Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Man and the Natural World

By Sinleqqiunninni

Man and the Natural World

Chapter 1, Tablet 1

Aruru washed her hands, she pinched off some clay, and threw it into the wilderness.
In the wilderness(?) she created valiant Enkidu,

He knew neither people nor settled living,
but wore a garment like Sumukan.
He ate grasses with the gazelles,
and jostled at the watering hole with the animals;
as with animals, his thirst was slaked with (mere) water. (1.83-93)

Here, we see how Aruru created Enkidu and placed him in the wilderness. And it's all about the contrast. What are the main differences the poem highlights between Enkidu's way of life and that of an ordinary human being? What does this say about the poem's view of human life in general?

He filled in the pits that I dug,
wrenched out my traps that I had spread,
released from my grasp the wild animals.
He does not let me make my rounds in the wilderness!" (1.105-115)

Here, we hear the trapper complaining to his father about the wild man (Enkidu) whom he has encountered several times at the watering hole. According to the trapper, Enkidu doesn't just act like an animal and hang out with the animals. He also actively helps the animals escape from the trapper's traps. And we have to ask: if Enkidu is freeing animals from traps, how much of an animal can he really be? Doesn't the ability he has to free an animal that can't free itself show that he really is human, even if he doesn't know it yet?

He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,
and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,
the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.
Look at its wall which gleams like copper (?),
inspect its inner wall, the likes of which no one can equal!
Take hold the threshold stone—it dates from ancient times! (1.9-22)

The opening description of the city emphasizes the difference between human culture and the natural world particularly through writing—the skill that let people stockpile crops, make business transactions, and pay taxes. (Sorry to burst your bubbles, but writing was a business technology before it was a way for tortured poets to confess their misery.) Given that this whole poem is written, we're not surprised that the author thinks writing is pretty special.

It was he who opened the mountain passes,
who dug wells on the flank of the mountain.
It was he who crossed the ocean, the vast seas, to the rising sun,
who explored the world regions, seeking life.
It was he who reached by his own sheer strength Utanapishtim, the Faraway,
who restored the sanctuaries (or: cities) that the Flood had destroyed!
… for teeming mankind. (1.36-42)

Here, we're treated to a description of Gilgamesh's prowess. These lines emphasize Gilgamesh's role as someone who does battle with—and triumphs over—nature. Just look at that use of the word "flank" (something we typically associate with animals or war) when it talks about how Gilgamesh "dug wells on the flank of the mountain." Or the water bubbling up from those wells like blood flowing from the side of a wounded animal. So, do these lines portray Gilgamesh's triumph over nature in a positive or a negative light? Also, note that Gilgamesh is described as the one who fixed up what the Flood has destroyed. Could this be a hint that we're supposed to compare Gilgamesh to Utanapishtim, the man who survived the Flood itself, whom we'll meet in Tablet 11? Out of Gilgamesh and Utanapishtim, who has the greater triumph over nature?

Chapter 2, Tablet 2
Shamhat

"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer—seven jugs!—and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed. (Old Babylonian Supplement at 2.56)

Eating and drinking are among the most basic things an animal (including a human animal) needs to do in order to survive. And yet, the way humans eat when they are together in society—drinking out of jugs, for example—is completely different from the way animals eat in nature. But the food is different, too: a loaf of bread looks pretty different from grass, even though it comes from a kind grass. Hence Enkidu's confusion when Shamhat takes him to have dinner with the shepherds. That said, he seems to take to these news ways pretty quickly—especially to the beer.

Chapter 7, Tablet 7
Enkidu

"Come now, Harlot, I am going to decree your fate,
a fate that will never come to an end for eternity!
I will curse you with a Great Curse,
may my curses overwhelm you suddenly, in an instant!" (7.88-93)

Here Enkidu thinks that, if he hadn't been brought into the human world, he wouldn't have gone through the chain of events that led to him being struck down with disease by the gods. What do you think of Enkidu's line of reasoning here? How safe is life in the wilderness anyway? Is there any guarantee that he would have been better off there?

Shamash

When Shamash heard what his mouth had uttered,
he suddenly called out to him from the sky:
"Enkidu, why are you cursing the harlot, Shamhat,
she who fed you bread fit for a god,
she who gave you wine fit for a king,
she who dressed you in grand garments,
and she who allowed you to make beautiful Gilgamesh your brother comrade?" (7.122-128)

Shamash doesn't like what he's hearing from Enkidu. Here, he reminds Enkidu of all the good things that have come with civilization—like Enkidu's new friendship with Gilgamesh. But notice that Shamash never breathes a word in support of the trapper. Why do you think the god doesn't stick up for him?

Chapter 8, Tablet 8
Gilgamesh

"May the …, the cypress, and the cedar which we destroyed(?) in our anger mourn you.
May the bear, hyena, panther, tiger, water buffalo(?), jackal, lion, wild bull, stag, ibex, all the
creatures of the plains mourn you.
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. (8.14-25)

Gilgamesh doesn't only call on the human world to lament his friend, but on the natural world as well. Is the idea that he wants the whole world to be lamenting his friend? Note that, in these lines, Gilgamesh also emphasizes some very specific parts of human technology, like butter and beer, and the actions of a harlot who rubbed Enkidu with oil. Based on these details, would you say that Gilgamesh agrees or disagrees with the curse Enkidu placed on the trapper and Shamhat (before the god Shamash helped him change his mind)?

"May the Roads of Enkidu to the Cedar Forest mourn you
and not fall silent night or day.
May the Elders of the broad city of Uruk-Haven mourn you.
May the peoples who gave their blessing after us mourn you.
May the men of the mountains and hills mourn you.
May the …
May the pasture lands shriek in mourning as if it were your mother." (8.2-13)

These lines come from Gilgamesh's lamentations over the body of Enkidu. In them, he calls on not only human beings to mourn for Enkidu, but the natural world as well. And not only animals from the natural world, but even inanimate entities, like mountains and hills and pasture lands. What is Gilgamesh thinking when he calls on these entities? Is he just talking metaphorically, or does he really think that these parts of the non-human world will join in mourning for his friend? (And if they do—does anyone make tissues big enough for a weeping pasture?)

Chapter 9, Tablet 9

Before him there were trees of precious stones,
and he went straight to look at them.
The tree bears carnelian as its fruit,
laden with clusters (of jewels), dazzling to behold,
—it bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
bearing fruit, a delight to look upon. (9.280-285)

As soon as Gilgamesh arrives at the underside of the earth, he sees trees bearing precious stones. This is oddly appropriate to this strange realm where nobody dies—fruits made of stones presumably don't die either. That said, these trees do seem eerily unnatural. Does this mean that nature only exists where things are able to die?