The Epic of Gilgamesh
Timor mortis conturbat me
“The fear of death consumes me”
All of the episodes in the poem share this common theme--how the
realization of death is a motivation for the hero’s actions and a defining
feature of our search for identity.
The poem expresses a very pessimistic view of human life and the world-due in part to the insecurity of life in Mesopotamia.
From the start of the poem, we see Gilgamesh with an over-riding
preoccupation with fame, reputation, and the revolt of mortal man
against the laws of separation and death.
His 2/3 divinity yoked with his mortal third becomes an internal
dilemma which drives much of the movement; it is a conflict that lies at
the heart of all mankind: to reconcile our divine aspirations with our
physical nature.
Gilgamesh’s completer, Enkidu, shares many of the hero’s traits, and
he also stands as his opposite. Enkidu’s part-man, part-beast nature
is the reverse of Gilgamesh’s human-divine mix.
The relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is an essential element in
Gilgamesh’s growth. Enkidu’s death is the primary motivational
force that propels Gilgamesh on his journey for eternal life.
It is important to note that Gilgamesh sets out on his quest for
SELFISH REASONS. He is not trying to revive Enkidu from the
dead. Rather, he is now intimately aware of the consequences of
death, and he wants to avoid a similar fate.
Gilgamesh’s journey is away from the center. He leaves civilization
and enters the wilderness. Uruk is the seat of civilization and law.
Entering the wilderness represents the movement away from what
makes us human. In such, Gilgamesh regresses into a primal being,
wearing lion skins and looking worn and weary. Paradoxically, in
trying to gain everlasting life, he rejects the qualities that define what
he should be--the King of Uruk
Gilgamesh’s journey is also a journey into the past. He figuratively
travels back in time to encounter a man who lived before the Flood.
Most significantly, Gilgamesh’s journey is a journey into self. As a
common archetypal pattern, Gilgamesh must lose all the trapping
and symbols of his position in order to strip down to his essential
self. That is his most harrowing test: to face who he really is.
All of these patterns illustrate the growth of identity.
Extols Gilgamesh’s traits & accomplishments:
Ability to Write
Divine/Human Composition
Grandeur of Uruk—particularly its WALLS (p. 13)
The city represents safety, civilization, and law. The qualities of the
King are reflected in the qualities of the city, and vice versa.
The Coming of Enkidu
Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s
Rival/ Companion
Alter Ego/Doppelganger
Completer. The two heroes together form one unified whole.
Enkidu’s growth demonstrates the archetype of innocence leading to
experience (often through sexual awareness). Wisdom replaces innocence.
Civilization replaces the wild.
Enkidu proclaims, “I have come to change the old order” (pp. 15 & 17).
His interactions with Gilgamesh dissipate Gilgamesh’s selfish, hedonistic
drives (p. 17).
Symbols to note:
The Forest Journey
This passage emphasizes how civilization overcomes the wilderness. How
Law (the qualities of Mankind) replaces Chaos (the features of the Beast).
Also the domain of Humbaba is associated with evil (p. 18), giving
Gilgamesh’s adventure a moral dimension. It is also blessed by the Sungod, Shamash (p. 18).
The section also examines Man’s “restless desire” (p.19) and his “restless
heart” (p. 20). The hero must perform deeds to prove himself, and the
deeds must be of epic size. This TEST is the hallmark of the hero.
Through these acts, the hero acquires personal Fame, which is very
important to the earliest cultures, and he elevates the entire culture and
human race. So both the individual and society profit from the contest.
Enkidu at first fears Humbaba because Enkidu has experience in the
wilderness (pp. 18, 21, & 23). But his companionship with Gilgamesh
overcomes the dread, and they are able to vanquish the giant TOGETHER.
The Forest Journey
Gilgamesh’s heart is “moved with compassion” when Humbaba pleads to him (p.
24). Now Enkidu questions Gilgamesh’s judgment, and the two slay the Guardian
of the Cedar Forest.
Although the heroes are aided by the Sun-god Shamash who supplies them with the
winds, other gods are angered over the death of Humbaba. Enlil, the god of earth,
wind and spirit, curses the pair (p. 25).
The gods do not like this New Cosmic Order that has been establish in which Man
betters the Natural World.
Symbols to Note:
The Forest
Ishtar & Gilgamesh
The goddess of fertility is attracted to Gilgamesh though his deeds. His
Fame has consequences.
