The Key Themes in ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’

An Epic is a work of art about a hero who, as a mighty warrior, proves his worth in combat. The ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ can be classified as an Epic genre because it portrays the protagonist’s great leadership. Gilgamesh is initially portrayed as an arrogant tyrant who abuses and rapes women and separates children from their families because he is the son of one of the wise gods, Ninsun. When Gilgamesh encounters Enkidu, they clash because Gilgamesh wants to sleep with all the brides. Following the war, the two become allies who fight together to protect the people. Gilgamesh gets heart-broken when Ekidu dies due to the gods’ wrath. He comes to learn that worldly things are only for short term and every man must just die. The epic explores various issues, especially the existential nature of characters. It considers the human drive to gain power, the value and process of friendship development, the loss of loved ones, and the inevitability of death. Through the various strands that the story draws, an identity of the leader, Gilgamesh, is established: a man, a king, a hero, and a god. With the available analogies of different situations among characters, the story possesses he characteristics of an Epic. This can be observed from the various themes outlined in the story including immortality and transience, friendship and love, pride, morality and wisdom, and courage.

It possesses features of immortality and transience

In Epics, the story always revolves around the deeds of superhuman strength and valor who tries to accomplish what ordinary human beings cannot (Folsom 1571). As such, immortality is a very important theme in the Epic of Gilgamesh. While the protagonist, Gilgamesh, is partly man and partly god, he is not immortal. His god-like abilities are so evident throughout the story (George 21). When he realizes that his friend Enkidu is dead, he becomes scared, and decides to seek for the powers of immortal life. Gilgamesh feels that he is immortal, and that he must prove its existence. He goes for a journey to a land that only the immortal can access. He starts from the Mashu Mount, and meets two half dragon and half females who guide the entrance of the destined mountain. The first thing the beings notice is that he must be a mortal being for him to reach the place. “No man born of woman has done what you have asked, no mortal man has gone into the mountain; the length of it is twelve leagues of darkness; in it there is no light, but the heart is oppressed with darkness. From the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun there is no light” (Gilgamesh 16). Gilgamesh proves to possess superhuman powers by reaching the mountain. Although the mountain is off limits to the mortal beings, only Gilgamesh gets the chance to access it; this shows his ability to have supernatural powers. With such extraordinary powers from the hero, the story qualifies to be an Epic.

There are immortal beings in the story who interact with the hero. Gilgamesh attempts to prove the existence of immortality by looking for Utnapishtim who is an immortal god (Folsom 1572). Gilgamesh feels that just like the god, he has the right to be immortal since they are similar in physique and capability. After going through the twelve leagues of darkness, Gilgamesh meets the god and asks about the secret to achieve an everlasting life (George 24). As Gilgamesh interrogates him, it becomes evident that he (Utnapishtim) is a supernatural being. Gilgamesh asks, “Oh, father Utnapishtim, you who have entered the assembly of the gods, I wish to question you concerning the living and the dead, how shall I find the life for which I am searching?” (Gilgamesh 18). Gilgamesh explains to the god that he needs an everlasting life so that he does not witness the death like that of Enkidu. As such, the story reveals that there are gods who exist forever without demise; this makes it an Epic.

In every Epic, transience is considered part of the human world. The term refers to the state in which life exists over a short time before it changes to another state (Folsom 1571). In the Epic of Gilgamesh, like in other epics, it is discovered that life is only a temporary state that transcends to a different form. The story illustrates that life does not last forever. In the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, the main character, Gilgamesh realizes that nothing can stay forever when his friend dies (George 34). Enkidu’s death shakes him and he decides to search for Utnapishtim in Mashu who escaped death when the land was once filled with flood to kill everyone on it. When he manages to reach the mountain, he realizes that his survival was not by fate, but through the help of Ea, the god of wisdom, who told him to escape the death. When he meets Siduri, a young woman, on his way, the woman tells him, “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping…” (Gilgamesh 22). Similar to Utnapishtim’s comment, Ea advises Gilgamesh to understand that there is transience of life from one state to another when one dies. This proves that humans in every epic story experience both life and death, just like the ordinary beings.

It consists of cognitive and psychological models of development

All Epic stories culminate around the journey of the hero towards self-discovery and psychological or emotional maturation (Folsom 1573). In the Epic of Gilgamesh, similar trend is observed through the theme of friendship, love, and sexuality. Friendship development is a common phenomenon in the story as it reveals an important aspect of life. The hero’s ability to make friendship with Enkidu is seen to be an avid part of the story (Foster n.p). While Enkidu is the king of the jungle, Gilgamesh is considered the leader of people in the land. The power of their friendship is evident through their attitudes towards each other, and is first realized when the two meet. Enkidu had been praised by the people as they believed he would finally become the spit of Gilgamesh (George 33). And on the day they met, they attempted to fight each other, but Enidu bowed to Gilgamesh and stated, “There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you… for your strength surpasses the strength of men. So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced, their friendship was sealed” (Gilgamesh 7). The two had become friends and swore to care for each other henceforth. This is a sign of true friendship; amidst the fact that the two held different perceptions, they reconcile and promise to be friends forever. Such developments are witnessed in all Epic stories.

