Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Sinleqqiunninni

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Chapter 1, Tablet 1

"Look about, Enkidu, inside Uruk-Haven,
where the people show off in skirted finery,
where every day is a day for some festival,
where the lyre(?) and drum play continually,
where harlots stand about prettily,
exuding voluptuousness, full of laughter,
and on the couch of night the sheets are spread (?)." (1.205-213)

Here, Shamhat is trying to convince Enkidu to come with her to Uruk by dangling all the awesome nightlife in his face. So, we get to see what Shamhat considers to be the best things in life: nice clothes, parties, listening to music, having fun, and having sex. But just because Shamhat thinks this is the good life doesn't mean it's what the poem as a whole wants us to think. (It could be, of course, but it doesn't have to be.) Based on the poem as a whole, what do you think the Epic of Gilgamesh wants us to think about Shamhat's words here?

Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.
The Great Goddess [Aruru] designed(?) the model for his body,
she prepared his form …
… beautiful, handsomest of men,
… perfect … (1.46-50)

When it comes to his life and existence, Gilgamesh is different from other human beings. The difference is that other human beings are … human beings, while Gilgamesh is part god: 2/3 god, in fact. This divine aspect mainly seems to do with his body: he may be the "beautiful, handsomest of men," but his consciousness seems basically like that of your average human—or maybe worse. What do you think are the divine and human aspects of Gilgamesh's life and existence? And how do these relate to his consciousness, which develops over the course of the story?


"Enkidu, you who do not know how to live,
I will show you Gilgamesh, a man of extreme feelings (?).
Look at him, gaze at his face—
he is a handsome youth, with freshness(?),
his entire body exudes voluptuousness.
He has mightier strength than you,
without sleeping day or night!" (1.214-220)

Here, we get even more opportunity to figure out what Shamhat thinks life is all about; she even tells us that's what she's talking about, when she tells Enkidu that he "do[es] not know how to live." But does the poem as a whole encourage us to adopt that view? Does it want us to think that life "without sleeping day or night"—what Shamhat tells us Gilgamesh does (or doesn't do)—is really the way to go?

Chapter 2, Tablet 2

"I will go in front of you,
and your mouth can cry out: "Go on closer, do not be afraid!"
Should I fall, I will have established my fame.
(They will say:) "It was Gilgamesh who locked in battle with Humbaba the Terrible!" (2.228-237)

Apparently Shamhat isn't the only one with opinions on what life is all about: Gilgamesh has them too. Here, after Gilgamesh has suggested that he and Enkidu should go to the Cedar Forest to fight Humbaba, Enkidu throws up some pretty valid objections. In response, Gilgamesh says that everyone dies anyway, so the best thing to do is to do dangerous deeds and win undying fame. Fair enough, Gilgamesh—but couldn't the thought that we all die anyway just make us want to preserve our lives all the more carefully, and not risk them in pointless battles with distant monsters?

Chapter 4, Tablet 4

Enkidu prepared a sleeping place for him for the night;
a violent wind passed through so he attached a covering.
He made him lie down, and … in a circle.
They … like grain from the mountain …
While Gilgamesh rested his chin on his knees,
sleep that pours over mankind overtook him. (4.11-16)

Okay, so if you read these lines in their original context from Tablet 4, where the same episode of preparing for the night takes place five times in almost the exact same words, you might be thinking something more like: you're telling me I have to read this business again? Don't worry: we feel your pain. (Shmoop had to read it too.) But bear with us. In fact, we're going to ask you to read the passage onemore … time. Do you see what's interesting about it? That's right: Gilgamesh sleeps, even though Shamhat insisted that he didn't! And the narrator really rubs the point in by calling the sleep that overtakes him "sleep that pours over mankind." Ha! Take that, Mr. Thinks-he's-so-superior-two-thirds-god-man! But there's still the problem of how to interpret this. Do you think Shamhat was wrong all along? Or is Gilgamesh undergoing a transition to a more ordinary human state as the story goes on? Either way, we're definitely learning something interesting about Gilgamesh's life and existence here.

