Overview and the Summary of the Epic
The story takes place in the ancient city of Uruk in the Sumer land. Uruk is reigned by the powerful yet tyrannical god-like king Gilgamesh. He abuses his power, but the people of the land do not oppose his will. He is indeed believed to be one of the real rulers as he appears in the list of Sumerian kings. There is an opposing character Enkidu who is half-man and half-animal living in a forest. Enkidu is tamed with the help of the prostitute and brought to the city to meet Gilgamesh. Although they have a clash at first, they soon become friends. “It is the story of their becoming human together”. This friendship changes the life and values of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh decides to set off on a journey to defy the monstrous Humbaba. It is the mighty guardian of the Cedar forest, and Enkidu warns Gilgamesh of its hidden dangers. Despite these warnings, Gilgamesh orders to prepare the swords and goes to the forest to defeat Humbaba. The Gods feel the grief after the Humbaba’s death and send Ishtar, the goddess of love, to talk to Gilgamesh. Ishtar proposes Gilgamesh to marry her to relent the gods, but he refuses, which makes her enraged. Ishtar’s father sends the Bull of Heaven tofight Gilgamesh, but Enkidu kills the Bull. In revenge, thegods break the friendship by taking Enkidu’s life.
Gilgamesh deeply mourns the death of his friend. From that point on, Gilgamesh fears to die and desires to become immortal or bring Enkidu back to life. He embarks on a journey to find Uta-napishti, the only man who became immortal.Driven by madness, Gilgamesh destroys the sacred stones of the boatman Ur-shanabi whois, therefore, unable to bring him to Uta-napishti. Gilgamesh fails and loses all the opportunities to gain immortality. He returns to Uruk to find out that people forgot about his noble friend Enkidu.
Discussion of the Source Material
This Epic is often considered a riddle because there are still gaps and missed fragments. Cuneiform tablets invented in about 3000 BC Mesopotamia constitute the manuscript. The oldest surviving tablets were found in an Assyrian city of Nineveh. Compositions of the story exist in different languages and can be traced back to several periods in human history. Since Sumerian and Akkadian languages were prevalent in Mesopotamia, all the sources of the Epic were written in these languages. The main versions are the standard Babylonianversion in the Akkadian language, and an older fragmentary version, which consists of texts from the Old and Middle Babylonian periods. Besides, there are five narrative poems in the Sumerian language. These five poems are not the same as the classical Epic of Gilgamesh because they include tales that are not united by any theme. They were first written during the rule of the Third Dynasty ofUr, and the kings had a special connection with the hero whom they called Bilgames.
Babylonian texts of the early and late Second Millennium BC, including Pennsylvania, Yale, and Nippur tablets have various interpretations of the Epic. For instance, in the Pennsylvania tablet, there is a strong confrontation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the end of the Epic, Enkidu has to admit the authority of Gilgamesh. The Nippur tablet was found in 1951 and dated back to the middle of the eighteenth century BC. It contains fragments of Gilgamesh’s dreams and the journey to the Cedar Forest. The amount and variety of tablets prove that the story was well-known among the people who lived in Mesopotamia.
The Relationship between Man and the Gods
The Gods and their relationship with people is one of the leading topics in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gods in Uruk do not livea hierarchical society in comparison to the gods of Greek and Rome. They are portrayed more like a family where everyone is independent and free to act.At the same time, the gods feel powerful in establishing the division between their divine world and the human world. For example, “Humbaba never sleeps. He is the guardian whom Enlil has commanded to protect the sacred trees by terror”. Humbaba pleads, “I’ll serve you as I served the gods” and eventually dies in a fair fight with Gilgamesh. Even though Gilgamesh is not afraid to break the boundary set by the gods, ordinary people are not allowed to cross it.
The gods seem to be responsive to the wishes and requests of people. They reply to the prayers of the people and create Enkidu to counter the actions of Gilgamesh.Aruru creates Enkiduout of a piece of clay and lets him live in the wilderness. After the transformation, Enkidu saves people from Gilgamesh’s bad behavior. The creation of Enkidu is another example of communication between people and their gods.Despite the ubiquitous power, some of the gods lead a simple life. Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, follows ordinary rituals; for example, “Into the bath-house she went seven times, [she bathed] herself in water of tamarisk and soapwort”. More than that, Ninsun does not possess anextraordinary power to help her son win the battle with Humbaba.
Gilgamesh and his Relationship with the Gods
First of all, it should be noted that Gilgamesh is the two-thirds god; that is why he feels equal to them. Hence, he communicates with gods openly and on equal terms. Gilgamesh, however, faces the other side of the relationship with gods. The goddess of love, Ishtar, wants Gilgamesh to marry her, but he shows resistance. One of her many lovers, Ishullanu, is turned into a mole, and Gilgamesh does not want to have the same fate. Although he is supposed to fulfill the god’s requirements and serve them as a king, he fearlessly expresses his contempt. Gilgamesh has to pay for the disobedience with Enkidu’s death. The loss of the friend makes him think not only about immortality but his place in the world.
Since in ancient cultures dreams were thought to be messages or signs from the gods, it is worth looking at the dreams of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s dream about the star falling from the sky in Uruk is a clear sign of Enkidu’s appearance. The star “which fell as if a sign of Heaven” is actually Enkidu sent down from above to save people of Uruk from Gilgamesh.
His perception of the gods changes after the loss of his friend. During the search of Uta-napishti, he approaches mountains at night and prays to the moon god. Even though he is sending the prayers, he does not expect any help from above. His dreams of finding immortality are shattered when he arrives at the Mountains of Mashu. Scorpion people, who guard the entrance to Heaven, explain Gilgamesh that nothing exists beyond these mountains, and “there is only death”. Eventually, this journey to obtain immortality proves to be futile, and Gilgamesh accepts his fate as human-being.
George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation.London: Penguin Books, 2000.
Mason,Herbert. Gilgamesh:A Verse Narrative.Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.