Study Guide

Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh

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Half-man/half-beast bestie of Gilgamesh. He basically symbolizes the natural, non-civilized world. He faces an early death as punishment from the gods for all the trouble that he and Gilgamesh got into together. He thinks he got a raw deal, and he's probably right. Gilgamesh pretty much loses it when Enkidu dies.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is—hold on to your seat—mostly about Gilgamesh. However, Enkidu, in particular, is a pretty darn fascinating character, and we could easily imagine an alternate universe where Gilgamesh was the sidekick in the great Epic of Enkidu. But such an epic would be very different from the current Epic of Gilgamesh. If Gilgamesh's character development follows a smooth arc, Enkidu's is more like something you might draw on an Etch-a-Sketch: lots of sharp zigzags, occasionally doubling back on themselves.

Separate but Equal?

Enkidu's character tells us a ton about the way the Sumerians viewed nature, and the relationship that humans had with "the wild." When we first meet Enkidu, he has just been created by the goddess Aruru, and placed in the wilderness. He is described as being "equal to Gilgamesh's stormy heart" (1.80), so we know from the start that he possesses some of the same restless, unsettled, rash temperament that Gilgamesh has. He is also described as being "valiant" (1.84), and "endowed with strength" (1.85).

Interestingly, Aruru deliberately creates the wild man Enkidu as 1/3rd human and 2/3rds beast, so that he will be the mirror-image of Gilgamesh, who is1/3rd human and 2/3rds god. We at Shmoop feel we have to ask: does that make them equal? They treat each other as equals and the gods seem to view them as just-about equals—but we think it's rather odd that being 2/3rds god is just about equal to being 2/3rds beast, especially in the eyes of the gods. Yeah, we're just not sure about that.

Anyway, Enkidu's beginnings show him as living with, but also maybe even protecting, the animals of the wild. When the narrator describes the trapper's first meeting with Enkidu, he says that the "trapper's face was stark with fear" (because Enkidu looks pretty terrifying wearing those animal skins as garments, and being covered in shaggy hair all over his body), and then "Enkidu and his animals drew back home" (1.98-99).

That sounds to us like Enkidu is a cross between a shepherd and a sheepdog (or maybe just the sheepdog)—he has some kind of responsibility for the animals, but he also lives among them as an animal himself. He also seems to be using his 1/3rd "human wits" to free the animals from the trapper's traps—which, by the way, is driving the trapper batty. Of course, even if his wits are human, his loyalties are still with the animals at this point.

Let's Talk About Sex

But that all changes after Enkidu's momentous encounter with Shamhat, the temple-prostitute. For reasons that are never made clear, as soon as Enkidu has finished his epic seven day love session with Shamhat, he finds that the can't keep up with the animals any more. He has lost something physically, but he has gained something mentally: "Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before. But then he drew himself up, for his understanding had broadened" (1.183-184).

And part of this broadening mind is that he wants a friend. This shows a development away from his solitary existence as he develops the need for human companionship—and also a development toward manliness, since Shamhat won't do. Along with his other human traits, Enkidu has also gained a healthy dose of testosterone-infused cockiness: "I will challenge [Gilgamesh] … Let me shout out in Uruk: 'I am the mighty one!' Lead me in and I will change the order of things; he whose strength is mightiest is the one born in the wilderness!"(1.200-204).

We have to remember that Enkidu is really a stranger in a strange land here. Shamhat puts some human clothes on him and takes him to some shepherds so they can initiate him into the parts of human civilization that her sexcapades didn't quite cover: i.e., eating and beer drinking (literally). But he still he "do[es] not know how to live" (1.214). Not like a human, anyway. So, we're guessing he feels rather confused and uncertain, or at least like his world has been rocked a little bit. (And not in the good way.)

Maybe all that "I'm gonna give Gilgamesh a beat-down" stuff is just him talking big because he's a little freaked out about this new world. He doesn't quite know how to act with the food and drink at first (although the Old Babylonian version has him downing seven jugs of beer in no time flat), but he does become the shepherd's "watchman" (2. 56) and starts chasing away the wild animals—so, it does seem that he's now on the side of humanity instead of the beasts.

We can gather that he is accepting of this new life and what it offers him. He's trying to fit in.

Two Pals in a Pod

Once Enkidu and Gilgamesh become best buds, the truly zany and contradictory elements of Enkidu's personality start to stand out. But, maybe that is just because he is still 2/3rds animal and having a hard time with all this humanity mumbo-jumbo.

For example, when Gilgamesh suggests going to the distant Cedar Forest and doing battle with the monster Humbaba, Enkidu joins the elders of Uruk in arguing against the quest. It's too dangerous, he thinks, and besides, the god Enlil appointed Humbaba on purpose to be a terrifying guardian of the forest. (It seems that Enkidu has some privileged info here. There is no room in the text for anyone to have told him this, so we have to assume he knew it when he was living with the animals). Still, when Gilgamesh insists, Enkidu joins his friend on the quest.

Over their five-day journey, when Gilgamesh keeps having terrible nightmares, Enkidu acts as a dream-interpreter (how did he learn how to do that?), and always spins the nightmares so that they turn out positive, thus encouraging his friend. In fact, from this point on, Enkidu becomes the most gung-ho of the two.

When Gilgamesh gets a little freaked out by Humbaba's changing-faces trick, Enkidu basically mocks his fear by saying, "Why, my friend, are you whining so pitiably, hiding behind your whimpering?" (5.89-90). Once Humbaba has been subdued, and is pleading for his life, it looks like Gilgamesh is going to spare him; but then Enkidu speaks up, urging him to go ahead and kill the monster.

We have to ask: why? Does this show Enkidu's wisdom in not believing the words of the no-good stinkin' Humbaba. Or, does this show some human jealousy on the part of Enkidu, who doesn't like Humbaba's suggestion that he and Gilgamesh become best buds? Three's a crowd, you know.

I'd Like to Appeal My Sentence

But when Enkidu finds out that he's gotten the death penalty for all his misbehaving, he changes his tune. He tells the god Enlil,"I did not kill the Cedar (from the forest)" and then about two lines he starts cursing the amazing door he and Gilgamesh made out of the Cedar, and pretty much all but admits he did cut down the Cedar (7.22). Contradictory, much?

He then follows this up with a string of curses directed at virtually everyone he's met since his romp with Shamhat, because he holds them responsible for bringing him out of the wilderness—thus indirectly leading to his death. (Nowadays, Enkidu's therapist would understand the poor guy was just going through some basic psychological stages of denial and blame-shifting here. Very human traits, we think.)

But, when the god Shamash points out that, if it weren't for Shamhat, Enkidu never would have met Gilgamesh, Enkidu's emotions do a 180°. Now, he starts blessing Shamhat. This seems to mean that Enkidu accepts his death as the price of his friendship. If this doesn't show the depth of Enkidu's devotion to his friend, we don't know what does. And, if this doesn't add to—or complicate—the complex relationship that ancient Sumerian civilization had with nature, again, we don't know what does.

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