Study Guide

The Epic of Gilgamesh Themes

  • Death

    We hate to break it to you, but it's been thousands of years since Gilgamesh was written down, and there's still no cure for death except cryonics—and we think that is just weird. The Epic of Gilgamesh is largely the tale of one man's quest to outsmart death, and, oddly, our priorities haven't changed much. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is too much of a hot-shot to really be worried about death. He figures if he dies doing something really cool, then people will remember him forever and that will be almost as awesome as living forever. Once he sees that maggot fall out of Enkidu's nose, though, all bets are off: he embarks on an expedition to find the secret of eternal life. We aren't spoiling the ending to tell you that that doesn't work out.

    Questions About Death

    1. In Tablet 2, when Enkidu tries to talk Gilgamesh out of going to fight Humbaba, Gilgamesh replies, "We all die anyway, so I might as well accomplish great, risky deeds, and make a name for myself. That way, my fame will live on after I'm dead—even if I have a short life." What do you think of Gilgamesh's reasoning here? Is this attitude still widespread today?
    2. At the end of the poem, when Gilgamesh brags to Urshanabi about all the sweet features of Uruk, it looks like he has gotten over his worries about death and can enjoy human accomplishments. But has he learned anything about death aside from the hopeless picture painted by Enkidu's dream in Tablet 7 and Utanapishtim's bleak description in Tablet 10? If, for all Gilgamesh knows, death is still completely bad, how can he accept that?
    3. Utanapishtim sure does blab on and on about the Flood in Tablet 11 of the poem. Is this story even relevant to Gilgamesh's quest to find out the truth about mortality? If so, how?
    4. It's clear that Gilgamesh's thoughts about death at the end of the poem are different from his thoughts right after Enkidu dies, when he becomes totally terrified of death. But how different are his thoughts at the end of the poem from his thoughts at the beginning? In other words: what has Gilgamesh learned about death over the course of the whole poem?

    Chew on This

    The Epic of Gilgamesh has a happy ending: Gilgamesh realizes that while death is inevitable, immortality can be achieved through one's actions while they are alive.

    Gilgamesh ends tragically: the hero ultimately fails in his final quest for immortality.

  • Friendship

    Bromance: as old as recorded history. (And we thought we'd invented it.) At the core of The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of the powerful friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. At the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh is a man possessed. It's hard to look at his relentless drive and not see it as an attempt by Gilgamesh to fill a void in himself. This, at least, seems to be the interpretation of the goddess Aruru—we think she's right. Along comes Enkidu and suddenly Gilgamesh stops acting like such a jerk. Apparently, all it took was the creation of a part man-part beast creature to help Gilgamesh realize that no man is an island.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Even though Gilgamesh and Enkidu become the best of friends, they start off as enemies: their first encounter is a fight. Is this just a coincidence, or is there something about that fight that actually makes it more likely that they will become best buds? 
    2. When Gilgamesh is heading off to fight Humbaba, Enkidu tries to prevent him from going, because he thinks it's too dangerous. Do you think Enkidu is acting like a true friend here? Or should true friends support each other's decisions no matter what?
    3. When Gilgamesh is lamenting Enkidu, he doesn't just feel grief because his friend is dead: he also feels grief at thinking that he, too, will die. Does this diminish Gilgamesh's grief for his friend, or are such self-centered feelings simply a normal part of friendship? 
    4. Many readers of The Epic of Gilgamesh have thought that the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh is too intense to be just friendship, and must be something romantic instead. Based on your reading of the text, do you think that Enkidu and Gilgamesh have a romantic relationship, or is that just us imposing our modern categories on an ancient story?

    Chew on This

    Enkidu is the "rational" part of the friendship; once he is gone, it is not necessarily his death, but his absence and inability to counsel Gilgamesh, that leads Gilgamesh to go off on such an irrational quest.

    When Gilgamesh goes from lamenting the death of his friend to lamenting his own future death, his feelings for his friend don't diminish. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are so close that, when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh is basically losing a part of himself anyway.

