Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Analysis

  • Tone


    If you said that the tone of the Epic of Gilgamesh was "serious," you wouldn't be far off. Most of the epic has to do with fights, quests, death, sorrow, and that sort of thing. This dark subject matter can definitely give the book a serious tone. Think about when Gilgamesh tells Enkidu, for example, that "as for human beings, their days are numbered, and whatever they keep trying to achieve is but wind!" (2.230-231).

    Geez, Gilgamesh. Way to bring down the party.

    But there are also plenty lighthearted moments, as when Enkidu first gets initiated into human society by Shamhat, and he drinks a ton of beer and gets a little saucy. Thus, we'd say that the tone of the Epic of Gilgamesh really depends on what is being described at any given moment: no matter what's happening, the poet simply gives you the facts: no fuss, no muss. How you emotionally react to those facts is up to you, the reader.

  • Genre

    Folklore, Legend, and Mythology; Epic; Adventure; Coming-of-Age; Quest

    Based on Actual Events … Or Not

    It's clear that the story of Gilgamesh—the historical king of Uruk—was handed down from one generation to the next, sort of like a game of telephone, emphasizing different characteristics and storylines over time. (We are fairly certain that the original King Gilgamesh wasn't actually 2/3rds god and didn't really travel to the edge of the earth.)

    As we discuss in the "Writing Style" section of this module, The Epic of Gilgamesh went through many different incarnations before reaching its present version. In fact, it seems to have been a dominant story for over 1000 years throughout the region of Mesopotamia; therefore, we think the most basic classification for this story is in the "Folklore, Legend, and Mythology" category. (In fact, we think it might have invented this genre.)


    But we also think we can stick it under "Epic Poetry"—and, we have even better reasons for saying so than simply that it is called The EPIC of Gilgamesh (though, we agree that's a pretty good reason). Like, epic heroes:

    • are born to parents with some impressive credentials (Gilgamesh's mom, Ninsun, is a goddess; his father, Lugalbanda, was a previous king of Uruk—the most "civilized" place on earth, as far as the Sumerians are concerned)
    • have some large responsibility to his followers (citizens of Uruk)
    • are strong, powerful and handsome (ummm … Gilgamesh, anyone?)
    • go on journeys (does a trip to the Cedar Forest and then an adventure to the end of the world count?)
    • fight monsters or other not-so-great foes (Humbaba, The Bull of Heaven)
    • are pretty lucky with the ladies (remember when the goddess Ishtar wanted to be his paramour?)

    Convinced yet?

    All the Other Stuff

    Obviously, Gilgamesh has a pretty good claim to be an "Adventure," because of all the crazy derring-do that transpires. Plus, it's definitely a "Quest"—the whole second half of the story is devoted to Gilgamesh's quest for immortality and the above-mentioned derring-do that ensues.

    And finally? We think The Epic of Gilgamesh is also a "Coming-of-Age" story because of the way it shows (1) Enkidu leaving the wilderness and coming to know the ways of human beings, and (2) Gilgamesh developing from a pampered egomaniac into somebody who knows the value of true friendship, and who understands the importance of life and the necessity of death.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    In ancient Mesopotamia, authors didn't get too creative with the titles of their works. Remember, this is the oldest literary work we have—so the Sumerians may have just referred to it as "that one piece of literature we've got." Later, though, the usual way to name a book was by using its opening words.

    The opening words of Tablet 1 are (in the Kovacs' translation) "He Who Has Seen Everything." That sounds like a winner to us, but when the poem was rediscovered by the Englishman George Smith in the 1870s, people just started referring to the work by the name of its hero, Gilgamesh—maybe paralleling the way the poem Beowulf is referred to by the name of its hero, Beowulf. Today, you'll sometimes find copies of the work known simply as Gilgamesh (the popular Stephen Mitchell version follows this tradition).

    But other translators decided to get fancy, sticking a classification on the beginning of the name for good measure. As a result, the poem became known as The Epic of Gilgamesh—as it is in most translations, including the version by Maureen Gallery Kovacs that we're using on Shmoop.

    Sure, it's a long poem dealing with adventures and heroes and stuff, but we think the term "epic" is a wee bit misleading. That's because the word "epic" comes from the Greek tradition of Homer and Hesiod, and the Ancient Babylonians might not have thought about this work in the same way the Greeks did about the Iliad and the Odyssey.

    So, you can't blame us at Shmoop if we have a bit of a soft spot for plain old Gilgamesh. We would also be in full support of your campaign to bring back the classic "He Who Has Seen Everything." Call us. We'll do lunch.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The last words of The Epic of Gilgamesh repeat (with a slight variation) the opening words of the poem. Just like the opening of the poem, they are an invitation to look at the city of Uruk, to take in its splendors, see how excellently it is constructed. Yep, the story comes full-circle; just the way we like it!

    The situation at the end of the poem is that Gilgamesh has returned home from his voyage beyond the ends of the earth. Returning home is always a good ending to a story about a quest—but not if everything has just stayed the same, right? As it happens, something has changed. Gilgamesh went on his journey to find out the secret of immortality, and now's he found it: only two human beings have been granted immortality (Utanapishtim and his wife), and Gilgamesh isn't one of them.

    In other words, he'd better learn to live with the knowledge that he will die. From this perspective, Gilgamesh's words about the city could be a sign of growth and maturity. Before, he didn't appreciate such things; now, though, maybe he realizes that human accomplishments on earth are all we've got—so we'd better give credit where credit is due.

