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Literature Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh

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    The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most important literary works in human history. As one of the earliest surviving works of literature on the planet, this collection of poems tells one of the first stories of the heroic struggle. This sample essay, written by one of our top writers, dissects the famous piece of literature by relating analogously to contemporary society. 

    The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Story for the Ages

    From Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh is a heroic figure that encompasses all of the greatest virtues of mankind. The poems tell a story about the trials and tribulations that Gilgamesh faces. The epic poem is one of the first examples of written works that has the use of themes that are still prevalent in much of the literature written in the modern era. The themes contained in the work are are still commonly found in literature today and include:

    • Motivation by love and friendship
    • The inevitability of death
    • The danger of the unknown

    The writing of The Epic of Gilgamesh helped to lay the foundation for many literary elements for the modern world by telling a thoughtful, captivating story to which people still can relate today.  

    Gilgamesh

    Gilgamesh is first introduced as a tyrannical ruler. Though he is said to be one-third man and two-thirds god with unsurpassed physical attributes and in possession of an apt mind, he is wild, harsh, and unwavering in his decisions. The poem notes that he is prone to rape any woman to which he is attracted and to force his subjects into backbreaking labor to accomplish his impressive building projects. It is because of this that the gods decide they must be put into check, so they create a man of equal physical and mental prowess to Gilgamesh named Enkidu. It is the gods hope that he will tame Gilgamesh and show him the importance of compassion to the ruling of his subjects.

    Enkidu

    The poem goes on to speak of the beginning of Enkidu. He is born and raised in the wild with the animals living in peace with nature until a hunter discovers him. Upon his discovery, the hunter sends a woman from the temple to tame this wild man. Once the two meet, Enkidu is scorned by the wild animals signifying that he is no longer a part of their world, but is now a part of the world of man. Accepting his new role as part of human society, Enkidu learns the most important aspects of being human from a temple woman. Upon learning of the existence of Gilgamesh and his barbaric, authoritative ruling style, Enkidu is enraged and sets out to confront him, finally meeting Gilgamesh attempting to take a newlywed bride for himself in the city of Uruk. The two fight in a long wrestling match until Gilgamesh is able to gain a slight upper hand and defeat Enkidu. In doing so, the two gain mutual respect for one another and become fast friends. Having met a man that is almost his physical equal, the content Gilgamesh sets out with Enkidu to embark on an adventure to strengthen their friendship and challenge them both physically and mentally. 

    The death of Enkidu

    Being that these two men are greater than any other mortal in the world, they decide upon a task that would be impossible for most men to accomplish taking up the mantle of heroes. Gilgamesh and Enkidu decide that they will travel to a forest forbidden to mortals and steal some trees from within. After a dangerous journey to the forest itself, a monster that guards the forest for the gods confronts the two. Through divine intervention, and great displays of physical strength, Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the beast and cast its remains upon the ground. The two then cut down the forbidden trees in the forest, build a boat out of the wood they have harvested, and use their newly constructed boat to sail down the river and return triumphantly to Uruk. Upon their arrival, Ishtar the goddess of love, becomes enamored with Gilgamesh and attempts to seduce him. Unfortunately, he does not feel the same and rejects her attempts at his affection. Rejected and angered, Ishtar appeals to her father, Anu god of the sky, to help her exact vengeance on Gilgamesh. Out of devotion to his daughter, Anu agrees and unleashes a monster called the Bull of Heaven to fight Gilgamesh. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle the bull into submission and then kill it. Surprised by this turn of events, the gods become fearful of the power that Gilgamesh and Enkidu have as a union. As punishment for killing the Bull of Heaven, the gods decide that one of the two men must die. Enkidu loses the death raffle and suffers from a debilitating illness. After suffering great amounts of physical pain, he shares his final visions of the underworld to Gilgamesh and dies.  

    The pursuit of immortality

    Gilgamesh is devastated with the loss of his friend and after a long period of grieving, Gilgamesh does not feel any more at ease. He begins to pontificate upon his own mortality. Fearful of the uncertainty of death, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find Utnapishtim and eternal life. Utnapishtim is the Mesopotamian analogue of the Hebrew Noah in that he helped two of every creature survive a great flood that the gods sent down to Earth to wipeout mankind. He represents the return to normalcy after a fall from grace. After this great flood, the gods realize the mistake they had made by extinguishing all of Earth’s life and are greatly appreciative of Utnapishtim’s efforts to preserve life granting him the gift of eternal life. Hearing of this, Gilgamesh sets out with the hopes of learning the secret of eternal life from Utnapishtim.

    Utnapishtim's challenge

    Gilgamesh faces many trials along the way but ultimately meets with Utnapishtim. He offers to give Gilgamesh eternal life under one condition: Gilgamesh must prove himself worthy of a life without death by remaining awake an entire week. Gilgamesh foolhardily accepts this challenge resulting in his spectacular failure. Accepting that he could never accomplish this task, Gilgamesh prepares to leave and return home defeated. Utnapishtim’s wife, however, takes pity on Gilgamesh and convinces her husband to tell him about a plant that will restore youth to whomever can possess it. Eager to find the miraculous plant, Gilgamesh sets out at once and is able to quickly locate it. He plans to take the plant and share it with the elderly of Uruk so they can be restored to their youth and cheat death. As he nears Uruk, Gilgamesh makes camp only to have a snake steal the plant while he sleeps and draws parallels to Satan taking the guise of a serpent in the book of Genesis. As a testament to the plant’s effectiveness, the snake sheds its skin and regains its youth as it flees the campsite, leaving Gilgamesh empty handed and defeated once again.  

