[These notes were pilfered from another source. Not my work.]
The epic’s prelude offers a general introduction to Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. He built magnificent ziggurats, or temple towers, surrounded his city with high walls, and laid out its orchards and fields. He was physically beautiful, immensely strong, and very wise. Although Gilgamesh was godlike in body and mind, he began his kingship as a cruel despot. He lorded over his subjects, raping any woman who struck his fancy, whether she was the wife of one of his warriors or the daughter of a nobleman. He accomplished his building projects with forced labor, and his exhausted subjects groaned under his oppression. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and decided to keep Gilgamesh in check by creating a wild man named Enkidu, who was as magnificent as Gilgamesh. Enkidu became Gilgamesh’s great friend, and Gilgamesh’s heart was shattered when Enkidu died of an illness inflicted by the gods. Gilgamesh then traveled to the edge of the world and learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods, and he recorded them on stone tablets.
The epic begins with Enkidu. He lives with the animals, suckling at their breasts, grazing in the meadows, and drinking at their watering places. A hunter discovers him and sends a temple prostitute into the wilderness to tame him. In that time, people considered women and sex calming forces that could domesticate wild men like Enkidu and bring them into the civilized world. When Enkidu sleeps with the woman, the animals reject him since he is no longer one of them. Now, he is part of the human world. Then the harlot teaches him everything he needs to know to be a man. Enkidu is outraged by what he hears about Gilgamesh’s excesses, so he travels to Uruk to challenge him. When he arrives, Gilgamesh is about to force his way into a bride’s wedding chamber. Enkidu steps into the doorway and blocks his passage. The two men wrestle fiercely for a long time, and Gilgamesh finally prevails. After that, they become friends and set about looking for an adventure to share.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide to steal trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals. A terrifying demon named Humbaba, the devoted servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, guards it. The two heroes make the perilous journey to the forest, and, standing side by side, fight with the monster. With assistance from Shamash the sun god, they kill him. Then they cut down the forbidden trees, fashion the tallest into an enormous gate, make the rest into a raft, and float on it back to Uruk. Upon their return, Ishtar, the goddess of love, is overcome with lust for Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh spurns her. Enraged, the goddess asks her father, Anu, the god of the sky, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish him. The bull comes down from the sky, bringing with him seven years of famine. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle with the bull and kill it. The gods meet in council and agree that one of the two friends must be punished for their transgression, and they decide Enkidu is going to die. He takes ill, suffers immensely, and shares his visions of the underworld with Gilgamesh. When he finally dies, Gilgamesh is heartbroken.
Gilgamesh can’t stop grieving for Enkidu, and he can’t stop brooding about the prospect of his own death. Exchanging his kingly garments for animal skins as a way of mourning Enkidu, he sets off into the wilderness, determined to find Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah. After the flood, the gods had granted Utnapishtim eternal life, and Gilgamesh hopes that Utnapishtim can tell him how he might avoid death too. Gilgamesh’s journey takes him to the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, where the sun sets into one side of the mountain at night and rises out of the other side in the morning. Utnapishtim lives beyond the mountain, but the two scorpion monsters that guard its entrance refuse to allow Gilgamesh into the tunnel that passes through it. Gilgamesh pleads with them, and they relent.
After a harrowing passage through total darkness, Gilgamesh emerges into a beautiful garden by the sea. There he meets Siduri, a veiled tavern keeper, and tells her about his quest. She warns him that seeking immortality is futile and that he should be satisfied with the pleasures of this world. However, when she can’t turn him away from his purpose, she directs him to Urshanabi, the ferryman. Urshanabi takes Gilgamesh on the boat journey across the sea and through the Waters of Death to Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood—how the gods met in council and decided to destroy humankind. Ea, the god of wisdom, warned Utnapishtim about the gods’ plans and told him how to fashion a gigantic boat in which his family and the seed of every living creature might escape. When the waters finally receded, the gods regretted what they’d done and agreed that they would never try to destroy humankind again. Utnapishtim was rewarded with eternal life. Men would die, but humankind would continue.
When Gilgamesh insists that he be allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim gives him a test. If you think you can stay alive for eternity, he says, surely you can stay awake for a week. Gilgamesh tries and immediately fails. So Utnapishtim orders him to clean himself up, put on his royal garments again, and return to Uruk where he belongs. Just as Gilgamesh is departing, however, Utnapishtim’s wife convinces him to tell Gilgamesh about a miraculous plant that restores youth. Gilgamesh finds the plant and takes it with him, planning to share it with the elders of Uruk. But a snake steals the plant one night while they are camping. As the serpent slithers away, it sheds its skin and becomes young again.