    The Same But Different

    There's one cool difference that we want to talk about. In the opening of the poem, the identity of the speaker is unknown and we, the readers, are the ones being addressed, whereas at the end of the poem Gilgamesh is clearly the speaker, and he is addressing Urshanabi the ferryman. So, here's one thought about that:

    Gilgamesh is really about the process of confronting and overcoming the fear of death—which grants a kind of immortality. Like a true hero, Gilgamesh has to go off and learn this secret for the good of humanity. When the poem opens, he's already learned it, and the speaker is able to clue us in right away. The moment at the end when he speaks to the ferryman is the moment that he truly gets it—and that realization is what we get at the beginning. In other words, the beginning of the poem universalizes the individual experience that Gilgamesh has.

    Confusing? Yeah. But also kind of cool—and super sophisticated. What are your thoughts?

  • Setting

    Mythical Ancient Mesopotamia and Lebanon; the Underworld

    This epic takes place in a region known as Mesopotamia—which is a Greek term meaning "between two rivers." Shockingly, Mesopotamia rests between two rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is super important because Mesopotamia is the location of one of the earliest urban civilizations, so we know from the start that we are dealing with some pretty sophisticated and enterprising folks—just based upon where they live.

    The action in Gilgamesh begins in Uruk. But, we could almost say that Uruk is another character in this story.The first 8 lines of the Epic are talking about Gilgamesh, but the next 17 are about the city of Uruk. (Basically it is all description; things like "its wall which gleams like copper" (1.11) and "the structure made of kiln-fired brick" (1.19).) So … we take this to mean that, you should keep your eye on this Uruk place.

    In the Standard Version, the city has the nickname "Uruk-the-Sheep-Enclosure." Ok, so it may not be totally obvious on the surface why this makes any difference. For us to really get it, we have to stop and think about what it is like to be living in this time. We think this calls for a brief history lesson:

    The Low-Down on the Mesopotamian Living

    For centuries, the people who lived in the fertile river valley were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Fortunately for them, Mesopotamia was full of plants with big seeds that were easy to store to eat later (namely wheat and barley) and lots of easy-to-domesticate animals like camels, goats, sheep, and pigs.

    But then. One day (or, you know, decade, or century), some of these hunter-gatherers figured out that creating permanent residences where they could farm and raise domesticated animals might take a lot of the guess-work out of day-to-day living. So, about 1200 years before the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk, people went from living in little villages to occupying large, developed cities with temples, palaces, complicated irrigation systems, and "sheep enclosures."

    But not everyone was sold on this new-fangled city-stuff. Just like today, some people wanted to continue in the ancient ways and live outside the cities. (Or, you know, refuse to get a Facebook account.)

    This is admirable and all, but these folks weren't just hippies eager to be one with nature. Living out in the elements was hard work. The ancient Sumerians didn't think about nature the way that we do—like an inherently peaceful and perfect system. If you lived out in the elements and had to contend with intermittent droughts and floods, wild animals, scant food sources, wind storms, and roving bands of other nomadic folks who may or may not want to be friends, you'd think that nature was a pretty formidable foe too.

    Why, Yes, Living in the City Does Make Me Superior to You

    Where were we? Oh yeah, "Uruk-the-Sheep-Enclosure." So, you see, calling the city a sheep-enclosure means that the author is drawing our attention to the fact that this is a serious city: enterprising citizens here are raising livestock, so we have disposable income, some resources at our fingertips, and we are oh-so-very unlike those less-developed people still living out in nature.

    Kovacs translates some of the descriptions of Uruk as "Uruk-Haven" so as to emphasize the safety of the city (in contrast to creepy nature). So, we have to think about ol' Sinleqqiunninni's interest in reminding readers that Uruk is a strong-walled and serious fortress. In other words, it is a place of safety and a place where humanity has conquered nature.

    This is important in contrast to the scenes set in the surrounding countryside, where Enkidu ends up in the wilderness. This works to set up the conflict between the wild Enkidu and the civilizing force of Shamhat—who sucks Enkidu into the civilized world which is both wonderful and tragic. Sure, she focuses on the wonderfulness of wine, women, and song, but Enkidu curses her later when he realizes the tragic elements of responsibility, consequences, and painful death.

    (Another fun fact: Enkidu dies of a protracted and unpleasant illness. Lots of archaeologists think that disease became a lot more prevalent when people started living in cities—because of all that pesky crowded living, shacking up with domestic animals, and not having great sanitation business.)

    Illness aside, the fact that Enkidu is the ruler of the wilderness while his bestie Gilgamesh is the king of civilized Uruk is a huge metaphor for the Sumerian's pride in taming the land (plants, animals, rivers, etc.) but still being connected to it.

    Real Trees and Questionable Geography

    Having said all of this, these events do supposedly take place around 2700 BCE (when it is likely that the historical Gilgamesh was king of Uruk), and we're guessing that, even back then, there was no superhuman, seven-suit-of-armor wearing monster guarding the cedar trees of Lebanon.

    But think about this Cedar Forest in relation to what we know about the Sumerians—namely that they had limited resources of lumber, and lumber is pretty important when you're trying to build a civilization. So a Cedar Forest is a pretty big deal.

    Plus, we may be between two rivers, but it still gets blazing hot out there in modern-day Iraq. So, when the text says "the Cedar brought forth luxurious foliage; its shade was good, extremely pleasant," we are reminded of other reasons why the Cedar Forest is an appealing—though maybe somewhat dangerous—hangout (5.7-8). It is, after all, a forest; and, forests are sort of notorious for being scary places.

    Clearly, even though this story takes place in actual locations, these locations have been transformed in the scrambulator of myth, so that they come out more like scenes in a dream than in reality. This becomes most clear in Tablets 9-11, when Gilgamesh journeys beyond the edge of the earth, beyond the place where the sun rises, to the underworld, where he meets Siduri, Urshanabi, and Utanapishtim, the man granted immortality by the gods.

