The Epic of Gilgamesh
The epic of Gilgamesh is story of love, meaning, companionship, the search for immortality and what it means to be human. Consequently, it is not only an epic story that conveys the beliefs and philosophies of the Mesopotamian civilization and Sumerian culture, but it is also a timeless, classic tale of spiritual pilgrimage that explores universal themes that transcend its cultural and historical context, making this an enduring and relevant story for any age.
Gilgamesh is created by the gods. He is two thirds god and one third man. Although Gilgamesh is considered a god, he is also mortal. He is the king of Uruk. Gilgamesh did not value nor have compassion for his people. He raped his subjects’ daughters and killed their sons. As a consequence, the gods create Enkidu as a companion for Gilgamesh. Enkidu lives in the wilderness among the beasts. While living in the wilderness he saves the beasts by destroying the traps set by the hunters. Enkidu’s journey out of the wilderness with Gilgamesh. leads to his death.
Gilgamesh, distraught over his companion’s death, goes on a search for everlasting life. Gilgamesh continues his journey to Dilmun in search of Upnapishtim (who is Gilgamesh’s father) the only mortal that gods have given everlasting life. From the mortal man Gilgamesh is told that there is no permanence in life. . Gilgamesh’s journey leads him to the realization that he has lost the ability to live forever, that the ultimate fate of all humans is death. Gilgamesh at the end of his journey invites Urshanabi to view the greatness of Uruk, the architectural and organizational achievement that assures his cultural immortality.
In like manner, the Sumerians completely disappeared as s people. Their language, however, lived on as the language of culture. Their writings, their business organization, their scientific knowledge, and their mythology and law were spread westward by the Babylonians and Assyrians. It is clear that this epic tale embodies the ideals and values of the Mesopotamian civilization and the history of ancient Sumeria, including it cities, kings and religions. * In the centuries that followed the immigration of the Sumerians, the country grew rich and powerful.
Art and architecture, crafts, religious and ethical thought flourished. Temple towns grew into city-states, which are considered the basis of the first true civilizations. * The acknowledgement that Gilgamesh is part god, part human and oppresses his people harshly is reflective of the violence indicative of that era. The history of The Land of Two Rivers refers to Semitic tribes such as the Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Kassites, and Assyrians who all vie for control of the region. * The Sumerians organized a complex mythology based on the relationships among the various local gods of the temple towns.
Each city-state was a theocracy, for the chief local god was believed to be the real sovereign. In Sumerian religion, the most important gods were seen as human forms of natural forces – sky, sun, earth, water, and storm. * There is rich symbolism in the creation of Enkidu by the sky God, Anu, the seduction of him by Shamhat, and his befriending by Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh embraces this man with the trust and intimacy that one would a wife. Thus, he and Enkidu lose their strength and wildness, lamenting the loss of this state.
However, in its place are all the joys of civilization shine in their resplendence, and Gilgamesh is able to perform great deeds. As one considers several elements of the story that are a departure from the cultural and historic conventions of the Sumerian era, one recognizes a distinct turn in the narrative in the direction of exploring universal themes of the human condition: * The beneficence of Anu’s decision to create the wild man, Enkidu, in order to help Gilgamesh is contrary to the intrusive tendency of the gods.
For Enkidu and Gilgamesh civilization is a process, the transformation of the primitive. Without the primitive, civilization would cease to exist. This Epic helps one to see past the conventional classifications of “civilized” and “primitive” so that one might recall what each of us gains in developing from one state of being to another. The conflict in this area is represented in Gilgamesh’s refusal to acknowledge the wisdom in Enkidu’s outrage at the abusive aspect of the practice of having intercourse with new brides. There is no nobility of purpose in Gilgamesh’s suggestion of a great adventure. It is merely a response to having grown weak and lazy living in the city, i. e. being civilized. * Enkidu is supposed to guard the life of the king, but, instead, loses his courage and attempts to turn back. Later in the encounter with Humbaba, he inspires Gilgamesh to muster the courage to come out of his hiding place. He ultimately oversteps his bounds when he advizes Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba for the sake of fame. He pays dearly for this mistake. All Sumerian cities recognized a number of gods in common. The gods seemed hopelessly violent and unpredictable, and one’s life a period of slavery to their whims.
As a result, it is no surprise when the Chief Gods meet and decide that Enkidu should be punished for the killing of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. * Gilgamesh is torn apart by the death of his friend, and allows his life to fall apart. This is hardly the behavior of an epic hero; it is more akin to the life of a modern anti-hero. He is in a panic over the thought of his own death, not in grief over the loss of his friend. Gilgamesh is given two chances to achieve immortality, but he cannot stay awake, and suffers the misfortune of having a snake eat his magic plant. The irony in the conclusion of the story of Gilgamesh’s epic adventure is symbolic of the destiny of the Sumerian culture. Gilgamesh, resigned to his fate as a mortal man, invites Urshanabi to look around and view the greatness of the city, its high walls, and its mason work. The architecture of this city-state is Gilgamesh’s legacy, and is the closest he will come to immortality.
The cultural sophistication that characterized Sumerian culture inspired the cuneiform script that made it possible for the story of Gilgamesh’s epic journey to be captured on a stone of lapis lazuli at the base of the foundation the city walls of Uruk. By the same token, this epic tale conveys universal themes relevant to any age. All men struggle to behave in a civilized manner, and to control primitive impulses. All men struggle with weakness, laziness and complacency while enjoying the conveniences and comforts of civilization.
All men are a mixture of courage and cowardice. All men experience struggles where it appears that they are sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by the gods to whom they pray. All men sometimes spurn the gods, and suffer the consequences, as Gilgamesh did with Ishtar. They also doubt themselves sometimes, as Gilgamesh did with the magic plant. Gilgamesh is as much a modern anti-hero who has fallen from grace as he is an, epic, ancient hero as he struggles in making decisions in conflict with his friend, Enkidu, and in fearing for his own mortality upon witnessing the eath of his companion. As Gilgamesh cries out in lament that he has gained absolutely nothing for himself, one encounters the classic theme of sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the greater good, the advancement of the culture. Paradoxically, his name lives on forever, as a result of his having resigned himself to the ultimate human inevitability, the acceptance of his own death. This is surely an enduring and relevant theme for any era.