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Epic of Gilgamesh

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Gilgamesh is the semi-mythic King of Uruk in Mesopotamia best known from The Epic of Gilgamesh (written c. 2150 – 1400 BCE) the great Sumerian/Babylonian poetic work which pre-dates Homer’s writing by 1500 years and, therefore, stands as the oldest piece of epic world literature.

The motif of the quest for the meaning of life is first fully explored in Gilgamesh as the hero-king leaves his kingdom following the death of his best friend, Enkidu, to find the mystical figure Utnapishtim and gain eternal life. Gilgamesh’s fear of death is actually a fear of meaninglessness and, although he fails to win immortality, the quest itself gives his life meaning. This theme has been explored by writers and philosophers from antiquity up to the present day.

Known as ‘Bilgames’ in the Sumerian, ‘Gilgamos’ in Greek, and associated closely with the figure of Dumuzi from the Sumerian poem The Descent of Inanna, Gilgamesh is widely accepted as the historical 5th king of Uruk who reigned in the 26th century BCE. His influence was so profound that myths of his divine status grew up around his deeds and finally culminated in the tales found in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Later Mesopotamian kings would invoke his name and associate his lineage with their own. Most famously, Shulgi of Ur (2029-1982 BCE), considered the greatest king of the Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE) in Mesopotamia, claimed Lugalbanda and Ninsun as his parents and Gilgamesh as his brother to elevate his reign in the eyes of the people.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the great king is thought to be too proud and arrogant by the gods and so they decide to teach him a lesson by sending the wild man, Enkidu, to humble him. Enkidu and Gilgamesh are considered an even match by the people but, after a fierce battle, Enkidu is bested. He freely accepts his defeat and the two become friends and embark on adventures together.

They kill Humbaba, demon of the Cedar Forest, and this attracts the attention of Inanna (known by her Akkadian/Babylonian name Ishtar in the story). Inanna tries to seduce Gilgamesh but he rejects her, citing all the other men she has had as lovers who ended their lives poorly. Inanna is enraged and sends her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven, down to earth to destroy Gilgamesh. Enkidu comes to his friend’s aid and kills the bull but, in doing so, he has offended the gods and is condemned to death.

When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh falls into a deep grief and, recognizing his own mortality through the death of his friend, questions the meaning of life and the value of human accomplishment in the face of ultimate extinction. He cries:
How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. Because I am afraid of death I will go as best I can to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods. (Sandars, 97)

Casting away all of his old vanity and pride, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find the meaning of life and, finally, some way of defeating death. He travels through the mountains, over vast oceans, and finally locates Utnapishtim who tells him a story about a great flood (the famous Gilgamesh Flood Myth). After sharing this tale, Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh two chances at immortality; Utnapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. However, as soon as Utnapishtim finishes speaking Gilgamesh falls asleep. Utnapishtim instructs his wife to bake a loaf of bread for every day he is asleep so that Gilgamesh cannot deny his failure. Gilgamesh, who wants to overcome death, cannot even conquer sleep.

As Gilgamesh is leaving, Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband to offer a parting gift. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh of a boxthorn-like plant at the very bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet so he can walk on the bottom of the sea. He recovers the plant and plans to test it on an old man when he returns to Uruk. Unfortunately, when Gilgamesh stops to bathe it is stolen by a serpent that sheds its skin as it departs, apparently reborn. Gilgamesh, having failed both chances, returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls provokes him to praise this enduring work of mortal men and writes down his story. The implication may be that mortals can achieve immortality through lasting works of civilization and culture.

Content retrieved from: https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/.

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