    Sure, we're all clever and modern now, so we know that Gilgamesh can't have visited an actual, physical location here (since, you know, the Earth revolves around the sun). But it's important to bear in mind that the ancient Babylonians did think the world had an edge, and an underworld, so this part of the story might have seemed more realistic to them than it does to us.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn't have an official epigraph, but many scholars treat the first portion (the one that Kovacs entitles "The Legacy") as though it were an epigraph. This is a 27-line introduction to the story that essentially tells us why we should care about reading these twelve clay tablets.

    The first few lines tells us that we will be reading about a man—so far unnamed—who has seen it all, experienced it all, known it all, and come back from a long journey to build the walls of Uruk. The remaining 18 lines discuss the beauty and strength of Uruk, and tell us that we can take from the walls a lapis lazuli (fancy blue stone) tablet that will tell us the details of this Gilgamesh's trials and tribulations.

    So, no, it isn't officially an epigraph, but it does set the stage for the rest of the text. We know this Uruk place is a big deal, and we also know that Gilgamesh is totally the bomb. Since the next part of the epic begins telling us about what a jerk he is, we immediately realize that we are dealing with a dude that is going to develop into a good guy by the end of tablet 11.

    Yeah, it kind of ruins the ending but, as you've probably noticed by now, the writer of Gilgamesh is not into using sophisticated literary techniques to keep you on the edge of your seat.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Okay, so The Epic of Gilgamesh is a 3000-year-old poem from a culture you know practically nothing about, featuring weird characters and gods you've never heard of, and is preserved on clay tablets that are broken in many places, resulting in weird gaps in the text. Sounds pretty challenging, doesn't it?

    Not as much as you might think.

    The last thing this poem wants to do is bog you down with lots of details about an ancient society. The story itself is a classic adventure tale, full of fights, love, chases, and close brushes with danger with vivid characters, whose emotions and interests seem barely different from those of people today. Even when these characters get complicated (as when Gilgamesh can't decide if he's mourning for his friend or for his own mortality), it's pretty much always going to be in ways you can relate to from your own experience.

    As for that whole being recorded on broken fragments bit, depending on which translation you're using, this actually might not be a problem at all. In his Gilgamesh, Stephen Mitchell uses his imagination to fill in all the broken bits, producing a smooth, readable text that sounds like it was written yesterday. Even though some other translators use brackets, question marks, and dots to show readers which parts of the text are actually missing, trust us: their translations are still a lot easier to read than your last text message.

    So toss that phone aside, and give Gilgamesh a go. This epic's at base camp, baby!

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Poetic, Repetitive

    On the whole, the writing style of the Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty straightforward: it just tells the story, without throwing in too many stylistic curlicues. There is no attempt to build us up to a satisfying climax—we just hear what is happening as it happens in a simple, play-by-play manner. We don't get internal emotional dialogue; we don't have complicated metaphorical descriptions. It is just the facts, ma'am.

    Despite this, it is a poem and it can get highly poetic, especially in the dialogue sections. For example, when Enkidu takes back his curses of Shamhat, he doesn't just take them back, he pours blessings on her in a very poetic fashion:

    May he who is one league away bite his lip in anticipation of you; may he who is two leagues away shake out his locks in preparation! May the soldier not refuse you, but undo his buckle for you … may the wife, the mother of seven children, be abandoned because of you! (7.143-146, 151)

    (Uh, we can't really get behind that one.)

    And check out Gilgamesh's lamentation for Enkidu. His language is way over-the-top from the standpoint of how people ordinarily speak, but somehow it still sounds right because it captures the underlying emotion of his speech.

    May the pasture lands shriek in mourning as if it were your mother … May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you … May the farmer who extols your name in his sweet work song, mourn you … (8. 13, 16, 19)

    You get the idea. Such repetition is super typical of epics, and you can see it all over Gilgamesh, like in the descriptions of the different stages of the journey to the Cedar Forest in Tablet 4. Most scholars think that the repetition was one of the ways that poets remembered these long stories—since for centuries they were recited rather than read. 

    The Wayback Days

    The Epic of Gilgamesh was not written at all—instead it was "pressed" into wet clay tablets, using a system known as cuneiform—meaning "wedge-shaped," after the wedge-shaped tool used to do the pressing. When the clay tablets dried, they became the original "hard copies."

    The text of the epic we normally read today, known as the Standard Version, took up 11 such tablets. (There is also a 12th tablet, but most scholars and translators don't consider it part of the original story, and leave it out; Shmoop will too.) According to tradition, the Standard Version of the Epic of Gilgamesh was composed by Sinleqqiunninni, a priest and scholar from Uruk. Sinleqqiunninni wrote in a language known as Standard Babylonian, a distant relative of modern Arabic and Hebrew.

    But even though he created the definitive version of the story, Sinleqqiunninni didn't start from scratch. In particular, he relied on one earlier version composed between 1800-1600BCE, in a language known as Old Babylonian. But this version itself drew on even older poems written in a different language: Sumerian, the language spoken by the historical King Gilgamesh. These Sumerian poems may date back as far as 2100BCE.

    Knowing about these earlier versions of the epics is actually extremely useful for modern scholars, translators, and even ordinary readers (like us). Because the tablets of the Standard Version are broken in many places, scholars sometimes use pieces from earlier versions to fill the gaps. No two translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh feature exactly the same text. Some translators use brackets, italics, and dots to emphasize the patchwork quality of the text; others, like Stephen Mitchell, use their imaginations to create a smooth, unbroken narrative. 

