical motif, which is the fall of Adam and Eve from incorruptibility in the Garden of Eden to a sinful nature after they discover their sexuality. Just as Eve played an important role in contributing to the fall human being, a woman’s sexuality is portrayed as an important force that enhances domestication and civilization. As exhibited in the story, sexual intimacy does not necessarily reflect in the eventual human relationship. However genuine love existing between uniformly matched individuals is critical because it promotes balance, moderation as well as other important virtues. Such genuine love existing between Gilgamesh and Enkidu compares to that that prevailed between David and Jonathan in the bible. These two individuals had evenly matched interests and were therefore able to maintain a balanced, moderate and morally virtuous relationship.
The temple prostitute advises Enkidu that Gilgamesh is powerful than he is and hence should not hope to prevail over him but should aim to be a friend as Gilgamesh had proposed. A similar case prevailed between Jonathan and David in that Jonathan had all resources needed to subdue David but he was in need of a friend, and as such, he chose to maintain a rational and genuine friendship. The temple prostitute assumes a material role in feeding Enkidu, covering his nakedness and leading him like a small child into a shepherd’s camp. This camp, which lies mid-way between the wilderness and the city of Uruk represents an important way station towards civilization. It also represents a central place for Ishtar, the goddess of love, where the temple high priest would reenact the lovemaking aspect of this goddess. Enkidu eats, drinks, wears new clothes, dances to sweet music and even makes love. These represent significant aspects of the human experience, which converts Enkidu from being a wild champion to fully being human that guards other humans from possible attacks from wild animals. His desire to protect individuals around him makes him to feel outraged when he hears about Gilgamesh’s oppression against women and particularly new brides. However, his violation against new brides may be a form of tribute or worship to Ishtar as lovemaking and defilement represent one of the important temple rites and subsequent affairs of Uruk. Similarly, the language describing the type of friendship existing between Gilgamesh and his ally is erotic. As stated in the epic, Gilgamesh is passionate about Enkidu as a man would to a bride and they regularly kiss as well as embrace each other. This further characterizes a form of religious worship that Gilgamesh exhibits towards the temple goddess.
Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu despise Humbaba, a god that is connected to darkness as well as evil and they thus threaten to kill him so they can invade a forest and steal trees. Shamash, the god that is connected to light and wisdom, also despises Humbaba, and hence, the two allies’ intention to kill him does not only promote their own fame but it also enables them to accomplish god’s work. Shamash maintains a very outstanding presence in the epic until the last few tablets where Ea, the god associated with wisdom and craft seems to occupy his role. The fact that Gilgamesh and his friend opt to go to the extent of killing Humbaba to please him shows the great extent that characterizes Shamash’s authority and power. Gilgamesh and his friend’s adventure into the forest resembles that of Gilgamesh’s father, Lugulbanda, who is said to have been left for dead but obtained help from Shamash to trace his way back to civilization. He sustained himself by feeding on wild plants and animals thereby surviving death through rebirth.
Further information compiled in the epic is widely drawn from a traditional Sumerian poem and texts gathered from Akkadians and Hittites. The information portrays Gilgamesh and his friend as taking a journey of initiation where Enkidu encounters physical death while Gilgamesh encounters a figurative one. The journey helps them to accomplish a sacred quest of spiritual transformation as sanctioned by Shamash. This mission is however not sanctioned by other gods and their adventure is perceived to be a kind of deviance against other gods. They trespass in a land forbidden to mortals and steal materials belonging to the gods so they can create idols for honoring themselves. This adventure translates into something that enables them to explore their inner self as well as understand the boundaries that constitute to their spiritual world. Although the epic does not provide an express aspect of combat, it is evident that it clearly portrays an aspect of terror of war. As the heroes approach Humbaba, Gilgamesh is confronted by a chain of nightmares but his friend interprets them in a manner suggesting their wishful thinking. The fear for death however still remains, and it ultimately overwhelms them, because death is the ultimate fate for every mortal being.
The Epic further portrays the important role that Ishtar, the fertility goddess, plays in engaging mortal men into romantic relationships. The relationships are however governed by greed and lust as she converts the lovers into animals when she is done making merry with them. One of the lovers, Tammuz, dies for her love and is taken into the underworld. He later resurrects and is usually commemorated during spring time. While this story of the lover’s death and resurrection prevails in varying versions for different cultures, its ultimate blueprint remains the same. The versions include the Greeks’ Aphrodite and Adonis as told in the metamorphoses. Some anthropologists also present Jesus as representation of Tammuz because he too is a young god that dies and is eventually resurrected. Gilgamesh’s tendency to reject Ishtar symbolizes the denial of goddess worship in favor of patriarchal worship as was the case in the ancient world. His action does not only exhibit his violation of his royal obligation but it also makes him insult the fertility goddess in that he opts to engage in a romantic relationship with a mortal belonging to his own gender.
