The Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh is the oldest to have survived into the modern era. Thus the greatest value of Gilgamesh is that it opens a window for modern readers into their collective past. The tale’s content reveals much about humanity’s earliest social and religious concerns, while its form reveals equivalent insights about the relationship between instruction and entertainment in an oral culture.
The story of Gilgamesh reveals both a desire to commemorate the hero’s greatness and an obligation to learn from his flaws. The first thing the audience learns from the story is that Gilgamesh builds protective walls around the city, a great gift to his society. When the audience next learns that the king has been abusive to the young men of the city and has deflowered young maidens, their disapproval of these acts is tempered by their initial approval of his great accomplishment. Overall, the early portions of the story demonstrate that the abiding criterion for judgment is not the happiness of the individual, even if that individual is the king, but the good of society as a whole. When Gilgamesh exercises the kingly privilege in deflowering maidens, his actions may be legal, but they fail to provide any benefit for Uruk and are therefore condemned. Thus does the audience learn that greatness entails responsibility, not just strength.
Crucial to the lesson of the story is Gilgamesh’s status as two-thirds god, one-third human. Kings are more than human and therefore are revered; yet at the same time kings are imperfect, so that as they learn, their growth will serve as a model for the improvement of their subjects. One special feature of Gilgamesh is its introduction of an additional intermediary between the king and his people, Engidu. Precisely because the hero is so far above his subjects, he needs to befriend someone who is thoroughly human, though possessing heroic strength; only in this way can the audience achieve an emotional identification, or at least a profound empathy, with the hero. They can never quite see themselves as Gilgamesh, but they can see themselves as Engidu, standing by the hero’s side, supporting him, making possible his glorious triumphs. Thus when the pair are confronted by the...
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Long, long ago, I recall reading the story of Gilgamesh in an anthology of myths entitled “The Great Deeds of Superheroes.” Shortly thereafter, I had nightmares about being stalked by the evil ogre Humbaba. Little did I know that fourteen years later, I’d find myself writing a much more comprehensive analysis of one of the West’s earliest literary works.
The Epic begins by introducing Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. Gilgamesh is a tyrant and a womanizer, and his people beseech the gods for relief. Enter Enkidu, a beast-man of unparalleled strength – created for the sole purpose of defeating and humiliating Gilgamesh. After a wrestling match in which Gilgamesh proves himself the stronger, the two become best friends. They proceed to defeat not only the aforementioned Humbaba, but also the rampaging Bull of Heaven. The latter act incurs the ire of the goddess Ishtar, who smites Enkidu with a fatal illness. Upon his friend’s death, Gilgamesh is overcome by a terrible, all-consuming fear of the grave. He proceeds to seek out the wise man Utnapishtim (the Sumerian equivalent of the biblical Noah) who has been blessed by the gods with eternal life. Braving lions, scorpion-men, and stone-giants, he finds Utnapishtim’s island and learns the secret of immortality: a thorny plant growing at the bottom of the sea. Unfortunately, the plant is stolen by a serpent while Gilgamesh sleeps, rendering his search futile.
The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is both a religious treatise and a seminal work of ancient literature. Exploring issues of friendship, mortality, heroism, and humanity’s relationship to the divine, it lacks the expected “happy ending.” Rather, the Epic is a cautionary tale identifying man’s failings without providing much hope for the future.
Gilgamesh’s fundamental flaws are clearly pride and indecision. At the beginning of the book, his arrogant hedonism leads the gods to punish him by sending Enkidu. Later, his killing of the Bull of Heaven offends the gods yet again – resulting in the death of his best friend. Gilgamesh also is a passive figure, reluctant to act without external stimuli. He only chooses to face Humbaba after Enkidu’s arrival, and is only motivated to pursue immortality after Enkidu’s death. Most damningly of all, he timidly refuses to test the “plant of immortality” himself, deciding instead to observe its effect on someone else. This provides the necessary opportunity for the snake to steal away his chance at everlasting life.
The vision of the afterlife offered by the Epic of Gilgamesh is hopelessly bleak. As he dies, Enkidu warns Gilgamesh that he is not going to a pleasant destination. According to Enkidu, souls (represented as humans covered in mangy bird feathers) cower in a bleak city of dust, eating clay to survive. This sharply contrasts with the views of other ancient religions (such as the Egyptians and the Greeks), which promised their adherents some form of eternal bliss. Interestingly, it is unclear from the Epic what role the gods themselves serve in the Sumerian afterlife.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a classic work of myth, and a must-read for all who desire a fuller understanding of ancient Sumerian culture. It does contain mild sexual implications (Enkidu is “tamed” by a prostitute), but such content is not included to titillate. While the story is dark, brooding, and ultimately remains unresolved, it offers a glimpse into the hopelessness of Sumerian religion. Having read the Epic, I could better appreciate the eternal promise offered to Abraham in Genesis 12. This was the great benefit of reading the Epic – its despairing philosophy dramatically contrasts with the hope and freedom offered to the great Old Testament saints.
The Epic is definitely an important piece of Western culture, and a fascinating window into ancient Mesopotamian civilization. And, if you like books like the “Odyssey,” it makes for a good read.
A unique perspective on both Sumerian culture and timeless human weakness.
Addendum: Changes coming to Literary Analysis!
As many of you are aware, I’m currently enrolled in college and don’t have much time for outside reading or moviegoing. (My local library and movie theater have been replaced by an Amazon Kindle and a Netflix-equipped laptop.) In light of this, I’m planning on making a few changes to Literary Analysis. While I’ll still write detailed commentaries on classic literature and current theatrical releases, I’m also setting up a Twitter feed for Literary Analysis (http://twitter.com/litanalysis) to provide “mini-reviews” of popular DVDs, CDs, and books. It may take a couple of weeks for this to get established, but I’m looking forward to exploring new venues for discussion.