    The tale of how this epic was rediscovered is almost as amazing as how it got to be composed in the first place. Believe it or not, this masterpiece of world literature was completely unknown to humankind for about 2000 years, after the cuneiform writing system fell out of widespread use around the 1st century BCE.

    That all changed in 1872, when George Smith, a young researcher in the British Museum happened to translate part of Tablet 11 of The Epic of Gilgamesh—though he didn't know what it was at the time. What astonished Smith and the people of his time was this tablet's story of the Flood, which had many striking parallels with the story of Noah in the Biblical Book of Genesis.

    After Smith presented a translation of this story at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the editor of the Daily Telegraph newspaper sponsored him to go back to Nineveh and carry out excavations to find the remaining tablets. Smith did so, making him responsible for piecing together the basic framework of the epic we read today—translated into dozens of languages, and inspiring generations of readers. Including, we hope, you. 

  • Civilization and Nature

    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.

  • Food

    Anyone hungry? We are, because food is all over The Epic of Gilgamesh. What's the deal with that? One of the most striking symbolic meanings of food in the epic is as what divides humans from animals. For example, when Enkidu is living in the wilderness, he eats only grass and drinks only water—just like (herbivorous) animals.

    This makes it super important when, in Tablet 2, Shamhat brings Enkidu to the shepherds' picnic, and he gets his first taste of bread and beer—which he drinks out of a jug, a totally new experience for him. Lo and behold, Enkidu discovers that he really likes bread and beer—especially beer.

    Could this symbolize the advantages of the civilized life over the wild-man life that Enkidu was used to before? Fun fact: scholars basically agree that civilization came about as we know it because of the agricultural revolution. And the agricultural revolution came about—just maybe—because people wanted beer. (And bread, naturally.)

    And remember, we spend a lot of time in this poem hearing about how fantabulous it is to be civilized—you know, with livestock and farms to produce your food, instead of having to hunter-gather everything. (And yes, we know, this scene takes place in the Old Babylonian Version, not the Standard Version, so Sinleqqiunninni can't be held responsible for this one.)

    Then later, in Tablet 8, after Enkidu has died, when Gilgamesh is lamenting his friend and telling the entire universe to lament him too, he takes the time to mention all the good food and drink the friends enjoyed, which underlines the connection between prepared food and Enkidu's new, civilized life: "May the herder …, who prepared butter and light beer for your mouth, mourn you" (8.21).

    So, that bread = civilization thing? Not so far-fetched.

    Food of the Underworld

    But maybe the point Gilgamesh is trying to make in talking about all this food is about life itself rather than just civilized life. When Enkidu is recounting his macabre dream of the underworld in Tablet 7 (lines 173-197), perhaps the most horrible moment is when he tells how, for the dead people there, "dirt is their drink, their food is of clay" (7.179). What could give a stronger picture of the sharp divide between the living and the dead than what they eat?

    We might get a similar idea in Tablet 9, when Gilgamesh goes beyond the edge of the earth into the underworld. The first thing he sees when he arrives is an orchard of trees—which bear precious stones instead of fruit. Could this also symbolize the difference between the underworld and the world above? In this strange realm, where nobody dies, nobody seems to feel the need to eat fruit.

    In fact, one of the few uses people in the underworld seem to have for food is as a symbol of decay—as when, in Tablet 11, Utanapishtim gets his wife to bake a loaf of bread for each of the days that Gilgamesh is conked out after failing the staying-awake contest. When he wakes up, he can tell from the different degrees of spoilage in the different loaves how many days he was in his coma.

    Think about it: your computer can't decay because it is made out of inorganic things like plastics and copper wires. On the other hand, that awful smell wafting your way is coming from the rotting organic matter in the trash you still haven't taken out. So, what's the connection?

    Well, in the underworld everything is dead, right? Really, death is the one entrance criteria for the underworld. So, food—a very organic thing that usually works to keep the living alive—in the underworld is just made out of inorganic things (like clay) because the dead don't need anything to keep them living, seeing as how they are dead and all. And who wants to chow down on clay all day?

  • Earth

    Let's get this out of the way fast: we don't mean "earth" as in "Planet Earth." After all, given that Gilgamesh goes beyond the edge of the world into a mysterious underworld, it's pretty clear that the ancient Mesopotamians did not think about the world as a planet the way we do. No: what we're talking about is "earth" as a substance, earth as in stuff, earth as in dirt, dust, and clay.

    Especially clay. Clay comes up again and again in the epic as the substance from which living things are made, and into which they decay once they die. Thus, it is a symbol of both life and death. You could say that it is also a symbol of human limitations: like it or not, we're made of clay. And in Gilgamesh, we mean that literally.

    After the citizens of Uruk make their prayer to Anu for help against Gilgamesh's tyranny, he delegates solving the problem to Aruru, the goddess who created humans. And she hops to it: "Aruru washed her hands, she pinched off some clay, and threw it into the wilderness" (1.83). Then, presto-changeo, the clay turns into Enkidu, the wild man of the wilderness! (There must be some other steps involved here, but clay is still the basic substance.)

    So we know for a fact that Enkidu is made of clay. Thus, after Enkidu has died, one of the details that Gilgamesh keeps obsessively repeating in his lamentations for his friend is how "my friend whom I love has turned to clay" (10.71). And, just in case you were thinking, "Hey, we only saw Enkidu get made out of clay; maybe Gilgamesh is made out of something else," Gilgamesh continues: "Am I not like him? Will I lie down, never to get up again?" (10.72).

    Not if you turn into clay, you won't.

