Gilgamesh: The Oldest Epic

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Offline Shamim Ansary

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Gilgamesh: The Oldest Epic
« on: July 28, 2011, 09:14:34 AM »
    He rejects the love of a goddess, and when she sends a wild bull made by the supreme god to kill him, he murders it with nothing but his sword and the help of a friend. He kills a giant monster that guards a sacred forest, in which the gods live. The first human hero in literature, Gilgamesh was a renowned king of Uruk that, in looking for a way to avoid death, figured out how to live. Along his long and tiresome journey, Gilgamesh meets another hero, Enkidu, which was sent by the gods to humble his tyrannical ways. Together, the story of these two heroes became the first and greatest epic in world literature.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is a long and complex story of a hero that learns how to live by avoiding death and losing a friend. In the beginning of this epic, Gilgamesh, king of the “strong-walled city of Uruk,” was fashioned by the mother goddess Nintu (Griffin 1). He was a wise but tyrannical leader. He ruled his people “beyond his right as king” (“Gilgamesh” 175). Because of Gilgamesh’s great arrogance, the gods decide to send another hero to equal out the untamed spirit in Gilgamesh’s heart; this hero was named Enkidu. He came to life as a grown man, and he lived among the animals. One day, because of the greediness of a hunter, Gilgamesh sends a harlot, Shamhat, into the wilderness to convince Enkidu to become a civilized human being. The harlot goes and convinces him as she is told, with a combination of human cuisine and sex for six days and seven nights (The Epic of Gilgamesh 5). Enkidu then decides that he will challenge Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. Once Shamhat and Enkidu return to Uruk, this happens. Although the winner of this wrestling match is unclear, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become close friends because of it (“Gilgamesh” 180).

    At this point in the story, Enkidu complains about his inactivity and loss of strength since he moved into civilization. Gilgamesh says “I [Gilgamesh] know how to heal the grief in your [Enkidu’s] heart” (“Gilgamesh” 180). Gilgamesh then recommends that the pair should travel to the Cedar Forest and kill the monster that guards it, thus banishing evil from the land. The two heroes travel to the sacred Cedar Forest, in which the mountain of the gods lies. On this particular journey, at one time or another, each of the heroes loses their bravery and the other must persuade him to go on. Once they reach the forest, they proceed to kill Humbaba (The Epic of Gilgamesh 22).

    When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return to the strong-walled city of Uruk, Ishtar, the goddess of love, proclaims her undying love for Gilgamesh. When he refuses to marry her, she complains to (as well as threatens) her father, the supreme god, Anu, and he unleashes a wild bull from heaven to kill Gilgamesh. When the “Bull of Heaven” attacks Gilgamesh, Enkidu and Gilgamesh come together and kill it (The Epic of Gilgamesh 26). As an insult to Ishtar, Enkidu rips the thigh off of the bull and throws it in her face, saying, “If I could capture you as I captured this bull, I would treat you as I have treated it” (“Gilgamesh” 188)! That night, Enkidu dreams that the gods had taken counsel and decided that one of the two heroes must die due to their many deplorable deeds; Enlil, one of the most influential gods, decided that Enkidu must die. Inevitably, Enkidu gets extremely ill and dies. Gilgamesh becomes dreadfully depressed (The Epic of Gilgamesh 34). Because of Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh becomes scared of his own demise.

    After the trauma that was Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh decides to go on a search for immortality. He makes a decision to look for Utanapishtim, the only man in the land that had achieved immortality. After a long journey and many stops along the way, Gilgamesh reaches the home of Utanapishtim. Utanapishtim tells the story of a great flood; through this story, he shows Gilgamesh that there is no advantage or purpose in immortality. Utanapishtim then gives Gilgamesh a plant that will restore Gilgamesh’s youth, but Gilgamesh loses it when he carelessly falls asleep with the plant lying in the ground beside him; a snake grabs the plant and slithers off. When Gilgamesh awakes, he watches the snake’s skin peel off, a youthful snake gliding out of it (“Gilgamesh” 202).

  There are numerous themes in The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the most important and most frequently discussed themes is the inevitability of death. In the epic, Gilgamesh learns, by one extremely strenuous journey, that immortality can not be achieved by a mortal. After Enkidu’s tragic death, (which sparks Gilgamesh’s want for everlasting life) Gilgamesh begins his expedition to find the residence of Utanapishtim, the only mortal to achieve immortality. Utanapishtim uses a long story about a flood to reveal to Gilgamesh that only gods have the right to give away, or retain, immortality. This account of a great flood also conveys the point that death is a factor that is ultimately woven into creation; one that a mortal can not change. Siduri, a fishwife that Gilgamesh meets on his way to meet Utanapishtim, explains it like this:

          “Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? The life that you are seeking you will not find. When the heavenly gods created human beings, they kept everlasting for themselves and gave us death. So, Gilgamesh, accept your fate, each day, wash your head, bathe your body, and wear clothes that are sparkling fresh. Fill your stomach with tasty food. Play, sing, dance, and be happy both night and day. Delight in the pleasures that your wife brings you, and cherish the little child who holds your hand. Make every day of your life a feast of rejoicing! This is the task that the gods have set before all human beings. This is the life you should seek, for this is the best life a mortal can hope to achieve” (“Gilgamesh” 194).

