The Epic of Gilgamesh Theme of Fear
The Epic of Gilgamesh is chock full of things to be afraid of. Exhibit A: Humbaba, Scorpion dudes, scary dreams, the edge of the world. Okay, you got us—that's a lot more than one exhibit. But, seriously, this whole epic deals us one freaky thing after another. And, poor Gilgamesh has a lot to be afraid of once the adrenaline from all his adventures wears off. In fact, the entire second part of the poem features Gilgamesh dealing with the second most feared thing in the world—death (the only thing the average person finds more terrifying is speaking in public).
Questions About Fear
- Even though Enkidu knows that the god Enlil has deliberately appointed Humbaba to be the terrifying guardian of the Cedar Forest, he still encourages Gilgamesh to strike a final death blow. Isn't he afraid of Enlil? Does he do this out of fear at what Humbaba might do to them if they don't kill him? Or, is he afraid that Humbaba may replace Enkidu as Gilgamesh's BFF—which is what Humbaba seems to be offering to Gilgamesh?
- The last four books of the epic (8-11) center on Gilgamesh's need to overcome his fear of death. But does the epic always portray fear as a bad thing? Or can it have some benefits, too?
- The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays both gods and humans as experiencing fear. For the humans in the poem, the ultimate source of fear is the fear of death. Since the gods can't die, what are the gods afraid of?
- In the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is unafraid of death (Tablet 2) but can sometimes get afraid before doing deeds of physical bravery—as when he starts crying right outside the Cedar Forest at the end of Tablet 4. Later on, however, he becomes terrified of death (Tablets 8-11), but, at the same time, becomes incredibly courageous in facing danger on his quest. How do we, as readers, make sense of this shift?
Chew on This
The gods in The Epic of Gilgameshtry to frighten humans to prevent them from destroying what is sacred.
The epic portrays fear as beneficial when it protects us from harm. For example, if Enkidu had been more afraid of the wrath of the gods, he might not have taken the reckless course of action that led to the gods punishing him.