Throughout the Epic of Gilgamesh, the character Gilgamesh becomes increasingly humanized against his own desire to remain a powerful and immortalized hero. While he unyieldingly pursues immortality—first through his exploits, then through his genuine search for eternal life—his failed attempts at attaining immortality reveal him to be subject to death like all other humans. The process whereby Gilgamesh becomes humanized, in regard to his intimacy on earth and his inescapable mortality, is contrasted with his understanding and desire for immortality, specifically in relation to his interactions with Enkidu and in his failed journey for eternal life.
Despite his partial humanness, Gilgamesh fails to act in accordance with the good and natural constraints of a mortal ruler. Instead, he is shown at the beginning of the epic to function in relation to his identity as a divine warrior. As the special creation of the gods, Gilgamesh is a being endowed with beauty, courage, and a perfect body. While not entirely divine, he exists as two-thirds god and one-third man. Gilgamesh exercises his divine strength versus the appropriate mortal constraints by subduing people all around the world: “Gilgamesh went abroad in the world, but he met with none who could withstand his arms till he came to Uruk” (13). In her book When Heroes Love: the Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David, Susan Ackerman observes that “Gilgamesh is initially portrayed as a hero who seems not to know his own strength, so that his relentless energy and vigor, and the excessive demands that this energy and vigor fuel, come to bear oppressively upon his own people” (40). Similarily, Sarah Lawell notes in her introduction to the epic that “In our first view of him, Gilgamesh is the epitome of a bad ruler: arrogant, oppressive and brutal” (11). As alluded to by Ackerman and Lawall, Gilgamesh uses his divine, warrior attributes to establish himself over the people of the world, robbing them of their sons and daughters. His acts prove to be to much for the people of Uruk who petition the gods on their behalf, saying, “none can withstand his arms. No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all…his lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble” (13). According to Rivkah Scharf Kluger, Gilgamesh breaks “into the lives of his people by using them for his task in a tyrannical way. This presents an image of an ego so possessed by a particular goal that it overrides instinctive nature.” While Kluger does not attribute Gilgamesh’s actions to a desire for immortalization through fame and glory, she does recognize the overbearing nature of Gilgamesh’s treatment of the people and the presence of an underlying stimulus that motivates Gilgamesh to act. Gilgamesh seemingly disregards the cry of his people in light of his selfish capacity to function within his divine persona. The people declare that he should be “a shepherd to his people,” and yet he “sounds the tocsin for his amusement” and “his arrogance has no bounds by day or night” (13).
Gilgamesh’s tendency to function within his heroic, divine essence is reinforced not only by his tyrannical subjection of the people of the world, but by his inability to engage equally with any mortal. N.K. Sandars notes in the introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh that “When the story begins, he [Gilgamesh] is in mature manhood, and superior to all other men in beauty and strength and the unsatisfied cravings of his half-divine nature, for which he can find no worthy match in love or in war.” (30). As Sandars points out, there is no one on earth who comes close to equaling Gilgamesh in strength or satisfying him in love. The gods make a similar observation after being alerted to Gilgamesh’s oppressive rule by the cry of the people. The goddess Anu subsequently turns to Aruru, the goddess of creation, and bids her create another being who will be Gilgamesh’s equal: “You made him, O Aruru, now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection, his second half” (13). While no one of equal stature exists with whom Gilgamesh can bond, Gilgamesh reinforces his own heroic, divine status by mocking any attempt at having a reciprocal relationship with a mortal. He does not shepherd the people, but abuses them by stealing away their sons and imposing himself on the women. This is most blatantly portrayed in Gilgamesh’s insistence that he have sex with every virgin before her wedding night with her husband. The harlot explains this tradition to Enkidu before introducing Enkidu to Gilgamesh: “Gilgamesh is about to celebrate marriage with the Queen of Love, and he still demands to be first with the bride, the king to be first and the husband to follow” (16). Kluger writes in her essay that “We spoke of Gilgamesh as an oppressing power-possessed ego, and there were the oppressed people who cried out to the gods, who then created Enkidu to relieve the people and to direct Gilgamesh’s libido to this new figure” (64). Her observation reflects the way in which Gilgamesh views himself as superior and thus separate from the other humans.