    Another theme in the epic is that no man is an island. This theme is not directly discussed in the text, but is important nonetheless. In the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh is portrayed as a king that is very secluded and isolated. He does not get his happiness from a relationship with another character, but from interfering in the lives of his subjects.  All of this changes when he meets Enkidu. Because Enkidu was made to equal Gilgamesh in strength and personality, the pair not only become friends, but become brothers. A retelling by Herbert Mason says, “He [Gilgamesh] turned to Enkidu who leaned against his shoulder and looked into his eyes and saw himself in the other, just as Enkidu saw himself in Gilgamesh” (24). When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is depressed. First, he mourns Enkidu’s death himself; then he orders all of the living creatures of Uruk to mourn Enkidu’s death as well (The Epic of Gilgamesh 33). These facts show that Gilgamesh changed from his introverted ways to a loving, caring friend. No man is an island.

    One other substantiated theme in The Epic of Gilgamesh is that the gods are unreliable and dangerous. This theme is supported by several events in the epic. The first event in which this theme is collaborated is when the gods decide to annihilate all of mankind, for simply becoming “too noisy” (“Gilgamesh” 196). This conveys the low level of reliability and high level of dangerousness that the gods possess. Another occurrence that supports this theme is the reaction of the gods after all of mankind (with the exception of Utanapishtim and his family) have been destroyed. The epic’s text explains it like this:

        [Mother Goddess speaking] The olden days have alas turned to clay, because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods [The meeting in which the decision to kill mankind had been made]! How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods, ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!! No sooner have I given birth to my dear people than they fill the sea like so many fish! The gods…were weeping with her, [They] humbly sat weeping, sobbing with grief… (The Epic of Gilgamesh 51)

This apparent unreliability and dangerousness of the gods is what unsurprisingly leads

Gilgamesh to rely on his own earthly deeds to be his immortality. He understands not to rely on the gods. The gods are a dangerous and unreliable source.

    Along with themes, there are multiple motifs (recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes) in The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of these motifs is the appearance of two seductions in the epic. One of these seductions is a success; one is a failure. The first, successful seduction is between Shamhat, the temple harlot, and Enkidu. This seduction occurs when Gilgamesh orders the harlot to go into the wilderness and persuade Enkidu to come into human civilization. This seduction is important because when the prostitute seduces Enkidu, he loses his animal characteristics, but gains his humanity.

    In modern western society, people view sex as a lewd and somewhat vulgar act, but in early Mesopotamian culture, the common belief was that sex was a way to become closer to the life force: the goddess. Life on earth was the only life at all. This explains why the next seduction is so important. This seduction is an unsuccessful one; it is between the goddess Ishtar and Gilgamesh. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return from slaying of Humbaba, Ishtar offers to marry Gilgamesh, but he refuses. He then explains himself, declaring, “Just as you loved the lion and gave him pits to fall in and the horse whose back you wounded with a whip…Your love brings only war! You are an old fat whore, that’s all you are, who once was beautiful, perhaps, but who has left in men a memory of grief. We outgrew our naiveté in thinking goddesses return our love” (Mason 43). This seduction is extremely significant. As was explained before, the Mesopotamian view was that this life is the only life; that sex was a way to become closer to the “goddess life force” (“Mesopotamia”). Therefore, in denying marriage with Ishtar, Gilgamesh, who has no afterlife to look forward to, denies life itself.

    Another of these motifs is the recurring literary structure of various journeys. Journeys emerge in almost every part of the epic. First, there is Enkidu’s journey to Uruk from the wilderness (The Epic of Gilgamesh 6). Then, there is Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s journey to Cedar Forest to kill the great Humbaba (Griffin 2). Enkidu then has a “journey” to the underworld (Mason 50). After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh journeys to find the immortal Utanapishtim, the Faraway (“Gilgamesh” 191), just to go on a return journey back to Uruk (Mason 91). Gilgamesh’s frequent journeys reflect his inner journey to come out of his self-centered ways, become an altruistic king, and learn that no one can achieve immortality (except by their deeds).

    Another example of motifs in The Epic of Gilgamesh is the common occurrence of baptism imagery. This imagery signals a constant renewal and rebirth of the characters. Enkidu washes and anoints himself after he first tastes beer and human cuisine at the shepherd camp (The Epic of Gilgamesh 8). Gilgamesh washes himself after his return from the Cedar Forest (“Gilgamesh” 187). Ninsun washes herself before she prays to Shamash for the protection of Enkidu and Gilgamesh (“Gilgamesh” 184). Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash themselves in the Euphrates River after they slay the Bull of Heaven (The Epic of Gilgamesh 27). After Enkidu’s death however, another type of baptism occurs: a sort of reverse baptism. Gilgamesh wears animal skins as Enkidu did; he lets his hair grow out (Mason 55). Siduri, a barmaid Gilgamesh meets on his way to find Utanapishtim, pleads with Gilgamesh to wash himself, but he refuses (Mason 65). Utanapishtim orders Urshanabi to baptize Gilgamesh before they begin their long expedition home (“Gilgamesh” 201). Gilgamesh is lying in a pool of pure water when the snake steals the youth-giving plant (The Epic of Gilgamesh 56), but the imagery here implies that he doesn’t need it anymore. He has finally begun to understand that he can not achieve the immortality that he has been striving for. He is ready to resume his place as King of Uruk.

    In conclusion, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the greatest of the many early epics. It is a work of diverse characters, themes relevant to today, and an underlying meaning that will continue to stun readers for generations to come.


from the source: http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1496403-Gilgamesh-The-Oldest-Epic
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