The epic also elaborates how Gilgamesh and his friend engage in heroic tasks using their raw physicality by killing the bull from heaven. This exposes them to agonizing horror of death that would eventually send them to the underworld. The agonizing horror makes Enkidu to curse the hunter that first saw him in the wilderness, the temple prostitute that tamed him and Gilgamesh for luring him into friendship. He feels that if he had continued to live in the wilderness he would not face the agonizing experience that the threat of death is causing him. The gods however console him by telling him that love, splendor and pleasure of cultured life are significant as are being loved as well as grieved for when one dies. This gives him comfort as he discovers that the compensation for losing the life that one might have cherished is being cherished by those who continue living even after one dies. On the other hand, Enkidu’s experience teaches Gilgamesh an important lesson as he is able to understand that the gods are set to take life from all mortals on earth without any definite reason. Gilgamesh engages in a lengthy lament for his friend, which evokes his departed companion’s natural origins. Gilgamesh personifies the natural habitat and casts his sorrows upon them. The type of imagery that the author uses in these passages is closely related to pastoral poems that were widely used in ancient Rome. They appeal to the simple untamed shepherds’ life thereby describing the dead companion’s life, the mourners, the unfairness brought by death as well as the possibility of eternal life in idealized manner. His adventure into the wilderness as he searches for Utnapishtim appeals to the biblical poetry in the “Song of Songs”. This is because Gilgamesh’s passage into the wilderness unveils a purposeful archaic style, which is an imitation of the prehistoric Sumerian poetry that tends to be very repetitive
The Epic of Gilgamesh represents a heroic poem that originated in ancient Mesopotamia and it outlines how the partially human and partially deity being pursues greatness by oppressing people, engages in dangerous ventures as well as counteracts against gods to achieve his objective. He is prepared to go to any extent including obtaining forced labor to take significant materials and sexually abuse women to please gods so he can reap any possible gain that can make him great. Enkidu’s descent from the wilderness, his close interaction with Gigamesh and ultimate death however plays an important function in reconciling Gilgamesh’s mortality as he is able to understand the true meaning of life as well as discover that pursuing eternal life is more valuable that seeking worldly pleasures.
Assyrian International News Agency. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Retrieved on 26th September, 2015 from http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf
Black, Jeremy. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Gary, Beckman. “When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David.” Shofar 27, no. 1 (2008):111-190.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic of Old Testament Parallels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Kovacs, Maureen. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Retrieved on 26th September, 2015 from http://krishnamurti.abundanthope.org/index_htm_files/The-Epic-of-Gilgames.pdf
Mark, Jarman. “When Light Came On: The Epic Gilgamesh.” The Hudson Review 58, no. 2 (2005):91-178.
Marshall, Brewer. Epic of Gilgamesh: A Guide Through the Old Testament. Kentucky: Westminster Press, 1989.
Tigay, Jeffery. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. Illinois: Bolchazy, 2002.
Tzvi, Abusch. “Development and Meaning of the Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, no. 4 (2001):134-167.
Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization. New York: Cengage Learning, 2008.
 Beckman Gary. “When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David.” Shofar 27, no. 1 (2008),119.
 Ibid 146.
 Jarman Mark. “When Light Came On: The Epic Gilgamesh.” The Hudson Review 58, no. 2 (2005):98.
 Jackson Spielvogel. Western Civilization. (New York: Cengage Learning, 2008), 66.
 Ibid 92
 Ibid 97
 Brewer Marshall. Epic of Gilgamesh: A Guide Through the Old Testament. (Kentucky: Westminster Press, 1989), 129.
 Abusch Tzvi. “Development and Meaning of the Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, no. 4 (2001):144
 Ibid 151
 Ibid 160
 Maureen Kovacs. The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Retrieved on 26th September, 2015 from http://krishnamurti.abundanthope.org/index_htm_files/The-Epic-of-Gilgames.pdf), 2
 Assyrian International News Agency. The Epic of Gilgamesh. (Retrieved on 26th September, 2015 from http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf), 6
 Alexander Heidel. The Gilgamesh Epic of Old Testament Parallels. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 198.
 Ibid 208
 Ibid 219
 Jeremy Black. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 77.
 Ibid 91
 Jeffery Tigay. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. (Illinois: Bolchazy, 2002), 22.
 Abusch Tzvi. “Development and Meaning of the Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 121, no. 4 (2001):160
 Brewer Marshall. Epic of Gilgamesh: A Guide Through the Old Testament. (Kentucky: Westminster Press, 1989)202
 Ibid 209
 Jarman Mark. “When Light Came On: The Epic Gilgamesh.” The Hudson Review 58, no. 2 (2005):168.
 Alexander Heidel. The Gilgamesh Epic of Old Testament Parallels. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 211
 Beckman Gary. “When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David.” Shofar 27, no. 1 (2008):144
 Black, Jeremy. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 311.
 Jackson Spielvogel. Western Civilization. (New York: Cengage Learning, 2008) 190.
 Jeffery Tigay. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic. (Illinois: Bolchazy, 2002), 233.