The Epic of Gilgamesh

Download 82.19 Kb.
Date conversion21.05.2016
Size82.19 Kb.

ENG 12 Myth 03: page

The Epic of Gilgamesh Overview

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian epic poem that dates back to the 3rd millennium B.C. and is the first piece of written literature in the world. It was enormously popular in ancient Mesopotamia over centuries and knowledge of it extended beyond to western Asia and very possibly to the Greek world (suggested by some similarities to Achilles in the Iliad and to Greek flood stories). The epic in the form you are reading it is actually a composite of a number of Gilgamesh stories from clay tablets found at a variety of sites in Mesopotamia.

In the story, Gilgamesh is presented as part god, part man, a legendary king from the distant past. But we know of a historical Gilgamesh of Uruk (from the Sumerian King List), who reigned ca. 2700 B.C. and it may be that legendary material was "grafted" onto this king. The poem contains both fictional aspects characteristic of heroic epic, but also reflects historical aspects. Since it was so popular, it is valuable to the historian of Mesopotamian culture because it reveals much about the conceptual and religious world, e.g., attitudes toward the gods, how a hero was defined and regarded, views about death, and friendship. It can also tell us something about political and social organization in a Mesopotamian city like Uruk, as well as its physical layout. For example, the prologue (p. 61) reveals that Uruk was a developed city to the extent of having fortification walls (note that it specifies the building material) and temples, that it was a polytheistic (many gods) society from the number of gods named. The text makes it clear that Gilgamesh was ruler, that is, that there was a king of some sort, and it reveals something about the organization of society (it speaks of warriors, and nobles). These are the sorts of things that you should be trying to pick out as you read.


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Love As a Motivating Force

Love, both erotic and platonic, motivates change in Gilgamesh. Enkidu changes from a wild man into a noble one because of Gilgamesh, and their friendship changes Gilgamesh from a bully and a tyrant into an exemplary king and hero. Because they are evenly matched, Enkidu puts a check on Gilgamesh’s restless, powerful energies, and Gilgamesh pulls Enkidu out of his self-centeredness. Gilgamesh’s connection to Enkidu makes it possible for Gilgamesh to identify with his people’s interests. The love the friends have for each other makes Gilgamesh a better man in the first half of the epic, and when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and terror impel him onto a futile quest for immortality.

The epic may lack a female love interest, but erotic love still plays an important role. Enkidu’s education as a man begins with his sexual initiation by the temple harlot, and the two heroes’troubles begin with their repudiation of Ishtar, the goddess of love. Humanity renews itself through the female life force, which includes sex, fertility, domesticity, and nurturance, not through an arbitrary gift of the gods. When Gilgamesh finally sees that his place is here on Earth and returns to Uruk to resume his kingship, Ishtar returns to her place of honor.

The Inevitability of Death

Death is an inevitable and inescapable fact of human life, which is the greatest lesson Gilgamesh learns. Gilgamesh is bitter that only the gods can live forever and says as much when Enkidu warns him away from their fight with Humbaba. Life is short, the two warriors tell each other on their way to the deadly confrontation in the Cedar Forest, and the only thing that lasts is fame. But when Enkidu is cursed with an inglorious, painful death, their bravado rings hollow. Shamash, the sun god, consoles Enkidu by reminding him how rich his life has been, but though Enkidu finally resigns himself to his fate, Gilgamesh is terrified by the thought of his own. Mesopotamian theology offers a vision of an afterlife, but it gives scant comfort—the dead spend their time being dead. If Gilgamesh’s quest to the Cedar Forest was in spite of death, his second quest, to Utnapishtim, is for a way to escape it. Utnapishtim’s account of the flood reveals how ludicrous such a goal is, since death is inextricably woven into the fabric of creation. But life is woven in as well, and even though humans die, humanity continues to live. The lesson that Gilgamesh brings back from his quest isn’t ultimately about death—it’s about life.

The Gods Are Dangerous

Gilgamesh and Enkidu learn all too well that the gods are dangerous for mortals. Gods live by their own laws and frequently behave as emotionally and irrationally as children. Piety is important to the gods, and they expect obedience and flattery whenever possible. They can often be helpful, but angering them is sheer madness—and a character’s reverence for the gods is no guarantee of safety. Thus, the world of The Epic of Gilgamesh differs markedly from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which God is both a partner in a covenant and a stern but loving parent to his people. The covenant promises that people will receive an earthly or heavenly inheritance if they behave well. The Judeo-Christian God represents not just what is most powerful but what is morally best—humans should aspire to imitate him. These differences are noteworthy because Gilgamesh also shares certain common elements with the Judeo-Christian Bible. Both Gilgamesh and parts of the Bible are written in similar languages: Hebrew is related to Akkadian, the Babylonian language that the author used in composing the late versions of Gilgamesh. The Bible comes from the same region as Gilgamesh and shares some of its motifs and stories, such as the serpent as the enemy who deprives humans of eternal life and, most important, the flood. In both the Bible and Gilgamesh, disobedience to a god or gods brings dire consequences.

