In a time when natural disasters were the whims of the Gods, when hunger, disease, and death stalked ones life as surely as the wild beasts of the land, the epic poem of Gilgamesh found its way across the ancient landscape. It was unearthed as part of a library collected thousands of years before our time, yet "reflects an ancient range of human experience and emotion not so far removed from our own" (Jackson, xi). In a cultural context of nomadic life and city-states, ancient Iraqis worshipped numerous gods. Every aspect of their life depended upon the favor their gods bestowed. The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrates an understanding of the human spirit unbent by fickle gods and powerful kings. This is a story of human growth and acceptance for a difficult life and violent time in human history.
The ancient Iraqi society was "mostly illiterate," passing on history through recitation, according to Maureen Kovacs, in her introduction to the Epic. Yet, there were libraries containing collections of works carved into clay tablets in cuneiform. Those who lived within the walls of ancient city-states preserved their stories. Traders carried volumes between kingdoms and kingdoms seized treasures from each other. Life was uncertain and their culture at risk, "at least in part, a(s) a consequence of the insecurity of life in Mesopotamia, and of those 'overtones of anxiety' which Henri Frankfort described as being due to a 'haunting fear that the unaccountable and turbulent powers may at any time bring disaster to human society'"(Sandars, 22). The Epic embodies the characteristics needed for a kingdom to be successful.
Gilgamesh is a young man, a king, and a god. His interests lay in self- aggrandizement and wars of conquest. He is stronger than any young man in the town is, and irresistible to every young woman without regard to her social standing. His strength and beauty come from the gods. He is two-thirds god himself, as depicted in the Epic, full of unrestrained energy. He is extremely successful as a warrior, but less so as a king because of his energy and arrogance. Gilgamesh was a tyrant. He had an "over-riding preoccupation with fame, reputation, and the revolt of mortal man against the laws of separation and death" (Sandars, 22). In the pattern of mythical heroes, Gilgamesh must endure a remarkable transformation to alter his personality. He must grow. His subjects pray to the gods for an answer. That answer comes in the form of Enkidu, an untamed man of the forest.
Where Gilgamesh is the embodiment of corruption, Enkidu symbolizes purity. He is a creature untainted by the ways of the city and man. Enkidu is lured to the knowledge of men by a whore from the city. Through his involvement with the whore, "Enkidu was grown weak, for wisdom was in him and the thoughts of man were in his heart" (Sandars, pg. 65).
The knowledge he now has also makes him like a god. The animals of the forest run from him. He becomes a protector to the other shepherds. What does this say about this culture's perception of knowledge? One can infer that the wisdom of the day believes that knowledge leads to corruption. One might also infer that society held negative perceptions concerning certain activities performed by women, that there were social mores and class divisions.
The poem continues and Gilgamesh and Enkidu wrestle their way into friendship. Enkidu provides the catalyst for Gilgamesh to grow. It is through Enkidu that Gilgamesh first learns of the great cedar forest and the evil guardian therein.
With Enkidu by his side, Gilgamesh begins his journey. His interest is in conquest and wealth. The cedar of the great forest will help him enlarge the great wall of Uruk. An accomplishment for which he will be remembered. If Gilgamesh can defeat Huwawa, the evil guardian, and show his superior strength to his subjects he has achieved greater glory. In this part of the epic Gilgamesh is a warrior-king.
Nevertheless, Enkidu is afraid of Huwawa. He understands the power of evil better than Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is corrupted by evil and is blind to anything but his own power.
He laughs at Enkidu's fear. He has no concern for death. This all changes when Enkidu dies.
The primary reason, then, for Gilgamesh to enter the forest is to obtain a wealth of wood to enlarge the wall of Uruk. Yet, on another level, the Epic is a wonderful adventure. While it is true that these two friends are young and might seek challenge, the context of the story leads the reader to believe that more is at stake than fame and fortune. The battle with Huwawa pits Gilgamesh and Enkidu against the will of the gods to keep their forest sacred. Gilgamesh and Enkidu prevail against Huwawa, but in doing so they anger Enlil, the storm-god. Nature is the enemy. Ancient societies were subject to flood, drought, and famine at the whim of the weather. Only the gods can control it. "We know from many ancient Mesopotamian sources, in Sumerian and in Akkadian, that the Babylonians believed the purpose of the human race to be the service of the Gods" (George, xxxvii). The gods are responsible for men's fate. While it appears that Gilgamesh has power, it is evident that he has no control over the events of the world.
After Gilgamesh defeats Huwawa, the goddess of love, Ishtar, wants him for her own. Gilgamesh does not believe that Ishtar will treat him differently than she has treated her past lovers, none of whom seemed to fare very well. Angered, Ishtar threatens to release the dead back to earth if her father does not create the Bull of Heaven. The bull is symbolic of a seven-year drought. Her father thus creates the drought which Gilgamesh defeats.
It seems that Gilgamesh's union with Enkidu has given him the personal fortitude to prevail against the temptations of the gods, represented by Ishtar. However, when "Enkidu refuses the prayer of Huwawa for mercy, and he insults Ishtar" his council to Gilgamesh to kill Huwawa leads to deadly consequences for him (Sandar, 35).
The gods are angry. They decide that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu must die.
Enkidu hears his fate in a dream and succumbs to death. Gilgamesh is distraught. His fear of death overwhelms him. He envisions Enkidu as dust and mourns. He clothes himself in animal skins, throwing off the wealth of his kingdom, and enters the nomadic life in his quest for immortality. The transformation of Gilgamesh from warrior-king to compassionate human is beginning. He experiences the death of his friend with great fear of death for himself. He becomes more like Enkidu and replaces his cavalier attitude with one of commitment. Gilgamesh throws the trappings of god-king and warrior-king away and becomes a nomad in search of immortality. He is experiencing a new stage of growth as an epic hero.
Until now, Gilgamesh could not see past his own greatness. By spurning the offer of Ishtar to become her consort, and as such, the God of the Underworld, Gilgamesh has given away his chance at being a god-king. He must learn how to be a mortal man. However, Gilgamesh does not accept the fate of death. He decides, "to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, for he has entered the assembly of the gods" (Sandar, 97). Utnapishtim is immortal. According to the Flood story, Utnapishtim learned, in a dream, that the gods were going to flood the earth. He was instructed to build a boat. Thus, he became the only human to survive the deluge. The gods gave him immortality. Gilgamesh is in search of his secret. During his journey Shamash, Gilgamesh's mentor-god, tries to dissuade him by saying, "You will never find the life for which you are searching" (Sandars, 100).
Gilgamesh encounters Siduri, a woman who makes wine in a golden bowl with golden vats given to her by the gods. Siduri recognizes him as the warrior-king who defeated Huwawa, and the Bull of Heaven. She tells him that his search for immortality is worthless. Gilgamesh is not ready to hear the wisdom she imparts. She tells him that his life is valuable, not because he seeks immortality, but because of the things he already has. She tells him to enjoy his life as a man and understand that the gods keep immortality for themselves. This is the truth of man. Unhappily, Gilgamesh cannot bear his fear and his fear is still greater than his wisdom. Siduri tells him that Utnapishtim is unreachable. Then she tells him where to find a ferryman who crosses the waters of death. Angered by her truth, Gilgamesh rages through the forest and destroys the very items that he needs to make the crossing with the ferryman.
Throughout the Epic Gilgamesh destroys that which he seeks. His headstrong unwillingness to obey his fate leads him from one catastrophe to the next. He…