15.THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH

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Ancient Mesopotamian heroic legend

  • earlier than Greek legends; goes back to 2500 BCE Sumer
  • influenced Greek legend
    • beginning of Epic of Gilgamesh parallels beginning of Odyssey
    • like heroes of Iliad, Gilgamesh says his name will live on even if he dies; and he writes his story down on stone to preserve it
    • Greek and Mesopotamian underworlds of the dead are similar
  • Gilgamesh a real person; Sumerian king of Uruk, c. 2600 BCE.
    • but mythical, not real, elements attached to his life
      • king lists say he lived for 126 years— this can't be true, it's part of the legend
      • said to be 2/3 divine, 1/3 mortal

Epic of Gilgamesh—model of hero story

  • Gilgamesh abuses his power; gods create a rival to tone him down
    • rival Enkidu: he is a primitive wild man; by sleeping with a woman he becomes wiser and less wild, becomes more civilized
  • Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight; find each other worthy opponents; become friends
  • Gilgamesh and Humbaba
    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to the Land of the Living (the gods), guarded by Humbaba whom they kill
  • Gilgamesh and Ishtar (goddess of love)
    • G. insults Ishtar when she asks to sleep with him; she sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy him, but he and Enkidu kill it; Enkidu has to die, in retaliation
  • Gilgamesh and the search for immortality
    • G. seeks out Utnapishtim (equivalent of Noah), who survived the great flood and now has eternal life
    • on the journey, kills lions, goes through darkness on the sun's path, reaches the garden of the gods (like the Garden of Eden) by the edge of the sea; rejecting mortality he crosses the sea and meets Utnapishtim
    • Utnapishtim tells story of the great flood; Gilgamesh fails a test to conquer Sleep (as practice for conquering Sleep's brother, Death); he retrieves a youth-restoring herb from under the sea, but on his way home a snake eats it
      • etiological: explains why snakes can renew their youth (by shedding skin)
    • Gilgamesh weeps at realization that he cannot achieve immortality

Themes in the Epic of Gilgamesh

  • Nature vs. Culture
    • Enkidu is wild; intercourse with woman leads to his leaving the wild, cutting his hair, becoming wise and civilized
    • Gilgamesh goes into wild, wears animal skins in grief when Enkidu dies, and goes off to achieve immortality—turns his back on mortality and civilization both, but unsuccessfully
  • Immortality vs. mortality
    • Gilgamesh finally realizes that mortality is part of the deal even, perhaps especially, for heroes; the fact that mortals must die affects their actions in life, and is part of what can make them heroic
  • Ambiguous nature of love
    • Ishtar, love goddess, also represents death; poem catalogues the terrible fates of her many lovers
    • Near Eastern mythology is full of stories about the love goddess sleeping with a young man, his consequent death, then rebirth—love and death interconnected
    • related to this is the theme of hostility to women; Enkidu blames the whore he slept with for bringing him out of the wild into culture, and causing all his troubles

Folktale elements in the Epic of Gilgamesh

  • See Powell's list of folktale patterns in the Epic of Gilgamesh. All these elements also appear in Greek myth; we will see some in the Odyssey, most in the story of Heracles


Last updated: 9/23/07

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