Although we never learn exactly why the gods unleashed the great flood in Gilgamesh, we know why Ea rescues Utnapishtim and through him all the creatures and people of the world. As the god of wisdom and crafts, Ea is responsible for human attributes including cleverness, inventiveness, and creativity, which enable people to survive independently. Ishtar, too, while a fickle friend, presides over sexual desire, fertility, nurturance, agriculture, and domesticity, which ensure humankind’s future. For the Mesopotamians, piety and respect for the gods are not true moral obligations. Rather, piety and respect suggest a practical acknowledgment of nature’s power and serve to remind humans of their place in the larger scheme of things.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
When Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar as she attempts to seduce him, he brings disaster upon himself and Enkidu. When he asks Ishtar what he could offer her in return since she lacks nothing, he misses the point of her seduction. When Gilgamesh—who has no afterlife to look forward to and no moral ideal to aspire to—spurns the goddess, he spurns life itself.

Doubling and Twinship

Gilgamesh is full of characters and events that mirror or resemble one another. For example, Gilgamesh and Enkidu look almost identical. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grows his hair and dons animal skins, as if trying to become his lost friend. Two scorpion monsters guard the twin-peaked mountain, Mashu, which Shamash travels through nightly. The gods Ea and Shamash champion the human heroes. The heroes undertake two successful quests, one against Humbaba the demon and one against the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh’s solitary quest to find Utnapishtim mirrors his journey with Enkidu to the Cedar Forest. These repetitions sometimes serve to reinforce or emphasize important features of the story, such as Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s power and heroism. At other times they create contrasts, calling attention to the differences between two similar events. Alternately, the story may be structured in terms of twins and doubles primarily for aesthetic reasons—in other words, because the repetitions lend the story a symmetry or cyclicality that is beautiful or poetic in itself.


Almost all of the action in Gilgamesh begins with a journey. Enkidu journeys from the wilderness to Uruk and Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the Cedar Forest. Enkidu journeys to the underworld. Gilgamesh journeys to and then through the twin-peaked mountain Mashu. He journeys to Urshanabi to find Utnapishtim, then travels with Urshanabi across the sea and through the sea of death, only to return to Uruk. Gilgamesh’s many journeys mirror his internal journey to become a selfless and devoted king.


Baptism imagery appears throughout Gilgamesh, signaling a continual renewal and rebirth of the characters. Enkidu washes and anoints himself after he tastes cooked food and beer at the shepherd camp. Ninsun washes herself before she communes with Shamash. Gilgamesh washes himself after his return from the Cedar Forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash themselves in the Euphrates after they subdue the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh undergoes a reverse baptism after Enkidu’s death, when he dons skins and lets his hair grow. Siduri urges Gilgamesh to wash himself, but he refuses. Utnapishtim orders his boatman to baptize Gilgamesh before they journey home. Gilgamesh is in a pool of pure water when the snake steals the magic plant. Though Gilgamesh regrets losing the plant, the baptism imagery suggests he doesn’t need it anymore. He has finally come to terms with his morality and is ready to resume his place in the world.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Religious Symbols

Gilgamesh is rich in religious symbolism. Religious rituals in Mesopotamia involved sacrifices, festivals, sex, dream interpretation, and shamanic magic, all of which appear in the story. Enkidu’s hirsuteness symbolizes the natural, uncivilized state. The walls of Uruk symbolize the great accomplishments of which mortals are capable. In the context of the ancient king who built them, they represent the immortality he achieved through his acts. Bulls represent explosive, destructive natural power, and the ability to wrestle a bull suggests humanity’s ability to harness nature’s power. This symbolism accounts for Enkidu’s interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dream about the bull in the Cedar Forest. Enkidu says the bull is Humbaba, and that the act of wrestling the bull is Shamash’s blessing. Later in the poem, Enkidu and Gilgamesh do subdue a bull together, perhaps suggesting that humankind has the power to conquer famine.


Images of doorways, portals, and gateways constantly recur in Gilgamesh. Enkidu blocks the doorway of the bride’s chamber and wrestles with Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh stand awestruck and terrified before the gates to the Cedar Forest. After their triumph there, they fashion the tallest tree into a gate for Uruk. The Scorpions guard the gates of Mashu. Siduri the barmaid locks the door to her tavern. The hatchway of Utnapishtim’s boat is caulked shut. In most cases, doorways mark a transition from one level of consciousness to another. They also represent choices, since characters can either shut themselves behind doorways to seek safety or boldly venture through them.