    There's a Name for That

    Another vivid example of clay symbolism comes up in Enkidu's dream of the underworld from Tablet 7, which we already talked about under the theme of "Food," above. In Enkidu's dream, he imagines all the dead people sitting around, wearing feathers (yeah, we don't know what that's all about either), "where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay." (7.179).

    We guess if you're dead and in the underworld, dirt might just be a very refreshing drink. But Enkidu doesn't want to leave any potential earth symbolism out. Thus, in his description of the underworld, he also says that, at the entrance to the land of the dead, "upon the door and bolt lies dust," and, in the next line, he actually refers to the underworld as "House of Dust." (7.183)

    Even the gods get on the bandwagon in Tablet 11, when they are complaining about how the great Flood has destroyed all life on earth; from out of the huddle of cowering gods, Ishtar exclaims, "The olden-days have alas turned to clay." (11.118)

    The point here is that even though Gilgamesh is doing all he can to outrun death, we all know he can't. Eventually all of us (no, really, all of us, and that means you too) are going to become dust again. Here at Shmoop, this makes us think of Genesis 3:19—also a text from some Mesopotamian peoples: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

    So, get ready; we all have some dust in our futures. But, Gilgamesh at least helps us see that we can make our journey to dust worthwhile.

  • Snakes

    The Hebrew Bible and The Epic of Gilgamesh are written in related languages—which isn't shocking, since both the Israelites of the Bible and Gilgamesh's Sumerians lived in the same region.

    It should be no surprise, then, that the sneaky character who tricks Eve into eating the fruit that gets her and Adam bounced out of Eden, and that scoundrel that steals Gilgamesh's last hope of a semi-eternal life—that stay-youthful flower—both show up in a snake costume.

    Coincidence? We think not.

    Snakes are kinda creepy and all, but beyond that, snakes are just plain dangerous—especially in the Middle East where there are 22 species of vipers and six species of cobras. So, we understand that when these cultures start talking about seriously dangerous stuff that can mess you up, snakes naturally come to mind.

  • Floods

    Again, no surprise that these two cultures living in such proximity would both have a flood story to panic their descendants with. In literature, water often means rebirth and renewal. And, we at Shmoop, guess you could say that a massive flood that wipes out every last human (save for Utanapishtim and his wife) could qualify as a renewal.

    But, it is also important to remember that the Mesopotamian cultures relied on those two rivers that they were set between (remember that Mesopotamia means "between two rivers"). Those rivers often flooded—which, actually, was a good thing: it meant that the silt left behind would provide rich soil for crops. So, in a sense, the flood story that Utanapishtim tells is representative not only of the purification of humanity (read: the gods starting all over again with humanity) but also their rebirth into a new, better, richer world.

    In fact, we even get some actual birth imagery in Utanapishtim's description of the Flood: "Six days and seven nights came the wind and flood, the storm flattening the land. When the seventh day arrived, the storm was pounding, the flood was a war—struggling with itself like a woman writhing in labor" (11.127-130).

    And yet, on the other side of it, Utanapishtim and his wife receive immortality and a new race of humanity is born. (Okay, that last part doesn't actually make it into our epic, but since there's a Gilgamesh, we have to assume that somewhere along the way people were created again.)

  • Thresholds

    For a story that takes place largely in the great outdoors, gateways, passages, doors and thresholds sure feature prominently in this poem. Barriers like these symbolize separation and transition—and they show up as both real physical doorways and as metaphorical passages.

    Think about Enkidu transitioning from his natural, wild state, into his somewhat-civilized self. This transformation takes place through the passage of his experience with Shamhat—sex is often seen in cultures as a rite of passage. Then, Shamhat takes Enkidu to Uruk, but interestingly "Enkidu walked in front, and Shamhat after him" (2.80) as they went into Uruk, and therefore, through a gate that separated the natural, wild world from the tamed civilized world inside.

    When Enkidu fails to convince Gilgamesh that messing with Humbaba isn't such a great idea, off they set straight through the gates of Uruk and from civilization back into nature. When they've killed Humbaba and cut down the largest trees in the cedar forest, what is it that they plan to do with their booty? Enkidu—a.k.a. nature boy—suggests a very civilized thing: "my friend, we have cut down a towering Cedar whose top scrapes the sky. Make from it a door" (5.327-328).

    Yeah, we're fairly certain that this represents another transition.

    Decisions, Decisions

    One more thing: every time our characters come upon a threshold, they have to make a decision—will they move forward or go back?

    In this way, the gates are also useful as literary devices to force characters into corners that they have to act their way out of. There is, for example, the Scorpion-Dudes at the gate to Mashu. They seem rather terrifying, and Gilgamesh is on a bit of a wild-goose-chase at this point. It would be much easier to turn around, especially with all the flack he is getting from said Scorpion-Man. But, he chooses to move forward, and that Scorpion-being seems to respect his decision.

    Or, how about the locked door that Siduri slams in his face? Yes, Gilgamesh has gotten pretty far by this point, but we couldn't blame him if he had just had enough. He talks his way through the door, so to speak, and ends up getting the answer he is after—namely where to go to find Utanapishtim.

    We also get a really spooky description of the underworld from Enkidu's dream. He says that at the entrance to the land of the dead, "upon the door and bolt lies dust" (7.183). This makes us wonder why there is a bolt on the door to the Underworld. Is this metaphorical? Or is there a literal bolt on the door to keep the living out? Or is it to keep the dead in?

    Honestly, this is kind of freaking us out. Let's move on.