The story is also considered an epic due to the emotional development between the hero and his friend. The two become so close that they want to explore every adventure together, and reach a point where they are willing to sacrifice for one another. Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh enjoyed the company of one another; they had decided to go to the wilderness to fight the obstacles that faced them (George 35). While fighting Humbaba, the friendship can be observed when they get inseparable. In the process of the fight, Enkidu gets physically hurt, but still they stay together. A very memorable act of friendship is when the two decide to face the Bull of Heaven that had been sent to kill Enkidu. Although they both knew the strength of the “god,” Enkidu still volunteers to protect his friend by fighting back. He uses the knowledge about animals he had in the past to destroy the bull. The Epic states, “When Enkidu heard these words he tore out the Bull’s right thigh and tossed it in her face saying, ‘If I could lay my hands on you, it is this I should do to you, and lash the entrails to your side’” (Gilgamesh 13). By tearing apart the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu manages to kill Humbaba and finally becomes a hero. His willingness to save Gilgamesh is an evidence of true and loyal friendship between the two. The growth and advancement of their friendship is a common Epic feature, thus, the story possesses this genre.

Furthermore, Epic stories show that love is more valuable than power or material possession (Folsom 1574). In the story, love and sexuality is seen to change the perception of different heroic characters. Although Enkidu was born in the wilderness and has always stayed there, his transformation to be human had been intervened by Gilgamesh. In order for him to transit into the human world, his sexual feelings must be put in play; he is expected to sleep with a woman so that he fully live in the human world (George 41). After sleeping with the harlot, Enkidu is not appreciated by the animals, and is forced to go live with Gilgamesh. The author states, “Then, when the gazelle saw him, they bolted away; when the wild creatures saw him they fled. Enkidu would have followed, but his body was bound as though with a cord, his knees gave way when he started to run, his swiftness was gone” (Gilgamesh 5). In this case, the act of love for his friend, and sexual appeals act as symbol of entrance into the human world. As such, emotional developments of love and sex are seen to cause significant changes within epics.

If not fully progressed, sex and romantic love as emotional components of an Epic can result in a curse. Gilgamesh becomes an enemy of the woman she rejects to satisfy sexually. He attempts to turn down the god of love and fertility, Ishtar, who adores him very much. When giving out the reason for rejecting her, Gilgamesh explains that she has in the past treated her lovers badly. Ishtar insists on being with him, and proposes to be his lovely wife, but Gilgamesh denies this offer, claiming that he would wish it was a different case. He tells Ishtar, “but as for making you my wife – that I will not. How would it go with me? Your lovers have found you like a brazier which smoulders in the cold, a backdoor which keeps out neither squall of wind nor storm, a castle which crushes the garrison, pitch that blackens the bearer, a water-skin that chafes the carrier, a stone which falls from the parapet,” (Glgamesh 12). Gilgamesh feels that Ishtar might just use him and frustrate him later just like she did with the previous lovers in her life. Ishtar proves this notion by demanding that Gilgamesh be killed by the Bull of Heaven. Just like all other Epics, the story reveals that a deprived romantic love and affair is punishable.

Epics always result in the emotional maturation of the hero. Through the strong love and friendship existing between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, he is able to transform into a more rational and empathetic being (Folsom 1574). Before meeting Enkidu, Gilgamesh used to be the arrogant and dictating leader who was oblivious to his mortality and limitations. This trait had made the people to hate him since he slept with all the women in the villages, and punished men unjustifiably. His character is narrated as, “… for Gilgamesh takes them all, even the children; yet the king should be a shepherd to his people. His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble; yet this is the shepherd of the city, wise, comely, and resolute” (Gilgamesh 8). This description shows that Gilgamesh is very lustful, and takes advantage of his power and position to become a nuisance to them. Since he became friends with Enkidu, however, Gilgamesh changes his behaviors in the society, and instead, focuses his energy on finding the way to become immortal. Thus, the story proves to be an Epic as it tames behavior of the hero.

