The Epic of Gilgamesh – Part 1

There are epics, and then there are Epics. The Gilgamesh epic is in the latter category. It is the earliest surviving story of its kind. Written over 4,000 years ago, the epic is a cautionary tale of wisdom on the subject of life, death, and the folly of trying to outrun death, of seeking immortality.

First, a little background on Gilgamesh (I am trying to refrain from referring to him affectionately as Gilgy). Gilgamesh was a king of Uruk, an early Mesopotamian city, and according to tradition was responsible for the building of its walls somewhere around 2700 BC when intercity rivalry heated up. The city walls are the setting for the beginning and the end of the epic.

Gilgamesh and his epic are well documented. Gilgamesh is one of the kings listed on the Sumerian King List. According to the list, he reigned for 126 years (not likely), his mother was a deified wild cow, and his father was a previous king of Uruk. Gilgamesh is considered 2/3 god and 1/3 human (not sure how that math works). The name Gilgamesh has been translated by some to mean “old man who became a young man.”

The earliest stories about Gilgamesh were written around 2100 BC: the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems. The Sumerian poems were source material for Babylonian poems written in 1700 BC. The longest of these took parts from the Sumerian poems and put them into a continuous plot. Pieces of these old poems survived and were the source for the epic. The epic was widely distributed, found on clay tablets from Mesopotamia, Syria, the Levant, and Anatolia. Gilgamesh is also mentioned in the “Book of Giants” in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The epic was written on 12 tablets. The story itself is comprised of the first 11 tablets, with the 12th tablet being another tale that doesn’t quite fit into the narrative but offers some interesting insight into the Mesopotamian beliefs on the afterlife. Interestingly, the epic shows signs of being a formal, written, literary work composed for scholars or members of a royal court, rather than an oral tradition. This leads to the idea that the epic was considered worthy of study, rather than simply an entertaining story.

There is a lot of material for discussion in the epic, so I am breaking it up into four parts.

First, a synopsis of part one:

The epic begins with a description of our hero, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is described as pretty much the perfect specimen of a man, in every possible way. But soon we learn that he hasn’t been the best king to his citizens. It seems that he is bored, and in his boredom he has been harassing the ladies of Uruk and picking fights with the men. It has become so bad that the citizens of his beloved city have complained to the gods.

The gods decide that what Gilgamesh really needs is an equal – a worthy opponent, someone who can provide a challenge for him and keep him from bullying his city. And so Enkidu is created.

Enkidu is a hairy wild man. He looks like an animal and roams with the animals. He eats grass. He is completely uncivilized. When Gilgamesh hears of him, he sends a harlot out to meet him. The harlot literally turns him into a man. Haha. After their rendezvous, she introduces him to human food, beer, bathing, and clothes. Soon the other animals don’t want anything to do with him. There is nothing for him in the wilderness any longer. He is a real man, and real men belong in the city, they belong to the king. And so Enkidu begins to make his way to Uruk. On his way there he decides he will challenge Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh has a dream that Enkidu is coming – that he is someone he will love, someone that will rescue him again and again.

On his way into town, Enkidu finds out how badly Gilgamesh has been treating his people. When he hears that Gilgamesh is planning to have a bride before her wedding, he marches into Uruk to confront him. They fight, Enkidu wins but bends to Gilgamesh, and at the end of it all they become best friends.

In the middle of all of this testosterone, Gilgamesh proposes a quest: why don’t the two new friends go kill the monster Humbaba and also get some cedar from the forest he guards? Enkidu tries to be the voice of reason and talk him out of it, but Gilgamesh accuses him of being afraid to die, and laughs at him.

Notes on part one:

Gilgamesh is presented to the reader as a very boisterous, self-confident god-man. He is strong, powerful, and laughs in the face of death. To him, death is something to look forward to – to die in battle is an honor, and this honor is what gives you immortality. There is nothing to fear about death.

Enkidu is presented as Gilgamesh’s equal, but also as the more thoughtful of the two. He confronts Gilgamesh over his immoral behavior. He tries to talk him out of a quickly planned adventure that seems like a bad idea. And Gilgamesh loves him – but obviously believes he lacks courage.

Enkidu’s transformation from animal-like to human is one of three such transformations in the epic. In the days of Gilgamesh, living in a city was the height of human civilization. In order to enter the city and present himself to the king, Enkidu had to become civilized himself. It is a little humorous that his civilizing took place in the hands of a harlot (not a very reputable job, even back then). However, in Mesopotamia, the harlot was a symbol of urban life, so it is somewhat fitting that she brings the culture of the city to Enkidu before leading him to Gilgamesh.

By the end of part two, Gilgamesh will be a changed man.

2 CommentsLeave a comment »
  • October 9, 2011 Reply
    cara said:

    Haha, this story is so funny!

    • October 9, 2011 Reply
      Virtual Pilgrim said:

      It’s much funnier than I thought it would be. 🙂

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