Analysing “The Epic of Gilgamesh”

October 7, 2021

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the oldest literary works of humankind. Written in cuneiform, it is one of the greatest works of literature of the Ancient East. This epic was created in the Akkadian language on the basis of Sumerian legends; moreover, the process of its writing lasted for one and a half thousand years, approximately from the 18th to the 17th centuries BC (Haase 414). The most complete version of this literary work was found in the middle of the 19th century during the excavations of the cuneiform library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. The epic was written on 12 cuneiform tablets that contained about 3,000 poems (Gadotti 36). In the 20th century, the fragments of different versions of the epic were found, and in particular, in the Hurrian and Hittite languages. This Sumerian immortal text is characterized by the rhythm, which inherent to folklore, a non-characteristic for epic works laconism, rather deep philosophy, and the reflections on global problems (Gadotti 24). This epic has everything in it: from the creation of man from clay to the confrontation of nature and civilization, from the great flood and journey to the kingdom of death to jealous gods and goddesses, and a classic set of friendship, love, and deceit. This epic about the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh and his adventures has interested humankind for over three millennia. This paper aims at analyzing Gilgamesh, his adventures in search for immortality, the role of friendship in his life, and the development of his character. The main idea of the epic is revealed through the image of Gilgamesh, who passes through various difficulties, and finally changes for the better, realizing that only the eternal glory of his good name can bring him immortality.

The Image of Gilgamesh

Scientists established that indeed, a king, named Gilgamesh, lived and ruled in Uruk in the first half of the third millennium. The names of his predecessors and contemporaries were written on bricks and vases (Gadotti 34). Thus, Gilgamesh is a real historical figure. According to the Sumerian list of kings, he was the fifth king from the founding of the first Uruk dynasty after the great flood; he ruled for 126 years (Gadotti 123). Born with a body, unrivaled by the standards of humans, and with the knowledge, reaching the truth, Gilgamesh was destined to become a king and a neutral party between humans and gods. In accordance with the traditions of myth-making of that time, he was two-thirds god and consequently, one-third part of his was human (Gardner 8). However, not a god but a man determines the entire development of the epic. Thus, gods and their deeds constitute only the background of the legend, the framing, within which the drama of a person develops. Moreover, the human element gives this drama a comprehensive, enduring significance.

The epic does not tell the readers about the wonderful birth of Gilgamesh or about his childhood, although these episodes are usually inserted into epic works about heroes. When the story begins, Gilgamesh is a young man who exceeds all people by his extraordinary power and excessive desires that are the result of his half-divine origin (Gardner 9). However, his selfishness and wild energy have led to absolutism, oppression, and violence, so his people call gods for help. Gilgamesh was born with an already formed worldview and independence. He possessed the features of both a god and a man, but even the higher powers were not able to understand his vision of world. That is why, they create Enkidu, who becomes his true friend, and then kill him to punish the arrogant king.

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The character of Gilgamesh develops throughout the epic. At the beginning of the poem, he is a rampaging hero, gifted with an unbelievable strength, endowed with the power over the entire city, and favored by gods. This first stage of the formation of his image is his decision to destroy all evil in the world and become famous as a liberator. His friendship with Enkidu stimulated him and as a result, Gilgamesh decided to defeat a fierce monster Humbaba who kept all inhabitants of Uruk in fear (Haase 415). Gilgamesh always did what he wished. Upon his return to Uruk after defeating Humbaba, Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, wants him to marry her, but Gilgamesh remembers all her lovers, whom she turned into animals, and decides that he does not need a wife who has had so many men. The rejected and angry goddess begins to take revenge on Gilgamesh. Obviously, after rejecting Ishtar’s proposal, Gilgamesh expects a negative outcome, but nevertheless, he is not concerned with the high status of the woman he has rejected. At this stage, he does not think about politeness or consequences. As the result of his actions and those of furious Ishtar, he experiences many troubles in his life.

The next leap of the spiritual growth of Gilgamesh comes with a great despair after the death of his friend Enkidu. This stage is marked by his reflections on the meaning of life and many attempts to obtain a flower of eternal youth, and finally, the highest manifestation of courage – the recognition of the inevitability of death. The problem of life and death, as it is seen from the funeral rites of the ancient times, has always worried humanity (Gardner 23). In the epic, Gilgamesh tragically understands the injustice of the separation of a deceased person from the world and close people, and it is difficult for him to accept an immutable law of death.