As you read, think about the following questions and then what your answers suggest about the society, its composition, its attitudes and concerns.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY : Summary of the Steps

1. The Call to Adventure
The call to adventure is the point in a person's life when they are first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.

2. Refusal of the Call
Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.

3. Supernatural Aid
Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known.

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

5. The Belly of the Whale
The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero's known world and self. It is sometimes described as the person's lowest point, but it is actually the point when the person is between or transitioning between worlds and selves. The separation has been made, or is being made, or being fully recognized between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. The experiences that will shape the new world and self will begin shortly, or may be beginning with this experience which is often symbolized by something dark, unknown and frightening. By entering this stage, the person shows their willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, to die to him or herself.


1. The Road of Trials
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.

2. The Meeting with the Goddess
The meeting with the goddess represents the point in the adventure when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. Although Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love and /or self unification does not have to be represented by a woman.

3. Woman as the Temptress
At one level, this step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which as with the Meeting with the Goddess does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman or even a person. For Campbell, however, this step is about the revulsion that the usually male hero may feel about his own fleshy/earthy nature, and the resulting attachment or projection of that revulsion to women. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.

4. Atonement with the Father
In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds theultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power. For the transformation to take place, the person as he or she has been must be "killed" so that the new self can come into being. Sometime this killing is literal, and the earthly journey for that character is either over or moves into a different realm.

5. Apotheosis
To apotheosize is to deify. When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. This is a god-like state; the person is in heaven and beyond all strife. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

6. The Ultimate Boon
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.


1. Refusal of the Return
So why, when all has been achieved, the ambrosia has been drunk, and we have conversed with the gods, why come back to normal life with all its cares and woes?

2. The Magic Flight
Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.

3. Rescue from Without
Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience. Or perhaps the person doesn't realize that it is time to return, that they can return, or that others need their boon.

4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.

5. Master of the Two Worlds
In myth, this step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.

6. Freedom to Live
Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.

READ The Epic of Gilgamesh in the World Mythology textbook p. 26 now if you haven’t already done so.
The Epic of Gilgamesh

Open-Book Test

  1. What does the first paragraph of the prologue to The Epic of Gilgamesh stress was important to Sumerian culture?

a. transportation

b. farming and irrigation

c. architecture and construction

d. history, geography, and writing

  1. According to your reading of the prologue to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which description characterizes Gilgamesh?

a. a lowborn Sumerian who rose to power through his own efforts

b. a demigod, or partial god, who accomplished many things as king of Uruk

c. a strong but often foolish king of Uruk

d. a Sumerian hero who was physically weak but mentally strong

List a few examples and details from the prologue that support your answer.

  1. Describe the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in one sentence; Then give two examples to support your statement.

  1. Identify two details in “The Battle With Humbaba” that help you understand a particular custom or belief of ancient Sumerians. Be sure to indicate the custom or belief that the details help you understand.

  1. Explain how the events at the end of “The Death of Enkidu” relate to Gilgamesh’s quest.

  1. How do Enlil’s actions at the start of “The Story of the Flood” relate to Gilgamesh’s quest?

  1. How dies Enlil react after he discovers that Utnapishtim and his wife survived the flood?

Cite two sentences from “The Story of the Flood” that support your answer.

  1. How is a king supposed to behave? What is appropriate and inappropriate?

  1. Are there checks on the king’s power in the city? Explain. Is Gilgamesh excessive in his behavior, or is he only acting as would be expected of a hero (and a king)?

  1. On the basis of the presentation of Gilgamesh, how would you define a hero in Sumerian culture?

  2. Why is it important for Gilgamesh and Enkidu to kill Humbaba? Think about what Gilgamesh has to gain personally, what Humbaba represents to the Sumerians, and what the city/culture itself gains, practically speaking.

  1. How are the gods viewed? What is their function? How directly do they intervene in human affairs?

  1. Why does the flood happen? Why is Utanapishtim singled out to be saved?

  1. Consider that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest full piece of literature ever found—older even than The Odyssey and the Bible. Why do you suppose that the story of Utanapishtim and the flood is so strikingly similar to the Biblical story?

