Enkidu’s Deathbed RealizationThe heartbreaking scenes in the seventh tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh describe Enkidu’s deathbed realization that his friendship with Gilgamesh was a one-sided affair. In this scene, Enkidu lies dying and feeling abandoned by Gilgamesh. In his death throes, “Enkidu’s innards were churning / lying there so alone” (Kovacs 64). Just before he dies, Enkidu cries out “my friend hates me…my friend who I saved in battle has now abandoned me” (Kovacs 66). This agonizing deathbed realization of the limitations of their friendship calls for a reevaluation of the nature of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.At the outset, Enkidu and Gilgamesh have such inconsistent roles that Enkidu’s deathbed realization seems it should have been obvious. As the story opens, Gilgamesh is described as taking advantage of his subjects. Although the nature of his acts is not entirely clear, we are left with the impression of Gilgamesh as undisciplined and out of control. Guided only by his “stormy heart” and great physical strength, Gilgamesh is not a good ruler and needs to be brought into line. There is no indication in the text that Gilgamesh is seeking a relationship with anyone, let alone a friend. Enkidu was created by Aruru to bring Gilgamesh into line. As ordained by Anu, Enkidu’s role is not to satisfy Gilgamesh’s need for friendship, but rather to bring Gilgamesh under control.Enkidu’s needs are in sharp contrast to Gilgamesh. Unlike Gilgamesh, Enkidu is looking for a good friend. After his assignation with Shamash, Enkidu realizes that he has lost his animal friends and, “becoming aware of himself, he sought a friend” (Kovacs 10). Although it initially appears that his relationship with Shamash may satisfy this need, Shamash tells him to snap out of it, saying, “It is your wrong thoughts that must change,” and steers him to meeting Gilgamesh in a spirit of friendship. While forces beyond the control of either Enkidu or Gilgamesh engineer this friendship, it appears that while Enkidu truly seeks a meeting of the heart, Gilgamesh merely needs someone to tone down his aggressive impulses.This inconsistency between the roles of Enkidu and Gilgamesh is repeated in other parts of the text. For example, while Gilgamesh’s enthusiasm to journey and destroy the great Cedar Forest is particularly palpable (Kovacs 20-21), Enkidu is less sanguine. Worriedly, he appeals to the Elders, requesting them to “say to him [Gilgamesh] that he must not go to the Cedar Forest – the journey is not to be made” (Kovacs 20). Here, Enkidu is looking after his friend, while Gilgamesh is primarily after a new adventure. The reasons for this disparity are made clear in the next tablet. While Gilgamesh does not relent, Enkidu’s role in this journey is clarified in the next table. The Elders advise Gilgamesh not to rely upon his “vast strength’ but instead upon Enkidu. They urge him to “let Enkidu go ahead of you… Enkidu will protect the friend, will keep the comrade safe”. According to the Elders, Enkidu’s role is protecting Gilgamesh. This is consistent with the role initially assigned to Enkidu by the gods at the outset. Curiously, Gilgamesh has no such responsibility towards Enkidu. Despite Enkidu’s entreaty, “My Friend, turn back!” (Kovacs 28), Gilgamesh persists in undertaking the perilous journey because the Elders have assured him that “Enkidu will protect the friend” (Kovacs 28).Gilgamesh does appear to have a brief moment in which considers acting on behalf of Enkidu, but this moment is fleeting. Just before he is slain, Humbaba prophesizes Enkido’s early death, saying “he will not live the longer of the two” (Kovacs 28). Apparently, this gives Gilgamesh pause because Enkidu angrily asserts that “my friend, I have been talking to you but you have not been listening to me. You have been listening to the curse of Humbaba!” Although the meaning is not entirely clear, it appears that Enkidu does not consider this threat a meaningful one, whereas Gilgamesh, who is charged with having superior knowledge, is fully aware of the danger. Despite this awareness, Gilgamesh quickly overcomes his reluctance to sacrifice Enkidu. The foregoing evidence forces the reader to conclude that despite the many claims of friendship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh which pepper the text, this is not a friendship as understood in modern times. Enkidu’s repeated and endearing acts of loyalty and friendship are never reciprocated in a meaningful way during his lifetime. This disparity in roles may be attributed to the parties having been placed on an uneven footing by the gods at the outset. Alternatively, it may reflect a relationship between one who was two-thirds god and one who was wholly mortal. Regardless of the reason, however, it is perplexing that true friendship remains beyond the reach of one described as “awesome to perfection” (Kovacs 4).Works CitedKovacs, Maureen Gallery, trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989
The epic poem of Gilgamesh is recognized as one of the earliest works in literature, originating back to the existence of ancient Mesopotamia. Since then, numerous versions of the story have been published, including one by David Ferry, called Gilgamesh. Regardless of the version, they all contain the same plot. In the epic poem, Gilgamesh is a tyrannical king in Uruk, Mesopotamia and the people of the city cry out to the gods to bring them peace from his ruling. Throughout his reign, Gilgamesh has been sexually exploiting women and taking the lives of men at his will. As a result, the gods create a man named Enkidu and assign him as Gilgamesh’s companion, in an effort to make him a better king. Gilgamesh does have an understanding of his obligations as a king, but he both fails and succeeds in satisfying them.