  • Bull

    You just can't get more masculine than a bull. (At least, according to the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and the peoples of the Indus Valley. So, it's no surprise that Gilgamesh is described as "the hero […] the goring wild bull" (1.29). The image of a bull comes up a lot, and when it does, it means masculinity, power, and violence.

    When Gilgamesh and Enkidu are on their way to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has a rather scary dream where he encounters a bull that splits the ground with his breath. Enkidu interprets this dream as meaning that Shamash will help them defeat Humbaba, but, you know what? We're going say that it's probably an omen that the Bull of Heaven will be their next opponent.

    We think it's more than a coincidence that Gilgamesh is referred to as a "Bull" and then gets the divine stink-eye when Enkidu kills "The Bull of Heaven." What does it all mean? Well, of course, we see Gilgamesh as the supreme masculine character: he's an epic hero with all the good looks, incredible strength, unwavering determination, and all that other tasty stuff. And, just maybe, the Bull of Heaven represents the masculinity, power, and violence of the gods.

    So, is Enkidu essentially demonstrating the superior power and masculinity of humanity when he slaughters that Heavenly Bull? We leave it to you to decide.

  • Allegory of Sleep

    Sleep is often an allegory for death. As far as we know, The Epic of Gilgamesh didn't originate this idea, but you can find it in literature and religion the world over.

    Having said that, we can almost hear that ol' Utanapishtim snickering when he suggests that Gilgamesh demonstrate his worthiness of immortality by not sleeping for seven days! It is kind of like saying, "well, if you want to be immortal, you can just go ahead and prove you deserve immortality. By not dying."

    ROFL over here, Utanapishtim. Seriously.

  • Allegory of the Harlot

    There is a whole, whole lot going on with the Harlot. In fact, we here at Shmoop wish someone would write a sequel to Gilgamesh, which just revolves around Shamhat's adventures and interactions with all these Mesopotamian chaps. But, until then, we want to shed light on one more interesting aspect of her character in this poem: the interaction between Enkidu and the Harlot seems to mirror the stages that Mesopotamian society took to become civilized.

    No, really; hear us out:

    First, there is the trapper interfering with nature: you know, trapping and stuff. When he comes face to face with Enkidu (the symbol of pure, innocent nature) "the trapper's face went stark with fear" (1.98). Similarly, when humanity found themselves out in the wild, face to face with an untamed nature, it was a little scary.

    With us so far? Ok, so the trapper goes home and tells his father that Enkidu "wrenched out my traps that I had spread, released from my grasp the wild animals" (1.113-114) and they make a plan to get rid of this interloping wildman. There is no evidence that Enkidu is actually doing the things the trapper accuses him of; perhaps we can read this as humanity's misinterpretation of nature's motives—in other words, nature isn't "after humanity," it just operates independently of any concern for humanity.

    Then, the Harlot shows up and she has knowledge of all that is civilization and humanity. Her sex not only links him to the ways of man, but also—since she is a temple-prostitute—to the religious ways of a civilized society. She corrupts his innocence, and physically changes him, at first just making him weaker.

    But, her next steps are strategic. She takes him to the shepherds—fellas who have one foot in civilized society and one foot in the natural world—so they can help him change his clothes, the food he eats, and the liquid he drinks. It is only at this point that the transformation is complete, and she walks him into the gates of Uruk and into the modern, civilized world.

    Allegory complete.

  • Motif of Dreams

    We would seriously be calling up our therapist if we were having so many spookily prescient dreams. But, you know, ancient Mesopotamia was a little short of therapist—so instead, he just asks his mom. And his friends.

    Okay, that actually sounds a lot like what we do.

    Anyway, we first hear about Gilgamesh's dreams in Tablet 1. In one of the dreams, Gilgamesh embraces a meteorite which has fallen to earth. In the other, he embraces an axe. (Yes, we agree, these are wacko dreams.) His mother, the goddess Ninsun, interprets his dreams as a promise that "there will come to you a mighty man, a comrade who saves his friend" (1.249).

    This, of course, is a revelation about Enkidu coming into the picture. But, amazingly, Shamhat also knows that Gilgamesh has been dreaming about Enkidu, "Even before you came from the mountain, Gilgamesh in Uruk had dreams about you" (1.224-225). (We really would like to know how the temple-prostitute knows all this.)

    Then, there are the numerous dreams that Gilgamesh has during the journey to the Cedar Forest in Tablet 4. Gilgamesh prays to Shamash for these dreams. In fact, it seems that dreams are the primary mode of communication between gods and mortals. The events in these dreams are symbolic, but seemingly accurate.

    Enkidu listens to each of these dreams, and then provides a very cheery interpretation, although the dreams themselves seem rather terrifying—featuring Gilgamesh fighting with a bull, "lightening cracking,""[raining] death," and everything turning to ash (4.95-101).

    In Tablet 7, poor Enkidu—already facing illness and certain death—is tormented with dreams about the underworld. (Talk about unfair; give the poor half-man-half-beast a break.) But this dream allows Enkidu to describe in great detail all the horrors of the Underworld, which is enough to motivate Gilgamesh to go in search of immortality.

    So—dreams in this epic are something like previews: they give you a taste of what's to come, and sometimes they turn out to have very little to do with what actually happens. Next time on Gilgamesh ….

  • Motif of Balance

    When the people of Uruk cry out to the gods for some relief from their outrageous King Gilgamesh, the god Anu has an unusual reaction: instead of doling out some impressive punishment that fits the crime, he simply instructs Aruru to create "a zikru (a 'response'?)": "Let him be equal to Gilgamesh's stormy heart, let them be a match for each other so that Uruk may find peace" (1.79-81).