When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he can’t live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement—the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire.
Gilgamesh – King of Uruk, the strongest of men, and the personification of all human virtues. A brave warrior, fair judge, and ambitious builder, Gilgamesh surrounds the city of Uruk with magnificent walls and erects its glorious ziggurats, or temple towers. Two-thirds god and one-third mortal, Gilgamesh is undone by grief when his beloved companion Enkidu dies, and by despair at the prospect of his own extinction. He travels to the ends of the Earth in search of answers to the mysteries of life and death.
Enkidu – Companion and friend of Gilgamesh. Hairy-bodied and brawny, Enkidu was raised by animals. Even after he joins the civilized world, he retains many of his undomesticated characteristics. Enkidu looks much like Gilgamesh and is almost his physical equal. He aspires to be Gilgamesh’s rival but instead becomes his soul mate. The gods punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu by giving Enkidu a slow, painful, inglorious death for killing the demon Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
Shamhat – The temple prostitute who tames Enkidu by seducing him away from his natural state. Though Shamhat’s power comes from her sexuality, it is associated with civilization rather than nature. She represents the sensuous refinements of culture—the sophisticated pleasures of lovemaking, food, alcohol, music, clothing, architecture, agriculture, herding, and ritual.
Utnapishtim – A king and priest of Shurrupak, whose name translates as “He Who Saw Life.” By the god Ea’s connivance, Utnapishtim survived the great deluge that almost destroyed all life on Earth by building a great boat that carried him, his family, and one of every living creature to safety. The gods granted eternal life to him and his wife.
Utnapishtim’s Wife – An unnamed woman who plays an important role in the story. Utnapishtim’s wife softens her husband toward Gilgamesh, persuading him to disclose the secret of the magic plant called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man.
Urshanabi – The guardian of the mysterious “stone things.” Urshanabi pilots a small ferryboat across the Waters of Death to the Far Away place where Utnapishtim lives. He loses this privilege when he accepts Gilgamesh as a passenger, so he returns with him to Uruk.
The Hunter – Also called the Stalker. The hunter discovers Enkidu at a watering place in the wilderness and plots to tame him.
Partial List of Important Deities and Demons
Anu – The father of the gods and the god of the firmament.
Aruru – A goddess of creation who fashioned Enkidu from clay and her spittle.
Ea – The god of fresh water, crafts, and wisdom, a patron of humankind. Ea lives in Apsu, the primal waters below the Earth.
Humbaba – The fearsome demon who guards the Cedar Forest forbidden to mortals. Humbaba’s seven garments produce an aura that paralyzes with fear anyone who would withstand him. He is the personification of awesome natural power and menace. His mouth is fire, he roars like a flood, and he breathes death, much like an erupting volcano. In his very last moments he acquires personality and pathos, when he pleads cunningly for his life.
Scorpion-Man – Guardian, with his wife, of the twin-peaked mountain called Mashu, which Shamash the sun god travels through every night. The upper parts of the monsters’ bodies are human, and the lower parts end in a scorpion tail. They are familiar figures in Mesopotamian myth.
Siduri – The goddess of wine-making and brewing. Siduri is the veiled tavern keeper who comforts Gilgamesh and who, though she knows his quest is futile, helps him on his way to Utnapishtim.
Tammuz – The god of vegetation and fertility, also called the Shepherd. Born a mortal, Tammuz is the husband of Ishtar.
Enlil – God of earth, wind, and air. A superior deity, Enlil is not very fond of humankind.
Ereshkigal – Terrifying queen of the underworld.
Ishtar – The goddess of love and fertility, as well as the goddess of war. Ishtar is frequently called the Queen of Heaven. Capricious and mercurial, sometimes she is a nurturing mother figure, and other times she is spiteful and cruel. She is the patroness of Uruk, where she has a temple.
Lugulbanda – Third king of Uruk after the deluge (Gilgamesh is the fifth). Lugulbanda is the hero of a cycle of Sumerian poems and a minor god. He is a protector and is sometimes called the father of Gilgamesh.
Ninsun – The mother of Gilgamesh, also called the Lady Wildcow Ninsun. She is a minor goddess, noted for her wisdom. Her husband is Lugulbanda.
Shamash – The sun god, brother of Ishtar, patron of Gilgamesh. Shamash is a wise judge and lawgiver.