  • Sex

    Yep, it's important. (Shock.) Two of the major game-changing events in The Epic of Gilgamesh involve sex, or the refusal of it. (1) Shamhat uses sex as a way to civilize Enkidu. In Mesopotamian culture, sex with a gal like Shamhat connected her lover to the divine life-force, so to speak. This apparently explains how Enkidu becomes more man than beast (which, when you think about it, is a funny inversion of how we usually think about sex—that it makes us like animals). And then (2) Gilgamesh rejects the sexual advances of the goddess Ishtar. Big mistake. If Gilgamesh had gotten busy with Ishtar, this story may have had a very different outcome. So, the take-home point seems to be careful who you do it with. And that's a message we think everyone can get behind

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why does Gilgamesh reject Ishtar? He says it's because she is a player, but is that the only reason? Is Gilgamesh rejecting anything else when he rejects Ishtar's advances?
    2. In the beginning of the poem, we're told that Gilgamesh is forcing all the young women of Uruk to have sex with him. Yet, once Enkidu appears, we no longer hear about Gilgamesh having sex with anyone; in fact, we see him reject an offer of sex from Ishtar, the goddess of love (and war). Why do you think Gilgamesh undergoes this transformation? 
    3. In different ways, the lives of Shamhat, the temple-prostitute, and of Ishtar, the goddess of love (and war), center on sex. Sex also features prominently in Siduri's discussion of the good life in Tablet 10; there, she stresses the importance of Gilgamesh having an active sex life with his (future) wife, and giving her pleasure. Based on the poem's representations of these three female characters, how would you describe its attitude toward women's sexuality? 
    4. Does the epic portray sex and love as going hand-in-hand, or are they two separate things?

    Chew on This

    Sex with Shamhat removes Enkidu from the animal world because it builds a close connection between him and another human being.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays women primarily as sex objects, or as characters whose most important activities involve sex.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Man vs. Wild was serious business in ancient Mesopotamia—and there was no camera crew standing by just in case things got a little too real. We see the division between humankind and nature pretty early, with the separate-but-equal case of Gilgamesh vs. Enkidu. In all the ways that Gilgamesh is kingly and "civilized," Enkidu reflects the natural world that he first comes from. But what about Humbaba, who guards the Cedar Forest from humans? Or the Scorpion-beings that protect the gate leading to Mashu—the two mountains that lead to (and protect) the rising sun? Or Siduri, the winemaker to the gods, who locks her doors—protecting herself and her vineyards—from one crazy-looking Gilgamesh? All in all, it sure seems like nature feels it wise to steer clear of humanity.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. In Tablet 1, what are the main differences between Enkidu's way of life in the wilderness and the way of life of an ordinary human being? What do the poem's choices about which details to highlight say about its view of human life in general?
    2. Which world does the poem portray as better: the natural world or the human world? What are the main advantages and disadvantages of the human world over the natural world?
    3. Are the gods in the poem part of the natural world, or do they control it? If the gods control the natural world, is it possible for humans to fight against nature without fighting against the gods?
    4. When Gilgamesh arrives on the underside of the world, where Utanapishtim and his wife live, he finds that the trees bear precious stones instead of fruit. This kind of makes sense in a realm where nothing dies. But what about the flipside of that? Does this mean that nature only exists where things can die?

    Chew on This

    The poem portrays the human world as better than the natural world because it brings comfort, while the natural world is full of suffering.

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is a celebration of the Sumerian people's achievements over nature, and an admission of what they cannot overcome in nature.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Life isn't just the opposite of death. For Gilgamesh, who starts off a pretty knuckle-headed king, friendship with Enkidu and the trials he endures seem to breathe some life into his consciousness. No more act first, think later for this king. Sure, the answers he comes up with in The Epic of Gilgamesh may not always be the best, but we do see him struggle with the meaning of existence—especially when he gets so much advice from other characters about what he should be focusing on as he goes through life.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, how are characters' ways of life related to their beliefs about death?
    2. In Tablet 1 of the poem, Gilgamesh is described as being 2/3 god and 1/3 human. What do these fractions mean, in your opinion?
    3. When Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk at the end of the epic, how are his beliefs about life and death different from when he left? How are they the same? 
    4. Various characters in the poem, including Shamhat, Siduri, and Gilgamesh himself, provide interpretations of what they think is the good life, the right way to live. Based on your reading the poem as a whole, what do you think its message is about the good life?