    And we see later that, amazingly, that is the solution: all Gilgamesh needed was an "equal," a "match." But, while they are equals, they aren't twins. They are more like yin and yang. Peanut butter and jelly. Brad and Angelina. Anyway, you know what we're getting at: there's a balance here.

    Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine, one-third human; Enkidu is two-thirds animal, one-third human.

    Gilgamesh is the king of the most bangin' city around; Enkidu is a naked wild-man living in the wilderness—kind of like Survivorman, but much, much hairier. Cool, huh?

    But, we have to wonder, does this whole world in balance get thrown off course when Enkidu leaves the wilderness and ventures over into civilized life? Could it be that this is not at all what Anu intended?

    When Enkidu seeks out Gilgamesh, he intends to fight him and thereby show his greater strength. What happens, though? The two "grappled with each other at the entry to the marital chamber […] Gilgamesh bent his knees, with his other foot on the ground, his anger abated and he turned his chest away" (2.100, 103-104). This is the moment just before Gilgamesh and Enkidu kiss and become best friends.

    The interesting thing about this is that most scholars read this passage as an indication that as the pair were locked, grappling in the doorway, Gilgamesh was finally victorious in throwing Enkidu off balance. Get it? Gilgamesh is victorious because he tinkers with balance!

    As an added bonus, let's look at some other examples of balance in twos: 

    • two major adventures (going to the Cedar Forest and the journey to see Utanapishtim)
    • two seductive women (Shamhat and Ishtar)
    • two serious monsters (Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven)
    • two monsters (both Scorpion-beings) guarding ...
    • ... the twin-peaked (that is two-peaked) mountain Mashu
    • two gods that champion our human heroes (Ea and Shamash)
    • two lost attempts at immortality (the failed no-sleeping test and the lost "stay young" plant)

    We are positive there are more. But, we're exhausted, so you're going to have find the rest on your own.

  • Motif of Quests and Journeys

    In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster tells us that in order to have a good quest you need a few ingredients: a quester, a place to go, a reason to go, an obstacle, and a real reason to go (because the stated reason you are going is never the real reason).

    And, we're pretty sure that the entire Epic of Gilgamesh is just one giant quest. Don't believe us? Well, check out the section on "Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis: Voyage and Return."

    Almost every action in this poem deals with some kind of journey or quest:

    • Enkidu journeys from the wilderness to Uruk, making a stop off with Shamhat, of course.
    • Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a quest to the Cedar Forest—with the stated reason that they shall seek fame. What do you think is the real reason they go? Is it to solidify their friendship? To prove their faithfulness to each other? To demonstrate their power over nature, now that Enkidu is a semi-civilized critter?
    • Then, there is Enkidu's quest to the underworld—through the twin-peaked mountain Mashu, to Siduri's tavern, across the sea of death with Urshanabi—to find Utanapishtim and discover the secret to immortality. But, that isn't the reason that he goes. Of course, that is why he thinks he goes, but really he has to go on that quest so that he can discover that, while no man can have immortality, a selfless, devoted king can become immortal to his people (and literature readers everywhere) simply by being a good leader.
  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient); (with some other styles thrown in for good measure)

    On the whole, the omniscient third-person narrator of The Epic of Gilgamesh sticks to pretty basic narration of the "He said, she said; he did, she did" variety. Thus, for the most part, both the narrator and the reader/listener are "outside" the action, looking in at it. For example, the text opens with descriptive lines about Gilgamesh: "He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of the time before the Flood. He went on a distant journey …" (1.4-6).

    You get the idea: it is a lot of description of events from the outside. That said, there are some moments when the narrator actually takes us inside the thoughts of the characters. Our first good taste of this is just after Enkidu has finished his frolicking with Shamhat. After all that loving with the temple-prostitute he realizes he'd like a friend (naturally). But before Enkidu can even tell Shamhat that, the narrator lets us inside his head for just a moment, "Becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend" (1.195).

    At times like these, the story switches into the "filter" type of third-person narration, where the characters' brains become like those semi-permeable membranes you learn about in biology class: letting things (like the reader and the narrator) pass through by osmosis.

    Finally, at some points characters talk in their own voices about things that happened to them without the narrator interrupting. Sure, it's still in a third-person frame, but it goes on for so long that it might as well be a first-person monologue—like when Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh about how he and his wife built a ship and escaped the Flood. This monologue, told entirely in Utanapishtim's voice, goes on for more than 200 lines. Take a breath, why don't you!

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage and "Fall" into the Other World

      Gilgamesh is a proud and immature king who is driving his citizens crazy with his incessant demands for athletic contests and sex. In response to the prayers of the people of Uruk, the gods create Enkidu and place him in the wilderness. At first, Enkidu is completely wild, but he gets initiated into the human world through having sex with Shamhat.

      Because it makes Enkidu lose contact with the animal world, sex with Shamhat can be seen as a sort of "fall" for Enkidu. But Enkidu's transformation won't be complete until he goes to Uruk and encounters Gilgamesh. At the same time, Gilgamesh has been having mysterious dreams about the arrival of a companion. Clearly, both heroes are missing something: what they don't realize yet is that it's each other.

      Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

      The main initial fascination going on here is the fascination Gilgamesh and Enkidu feel for each other, after their first epic wrestling match outside the house of Gilgamesh's ritual bride. And what better activity for two newfound friends than heading off into the distant wilderness to do battle with a fearsome monster? (Coffee is just boring).

      When Gilgamesh and Enkidu return home with Humbaba's head, floating down the Euphrates on a raft made from the tallest tree in the Cedar Forest, you know they're living the bromantic dream.

      Frustration Stage

      But there's trouble in paradise. Not long after Gilgamesh and Enkidu make their triumphant return to Uruk, trouble shows up—and its name is Ishtar.