One of Gilgamesh’s obligations is to protect his people. As a king, Gilgamesh has absolute authority over his people, but he arbitrarily exercises his power. In one instance, Gilgamesh attends a wedding and “Before the husband, Gilgamesh will lie/ in pleasure with the bride in the marital chamber” (2.2.14). In other words, Gilgamesh thinks he has the right to sleep with whomever he wants and disregards the consent of women. This careless action instills fear among the people of Uruk and as a result, the old men resent Gilgamesh and beg the gods to alleviate some of their burden. Gilgamesh is supposed to be the “protector of the people,” but “Neither the father’s son/ nor the wife of the noble; neither the mother’s daughter/ nor the warrior’s bride was safe” (1.2.4). Gilgamesh’s people no longer trust him and not only do they need protection from others outside of Uruk, but also within the city from their uncontrollable king. The gods respond by creating a soulmate, Enkidu, who will protect Uruk’s virgin brides and men from Gilgamesh.
Although the people of Uruk failed to receive protection from within their city, they were protected from external forces because of Gilgamesh. For instance, Gilgamesh built an “outer wall [that]/ shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner wall/ is beyond the imaginings of kings” (1.1.3). Gilgamesh had many achievements as a king, such as irrigating the fields, digging wells and planting orchards, but his greatest achievement was the construction of the city walls (1.1.3-4). This was because Mesopotamia’s geography consisted of flat, barren plains that made its cities easy to attack. Hence, Gilgamesh built the walls to defend his people from potential enemies. Furthermore, the city of Uruk had a strong army that was able to defeat its enemies in battles. This was due to the fact that Gilgamesh was “the vanguard and rear guard of the army/ Shadow of Darkness over the enemy field/ the Web, the Flood that rises to wash away/ the walls of alien cities” (1.1.4). These descriptions of Gilgamesh suggest that he devoted all of his strength in the battles against Uruk’s enemies and was even capable of facing them alone. Because of his strength, Gilgamesh succeeded in protecting these “alien cities” from entering his own and attacking his people.
Another obligation of Gilgamesh is to be unselfish. Gilgamesh finds himself deeply mourning over the loss of his companion, Enkidu, and he becomes fearful of his own death. He leaves his people and embarks on a dangerous journey in the wilderness to “find out how death could be avoided” (1.9.48). He threatens to abandon his duties as a king and “wander in unknown places, seeking” if he does not find Utnapishtim, the only man who was granted immortality by the gods (10.1.57). As a king, Gilgamesh has numerous responsibilities, including one to look after the the militaristic well-being of Uruk. The city has never been attacked under Gilgamesh’s dominion and with him wandering in the wilderness without knowing when he will return to his people, Uruk will be vulnerable to its enemies. Therefore, Gilgamesh is selfish for placing his own needs before his people’s.
However, Gilgamesh, later, demonstrates a different motive for his dangerous journey into the wilderness. After he has reached Utnapishtim’s territory, Utnapishtim informs Gilgamesh of a plant that will restore the youth of a man. He tells Urshanabi, Utnapishtim’s wife, that he “will carry the thorny plant back to [his] city/ [He] will give some of the plant to the elders there/ to share among them…And [he] will take [his] share of the magic plant” (11.7.80). Gilgamesh’s intention suggests that he is thinking about the well-being of his people, especially when he wants the elders to eat the plant before him, so they can be rejuvenated. This act of unselfishness could also be an act of compensation to the elders for Gilgamesh’s exploitation of the virgin brides and men.
The main responsibility of a king is to administer the well-being of a kingdom; thus, a king must fulfill numerous obligations, such as to protect his kingdom, in order to carry out this responsibility. Gilgamesh’s role as a king can be seen as one of both failure and success. For instance, he abuses his absolute authority by exploiting virgin brides and men, but on the other hand, he is efficacious in ensuring that potential enemies do not attack his people. Although initially, Gilgamesh as as ruler was not always displayed in a good light, he ultimately became a better leader for his people.
