Ancient Near Eastern Values in Term Paper

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The use of physical suffering as a symbol for emotional and spiritual suffering is also well-known in the Western tradition. Centuries later, men and women would disappear into the desert in search of God. They would live apart from all human companionship, and deprive themselves of all physical comfort. Gilgamesh does the same. Gilgamesh is also like the lover who pines away for his beloved and wastes away in body, as well as in heart. The message is that the eternal truths of the universe are not easily discovered, and again that these truths are largely hidden from humankind. Humanity's lot is to suffer even in the face of our greatest happiness. Unlike the gods, we cannot know joy eternally. Enkidu was a dear friend, but he could not be by Gilgamesh' side forever. The joy and love that the hero had known were foreordained to be short. Even if Gilgamesh had not traveled a foot from the body of his beloved friend, it would have been as if he had been completely transformed. Sorrow, pain, and death are the lot of human beings.

The hero of the Epic continues to violate the boundaries between the temporal and the sacred in his approach to Urshunabi. As always, when faced with the unknown, he attacks it. In recounting his journey to Urshunabi, Gilgamesh describes how he killed one beast after another, slaying the sacred along with the profane. He says of himself and Enkidu,

We overcame everything: climbed the mountain,

Captured the Bull of Heaven and killed him,

Brought Humbaba to grief, who lives in the cedar forest;

Entering the mountain we slew lions

My friend who I love dearly underwent with me all hardships.

The fate of mankind overtook him.

Six days and seven nights I wept over him

Until a worm fell out of his nose.

Then I was afraid.


This passage is repeated over and over again from this point onward. Gilgamesh is attempting to show how powerful and terrible he is, that he can overcome even the gods. He was more powerful still, in combination with his friend. Yet, death vanquished Enkidu. The repeated account of Gilgamesh' and Enkidu's physical prowess reveals a common human reaction to the unknown; a belief that any "threat" can be vanquished by brute force. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are savages, not civilized human beings.

Their approach to problem solving is one that is devoid of any deep thought, or consideration of the needs and feelings of others; of the profound truths that lie behind the surface realities. In their battle against the cosmos, Gilgamesh and his friend destroyed whatever came their way, treating the sacred in the same fashion as the profane. They lacked respect for that which they did not understand. In acting in such a fashion, he has demonstrated his unfitness to enter into the realms that belong properly only to the gods. Urshunabi responds to him,

Your own hands, Gilgamesh, have hindered the crossing.

You have destroyed the stone things and have picked up the Urnu-snakes.

The stone things are broken; the Urnu-snakes not [in the forest].

Lift up, Gilgamesh, the axe in your hand;

Go down to the forest, [cut] poles of sixty cubits;

Paint bitumen on the sockets, bring them to me."


The hero expects to be able to cross the river of death though he has destroyed the sacred things that lie beside it. Urshunabi's answer is that Gilgamesh use his axe - his tool of death and destruction - for the constructive purpose of cutting poles to build a boat that is capable of crossing the river. The interchange between Gilgamesh and Urshunabi is indicative of the battle between the sacred and the profane, and between enlightenment and savagery that characterizes so much of Western history and civilization. On the one hand, it is possible to accord undue value to sacred objects that might otherwise have no meaning, but it is necessary to explore these meanings before passing judgment and casting tradition into the flames. On the other hand, knowledge is not gained by adhering strictly to the tried and true, but is found only by those willing to brave every obstacle in the search for it. The stone and the Urnu-snakes could be like the golden calf of the Bible - comforting and familiar symbols to an oppressed and frightened people, but they could also represent unnecessary attachments to a valueless past. Gilgamesh must learn the difference as must all men and women.

Finally, Gilgamesh meets Utnapishtim, and presents to him the same face of won't and despair that he has presented to every other being on his journey. Utnapishtim addresses the hero:

Why Gilgamesh are you full of woe?

A you who have been made of the flesh of gods and man?

You, when your father and mother made you

When [you], Gilgamesh, were [conceived] for the Fool

She was given to him, for mud is given butter,

Good flour for poor, which like.


Gilgamesh should have been happy because he combines in himself the attributes of both men and gods. A goddess lay down with a "Fool" in order to conceive him, in other words, the lowest among human beings was given a great gift, and that gift was Gilgamesh the hero. It is a common theme in Western literature religion that the lowly are raised up by their contact with the divine. Jesus Christ represents the ultimate fusion of Divine attributes with human characteristics. He, too, was but a poor man, but at the same time, the greatest of all human beings, as he was the Son of God. Moses complained to God that he could not speak, and so could not be God's emissary to Pharaoh, but God gave him the power. In later times, ordinary men and women would find inspiration in the search for knowledge, or in the creation of great art, and rise to positions of great importance. The life that human beings are given is itself a phenomenal gift, a bit of the divine mixed with the grosser elements of the profane material world - "the good flour with the poor."

The wise man, Utnapishtim, cannot understand Gilgamesh' dilemma because he cannot understand why Gilgamesh is not satisfied with his lot. Nonetheless, dissatisfaction with one's lot is a major theme and a driving force in Western culture and civilization. It has brought down empires, and created new ways of thinking and seeing.

The Epic of Gilgamesh remains pertinent today because its themes are universal. Gilgamesh' quest to attain the unattainable is a dream that is dear to many and which is fundamental to the spirit of inquiry and exploration that pervades Western thought. Gilgamesh' journey sets up a conflict between the human and the divine that resonates through the centuries, recalling battles between established authorities and traditions, and new ideas. It is also a story of self-discovery, for the hero must come to terms with not only his limits as an individual, but with the very real boundaries of being human. Human begins may want to live forever, and may wish always to know love and happiness, but this is not necessarily possible, for reasons that should become clear to Gilgamesh. In the end, we are all human, able to perceive what lies beyond, but not capable of understanding it all, or of possessing it.

Works Cited

Abusch, Tzvi. "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay." The Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.4 (2001): 614+.


Jager, Bernd. "The Birth of Poetry and the Creation of a Human World: An Exploration of the Epic of Gilgamesh." Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32.2 (2001): 131+.


Tzvi Abusch, "The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay," the Journal of the American Oriental Society 121.4 (2001).

Bernd Jager, "The Birth of Poetry and the Creation of a Human World: An Exploration of the Epic of Gilgamesh," Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32.2 (2001).[continue]

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