When we first meet Gilgamesh, he is a tyrant king who terrifies the people of Uruk. Only after meeting Enkidu and becoming his friend does Gilgamesh transform into a hero worthy of memory. This transformative effect is also exacted on Enkidu, who Gilgamesh helps move beyond his fears. The platonic love the two have for each other helps Gilgamesh become a better leader to his people by allowing him to better understand and identify with them. When considered in tandem with the theme of death in the poem, love and friendship can be viewed not only as a part of life, but as a necessary component to give existence meaning.
The major theme of the poem is that of mortality. Gilgamesh must learn the difficult lesson that, even as a king, he too must face the reality of his own death. On their way to the Cedar Forst to face Humbaba, Enkidu expresses his concerns about death, which Gilgamesh laughs off, telling Enkidu that no one lives forever and that life is short. However, when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is so distraught that he seeks out Utnapishtim to learn the secret of immortality. Despite his hopes, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood. He explains to Gilgamesh that the quest for immortality is a futile one, as creation itself also contains the seed of death, making it inescapable. The Gods, he explains, intentionally did this. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk having learned that the quality of one’s life is measured not by wealth or fame, but by the quality of the time he spent while alive and the people with which he surrounded himself.
The Hero's Journey or Quest
A common theme in mythology and ancient stories, Gilgamesh’s story is no exception. The hero must embark on a journey or quest in order to discover who he is. Initially, Enkidu travels from the wilderness with Shamhat to civilization to meet Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh begins his quest with Enkidu by traveling to the Cedar Forest to defeat Humbaba. After Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh’s personal journey begins. He seeks out Utnapishtim to learn the secret of immortality. His journey concludes with his return to Uruk. In this case, Gilgamesh’s journey is a direct reflection of his internal struggle and “journey” to become a better, selfless leader.
The Wrath of the Gods
Gilgamesh expresses his jealousy towards the gods and the immortality they enjoy. He and Enkidu learn firsthand that incurring the wrath of the gods can have disastrous consequences. Rather than wise, omniscient beings, the gods in Gilgamesh are vengeful and easily angered. Gilgamesh and Enkidu first encounter this wrath after Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s advances. Ishtar immediately turns to her father, Anu, to send the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh. At first, Anu rejects Ishtar’s request but she threatens to raise the dead to devour the living. Anu is frightened by Ishtar’s threat and releases the Bull of Heaven to appease her. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven, they further insult Ishtar by throwing the Bull’s hindquarters at her face. Enkidu later dreams that the gods have decided that he must die for these transgressions. After twelve days of suffering, he dies a painful death.
Utnapishtim also tells Gilgamesh the story of a great flood exacted on the people of Shurrupak. Ea informs Utnapishtim of the coming flood and instructs him to build a great boat and to stock that boat with all the creatures of the land. It is important to note that when Utnapishtim asks Ea about why the flood is coming and about what he should tell the people of Shurrupak, Ea has no specific answer for him, stating only that Enlil is angry. This suggests that the wrath of the gods can also be incurred without any obvious insult or explanation.
Gateways and doors by their very nature symbolize separation, but also transition. Although a physical doorway is not present in the beginning, Enkidu must transition from the wilderness to civilization. In this sense, Shamhat herself represents a gateway. Enkidu then enters Uruk with Shamhat, passing through the city’s great walls. Enkidu and Gilgamesh later discuss Enkidu’s fear at the gate to the Cedar Forest. They cut down the tallest tree in the forest to make into a gate for Uruk. On his journey to find Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh must pass through the gate of Mashu, guarded by the Scorpion men. At each point when a gateway is encountered, a decision must be made by Gilgamesh or Enkidu as to whether they will continue or turn back. Utilized in this manner, gateways also serve as an effective literary device to force characters to make decisions that affect the overall narrative.
Baptism or Ritual Cleansing
Water is continually used by characters in Gilgamesh at key points in the story to wash themselves but also marks an important point of transition. In this way, water is used in a baptismal manner. Enkidu washes himself after meeting Shamhat, marking his transition from the wilderness to civilization. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash themselves after slaying the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh bathes himself after acquiring the magic plant to achieve immortality. In each case, a ritual cleansing marks an important moment in the story. Enkidu is transformed, leaving behind the world of animals and nature and entering the world of humans. Gilgamesh loses the magic plant but transitions to accepting his mortality.
Gilgamesh is introduced to us as a tyrant king who does as he pleases and has little regard for his subjects. Aruru creates Enkidu to strike a balance against Gilgamesh’s tyrannical ways. His purpose in the story is to help Gilgamesh become the king he needs to be and to teach him about what is most valuable in life. Through this ordeal, Gilgamesh loses his best friend and must face reality. The recklessness with which he previously had lived his life is evidently unsustainable. Gilgamesh learns that just as he will not live forever, he will age, and with that age must come maturity and wisdom if he is to live a life worth living.
The Epic of Gilgamesh Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Mourning obviously plays a key role in the story with respect to Ekidu's death, but more generally mourning is an ancient human custom with a variety of functions. Anthropologists often point to mourning as a process meant to commemorate the lost...
Utnapishtim explains to Gilgamesh that the quest for immortality is a futile one, as creation itself also contains the seed of death, making it inescapable. The Gods, he explains, intentionally did this. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk having learned...