Chapter 7, Tablet 7

"Now Gilgamesh is your beloved brother-friend!
He will have you lie on a grand couch,
and will have you lie in the seat of ease, the seat at his left,
so that the princes of the world kiss your feet.
He will have the people of Uruk go into mourning and moaning over you,
and fill the happy people with woe over you.
And after you he will let his body bear a filthy mat of hair,
will don the skin of a lion and roam the wilderness." (7.129-137)

Here, Shamash is trying to comfort a dying Enkidu. What's interesting here is that Shamash thinks one of civilized life's big pay-offs for Enkidu is that there will be ceremonies to commemorate him after he is dead. But, if he's dead, what difference does it make to him? How do people's lives change if they have consciousness (as Enkidu now receives) of what will happen to them after their existence is over? (And what's the point of coming up with a belief about the afterlife if it's this depressing?)

The eleventh and twelfth day his illness grew ever worse.
Enkidu drew up from his bed,
and called out to Gilgamesh …:
"My friend hates me …
(Once), while he talked with me in Uruk
as I was afraid of the battle (with Humbaba), he encouraged me.
My friend who saved me in battle has now abandoned me!
I and you …" (7.258-265)

Unfortunately, the tablet on which this passage appears is broken in several places. Still, we get the general idea: Enkidu thinks that Gilgamesh, who once stood at his side in battle, is abandoning him. Sure, he's probably reacting to the fact that Gilgamesh can't save him from the disease that is ravaging his body. But how would Gilgamesh do that? Do these words by Enkidu show that he does not truly understand how life works? Or should we just cut a dying man some slack?

Chapter 8, Tablet 8

"May the holy River Ulaja, along whose banks we grandly used to stroll, mourn you.
May the pure Euphrates, to which we would libate water from our wineskins, mourn you.
May the men of Uruk-Haven, whom we saw in our battle when we killed the Bull of Heaven,
mourn you.
May the farmer…, who extols your name in his sweet work song, mourn you.
May the … of the broad city, who … exalted your name, mourn you.
May the herder …, who prepared butter and light beer for your mouth, mourn you.
May …, who put ointments on your back, mourn you.
May …, who prepared fine beer for your mouth, mourn you.
May the harlot, … you rubbed yourself with oil and felt good, mourn you.
May …, … of the wife placed (?) a ring on you …, mourn you." (8.16-25)

Gilgamesh's lament over Enkidu is no exception to the poem's interest in what makes the good life. Take a look at the things he is listing: nice walks along the River Ulaja, triumphing in battle, singing, eating butter and drinking beer, and so on. Isn't this basically a catalog of the good things in life? Why do you think Enkidu's death makes Gilgamesh think of these things? And why does he want all of these things to partake in his grief for his friend?

He covered his friend's face like a bride,
swooping down over him like an eagle,
and like a lioness deprived of her cubs
he keeps pacing to and fro.
He shears off his curls and heaps them onto the ground,
ripping off his finery and casting it away as an abomination. (8.47-52)

Right after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh swoops in to protect him. And yet, why would one bother protecting something that isn't even living? What is it about us humans that makes us take care of our dead, as if the dead somehow knew what we were doing?

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

"Now you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full!
Be happy day and night,
of each day make a party,
dance in circles day and night!
Let your clothes be sparkling clean,
let your head be clean, wash yourself with water!
Attend to the little one who holds onto your hand,
let a wife delight in your embrace.
This is the (true) task of mankind(?)." (Old Babylonian Supplement at 10.72)

Here, Siduri gives us yet another vision of the good life, and it's explicitly based on knowing how short life is. But where Gilgamesh says that you should try to leave an immortal reputation behind, Siduri is basically saying to scrap all that: what you should really do is have a fun time while you're here on earth. Which of these two approaches do you think the poem wants us, the readers, to accept?