The Epic of Gilgamesh
The hero of our tale: a cocky, selfish young king who befriends a half man/half beast, goes on fantastic adventures with him. When his new, beloved friend dies, Gilgamesh realizes there's no room in life to be a cocky, selfish king. So, he pulls it together and becomes a wise and admired ruler.
Okay, so at the start of the epic (1.1-50), we hear about how amazing this Gilgamesh fellow is, only to be followed by a detailed description of what a jerk he is. For this reason that first section is sometimes designated as a prologue by translators because we are supposed to understand it as the final analysis on Gilgamesh's life: he turned out to be a great king.
The getting there, though, was a bit rocky. And, pretty much the entire Epic of Gilgamesh is a tale of how one egomaniacal, rash, and rather thoughtless youthful king "went through every hardship" only to emerge a wise and excellent king worthy of his own epic (1.27).
The Man Who Would Be (an Egomaniacal) King
Maybe we shouldn't give Gilgamesh such a hard time for being an insufferable bully; he seems to have come by it honestly. Imagine: your mom is a goddess and your dad was the king before you. You are also the handsomest, strongest, and most powerful man in the world (and, don't forget you're also 2/3rds god).
Yep, we're guessing that Ninsun and Lugalbanda (Gilgamesh's parents) doted on little Gilgamesh and pretty much let him slay whatever he wanted.
So what does our little egomaniac do?
- He forcibly takes, for his sexual satisfaction, the "the daughter of the warrior" and "the bride of the young man" (1.75). In other words, it isn't that he is simply picking on the "servant" class or something—he treats the warriors, the nobles, and the servants as equally beneath him.
- He also compels all the young men to engage in some useless activity just for his pleasure. We aren't sure quite what it is because the tablet is broken in this part, but we know it is not anything that would contribute to the safety, security, or eminence of Uruk, since the people claim that Gilgamesh is "arrogantly" forcing the activity upon them "day and night."
The people of Uruk think Gilgamesh needs an adversary to give him a serious thumping, and put him in his place. Here's where Enkidu comes in.
During this period, we get a brief, secondhand glimpse of Gilgamesh from Gilgamesh's two strange dreams, recounted to Enkidu by Shamhat. (How does she know about them? Does this mean he is sleeping with her? Remember, Gilgamesh specifically recommends Shamhat to the trapper; is this because he knows what a great canoodler she is?)
Anyway, in these dreams, Gilgamesh passionately embraces, first, a giant meteorite, and, then, a giant axe. In each case, Gilgamesh's mother, Ninsun, interprets the dream as foretelling that Gilgamesh will get a friend, whom he will "embrace as a wife." You might say that Ninsun has looked at her son's behavior and offered her own interpretation of what is missing in his life: a friend. Mother always knows best?
Well, when Enkidu does show up, despite an initial fight, he and Gilgamesh soon become completely inseparable, exchanging heart necklaces and running up their immortal parents' phone bill. Nothing like someone who is just about your equal to help you check yourself.
And yet, in what seems like no time, Gilgamesh suggests that he and Enkidu go to the distant Cedar Forest and do battle with the monster Humbaba. Does this mean that Gilgamesh still feels like he's missing something, even with his new friend? Or does he simply think a quest will provide him with lots of quality time with his new best bud? The poem doesn't tell us.
His mother blames all this seeking glory on Gilgamesh having "a restless heart" inflicted upon him by the gods (3.46). Of course, Gilgamesh has his own interpretation of why they must brave danger to go on their quest. It's all about death. The way he sees it, we all die anyway, so you might as well live fast, die young, and be crazy famous: "Should I fall, I will have established my fame" (2.236).
Of course, this is all a lot of hubris —y'know, chutzpah, audacity, nerve, pretentiousness—on his part. He says that we'll all die, but he doesn't realize what that actually means until after Enkidu does die. Remember: Gilgamesh was in utter denial about Enkidu's death, even keeping Enkidu's body around "until a maggot fell out of his nose" (10.136).
We think Gilgamesh here is like the leather-jacket-wearing "bad boy" who races his motorcycle in the rain after he's been drinking whiskey all night: he may say he isn't afraid, but anyone with any sense would be afraid for him.
How do we know he's immature? He recklessly abuses his power over his people; he rashly leads his friend Enkidu into the Cedar Forest to do battle with Humbaba despite the fact that Enkidu and all the elders of Uruk think this is a very bad idea; he smugly tells the goddess Ishtar that he isn't interested in a love connection. In short, there seems to be no consideration for the possible consequences of any of his actions—and we're back to that "bad boy" on the motorcycle.
Welcome to Grown-Up Life
Some young daredevils end up in an early grave. Some manage to somehow cheat death and in their adulthood wonder "what the heck was I thinking? I could've killed myself!" And, then, there are some who find themselves face-to-face with something utterly terrifying—it is a condition known as "scared straight." (Even if it might not actually work.) And, that is the camp that our boy Gilgamesh is in.
He does whatever he wants, throwing all caution to the wind until the piper comes looking for his payment in the form of Enkidu's life. When Gilgamesh realizes that Enkidu is really dead, he tells Urshanabi: "I was terrified by his appearance, I began to fear death" (10.137-138). (By the way, that last quote is a comma splice. That kind of thing totally annoys us at Shmoop, but we're going to assume the translator had a good reason.) Anyway, that is the moment that starts to set Gilgamesh on a good path.
We said starts.
At the beginning of his journey, he continues to act like his jerky pre-Enkidu self. When he shows up at Siduri's tavern looking like a hot mess, she bolts the door, fearing for her life. His reaction is to beat on the door and say, "If you don't let me in I'll break your door, and smash the lock" (10.22).
Eesh, Gilgamesh, a simple "Excuse me, do you happen to know where I might find Utanapishtim?" would have done just fine.
Or, when Siduri tells him to find Urshanabi, the Ferryman, and ride his taxi over to see Utanapishtim, Gilgamesh is so annoyed that Urshanabi is not standing there ready to set sail, that Gilgamesh destroys the "stone things," only to find out later that Urshanabi needed those "stone things" to make the passage to Utanapishtim's house.
But when they finally arrive back in Uruk, Gilgamesh seems to have gotten control of himself. He tells Urshanabi, "Go up, Urshanabi, onto the wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly…" (11.314-315). And, shortly thereafter the story is over. Wait. What? Well, it seems that Gilgamesh, on that journey home, finally gets it. As the king of Uruk, he already has what will secure his own fame and glory: a grand city that it is up to him to lead, to rule, to improve, to protect.
Et voilà: the child becomes a man.
A King Worthy of Legend
But how do we know that this stuck?
Let's look back at the beginning. We know that once he returned with Urshanabi to Uruk, Gilgamesh set about "restoring the sanctuaries (or: cities) that the Flood had destroyed" (1.42). He began large-scale architectural and engineering projects that benefited the city of Uruk—"mountain passes" and wells (1.37-38). And he became a "hero," a leader, a trusted companion, a protector of his people—in short, no one could "compare with him in kingliness" (1.29-43).
So in Gilgamesh, we not only see a boy becoming a man, we see a redefinition of kingship itself. What? Yeah. We see the definition of "good king" change from "awfully good at killing monsters" to "really good at ruling a city."
And when you think about the Sumerians being some of the first people to settle down in cities, you get a sense of why this epic—and Gilgamesh—are so important. See, killing things is a really good skill if you're the head of a band of wandering nomads. In fact, it's crucial. But if you're living in a city, with all the things that a city needs—sanitation, division of labor, taxes, buildings—well, you need a different skill set. And Gilgamesh is just the man for the job.Gilgamesh's Timeline