  1. Cite three uses of symbolism in The Epic of Gilgamesh and explain how they are used.

  1. How was The Epic of Gilgamesh preserved?

a. In writing on scrolls

b. In carvings on tree trunks

c. In writing on clay tablets

d. Aristotle translated it into Greek

  1. When did the real Gilgamesh live?

a. Before the Ice Age

b. In about 2700 b.c.

c. In the Middle Ages

d. In Victorian times

  1. Why did the gods create Enkidu?

a. To overthrow Gilgamesh

b. To be Gilgamesh’s loyal servant

c. To provide a counterforce to Gilgamesh’s power

d. To marry Gilgamesh’s sister

  1. Who introduces Enkidu to civilization?

a .His mother and father

b. A temple prostitute

c. A talking gazelle

d. The goddess Ishtar

  1. Who guards the Cedar Forest?

a. Twelve Roman Legions

b. Two scorpion monsters

c. Shamash, god of the sun

d. The demon Humbaba

  1. Why does Gilgamesh spurn Ishtar?

a. Because he’s already married

b. Because Enkidu would be jealous

c. Because she’s already married

d. Because he doesn’t want to be manipulated by her.

  1. Which god supports Gilgamesh’s incursion into the Cedar Forest?

a. Enlil, god of earth, wind, and air

b. Anu, god of the firmament

c. Ea, god of wisdom

d. Shamash, god of the sun

  1. Gilgamesh dreams that a mountain falls on top of him and Enkidu. What does Enkidu say this dream foretells?

a. The collapse of the Assyrian Empire

b. Enkidu’s death in battle

c. Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s triumph over Humbaba

d. The eruption of Mt. Thera

  1. What does the Bull of Heaven bring to the city of Uruk?

a. Famine

b. Flood

c. War

d. Seven years of plenty

  1. Why does Enkidu bless the temple prostitute?

a. Because she told him the future

b. Because she loans him money

c. Because if she hadn’t tempted him from the wilderness he would have never met


d. Because he feels bad that he poisoned her

  1. Why does Gilgamesh leave Uruk after Enkidu dies?

a. To avenge his death by killing a god

b. To find out how he can avoid having to die himself

c. To track down Enkidu’s murderer

d. To escape the police, who think he murdered Enkidu

  1. What are the Stone Things?

a. Nobody knows

b. Statues of Ishtar

c. Lodestones

d. A popular Babylonian singing group

  1. How does Urshanabi’s boat cross the Waters of Death?

a. A god blows it across with his breath

b. A fish tows it

c. Urshanabi rows it

d. Gilgamesh poles it

  1. What advice does Siduri the tavern keeper give to Gilgamesh?

a. To never buy on credit

b. To go back to Uruk

c. To take his pleasures in this world and enjoy life while he can

d. To offer up libations to Ea, the god of wisdom

  1. How did Utnapishtim find out that the gods were planning to destroy the world with a flood?

a. Ea, the god of wisdom, spoke to him through the walls of his house

b. A little bird told him

c. His joints were aching

d. Ishtar told him

  1. What test does Utnapishtim give to Gilgamesh, to see if he is worthy of eternal life?

a. He makes him name all the Babylonian gods in alphabetical order

b. He wrestles with him

c. He asks him to stay awake for six nights and seven days

d. He asks him to travel to Colchis and steal the golden fleece

  1. Who steals the magical plant?

a. A winged lion

b. A scorpion monster

c. The king of Tyre

d. A snake

  1. What does Gilgamesh learn from his journey?

a. That no one is destined to live forever

b. That one should be happy with one’s life, friends, and what one has

c. The importance of honoring the gods

d. All of the above

  1. Based on the reading, what qualities make up a hero in Sumerian (Babylonian) culture? Name what you think are the three most important heroic qualities displayed by Gilgamesh and/or Enkidu, and then give examples from the story that illustrate these quailities. Be specific.

  1. Write what you think is the main theme of this story. Explain. Give examples to support your opinion.

Challenge Activity:

Trace Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s journey together through the Hero’s Journey. Re-read the steps of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (above). Think of the quests that occurred in the story and the “dragons” Enkidu and Gilgamesh had to face, both externally and internally. Fill in a brief description of each scene/event from the story as it fits into the steps of the Hero’s Journey. Remember there is more than one “right” answer.

A. Departure

  1. The Call to Adventure—is when

  1. The Refusal of the Call—is when

  1. The Supernatural Aid—is

  1. The Crossing of the First Threshold—

  1. The Belly of the Whale—

B. Initiation

  1. The Road of Trials (list a few events)—

  1. The Meeting with the Goddess—

  1. Woman as Temptress—

  1. Atonement with the Father—

  1. Apotheosis—

  1. The Ultimate Boon—

C. Return

  1. Refusal of the Return—

  1. The Magic Flight—

  1. Rescue from Without—

  1. Crossing of the Return Threshold—

  1. Master of Two Worlds—

  1. Freedom to Live—

Write what you think is one THEME (lesson, message, moral to the story) of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Then, show how that theme is developed by writing specific examples and events from the story. Hint: Think of the ideas or messages are repeated in the story. What sort of patterns do you notice? Also, think of the lessons that Gilgamesh is supposed to learn.

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page