The most dreaded lesson in the eyes of a child is the concept of “no.” While most children eventually realize that not everything in the world is available for their taking, the select few who neglect to recognize their limitations inevitably grow up to be self-indulgent, immature adults and burdens to those around them. In the case of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the spoiled child is the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and it is his subjects who must bear the burden and suffer painfully under their king’s tyranny. While Gilgamesh is a glorified and accomplished figure in Uruk, his achievements are undeserved, and his defining feature is not his physical might but instead his egregious ignorance. This is perhaps most evident in the king’s perilous quest to defeat Humbaba. Contrary to the text’s implication, Gilgamesh’s invasion of the Forest of Cedar is not a powerful display of ambition or a right of passage that illustrates his maturation; despite the king’s apparent reformation, Gilgamesh remains an arrogant and entitled leader whose successes are merely a result of his privileged birth and upbringing replete with praise and devoid of constraints.
The Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the king as a mighty and heroic leader, and while it acknowledges Gilgamesh’s faults, the epic often overlooks his abusive tendencies and emphasizes his unmatched rigor and spirit. The high regard in which the text holds Gilgamesh is evident in the lofty descriptions of the king as “Surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature, / brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage” (1.29-30). These grand depictions effectively imply that Gilgamesh’s deplorable actions are merely symptomatic of his greatness; as an authoritative man, the king wrongfully exploits his high status to excuse his many transgressions. However, from the perspective of the people of Uruk whom Gilgamesh “harries without warrant,” the king’s exceptional capabilities are trivial in comparison to his cruel authority (I.67). They do not view their king’s abhorrent treatment of his people as a mere byproduct of his extraordinary strength but instead as a sign of Gilgamesh’s immaturity and unrestrained upbringing. As a result of his unmatched physical prowess, the king grows up receiving only praise and submission to his superhuman potential, never realizing his own limitations. Gilgamesh’s incessant need to satisfy his urges to the detriment of his subjects stems from this lawless childhood, as nobody ever deprives the king of what he wants; consequently, Gilgamesh develops a severe sense of entitlement and fails to grasp how to behave appropriately as a an important leader. Much like a child, all Gilgamesh knows in life is instant gratification.
While the actual text of The Epic of Gilgamesh emphasizes Gilgamesh’s feats and ambition, in reality, his achievements are more of a reflection of his birthright than his actual perseverance. Unlike the common people of Uruk, Gilgamesh was born under a unique lineage, with “two-thirds of him god and one-third human” (I.48). In this sense, Gilgamesh quite literally is not a “man of the people.” It is not initiative and dedication that bring him success but rather his genetics that provide him with a significant upper hand in life. Given the unparalleled and godly capabilities with which he is endowed at birth, Gilgamesh’s extensive accomplishments are essentially meritless, as the king attains his high status solely through his arbitrarily privileged circumstances, which allow him to conquer lands more effectively than any human ever could. In its generous depictions of Gilgamesh, the epic overlooks an important qualification of true heroism—being born does not make a man deserving of greatness; it only gives him the chance to be. In addition to bringing him undeserved power, Gilgamesh’s unique lineage also breeds an unjustified sense of arrogance and superiority over his human subjects, which further contributes to his tyranny. While the text may imply that Gilgamesh is a mighty and ambitious ruler, the reality of the situation is that his many conquests are merely a result of a lucky birth and significantly contribute to his conceit. In essence, Gilgamesh’s greatest triumph is simply being born.
In conjunction with the elevated language that the text adopts to excuse Gilgamesh’s atrocious behavior, the introduction of his companion Enkidu produces a convenient plot point in which readers can settle their qualms with the king, as Enkidu appears to parallel Gilgamesh’s strength and reforms his barbarous tendencies. Contrary to this interpretation, Gilgamesh actually remains a relatively static character and his new partner actually has an opposite effect to its original purpose. While the wild and innocent Enkidu undoubtedly serves as an effective foil to the civilized and tyrannical Gilgamesh, his morality fails to change the king’s disregard for others because he does not possess the power to significantly influence Gilgamesh’s decisions or character. This is most evident in their wrestling match in which Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu who then submits, stating “High over warriors you are exalted, / to be king of the people Enlil made it your destiny!” (P.239-240). Although Enkidu is portrayed as a character equal in physical capacity to Gilgamesh, his loss in the wrestling match confirms his inferiority and essentially negates this claim. With another victory, Gilgamesh only fortifies his sense of superiority and greatness, failing to meet anyone who can overcome his physical mastery. The shear fact that Enkidu emerges from the fight secondary to Gilgamesh invalidates any possibility of reform or maturation. A such an impervious king, Gilgamesh does not yield to the admonitions of his inferiors; only a greater force can effect such a change. Consequently, at his core, Gilgamesh remains a spoiled child who merely channels his entitlement toward different goals in response to Enkidu’s introduction.