    Chew on This

    Gilgamesh is 2/3 god because of his superhuman strength and endurance; he is 1/3 human because of his mortality.

    When Gilgamesh returns home to Uruk, he still believes that death is inevitable for all humans; the difference is that he has a new understanding of the meaning of life.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    When it starts off "He Who Has Seen the Deep," you know it's either a really hardcore black metal song … or an ancient Mesopotamian epic. In this case, it's The Epic of Gilgamesh: an ancient Mesopotamian epic about a man who knew everything—the whole enchilada. And then, a few paragraphs in, it become rather obviously that, well, either the Sumerians themselves didn't know much, or this Gilgamesh fella was going to have a serious turn-around before the end of the poem. Thankfully, it's the latter. Gilgamesh's adventures start off as macho-man contests, but develop into searches for wisdom and knowledge. It's comforting to know that even someone as big of a mess-up as Gilgamesh can eventually pull it together.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Who is the wisest character in The Epic of Gilgamesh? What is it about that character that makes him or her the most wise? 
    2. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, how do people attain wisdom? Is it through something they hear someone else say, or must they experience it for themselves? 
    3. What kind of knowledge is Gilgamesh most interested in? Is it only knowledge of how to become immortal? Is it knowledge of what death actually is? Or about what exactly happens to a person when he dies?
    4. Assuming that there is a difference between Wisdom and Knowledge, are the gods wise? Does Enkidu gain Knowledge or Wisdom in his transformation—or both?

    Chew on This

    The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays wisdom and knowledge as two different things. Otherwise, Enkidu would not have unwisely told Gilgamesh to kill Humbaba even though he knew that Enlil had appointed Humbaba as the guardian of the Cedar Forest.

    In the Epic of Gilgamesh, wisdom has to come through experience, not just through hearing about it. Otherwise, Gilgamesh would have been convinced by the wise advice that many people gave him.

  • Fear

    The Epic of Gilgamesh is chock full of things to be afraid of. Exhibit A: Humbaba, Scorpion dudes, scary dreams, the edge of the world. Okay, you got us—that's a lot more than one exhibit. But, seriously, this whole epic deals us one freaky thing after another. And, poor Gilgamesh has a lot to be afraid of once the adrenaline from all his adventures wears off. In fact, the entire second part of the poem features Gilgamesh dealing with the second most feared thing in the world—death (the only thing the average person finds more terrifying is speaking in public).

    Questions About Fear

    1. Even though Enkidu knows that the god Enlil has deliberately appointed Humbaba to be the terrifying guardian of the Cedar Forest, he still encourages Gilgamesh to strike a final death blow. Isn't he afraid of Enlil? Does he do this out of fear at what Humbaba might do to them if they don't kill him? Or, is he afraid that Humbaba may replace Enkidu as Gilgamesh's BFF—which is what Humbaba seems to be offering to Gilgamesh? 
    2. The last four books of the epic (8-11) center on Gilgamesh's need to overcome his fear of death. But does the epic always portray fear as a bad thing? Or can it have some benefits, too?
    3. The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays both gods and humans as experiencing fear. For the humans in the poem, the ultimate source of fear is the fear of death. Since the gods can't die, what are the gods afraid of? 
    4. In the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is unafraid of death (Tablet 2) but can sometimes get afraid before doing deeds of physical bravery—as when he starts crying right outside the Cedar Forest at the end of Tablet 4. Later on, however, he becomes terrified of death (Tablets 8-11), but, at the same time, becomes incredibly courageous in facing danger on his quest. How do we, as readers, make sense of this shift?

    Chew on This

    The gods in The Epic of Gilgameshtry to frighten humans to prevent them from destroying what is sacred.

    The epic portrays fear as beneficial when it protects us from harm. For example, if Enkidu had been more afraid of the wrath of the gods, he might not have taken the reckless course of action that led to the gods punishing him.

  • Pride

    One thing you can say for epic heroes: they're not humble. (As if that's something to be proud of.) One of Gilgamesh's defining characteristics at the start of The Epic of Gilgamesh is his unwavering and excessive pride. There is nothing Gilgamesh doesn't think he can do; and, once he defeats Humbaba his pride only skyrockets—and we see that in IMAX 3D when he spurns the goddess Ishtar's proposition of love. Even when Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh goes in search of immortality, he finds it pretty hard to wrap his mind around the possibility that he is mortal like everybody else. So, again, we at Shmoop think "Gilgamesh" must be Sumerian for "cocky, swollen-headed king."