      Just like in every other buddy-movie you've seen, it's bad news when an attractive lady starts hitting on one of the valiant heroes, especially when that lady is a goddess. That's because, when Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar's advances, she does what any self-respecting goddess would do: sends down the mythical Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Luckily for our heroes, they're able to face down this new challenge and kill the Bull of Heaven.

      Nightmare Stage

      Their triumph is short-lived. The gods don't take kindly to humans who get too big for their britches, and they decree that one of the humans must die—Enkidu. Sure enough, Enkidu falls ill and dies a long, painful death, with Gilgamesh at his side.

      After the death of his friend, Gilgamesh is super bummed: he tears off his rich garments, clothes himself in animal skins, and heads off into the wilderness. You know, basically how we used to react when our Tamagotchi died. He's determined to find Utanapishtim, the one human who has been granted immortality by the gods: he will know how to release Gilgamesh from his predicament. Almost definitely.

      Thrilling Escape and Return

      This final section of the poem—which includes Gilgamesh's entire journey to and from the dwelling place of Utanapishtim, beneath the earth—is a "Thrilling Escape" stage with a twist.

      How so? On one level, Gilgamesh learns that there is no escape: with the exception of Utanapishtim, all human beings are condemned to die by the gods, with no ifs, ands, or buts. On a deeper level, though, we think the ending of the poem does qualify as an escape.

      Isn't it striking that, when Gilgamesh gets back to Uruk after losing the rejuvenating flower, he tries to impress Urshanabi with a catalogue of all the cool features of his city? Doesn't this show that he has come to appreciate the good things in life again, and has thus, in a small way, been liberated from the fear of death? Could this count as an escape?

      Of course, in a less metaphorical level, Gilgamesh does make it back home safe and sound from a journey beyond the rising-point of the sun—which should count as a decent escape in anybody's book.

    • Plot Analysis


      Macho, Macho Men 

      King Gilgamesh is treating his people in a really nasty way. The gods hear the people's complaints and create Enkidu as Gilgamesh's equal. So, we have Gilgamesh, a mindlessly selfish macho-man who has not known true friendship, and Enkidu, a mindless, uncivilized wild-man, who has never know … a woman. It's a match made (literally) in heaven, and these two dudes are set up to rock each others' worlds. (In a manly way.)

      Rising Action

      Bromantic Frenemies

      The "Conflict" stage of The Epic of Gilgamesh is kind of a fake-out. Sure enough, these two musclemen do go head-to-head with each other … but then quickly put aside their differences and become the best of friends. In no time, thanks to Gilgamesh's bright idea, they find someone else to administer a beating to: the monster Humbaba.

      The real conflict seems to come later, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu return triumphantly to Uruk, carrying the monster's head. Trouble shows up in the form of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar, the goddess, wants Gilgamesh to take her as his wife. Gilgamesh refuses, and not too nicely. Major trouble ahead, Shmoopers.


      Don't You Dare Throw That Leg at Me!

      Enraged at being rejected by Gilgamesh, Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven down to earth, intending to have it kill Gilgamesh and Enkidu. But the heroes, fresh from killing Humbaba, are clearly on a roll, and they make swift work of the Bull.

      This represents the high point of their monster-killing prowess. And the high point of the heroes' egomania comes when Enkidu tears off one of the Bull's legs and throws it in Ishtar's face. That's like a double climax for the price of one … and the gods aren't about to let them get away with any of it.

      Shortly after having a dream in which Enlil, the king of the gods, condemns him to die, Enkidu develops a mysterious illness and dies a painful death.

      Falling Action

      Hey, Where'd You Get That Immortality?

      Once Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh's life loses all meaning, and he becomes tormented with the fear of death. He decides that the only thing to do is to meet Utanapishtim, the one human being who has been granted immortality by the gods. He sets off on a journey beyond the Eastern edge of the earth, where the sun rises, to find out the secret of immortality.


      Has Anybody Seen My Magic Flower?

      Gilgamesh finally gets to speak to Utanapishtim and learns that immortality isn't for everyone. The only people to get it are Utanapishtim and his wife, after they survived the Flood; Gilgamesh can't hope for the gods to make a similar exception on his behalf. But, thanks to some wifely intervention, Gilgamesh learns about the mysterious flower that will make anyone who eats young again. He even gets the flower—but then a snake steals it.

      So much for Gilgamesh's plans to cheat death. When Gilgamesh and Urshanabi arrive back in Uruk, Gilgamesh brags about the magnificent architectural features of the city. This echoes the opening words of the poem, thus bringing us full circle (always a good sign).

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Bros Will Be Bros

      Gilgamesh is immature; Enkidu is ignorant. Enkidu is initiated into the ways of humanity and heads to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh. After Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight, they become the closest of friends. Enkidu and Gilgamesh head off to the Cedar Forest in search of fame. Dun-dun-dun.

      Act II

      Faster Gilgamesh Kill Kill Kill

      There, they kill Humbaba. Back in Uruk, Gilgamesh rejects the advances of Ishtar, and the two friends must do battle with the Bull of Heaven. They kill it too. Then, Enkidu dies.

      Act III

      Don't Drink the Water

      Gilgamesh is consumed with grief for his friend. He journeys to the land of Utanapishtim, the survivor of the Flood. Utanapishtim tells Gilgamesh that humans can't live forever. He gives Gilgamesh a magical plant that will restore his youth, but Gilgamesh loses it on the way back home to Uruk. Oops.

    • Allusions

      Look, when you're the first piece of literature basically ever, you just don't have anything to shout out to. It's a lonely life.