The first quality of Gilgamesh, which cannot be overlooked, is self-will and intolerance of compromises. This hero always goes to the end and never fails. He is not afraid of anything – neither the ferocious monster Humbaba, nor the wrath of mighty Ishtar, not even the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh can cope with everything and emerge victorious from any situation. The only thing that makes him helpless is death. Before this understanding came to the hero, he had tried all possible options to achieve immortality, even reached the realm of the dead with a hope to see Enkidu. As the readers can see, the real epic hero never backs down and he does not give up. Along with this, Gilgamesh has a number of other, more human qualities. They are manifested in his relationship with his friend. After the death of Enkidu, there are no limits to Gilgamesh’s sorrows, and only the thought of a possible attainment of immortality helps him to overcome this state. Therefore, the protagonist of the ancient Sumerian epic is strong-willed and self-confident as a god, but at the same time, the true feelings of friendship and love are inherent in him, as he is also a human.

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Friendship as the Main Factor in the Transformation of the Hero

The first table of The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how gods have given the hero an opponent who later became his friend. It was Enkidu, a man who grew up with wild animals, then began to wear clothes, eat human food, hunt lions and wolves, and finally, came to the great city of Uruk (George 8). When Gilgamesh first met him, the latter immediately announced that he had come to bring the former’s arrogance under control. They entered the battle that lasted for several days, and Gilgamesh had to use all his power to be on the same level with his opponent. He was angry and surprised to see that Enkidu was almost equal to him in strength. Therefore, he was forced to use his treasures that were carefully stored in the Gates of Babylon (George 10). Although he did it reluctantly at first, afterwards, he began to use them without regret. Eventually, he emptied his treasury, and Enkidu had only a tenth of his clay left. After the battle, which pulled them together, they became close friends.

A great friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which started after the battle, is the link connecting all episodes of the epic. They worked side by side; even after combining their strength, they managed to defeat Humbaba (Gardner 31). Enkidu was surprised by the reason why Gilgamesh had wanted to defeat a great monster since it was a part of his plan to destroy the evil and protect Uruk and his people. Enkidu was interested why Gilgamesh wanted to help those whom he once tyrannized. Gilgamesh told him about his method of protecting humanity (George 23). In other words, Gilgamesh took the path of transformation for the better.

Partly because of his friendship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh became the greatest and richest king on Earth and eventually, he took possession of all treasures of the world. Uruk turned into an incredibly prosperous city, and Gilgamesh was considered so strong that even gods could not ignore his existence. Therefore, after goddess Ishtar had received his refusal of marriage, she persuaded her father Anu to release the Bull of Heaven to kill the hero as a revenge (Haase 415). Gilgamesh and Enkidu united and went against the Bull, defeating this monstrous creature as soon as the hero bound it with the Chains of Heaven. Ishtar’s reputation was trampled, but her anger did not subside. She complained to the gods, demanding the death of one of two men, since killing the beast of gods by man was considered a sin. Her desire was fulfilled, and, since Enkidu had been created by gods, he could not resist the order.

Ishtar demanded the death of Gilgamesh, but he was strongly protected by Utu, so the gods decided that Enkidu must die instead of Gilgamesh. Enkidu gradually weakened until he returned to the state of ordinary clay, while Gilgamesh held the crumbling clod of clay in his hands and cried I despair (George 33). He was very angry at the gods, believing that he was the one who deserved retaliation. Enkidu was just a kind of instrument in the hands of higher forces, just one of many treasures in the collection of Gilgamesh. However, for the hero, he was the only one who could be called his friend. Gilgamesh said that the value of Enkidu would be the highest for him forever. Thus, gods knew that his friend’s death would be the most painful punishment for the hero. One should say that Gilgamesh and his stubbornness and arrogant attitude to gods were the reason for the death of the one whom he had loved the most. However, after Enkidu, a final transformation of the hero’s character begins. He redefines the value and meaning of life.

The Search for Immortality and the Continuation of Transformation

Gilgamesh passes through various tests and changes to a great extent. If at the beginning of the epic, the king appears as an unbridled, willful, and cruel young man, after the death of Enkidu, he is already capable of heartfelt deep sorrow for his friend. For the first time realizing the futility of human existence, feeling the fear of death, the hero turns to gods to learn the secrets of life and death. Henceforth, Gilgamesh cannot just rule his people, he wants to know everything about the mystery of afterlife. His soul comes to utter despair, and he always asks himself how the irrepressible strength and energy of Enkidu’s body could perish (Gadotti 47). These philosophical thoughts lead the hero far from his native land and give him strength to overcome unprecedented difficulties. The transformation of his spirit continues, and a man of earth turns into a man of heaven.

Gilgamesh knows that all humans are mortal. He had previously observed death from afar: the death of commoners and enemies. This distant death did not affect him, it never evoked geelong deep enough to cause such an intense existential tension. However, the death of his single friend awoke in the mighty Gilgamesh a premonition of his death. Gilgamesh suddenly realized that human blood also flowed in him, so he was not immortal. He understood that one day, his life, full of accomplishments, deeds, and exploits, would end (George 35). The king was unable to accept it, life lost its meaning for him, and all positive initiatives were depreciating in the face of an imminent death. Gilgamesh went in search of immortality, in which he saw the only way to gain a life-affirming meaning. In the situation of hopelessness, Gilgamesh compared his life to a dream.