Consideration of moral codes

Every epic represents the moral ideals of a society including the taboos in the actions of protagonists and antagonists. The behavior of the hero represents the culture’s ideals which should be emulated by the members of the society. In the story, it is portrayed that life should be led with wisdom and morality. The courageous characters in the story are considered the wise while the fearful ones always perceived as immoral (Foster n.p). At the start of the Epic, Gilgamesh is considered an immoral individual who manipulates and dictates his people for the fear of being defeated. However, after having a confrontation with Enkidu, he develops self-awareness and becomes conscious of various life perspectives. Because of his change life, his main ambition is to appear in the list of the wise men and gods of the land. He tells Enkidu, “I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written, and where- no man’s name is written yet I will wise a monument to the gods” (Gilgamesh 7). He tells Enkidu that his name must appear among the list of gods who had been considered wise on the land. To further show his wisdom, Gilgamesh proposes to destroy evil that may bring bad omen to the people. Being wise is associated with an ideal conduct in Gilgamesh’s society, a common phenomenon in every Epic.

Enkidu introduces the concept of morality when he blames the woman he slept with for his suffering and ultimate death. He believed that if he had remained in the wilderness with the beasts, he could not have suffered at all. He remembers being initiated into the human world as a result of the harlot’s influence which forces him to challenge Gilgamesh. On his deathbed, he curses her for being immoral to expose him to such a horrifying and painful situation. He stated, “As for you, woman, with a great curse I curse you! I will promise you a destiny to all eternity. My curse shall come on you soon and sudden. You shall be without a roof for your commerce, for you shall not keep house with other girls in the tavern…” (Gilgamesh 13). Enkidu uttered such cursing words because he believed that the woman was immoral to sleep with him. This mindset change later when Shamash heard him and reminds him of the good things he had experienced in the human world.

Actions consist of courageous deeds and great valor

Epics are associated with courageous actions among the characters in the play. The hero is always portrayed to engage in actions that cannot be taken by just an ordinary individual. In the story, it is evident that Gilgamesh is a courageous leader. He believed he could fight Humbaba, the forest giant who has never been defeated by any man. When Enkidu talks him out of the idea of attacking the creature, Gilgamesh defended himself suggesting that he can beat any man, especially with the help of Enkidu. After going back to Uruk to consult the gods and the community leaders, they also believed it was not safe (Foster n.p). With the courage Gilgamesh has, he gathers the community and speaks to them, “I, Gilgamesh, go to see that creature of whom such things are spoken, the rumour of whose name fills the world. I will conquer him in his cedar wood and show the strength of the sons of Uruk, all the world shall know of it. I am committed to this enterprise: to climb the mountain, to cut down the cedar, and leave behind me an enduring name” (Gilgamesh 8). Because of his courage, Gilgamesh could have never conceded defeat even after Enkidu tells him of the dangerous forest. He manages to hunt the beast down; a fundamental act of every Epic hero.

Gilgamesh is seen to be a proud leader, and as such, he wants his courageous deeds to be remembered. In most of his actions, he acknowledges the need to be recognized by the other generations (Foster n.p). At first, he tells Enkidu that since he is wise, there is a need for him to be listed among the other courageous and wise gods who have been recognized by the people. Later in the book when he plans to attack Humbaba, he tells his friend that there is no need to fear. He was confident he would kill the beast, “Forward, there is nothing to fear!” Then if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures; men – will say of me, “Gilgamesh has fallen in fight with ferocious Humbaba.” (Gilgamesh 7). In the Epic, one can be considered a hero if he or she dies in war while fighting for the people. Gilgamesh believed this, and tells Enkidu that he is courageous of facing the beast. He, thus, portrays the character of an Epic hero.

Conclusion

In summary, the story of Gilgamesh is an Epic through its fundamental themes portrayed by the actions of the characters. The protagonist, Gilgamesh, is seen as an arrogant man in the beginning since he puts the people to suffer in his hands. However, with the arrival of the powerful Enkidu, Gilgamesh changes to become a wise and moral man. He cares for the people and aims at killing the beast that endangers the lives of humans. Through these actions, the key theme of love and friendship, and sexuality can be observed through the Epic hero. Their support and passion towards ensuring the wellbeing of each other shows what true love is. Emotional development is also revealed in the Epic; Enkidu and the woman have an affair which results in his transformation to the human world. Gilgamesh similarly has an interaction with Ishtar regarding sexual urges. Although he might be interested in her, he turns her down for treating his previous lovers wrongly. Through the courageous deeds of the hero, his emotional development, and the moral ideals he portrays, it is evident that the story in an Epic.

Works Cited

Sandars, Nancy, ed. The epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin, 1972.

George, Andrew, ed. The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Penguin, 2002.

Foster, Benjamin R. “The epic of Gilgamesh.” New York (2001).

Folsom, Ed. “Database as genre: The epic transformation of archives.” pmla 122.5 (2007): 1571-1579.

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