The Epic of Gilgamesh
Man and the Natural World Theme
Man vs. Wild was serious business in ancient Mesopotamia—and there was no camera crew standing by just in case things got a little too real. We see the division between humankind and nature pretty early, with the separate-but-equal case of Gilgamesh vs. Enkidu. In all the ways that Gilgamesh is kingly and "civilized," Enkidu reflects the natural world that he first comes from. But what about Humbaba, who guards the Cedar Forest from humans? Or the Scorpion-beings that protect the gate leading to Mashu—the two mountains that lead to (and protect) the rising sun? Or Siduri, the winemaker to the gods, who locks her doors—protecting herself and her vineyards—from one crazy-looking Gilgamesh? All in all, it sure seems like nature feels it wise to steer clear of humanity.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- In Tablet 1, what are the main differences between Enkidu's way of life in the wilderness and the way of life of an ordinary human being? What do the poem's choices about which details to highlight say about its view of human life in general?
- Which world does the poem portray as better: the natural world or the human world? What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the human world over the natural world?
- Are the gods in the poem part of the natural world, or do they control it? If the gods control the natural world, is it possible for humans to fight against nature without fighting against the gods?
- When Gilgamesh arrives on the underside of the world, where Utanapishtim and his wife live, he finds that the trees bear precious stones instead of fruit. This kind of makes sense in a realm where nothing dies. But what about the flipside of that? Does this mean that nature only exists where things can die?
Chew on This
The poem portrays the human world as better than the natural world because it brings comfort, while the natural world is full of suffering.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a celebration of the Sumerian people's achievements over nature, and an admission of what they cannot overcome in nature.