The impetus to the awakening Gilgamesh from his sleep was the death of Enkidu. It is characteristic that the death of a close person becomes a catalyst for the onset of one’s worldview crisis, leading to the situation of extreme existentialism. Thus, as the result of the perturbation that has happened, which is the death of a friend, the witness is deeply affected by this event, thus experiencing the utmost despair. He has nowhere to retreat; it is impossible to hide; the only way is to go forward. Thus, it is necessary to state that the transformation that has occurred in the perception of death turns him into a morally better person.

A hero, who always differed from others, claimed of a different fate for himself. As he was not an ordinary man, a truly unique one, he wanted a special attitude of the gods toward him. He forgot that, just like the entire human race, he was created from the perishable dust, into which he would return in the end. The existential disagreement with mortality caused the loss of faith in the meaning of life and led him to a state of despair and an experience of absurdity of everyday existence (Gadotti 125). In this state, where it is impossible to rely on anything or anyone, where knowledge is lost and forgotten, and where there are no more stable landmarks, Gilgamesh decides to looks for immortality.

During his journey, Gilgamesh comes to Siduri, a clever divine woman, and complains about his heavy fate, the loss of a friend, and his own imminent death. She gives him a wise answer, telling that he will not find immortality in a sense, in which he wants it. When gods created humans, they determined that all earthborn people had to be mortal. Life is the privilege of the higher forces only. Siduri also recommended Gilgamesh to “be happy day and night, of each day make a party, dance in circles day and night” as “this is the true task of mankind” (George 45). In this advice, the position of the sublimation of death in its extrapolation to life is presented. Siduri deliberately emphasizes some positive and pleasant moments of life, trying not to show its negative aspects. Perhaps, some reconciliation with death is possible in constantly cultivated desires and inexhaustible aspirations to satisfaction, but this optimistic life orientation does not console Gilgamesh because the main problem for him remains unsolved. In search for the mystery of never-dying, Gilgamesh continued his journey to old Utnapishtim who knew how to become immortal with the help of a flower with thorns that grew on the seabed (George 48). However, the hero lost a magic plant, and with it, he lost any hope for human immortality.

Therefore, Gilgamesh’s attempts were in vain but only at first glance. In fact, although the hero did not find the secret of eternal life of his body, he understood that good memory of noble actions was eternal. As the result of his wanderings, the hero did not get what he wanted, but the spiritual life in the epic was born. From the point when a snake ate the plant of deathlessness, he began to believe that the true immortality of memory was possible. Throughout his life, Gilgamesh wanted fame like nobody other. Therefore, he had a dangerous battle with the giant Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven, and other creatures and monsters. Nevertheless, at the end of the poem, upon returning after the loss of the flower of eternal youth to Uruk, Gilgamesh finds comfort in admiration of erected brick walls of the city. The king finds peace of mind, when he sees the almost ready walls around the kingdom of Uruk (George 52). These brick walls are a symbol of a new opportunity to take a fresh look at the world. The heroe’s admiration of the city walls means finding consolation.

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Gilgamesh created something that will last forever, so he receives not the physical immortality but the ever-lasting memory of his noble deeds. Finally, he was happy because he understood that people would remember him forever as a king who had rebuilt their city, destroyed after flood. In fact, he gave happiness and stability to countless people. The hero of the epic discovered the wisdom of being that implied helping people and working for the sake of others. Gilgamesh felt relieved after realizing that he was able to do something for the future generations. A man is mortal by nature so it would be better if people could appreciate their short lives, feeling happy about everything that surrounds them and what is given to them, instead of searching for the impossible.


The Epic of Gilgamesh is the greatest poetic work of ancient Eastern literature. The readers of all times have been interested in this literary achievement of the world’s most ancient civilization. The popularity of the legend about the king of Uruk lies in the fact that from the viewpoint of human psychology, the epic has no equals in the ancient literature. Here, the main role is played not by gods; in the center of events, there is a man who loves and hates, grieves and rejoices, hopes and despairs. The strength of the character of Gilgamesh, the greatness of his soul is not in outward manifestations, not in his numerous battles and confrontation with gods, but the in relation to his friend Enkidu. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the greatest anthem of friendship of world literature since not only does it contribute to overcoming external obstacles, but it also transforms the hero who changes from a fierce king to a clever and noble ruler. The hero is represented in dynamics, and readers can clearly see all the transformations of Gilgamesh for the better. He approaches the question of the meaning of life as closely as possible and finally realizes that true immortality is in glorifying himself with good deeds in the name of his people and his state.