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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh

by Sinleqqiunninni

Civilization and Nature

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

There is no denying that civilization is a pretty big deal in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Mesopotamians who composed the story of Gilgamesh are equally impressed with their own civilized accomplishments, and they would appreciate it if you, reader, would notice them, thank you very much. These folks want you to recognize!

They have a city with thick walls "which gleam like copper" (1.12), sacred temples, impressive kiln-fired brickwork, palm gardens (as opposed to wild-growing palms), and—wait for it—they have lapis lazuli tablets. And you know what that means: they have writing. Wow! But, why is it such a big deal that this city is so civilized? You can see our section on "Setting" for a thorough run-down, but for now, just trust us that these Mesopotamian cats are pretty ahead of their time.

At the head of this civilization parade is our king Gilgamesh, who demonstrates the best and worst in humanity. And, he stands in stark contrast to Enkidu. (Although they are a balanced duo—so see our section on the "Motif of Balance" for more). Enkidu is the defender of animals and, in a sense, nature. Gilgamesh wants to go kill Humbaba for purposes of human glory—even if it is at the expense of nature's Cedar Forest finery.

So after some discussion with the Elders of Uruk, the two leave the civilized city and venture off into the natural world, which is where Gilgamesh starts having scary dreams and getting all not-so-sure-of-himself. Is that because he is out of his element? We think so.

Nature Boy

And the natural, untamed Enkidu is innocent in the wilderness. He seems to be honestly distraught when he discovers that he can't go back to his animal friends after his tryst with Shamhat. He "[sits] down at the harlot's feet, gazing into her face, his ears attentive as the harlot [speaks]" (1.185-186). It is at this point that Shamhat gently mocks Enkidu's fraternizing with the animals, and encourages him to allow her to take him to the city and the temple (two very civilized places).

We think this shows the Mesopotamian attitude toward the nature vs civilization question pretty clearly. In other words, it sure seems like Shamhat is making the point that the civilized world is superior in every way to the dirty, barbaric, chaotic, natural world. But, isn't it interesting that once Enkidu is indoctrinated into the ways of human civilization, he is an active participant in the killing of Humbaba (the protector of the forest) and the Bull of Heaven?

Bright Lights, Big City

Finally, it's pretty significant in Shmoop's eyes that this epic ends with Gilgamesh singing the praises of the City of Uruk. Gilgamesh tells the ferryman to "Examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly— is not (even the core of) the brick structure of kiln-fired brick. […] One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple, three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses" (11.315-319).

Basically, this is like flying in from a rural town in Alaska and seeing the Manhattan skyline for the first time: pretty amazing.

The emphasis here is on the wonder and the accomplishment of this great city, which stands in stark contrast to that savage and unorganized wilderness beyond the gates. And check out our thoughts in Gilgamesh's "Character Analysis" for more about why this guy just might be civilization's perfect king.

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