The Epic of Gilgamesh, Part I

Synopsis

In 2800 BC, tyrannical king Gilgamesh rules over the city of Uruk. Two-thirds divine, Gilgamesh exhausts his people with his lust for sex and war. They pray to the gods to send him a companion. The gods form Enkidu out of the earth to be Gilgamesh’s equal. Together they go on a great journey to seek a name for themselves, killing the guardian of the cedar forest and the Bull of Heaven. These acts of hubris anger the gods, and as punishment, they kill Enkidu. Because of this, Gilgamesh becomes overwhelmed by the reality of his own inevitable death and begins a futile quest to find immortality.

Introduction

Before starting The Great Conversation, I had no prior knowledge of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like most people, I was familiar with the epics of Homer and assumed they were the first of their kind. However, Gilgamesh originates more than a millennium before The Iliad.

I assumed going into it, that a 5000 year old epic would be far removed from any modern relevance. However, its themes are so universal that I had no difficulty identifying with the plight of Gilgamesh. His is a story about the fear of death. It is also about accepting one’s lot in life. Although Gilgamesh’s quest is ultimately unsuccessful, he is bettered by it. He comes to terms with the limitations of his own humanity and learns the importance of living rightly.

Gilgamesh is essentially a two-part story: The heroic exploits of a king, and his quest for eternal life. In this post I will be covering the first half.

Historical Context

How The Epic of Gilgamesh came to us is as enthralling a story as the epic itself. Around 2700 B.C., the historical king Gilgamesh ruled in Uruk. His larger than life exploits were so legendary that they were passed down from generation to generation until written accounts were created in 1600 B.C. As each new conquering nation took over the land, the story was appropriated into the new culture. It was passed down from the Sumerians, to the Akkadians, to the Babylonians, to the Assyrians, until finally the poem disappeared with the Persian empire. It wasn’t seen again until 1853, when an excavation team found it on cuneiform tablets in the ancient library of Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. It was deciphered twenty years later by self-taught linguist George Smith of the British Museum. Upon discovering a flood account similar to that in Genesis, Smith famously stripped off his clothes in excitement.

Bromance


“This is the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in need. He is the strongest of wild creatures, the stuff of Anu; born in the grass-lands and the wild hills reared him; when you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you.”

- Ninsun, The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first buddy adventure in literature. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, although never sexual, is one of deep love. From their first encounter, they are inseparable friends. Gilgamesh often describes his love for Enkidu like the love for a woman. In fact, Gilgamesh loves him so dearly that after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh holds his corpse until maggots fall from his nose.

This great love comes from the fact that the two compliment each other so well. When they first meet, they are both untamed men. Gilgamesh is more divine than human and Enkidu is more animal, than human. It is through their friendship that they both find their humanity.

The Civilized vs. The Wild Man

Over the course of the story, Enkidu goes from wild man, to shepherd, to city dweller. It is a parable for humanity’s own transition from wilderness into civilization. But Enkidu’s progression is bittersweet.

In the beginning, he lives in total harmony with the animals. This changes after an encounter with the harlot, Shamat. She has sex with him and feeds him wine and bread. After that, the animals no longer recognize him as one of their own. He leaves them to become a shepherd, where he kills the animals he once lived with.

It is interesting to note the marks of being civilized. Shamat is a temple harlot. By having sex with her, Enkidu is essentially worshipping the goddess, Ishtar. He then eats bread and drinks wine, man-made food and drink. Organized religion and manufactured foods were exclusive to city life.

At his death, Enkidu is filled with regret. He curses the harlot for the loss of his connection with nature. The god Shamash reminds him that although he did lose his bond with nature, he gained a bond with humanity, through the friendship of Gilgamesh and the love of his people. Ultimately, his conversion was for the better.

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4 Responses to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Part I

  1. humbahaha says:

    You have a very compact, clear writing style and this is an excellent summary. ‘One very minor correction – the earliest fragments of the original Sumerian Gilgamesh poems date to the late third millennium BCE, not 1600. My other observation is that although almost all commentators assume that Gilgamesh acquires wisdom by the end of the story, the ending is ambiguous. When the hero boasts about the walls of Uruk to the ferryman, we don’t really know whether he has finally accepted his kingly responsibilities or whether this is just another expression of hubris. Similarly, the introduction to the epic lauds the king’s wisdom and accomplishments but this praise is immediately undercut by the citizens’ complaint. Either way, I’m sure the reader (or hearer if the poem was originally sung as court entertainment) is invited to draw the appropriate conclusions, even if we are not completely sure that Gilgamesh did.

  2. Brandon says:

    Thanks humbahaha!

    I found a lot of fluctuations in dates for the origins of Gilgamesh. The date 1600 B.C.E. came from a recent Teaching Company course, however I wouldn’t be surprised if it was inaccurate or outmoded.

    It’s interesting. I read both the Andrew George and N.K. Sandars translations. I believe Sandars filled in the gaps where the poem was fragmented. Her version makes it more apparent that Gilgamesh gained wisdom from his journey. The story ends with his people mourning his death. George’s translation is much more ambiguous, ending with Gilgamesh boasting over the walls of Uruk to the ferryman. His is also the more accurate translation.

  3. Dr. J says:

    Good synopsis, Brandon. I could never figure how the “two-thirds divine” part worked mathematically.

  4. humbahaha says:

    Hi Brandon,

    Yes I’ve also read George and the other good translation I’ve read is by Stephanie Dalley in “Myths from Mesopotamia”. The introduction to George’s translation is particularly helpful on issues like dating, themes, versions etc. I’m a little wary of those authors who try to fill in the gaps in the text, although I agree that we are probably supposed to conclude that Gilgamesh acquired wisdom and found “peace” at the end of his journeys. This seems evident from the introduction to the epic, even if it’s not completely clear from its conclusion.

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