Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Wisdom and Knowledge

By Sinleqqiunninni

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Wisdom and Knowledge

Chapter 1, Tablet 1

Enkidu was diminished, his running was not as before.
But then he drew himself up, for his understanding had broadened. (1.183-184)

Here, we get the transformation Enkidu experiences right after he has sex for the first time with Shamhat. On the one hand, he finds that his athletic prowess has been weakened. (Yeah, that makes sense.) On the other hand, his mind has been expanded. And think about how wisdom is acquired in the rest of the epic. Don't these two lines about Enkidu basically boil down the epic's whole point about wisdom? Whenever you gain knowledge, you lose something as well.

He who has seen everything, I will make known (?) to the lands.
I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things,
… alike,
Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all.
He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
he brought information of (the time) before the Flood. (1.1-6)

This is the way we start off, so we know that wisdom and knowledge are going to be playing a key role. Basically, Gilgamesh is an awesome hero because of what he has learned. Note too that the author says that he is going to "teach" about what Gilgamesh has learned. This makes it seem like the whole epic is basically a hand-me-down report of what Gilgamesh saw in the underworld. This should make us modern readers feel especially lucky; we certainly appreciate the insight into the underworld, but we're glad only one person had to make the risky journey to the ends of the earth, encounter the Scorpion-beings, traverse the Waters of Death, and so on.

Chapter 2, Tablet 2

The Noble Counselors of Uruk arose and
delivered their advice to Gilgamesh:
"You are young, Gilgamesh, your heart carries you off—
you do not know what you are talking about!" (2.280-283)

We hear this when the elders of Uruk are trying to talk Gilgamesh out of going on his quest to the Cedar Forest to do battle with the monster Humbaba. The elders think that Gilgamesh doesn't know what he's getting himself into because he's just too young; if he were older and wiser, he would know better. How closely is wisdom related to experience in this epic?

Chapter 5, Tablet 5

"You understand the rules of my forest, the rules …,
further, you are aware of all the things 'So ordered (by Enlil).'
I should have carried you up, and killed you at the very entrance to the branches of the forest.
I should have fed your flesh to the screeching vulture, the eagle, and the vulture.
So now, Enkidu, clemency is up to you.
Speak to Gilgamesh to spare (my) life!" (5.168-173)

Here, Humbaba is begging Enkidu for rescue by reminding him of what he knows: that Humbaba was appointed as the guardian of the Cedar Forest by Enlil, the king of the gods. Enkidu doesn't want to tick off the king of the gods, does he? Well, you wouldn't think so—but, as it turns out, Enkidu does instruct Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba, does tick off the gods (and Enlil specifically), and does end up getting struck down by a mortal illness (after some other mishaps along the way). Not too wise, Enkidu. Not wise at all.

Chapter 9, Tablet 9

"I have come on account of my ancestor Utanapishtim,
who joined the Assembly of the Gods, and was given eternal life.
About Death and Life I must ask him!" (9.136-138)

Here, Gilgamesh is chatting with the Scorpion-beings he meets at the rising of the sun. And, surprise: the whole point of the quest is to gain knowledge about life and death. This makes it sound like he is on a very different quest from the last one he made—to kill the monster Humbaba. But are there similarities? Gilgamesh wanted to kill Humbaba because he thought it would bring him undying fame. Now, he's just looking for a way to escape dying at all. Does Gilgamesh's attitude toward his quest at this point show that he has made progress in the direction of wisdom, or is it simply another side of his ongoing immaturity?