    Wisdom through experience

    While Gilgamesh's journey was wrought with failure, it was not in vain. By his return to Uruk, he has come to terms with his own mortality, taking comfort in the fact that humans will live forever as a species though he will eventually die. He then looks at the city of Uruk and decides that it will be his lasting legacy upon the world. The epic ends with Gilgamesh coming to a conclusion about his own mortality against that of human society as a whole. Though in time it too will fade, the city and its lasting buildings and stories are the nearest to immortality that Gilgamesh can achieve.

    Central themes

    Love, friendship and loss

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the first pieces of literature to employ elements and themes that are still commonly used in literature today. A central theme of the poem is the motivation to action through a loved one. Gilgamesh originally has no real companions in his life and he acts aggressively, almost destructively towards his subjects. He lives as a creature of desire. When Enkidu enters his life, a fundamental shift occurs in Gilgamesh’s psyche. A friend at his side, Gilgamesh begins to feel compassion towards others, taking actions not necessarily for the good his own personal wants and needs, but rather for the benefit of all. Following Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh is stricken with grief but is resolute to not see anyone ever have to suffer the loss he felt. While his quest for eternal life seems to be for personal gain, upon receiving the plant of eternal youth, Gilgamesh's ever evolving character resolves to give it to the elders of Uruk. His connection and responsibility to the people of his city has developed to fill the void left by Enkidu's death demonstrating that individuals can undergo many personal trials and tribulations for others if they are motivated by love.  

    The inevitability and uncertainty of death

    Another theme that the poem tackles is the uncertainty of death. Gilgamesh, an unequaled physical and mental specimen, has no real fear of death until he experiences personal loss. Once he experienced the effect of death, he becomes obsessed with understanding and then preventing his own demise. Throughout history, the question of what happens when we die has been asked and pondered, but cannot be answered. No one can truly know what death is like unless they experience it, and those that do cannot retell its tale. As long as man has been able to understand the concept of death, we have feared it and looked for a way to delay and hopefully prevent it. Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to gain immortality and his experiences show the course of dealing with death that everyone must take. Death is not something to feared or ignored, but, like Gilgamesh, all must accept that they are mortal and will eventually die. Rather than worrying about the inevitable, one should accept that it is a natural event that will always affect the world and live the fullest life with the time that they have.

    Respect your world

    This poem also gives a warning about the unknown. In this particular case, the characters of the gods fill the unknown aspect of the natural world. Because the poem was written in a time period where very little was known about the way that the physical world worked, the forces of nature were personified so that the common person could better understand what was happening around him or her. Gilgamesh and Enkidu both struggle against these unknown forces throughout the poem. They battle monsters of the other world and defeat them but this only serves to anger the gods for their actions. The basic idea the poem is speaking about is that the gods, like nature, are powerful and dangerous and need to be treated as such. Throughout literature, gods are often fickle, irrational beings, prone to spontaneous acts based on their emotions. When Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar, her first inclination is to have the Bull of Heaven go down to Earth and cause him physical harm because he would not have her, demonstrating the reverence man must show before the gods. Those who disrespect these dieties will only find more pain and suffering awaits them as did Gilgamesh when Enkidu was damned for his insolence.

    Gilgamesh's parallels to the Bible 

    There are also some very interesting similarities that the poem possesses to religious works. The Epic of Gilgamesh has two very close parallels to stories from the Hebrew Bible and raises questions about the historical context of the Bible:

    1. The flood story and the subsequent survival of life by a giant boat from Utnapishtim is almost identical to the story of Noah and the Ark. Like Noah, Utnapishtim is warned by a god of the impending doom to those not worthy of survival and that he must build a giant ship to secure a male and female of every species for the survival of life.  
    2. The poem also makes use of the serpent as the thief of eternal life. In the Bible, the snake tempts Adam and Eve with the gift of knowledge using his cunning and sly tactics to trick them into eating the apple and subsequently brings about their banishment from Eden. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a snake is responsible for stealing the plant that restores youth to those that have it, waiting until Gilgamesh sleeps before slyly entering his camp and stealing his prize.  

    It is interesting to see that two works separated by so much time and cultural difference could have such similar stories, thus demonstrating the power of passing on literature.  

    Conclusion

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the most important literary works of human society encapsulating some of the oldest and most commonly seen themes and motifs in literature, laying the foundation for the heroic quest. Themes of motivation by a loved one, the question of death, and the warning of the unknown are all themes employed by the poem and still prevalent in literature today. The lasting effect that The Epic of Gilgamesh has had upon society is almost immeasurable and though it was written long ago, it can still be read and enjoyed by modern readers.           

    Works Cited

    The Epic of Gilgamesh. In The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Martin Puchner. 3rd edition. New York, NY: Norton , 2012. Print. 

     
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