Analysis of Major Characters
An unstable compound of two parts god and one part man, Gilgamesh suffers most from immoderation. He is the greatest of all men, and both his virtues and his flaws are outsized. He is the fiercest of warriors and the most ambitious of builders. Yet until Enkidu, his near equal, arrives to serve as a counterweight to Gilgamesh’s restless energies, he exhausts his subjects with ceaseless battle, forced labor, and arbitrary exercises of power. Beautiful to behold, Gilgamesh selfishly indulges his appetites, raping whatever woman he desires, whether she is the wife of a warrior or the daughter of a noble—or a bride on her wedding night. Enkidu’s friendship calms and focuses him. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grieves deeply and is horrified by the prospect of his own death. Abruptly abandoning glory, wealth, and power, all of which are worldly aspirations that he as king had once epitomized, he begins a quest to learn the secret of eternal life. What he finds instead is the wisdom to strike harmony with his divine and mortal attributes. Reconciled at last to his mortality, Gilgamesh resumes his proper place in the world and becomes a better king.
Hairy-chested and brawny, Enkidu begins his literary life as Gilgamesh’s faithful sidekick. In the most ancient of the stories that compose The Epic of Gilgamesh, he is a helper to Gilgamesh. As those legends evolved into chapters of a great epic poem, Enkidu’s role changed profoundly. Much more than a sidekick or a servant, he is Gilgamesh’s soul mate, brother, and equal, even his conscience. In the later stories the gods bring Enkidu into the world to provide a counterpoint to Gilgamesh. Unlike Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, Enkidu is fashioned entirely from clay. He begins his life as a wild man, raised by animals, and, crude and unrefined, he remains to a certain extent a sojourner in the civilized world. For example, when Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar, the goddess of love, with flowery, allusive insults, Enkidu merely hurls a piece of meat in her face. However, Enkidu is also instinctively chivalrous. He takes up arms to protect the shepherds who first give him food, and he travels to Uruk to champion its oppressed people and protect its virgin brides from their uncontrollable king. Ironically, that king is Gilgamesh. Enkidu overcomes him with friendship rather than force and transforms him into the perfect leader. Perhaps Enkidu feels Uruk’s injustices so keenly because he is such a latecomer to civilization. Though Enkidu is bolder than most men, he is also less pious than he should be. He pays dearly for the disrespect he shows to Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, when he urges Gilgamesh to slay Enlil’s servant Humbaba, and he incurs the wrath of Ishtar. Like all men, Enkidu bitterly regrets having to die, and he clings fiercely to life.
Utnapishtim’s name means “He Who Saw Life,” though “He Who Saw Death” would be just as appropriate, since he witnessed the destruction of the entire world. The former king and priest of Shurrupak, Utnapishtim was the fortunate recipient of the god Ea’s favor. His disdain for Gilgamesh’s desperate quest for eternal life might seem ungenerous, since he himself is immortal, but Utnapishtim must carry a heavy load of survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t know why, of all the people in the world, Ea chose him to live, but he does know that he tricked hundreds of his doomed neighbors into laboring day and night to build the boat that would carry him and his family to safety while he abandoned them to their fates. What Utnapishtim gained by his trickery was a great boon for humankind, however. He received a promise from the gods that henceforth only individuals would be subject to death and that humankind as a whole would endure. When Utnapishtim tested Gilgamesh by asking him to stay awake for a week, he knew that he would fail, just as he knew that Gilgamesh wouldn’t profit from the magical plant that had the power to make him young again. Gilgamesh is one-third man, which is enough to seal his fate—all men are mortal and all mortals die. Yet since Utnapishtim “sees life,” he knows that life extends beyond the individual—that families, cities, and cultures endure.
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 Gilgameshdiffers 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 becauseGilgamesh 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 inGilgamesh, 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.
There are two important seductions in Gilgamesh, one successful and one a failure. When the temple prostitute seduces Enkidu, he loses his animal attributes but gains his self-consciousness and his humanity. In contemporary western society, people often view human sexuality as base and lewd and may be more accustomed to a reversal of roles—with Enkidu seducing a woman, instead of a woman seducing him. Furthermore, Christianity encourages its followers to transcend their bodies and to store up treasures in heaven. Sex played a much different role in the Mesopotamian worldview. The notion of sublimation was entirely foreign to the ancient Mesopotamians, who believed that this world is the only one and that the act of sex mystically and physically connects people to the life force, the goddess. Sacred prostitutes did not embody moral frailty—they were avatars and conduits of divinity. 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.
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.