Chapter 10, Tablet 10

"No one can see death,
no one can see the face of death,
no one can hear the voice of death,
yet there is savage death that snaps off mankind.
For how long do we build a household?
For how long do we seal a document?
For how long do brothers share the inheritance?
For how long is there to be jealousy in the land(?)?
For how long has the river risen and brought the overflowing waters,
so that dragonflies drift down the river?
The face that could gaze upon the face of the Sun
has never existed ever." (10.190-301)

Here, Utanapishtim is trying to explain to Gilgamesh the nature of death. What is it about his message that makes it so hard to accept? Uh, maybe it's because Gilgamesh has journeyed beyond the ends of the earth to find out what death is, and Utanapishtim has said, "Eh, who knows?" And yet, even if this answer is unsatisfying, it does seem to be the final answer about death that the poem gives us.

"After Enlil had pronounced the blessing,
the Anunnaki, the Great Gods, assembled.
Mammetum, she who fashions destiny, determined destiny with them.
They established Death and Life,
but they did not make known 'the days of death." (10.302-309)

Here, Utanapishtim keeps going with his "nobody knows what death is, we don't know when we die, so just deal with it" shtick. This time, it maybe becomes a bit clearer why Gilgamesh might not accept the message. Doesn't Utanapishtim's way of putting things really leave him open to somebody saying, "Where do you get off telling people to just 'get over it?' That's easy for you to say, since you were granted immortality by the gods." Is there something about wisdom that makes us need to trust the person who is passing it on to us?

"Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?
The life that you are seeking all around you will not find.
When the gods created mankind
they fixed Death for mankind,
and held back Life in their own hands." (Old Babylonian Supplement at 10.72)

Is it just us, or does tavern-keeper Siduri basically provide an answer to the whole question Gilgamesh is after? And her answer is pretty simple: death is what it is; you can't escape it, therefore, you should make the most of life. Yet, for some reason Gilgamesh doesn't take her advice, and demands to speak to Utanapishtim. Why doesn't Gilgamesh listen? Does he not believe that Siduri, of all people, could know the answer? Or is it that wisdom simply can't be acquired until the person seeking it has exhausted all possible options?

Chapter 11, Tablet 11

"Gilgamesh, you came here exhausted and worn out.
What can I give you so you can return to your land?
I will disclose to you a thing that is hidden, Gilgamesh,
a … I will tell you.
There is a plant … like a boxthorn,
whose thorns will prick your hand like a rose.
If your hands reach that plant you will become a young man again." (11.269-278)

Why does Utanapishtim give Gilgamesh the flower? Doesn't it kind of counteract his whole tough-love teaching style on the whole death issue? Is he afraid that Mrs. Utanapishtim will make him sorry if he doesn't take her suggestion? (She was the one who told him to call Gilgamesh back and give him something at least for his labors.) Or does Utanapishtim somehow know that Gilgamesh will lose the flower, and that this experience will be the straw that broke the camel's back—and that will make him finally accept wisdom?

"Enlil went up inside the boat
and, grasping my hand, made me go up.
He had my wife go up and kneel by my side.
He touched our forehead and, standing between us, he blessed us:
'Previously Utanapishtim was a human being.
But now let Utanapishtim and his wife become like us, the gods!
Let Utanapishtim reside far away, at the Mouth of the Rivers.'
They took us far away and settled us at the Mouth of the Rivers."
"Now then, who will convene the gods on your behalf,
that you may find the life that you are seeking?
Wait! You must not lie down for six days and seven nights." (11.196-204)

Check out the lightning quick transitions in this speech from one topic to another. At first, Utanapishtim is explaining how he was granted the gift of immortality. But then he shifts immediately to the moral of the story, when he asks "who will convene the gods on your behalf, / that you may find the life that you are seeking?" Utanapishtim's question may be rhetorical, but we know the answer he's driving at: "Nobody. Nobody is going to bring all the gods together and have them grant you immortality, Gilgamesh." Now that we hear the story and its moral, we might start to realize that Utanapishtim has a point. But, then again, we didn't make the journey beyond the ends of earth to get this answer, Gilgamesh did. And for Gilgamesh, this still might not be satisfactory. Could this be why Utanapishtim makes his next swift change of topic, when he challenges Gilgamesh to a staying-awake contest?

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