Great Books of Western Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh


1.  Introduction

In 1994, Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University, wrote The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, in which he argued for the more conservative viewpoint that literature should follow the “art for art’s sake” ideal and not have it be subservient to some program of social engineering or political correctness.

After I moved to Chicago this summer, I found that the local library, together with the interlibrary system that stretches across the libraries of the Chicagoland area, is a wonderful resource.   I re-read Harold Bloom’s book and decided to embark on a program of reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the Great Books of Western Literature, in particular as set forth by

  • The Great Books of the Western World series by Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Gilgamesh is the epic from ancient Mesopotamia in the area of the world that is now modern-day Iraq.   It was unearthed in 1853 in the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh, but was not deciphered until 1872 by a curator named George Smith.   It was written about 1700 B.C., and portrays events that supposedly happened almost one thousand years earlier.    In this, it is like the Iliad and the Hebrew Bible in that it consists of a written version of an oral tradition that had been around for centuries.

For this post, I am using the English translation by Stephen Mitchell.

2.   5 Themes of Gilgamesh

a.  Mythological “Backstory” of the Hebrew Bible

One of the episodes in the book is the visit by Gilgamesh to the Babylonian version of Noah named Utnapishtim.   When this epic was made known at the end of the 19th century, there was much excitement among Biblical scholars because this for them confirmed the historicity of the Biblical Flood as described in Genesis.    However, although the Hebrews drew upon the mythological material they encountered during the Babylonian exile, as Joseph Campbell explained in The Power of Myth, they put quite a different “spin” on it.    Noah, for example, takes Yahweh’s word for it that a flood is coming and makes preparations for it with alacrity.    Utnapishtim, on the other hand, questions the god who is about to unleash this calamity upon the world and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade him from doing so, according to Professor Amy-Jill Levine, who gives the Teaching Company lectures on the Old Testament.    In so doing, he is clearly more on the side of the humans than on the side of the gods, as opposed to Noah, who takes God’s word without question.

Thus, while the iconography of the Hebrew Bible is lifted from the Babylonian mythos in which the Jews had been acquainted during their exile, they changed many of its thematic emphases for their own theological purposes.   Utnapishtim, although rewarded with immortality for his part in saving the world after the Flood, still remains on the side of the humans and gives Gilgamesh wise advice in the last part of his adventure.

b.  Social Justice

Gilgamesh at the beginning of the work is acting like what we would call today “the 1% behaving badly”.    He creates conditions of such inequality and hardship for the people of Sumer that they cry out in supplication to the gods.    The gods create a man of the wild called Enkidu that possesses strength equal to Gilgamesh as a kind of counterpoint to the king.    The next section of the work is where Enkidu is lured from the wild into the city, where he confronts Gilgamesh and then fights him due to the injustice the king has wrought upon the inhabitants of the city.

However, in one of the work’s wonderful scenes, the two fighting each other to exhaustion at some point realize that the two are counterparts in a way, and they embrace each other and become friends.    At this point in the work, rather than Gilgamesh terrorizing the populace, it is Gilgamesh and Enkidu who set forth as a team helping each other to fight monsters of the world that are terrorizing the populace.    Gilgamesh thought it was he who was civilizing Enkidu, but in reality Enkidu ended up civilizing Gilgamesh.    Rather than him preying upon the weak in his own civilization, he formed an alliance with Enkidu to fight against monsters who themselves were preying upon that civilization.

c.   The City as the Center of Civilization

The garden of Eden is considered the cradle of mankind in the Hebrew Bible, but it is clear in the epic of Gilgamesh that it is the city that is the cradle of civilization.    The wild man Enkidu is tamed by the wiles of the priestess/prostitute from the temple of Ishtar who, after laying with Enkidu out in the wild, causes the birds and beasts who once accepted Enkidu to now shun him.    He now has no choice but to go with the woman to the city where Gilgamesh rules, and he then gradually learns how to be not a natural man, but a civilized man.   The poem begins with images of the city, and ends with it as well, so the city is clearly a thematic anchor for the work.

It is in contrast with the forest, where the monster lies that attacks those in the cities, and against whom Gilgamesh and Enkidu do battle in the second section of the work.

d.   Friendship

The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the first great portrayal of friendship in literature.   Enkidu is created by the gods almost like the double of Gilgamesh, but he is also the opposite of Gilgamesh in that he is created as the master of beasts, not the master of humanity as Gilgamesh is.    It is this combination of like and opposite that causes them to go from fighting each other, to fighting together.   So distraught is Gilgamesh when Enkidu dies later on in the epidemic, that he tries to find the secret of immortality so as to revive his departed friend and thus not be parted from him.

e.  Immortality

Adam is prevented from the secret of immortality in the garden of Eden through the machinations of the serpent, which causes Adam and Eve to be punished by God by expulsion from the garden.    In the epic of Gilgamesh, the snake also appears and is also the reason why Gilgamesh is thwarted from achieving the secret of immortality.   Gilgamesh, based on the directions of Utnapishtim’s wife, finds the plant which confers upon the person who eats it the gift of immortality, but Gilgamesh is exhausted by the search for the plant at the bottom of the ocean and decides to take a nap.    The snake comes in and takes the plant from him, and thus achieves immortality itself and prevents man from obtaining it.    Gilgamesh returns to the city and reconciles himself to the fact that he cannot himself achieve immortality.    He is reconciled in large part because he realizes that mankind can create through civilization, which is passed down from the memory of one generation to another, something which can approximate immortality.   And the poem of Gilgamesh has achieved a sort of immortality of its own, as it is being read thousands of years after its creation.

3.   CONCLUSION

All five of these themes are ones that are accessible even to the modern reader, and that is the reason why it has enthralled millions of readers since it was first brought back to the consciousness of the world at the end of the 19th century.    It is a story that is morally more ambiguous than the moral universe portrayed in the book of Genesis, but that is probably why it is able, at least in my mind, to resonate even more strongly with a modern audience.

Celebration of friendship, reconciliation to the reality of death which deprives one of those friendships, and solace in the immortality that comes from contemplating enduring works of art, are all themes that are as real to me sitting here at the beginning of the 21st century A.D. as they were to the people in the 21st century B.C. at the time of Gilgamesh.

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