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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.