Ishtar’s advances are an honor--Gilgamesh will be taken into the cycle of
renewal and be elevated even further, such as Dimuzi had been.
Yet, Gilgamesh refuses the offer which slights the goddess--the hero is
always pushing the envelop, redefining Man’s relationship with his
surroundings, with the divine, and within the Cosmic Order.
Ishtar threatens the release of chaos (p.26), so the gods relent and give her
the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. Bulls are sacred animals in many
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.
The killing of the Bull of Heaven and the subsequent insult to Ishtar is an
affront to the divine--Man does have limits, as the epic proves over and
over again. Enkidu is cursed, and his body (his defining feature and most
mortal aspect) becomes his destruction.
The Death of Enkidu
Enkidu’s Dream of the Underworld is a frightening glimpse into the
Sumerian Afterlife. This dark world inhabited by vampire-faced creatures
where the dead are slaves who eat dust and clay reveals much about
Sumerian existence since the stories of our Afterlife are based on our
Earthly life.
Gilgamesh’s Lament (pp. 30-31) is formulaic and ritualistic.
At Enkidu’s death (p. 31) Gilgamesh’s anguish is unbounded (as is fitting
the hero), and he begins his regression.
Symbols to Note:
The Worm
The Search for Everlasting Life
Gilgamesh sets out for purely selfish reasons (p. 31).
His journey is a regression--a reverse of the evolution of man. His
encounter with the pride of lions shows a primordial response to the
natural world (31-32).
The Scorpion-Men, fitting guardians for the 12 leagues of darkness under
the Mountain of Mashu (a descent image), advise against the journey.
Gilgamesh responds, “still I must go” (p. 32)--life lessons have to be
Shamash begins a series of encounters in which everyone tells Gilgamesh
essentially the same thing: “You will never find the life for which you are
searching” (p. 33). Remember, Shamash is the Sun-God, and he is
“distressed” by Gilgamesh’s appearance, showing that there is something
amiss with the hero’s adventure.
The Search for Everlasting Life
Siduri, the wine goddess who lives in an Eden-like Garden of the Gods, tells
Gilgamesh to enjoy life--an early proponent of carpe diem (seize the day).
The passage over the Waters of Death is reverse birth images. The island is
often a symbol of the womb, and as such, Gilgamesh is returning to a prebirth state.
Urshanabi, the ferryman, is a common mythological figure to take people to
a new reality--usually after death.
Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah, tells Gilgamesh the futility of his adventure
after Gilgamesh asks the epic question: “how shall I find the life for which I am
searching?” (p. 36)
Symbols to Note:
Darkness & Blindness vs Light & Sight
The Island
The Story of the Flood
The story contains obvious parallels with the biblical Flood story. Yet, the
actions and influence of the gods are quite different, indicating the different
attitudes the Sumerians and Hebrews had toward the divine and our human
responsibilities for our fate.
The Ark is an archetype of survival.
In both the Sumerian and biblical accounts, the destruction of the world is
achieved through a reversal of the creation process, and chaos is loosed.
The greatest difference is in the end of the story. In the Bible, God and Noah
(who represents all Mankind) are reconciled and form a covenant. In
Gilgamesh, Mankind is still punished for his actions--these Sumerian gods are
not forgiving deities.
The Return
The Test to stay awake. Human consciousness (identity) is an on-going
theme within the poem. We often see Gilgamesh falling asleep (e.g. prior
to the battle with Humbaba, and the test with the loaves of bread). This
pattern illustrates the growth of mankind into a conscious ego. Yet, the
human consciousness is still limited.
Once Gilgamesh fails the Test, he is sent to clean and renew himself (p. 40).
He is re-born into a fully realized human being and is given clothing as a
sign of his humanity. Gilgamesh has learned the limits imposed by our
The plant that restores youth--The Old Men Are Young Again--is not the
same as immortality; that has already been lost to us. This plant is a sort of
consolation prize. Its importance lies in Gilgamesh’s altruism (pp. 40-41).
He has gained wisdom instead of his original goal of immortality.
Of course, the snake--a suitable archetype of evil--steals even this prize.
On his return to Uruk, Gilgamesh is proud of his city, indicting the degree
of his growth. The closing lines (p. 41) hearken back to the “Prologue.”
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