The seemingly positive influence that Enkidu has on Gilgamesh is perhaps most evident in the two companions’ journey into the Forest of Cedar. Gilgamesh’s invasion of the forbidden forest, at first glance, appears to be a manifestation of his unrelenting ambition and a symbol of his internal transformation from a ruthless king to a great leader as reflected when he announces “Bold as I am I shall tread the distant path [to the home of Humbaba,] / I shall face a battle I know not” (II.262-263). While Gilgamesh’s dauntless decision to invade the Forest of Cedar appears to be an effect of his new relationship with Enkidu, his true intentions are not nearly as honorable as they are immature. Gilgamesh’s daring pursuit of the cedar trees is not a manifestation of his spirited ambition but instead a symptom of his spoiled upbringing and subsequent psychological underdevelopment. With a bolstered superiority complex from defeating the mighty Enkidu, the king further develops a heightened mentality of imperviousness and stubbornness against those who deny or challenge him. Consequently, when Enkidu and his own personal advisors caution the king, stating “That is a journey which must not be made, that is a man [who must not be] looked on” (II.274-275), Gilgamesh interprets the warning as a challenge not motivated by ambition or glory but simply by the fact that his advisors oppose the decision. Much like a child who does not comprehend any perspectives other than his own, Gilgamesh wants to invade the forbidden forest simply because it is “forbidden.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh does not recount the story of a tyrannical but accomplished conqueror; in reality, it is merely the story of a child who by circumstance alone finds himself sitting on a king’s throne. By viewing the plot through a different lens, specifically in the eyes of those who suffer painfully under Gilgamesh’s reign, it is clear that the interpretation the epic invites its readers to make is not an accurate illustration of the king’s true character. Gilgamesh’s juvenile belief that he can and should fulfill all internal urges is a blatant expression of his psychological immaturity that should not be ignored in the context of the epic as a whole. Whether it is battling Humbaba, killing the Bull of Heaven, or seeking immortality, Gilgamesh’s pursuits are not a consequence of his ambition, honor, or glory but instead by something entirely different—an unearned exemption of the rules that govern a mature and adult society.
What is the meaning of life? Is life not a constant journey to finding the meaning of our existence? Is life about finding this meaning of existence or is it all about searching? One of the oldest epics in the world, “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, explores this subject in a very intricate manner. The main character – Gilgamesh, and his helper – Enkidu, both experience emotional catharses, which help them realize the true meaning of life. Gilgamesh is in constant search for heroic deeds, which he believes that will ensure him an immortal name. However, by the end of the epic, after his quest to the waters of death and his meeting with Utanapishtim, Gilgamesh finally finds the true meaning of life. Life is about the small steps that human civilization takes every day towards improvement, and Gilgamesh’s contribution as a human being is what will ensure him a name in history.
At the beginning of the Epic, Gilgamesh believes that the mission of his existence is to find a way to leave his mark in history. He believes that due to his divine nature, he is superior to other humans, and so he is not concerned about everyday life because this is something he takes for granted. “And who, like Gilgamesh, can proclaim, “I am King!” / Gilgamesh was singled out from the day of his birth, / Two-thirds of him was divine, one-third of him was human!” (Foster,5). Gilgamesh takes pride in his divine background, which makes him believe that he can achieve everything that he desires. Gilgamesh does not care about the surrounding world and the little things that make life meaningful. He is not concerned about the wellbeing of anybody else. “His teammates stood forth by his game stick, / He was harrying the young men of Uruk beyond reason. / Gilgamesh would leave no son to his father, / day and night he would rampage fiercely” (Foster,5). The only thing that brings joy to Gilgamesh is when he has established his status above everyone else’s and has proven his mightiness. This constant establishment of superiority through the means of torturing his subjects, forces the people of Uruk to ask for help from the gods. “Goddesses kept hearing their plaints” (Foster,5). Therefore, the Gods create Enkidu with a mission to change Gilgamesh and bring him back closer to his human nature. In reality the human is created first, and later on his mission is to find the meaning of his existence. Enkidu differs from the humans in a way that his purpose comes before his creation. “[Let her create a partner for Gilgamesh], mighty in strength, / [Let them contend with each other], that Uruk may have peace” (Foster,6). Enkidu’s reason for creation and purpose in life is to “tame” Gilgamesh, and a big part of this task is to show Gilgamesh, who has forgotten his human nature, that life is not about finding the secret of immortality, but rather it is about finding this one reason that makes every day of one’s lifetime meaningful and worth living. Enkidu is less of a human because he does not struggle with the existential question about the meaning of life, which all humans, including Gilgamesh, face. Therefore, Enkidu’s path ends earlier than that of Gilgamesh. Enkidu’s purpose in this epic starts from the process of distracting Gilgamesh, so that he would stop torturing his people. After this has been achieved, the second part of Enkidu’s mission on earth is to die in order to show Gilgamesh that nothing in this world is permanent, especially human existence. Enkidu’s death is the turning point for Gilgamesh because due to the experience of emotional catharsis, he dramatically becomes aware of his human nature. “I have been asleep all these years! / Now let my eyes see the sun, let me have all the light/ I could wish for, / Darkness is infinite, how little light there is!” (Foster,67) Gilgamesh’s realization through this vivid figurative language enables him to be aware of the lie that he has been living during his whole life that death can be avoided. He realizes that life is temporary and every second of it should be cherished, because what comes after life is nothingness.
