The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh Questions
Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
- Near the beginning of Tablet 1, we learn that Gilgamesh is 2/3rds god and 1/3rd human. Because everyone has two biological parents, these fractions must be off—if the poet is talking about Gilgamesh's ancestry, that is. But maybe the poet isn't talking about ancestry at all. If he's talking about something else, what could it be? And why do you think he divides Gilgamesh's human and divine aspects into these specific proportions?
- Check out Enkidu's description of his crazy dream about the underworld in Tablet 7, lines 154-249. The underworld sounds like a pretty nasty place, doesn't it? If you were living in the ancient Sumerian society of Gilgamesh, how might this view of the underworld shape your behavior? Does this view of the underworld explain some of the attitudes toward life and death expressed by various characters in the epic?
- The Epic of Gilgamesh is preserved on clay tablets that are thousands of years old. Although some of these tablets are well preserved, others are broken in many places, resulting in gaps in the text. Depending on which translation you're reading, the translator may try to smooth over these gaps by pretending they don't exist, or he or she may call attention to them by sticking in question marks, brackets, and dots, or by putting stuff in italics. If you were translating the poem, which approach would you use? Why?
- When Gilgamesh returns home at the end of the epic, he's still a young man. Carefully read the last 10 lines or so. This ending has puzzled many scholars, because it all happens so abruptly. Has Gilgamesh gained wisdom? Does he understand the legacy of the city he has built? What do you think he will do for the rest of his reign as king over the city-state of Uruk?
- When The Epic of Gilgamesh was first translated in the 19th century, many people viewed the Flood story in Tablet 11 as independent confirmation that the Biblical story of Noah (Genesis 6-9) was true. Today, many scholars think that the Flood story in Gilgamesh simply represents an earlier version of the same tradition of Mesopotamian legends that eventually found its way into the Hebrew Bible. Questions of influence aside, what are the main similarities and differences between these two stories? If you like, you can also compare both these stories with the Flood story in Book 1 of the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, also conveniently featured on Shmoop.
- The tale of Gilgamesh toggles between core plot events and long, repetitive stories. And what about all those dream sequences and repetitions? What's the effect of this method of storytelling? What might have motivated the culture and the writers to record it in this way? Do you think the story was told in the same way "around the campfire"?