The process whereby Gilgamesh becomes humanized against his own heroic, godlike inclinations begins with his introduction to Enkidu. Before Gilgamesh and Enkidu ever meet, Gilgamesh has two dreams which foreshadow his meeting with Enkidu. When Gilgamesh retells his dreams to his mother, she interprets their meaning saying, “This is the strong comrade, the one who brings help to his friend in his need. He is the strongest of wild creatures…when you see him you will be glad; you will love him as a woman and he will never forsake you” (15). The dreams reveal to Gilgamesh that he will soon have a companion of equal strength and passion. This foreshadows Gilgamesh’s shift toward the human world in relation to his forming community on earth.
Following Gilgamesh’s two dreams, the harlot reveals to Enkidu Gilgamesh’s plan to force himself upon a virgin before her wedding night. This rouses Enkidu’s fury, and he goes to Uruk to oppose Gilgamesh’s action: “Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate.” (16). Enkidu and Gilgamesh battle one another, and Gilgamesh emerges victorious. After the battle, Enkidu praises Gilgamesh for his strength and exalts him as superior to other men. Enkidu and Gilgamesh then become friends: “So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed” (17). While the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu begins the process of humanization through intimacy and eventually brings about the transition for Gilgamesh of understanding his own human limitedness, it also turns Gilgamesh’s attention to the immortality he can attain through deeds. Lawall notes that “The consequences of their union is that their prodigious energies are directed outward toward heroic achievements” (11). In this way, Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu not only highlights the process of humanization but reveals the contention between Gilgamesh’s acknowledgement of his humanity versus his own pursuit of immortality.
Until the formation of his friendship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh acts in accordance with his desire to immortalize himself through fame and power. While the process of humanization that Gilgamesh is undergoing has begun to occur through his relationship with Enkidu on earth, Gilgamesh himself remains unaware of any human limitations in regard to himself. When Gilgamesh hears Enkidu lament his own weakness and idleness, Gilgamesh proposes that they go and fight Humbaba. His reasoning behind this venture reflects his desire for immortality through great displays of power: “I have not established my names stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled. I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written yet I will raise a monument to the gods” (17). When Enkidu warns Gilgamesh of Humbaba’s power, Gilgamesh seemingly expresses an understanding of his own limitedness, and yet he does not change his course of action. He tells Enkidu, “Only the gods live forever with the glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind” (17). Sandar makes the comment that “In the character of Gilgamesh, from the beginning, we are aware of an over-riding preoccupation with fame, reputation, and the revolt of mortal man against the laws of separation and death” (22). Sandars recognizes that although Gilgamesh knows he is partially human, he still functions as if he were exempt from human law and limitations.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s decision to destroy Humbaba, insult Ishtar, and kill the Bull of
Heaven, results in the god’s demand for an appeasing sacrifice. Enkidu is chosen to die for the wrongdoing of both him and Gilgamesh. The point at which Enkidu dies signals the pivotal transition regarding Gilgamesh’s trajectory toward becoming humanized instead of immortalized. While Enkidu’s death is the end of one aspect of Gilgamesh’s humanity—intimacy on earth—it leads to Gilgamesh’s recognition of his human limitedness in relation to his absolute powerlessness over death. Gilgamesh is reminded of his humanity by his inability to stop death from overtaking Enkidu. He is able only to lament and watch his friend suffer: “A second day he lay on his bed and Gilgamesh watched over him but the sickness increased” (28). After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is forcefully reminded that he is partially human and therefore fated to die like every other person: “What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead” (30). This recognition leaves Gilgamesh distraught—“How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart” (30)—but does not convince him of the inevitability of his human limitedness. Gilgamesh realizes that fame and power are useless in truly overcoming death. Sandars writes that “The knowledge that death is inevitable had earlier proved a challenge to bold undertakings and to victorious action; but now it stultifies action and brings the new experience of defeat” (36). Instead of seeking immortality through fame and power, which have brought nothing but defeat, Gilgamesh decides to embark on a journey for immortalization through eternal life. Paul Kane writes that “After the death of