    Questions About Pride

    1. Who is the most prideful character in the Epic of Gilgamesh? Who is the least? Are the gods prideful? Do they have a right to be? Does Gilgamesh have a right to be prideful (he is the king of a great city and part god, after all)?
    2. Is pride always a bad thing in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or can it have good aspects too?
    3. Does Gilgamesh have to pay a price for his pride? 
    4. The poem ends with some prideful words by Gilgamesh to Urshanabi, as he points out the main features of the city of Uruk. Is this the same type of pride Gilgamesh shows in the beginning of the poem? If not, how is it different, and why is this change important?

    Chew on This

    In The Epic of Gilgamesh, characters are able to swallow their pride when they know they have been beaten by the very best. Thus, in a paradoxical way, they are able to keep their pride intact.

    Gilgamesh shifts from taking pride only in himself to taking pride in the city of which he is a member. This shows his shift away from complete self-centeredness, an important step in conquering the fear of death, and learning how to live.

  • Perseverance

    If at first you don't succeed, try … journeying to the edge of the world and asking some immortal graybeard for the answer. Or, so says The Epic of Gilgamesh. Really, though, we do have to hand it to Gilgamesh—he doesn't take no for an answer. Maybe he is a spoiled brat, but you have to admit that he generally gets his way—and it isn't because he's killing anybody with kindness. We think the clearest example of this is when a very annoyed Utanapishtim sends Gilgamesh home with the ferryman Urshanabi. The two of them can't be but 10 minutes from shore when Gilgamesh turns the boat around to go back to Utanapishtim for, what we can only guess is, one more question or one more chance at immortality. Geez, Gilgamesh, take a hint!

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What literary devices does the poem use to show Gilgamesh's perseverance on his final quest?
    2. Which shows more perseverance: never being discouraged, or being discouraged and going ahead anyway? Which of the two descriptions applies best to Gilgamesh? 
    3. Does Gilgamesh's journey in search of immortality show perseverance in his attempts to change his fate? Or, does it just demonstrate his cowardly fear of death or his prideful assumption that he is somehow different from other humans?
    4. Which character in the epic has the most perseverance? Do any characters show a lack of perseverance? Do their fates in any way seem to depend upon their level of perseverance?

    Chew on This

    The main theme of Gilgamesh is the importance of perseverance, whether or not you achieve your goal.

    In the epic, perseverance can be a negative trait as well as a positive one. Even though Gilgamesh's perseverance in going to see Utanapishtim is good, Enkidu's perseverance in insisting that Gilgamesh kill Humbaba has disastrous consequences.

  • Religion

    Even the most sporadic Sunday School attendee can catch the similarities between The Epic of Gilgamesh and the stories in the Hebrew Bible. The flood story is probably the most obvious, but, what about that snake that deprives Gilgamesh of youthful (eternal?) life? Or the idea that sex introduces you to human life—which is both good and bad? Sounds an awful lot like the Garden of Eden to us Shmoopers! And, of course, there is the consistent theme that disobedience to the gods (or the God) means there is big, big trouble in your future. And one other major similarity: religion is a hugely important part of everyday life.

    Questions About Religion

    1. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, characters sometimes take sides with one god against another. Based on your reading of the poem, would you say this is a safe practice? Or is it best just to avoid ticking anybody off? Does it help or hurt to be a specific god's darling bootlicker?
    2. Even though his father was mortal, Gilgamesh's mother is a goddess. Does this make him different from other mortals in the poem in the way he relates to the gods? If so, how? 
    3. How do the gods—as a whole—impact the worldview of the Sumerians? Can we draw any conclusions about the way that Sumerians may have thought about their day-to-day lives, their futures, the nature or meaning of suffering, based on their description and understanding of divinities?

    Chew on This

    Many of the gods in the epic are frivolous and mean-spirited; thus, characters respect them only because they fear them.

    Because he deliberately acts against the will of the gods, tries to fool them, and throws the leg of the Bull of Heaven in Ishtar's face, Enkidu stands out as the least religious character in the epic.