After his friend’s death, Gilgamesh is more determined than ever to find the secret to immortality. This becomes the sole purpose of his life which indicates his awareness of his human nature. “May I not see the death I constantly fear!” (Foster,75) is what Gilgamesh asks for in front of the tavern keeper, who is another form of the goddess Ishtar. Experiencing human emotions like fear and sadness are among the first signs of this dramatic change in his character. Phrases like “I have grown afraid of death” (Foster,66), “keep me safe” (Foster,66), “woe in my vitals” (Foster,74), become very common for Gilgamesh after Enkidu’s death. Fighting against his fear of death, Gilgamesh goes on a journey to find Utanapishtim the Distant one, who is the only person in the world who knows the secret to immortal life. When Gilgamesh arrives at Utanapishtim’s dwelling, he finds out that the “heroic” deeds which involve only taking away the life of monsters cannot ensure him eternal life, because they have not resulted in anything good, and so he cannot be compared to what Utanapishtim has done for the sake of humanity. Utanapishtim proposes a test that will prove to Gilgamesh that he is not worthy of eternal life. Gilgamesh fails the test and accepts his faith. On his way home, he receives a flower that restores youth and he regains his hope. The choice of a such fragile object for something that rejuvenates life is very deliberate here, because it shows the fragile nature of life itself – one day it is here, the next second is gone. The loss of the flower is the culmination of Gilgamesh’s catharsis and it completes the circle of returning Gilgamesh back to his human nature. The act of losing the flower in a matter of seconds shows in a figurative manner the act of dying.
The gradual return to the human nature of Gilgamesh ends with the realization that the meaning of life lies not in the search for immortality, but in appreciation of life itself at that moment while he still has it. The epic starts and ends with the same sentence “pace out the walls of Uruk. / Study the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork. /Is not its masonry of kiln-fired brick? And did not seven masters lay its foundations? / One square mile of city, one square mile of gardens, / One square mile of clay pits, a half square mile of Ishtar’s dwelling, / Three and a half square miles is the measure of Uruk!” (Foster,3;95), which not only forms the structural frame for the work itself, but also means to show that everything starts and ends with the human civilization. While at the beginning, the reader cannot really understand why the protagonist is “at peace” (Foster,3), in Tablet XI of the epic this phrase becomes the most significant part of the conclusion because it shows that Gilgamesh has finally completed his journey and found the meaning of life. In the end, he realizes what will stand the test of time. It is not the story of his battle with Humbaba, or his quest to the lands that no other person has gone before, but the city of Uruk – his achievement as a human being, the face of civilization.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is not just a poetic story about a heroic and brave fighter from a divine background. The heroism and bravery lie in accepting one’s faith and human nature; they lie in realizing that life is not infinite and is not something to be taken for granted. One cannot escape his human nature, and furthermore there is no need for that, because the beauty of life is in life itself. After all it is not about infinite existence, it’s about living every moment to the fullest.
In The Odyssey by Homer, and the Epic of Gilgamesh the titular protagonists of their respective narratives, Odysseus and Gilgamesh face their own perilous journeys, by their own hands and at the caprice of the fickle gods. Odysseus is left to his infamous wit to devise a way home on his own, while Gilgamesh in search of immortality. But fortune does indeed favor the bold, as throughout the story, Odysseus and Gilgamesh each receive their fair share of words-of-wisdom from fellow characters in the story, whom serve as ‘counselors’, or advisers Such counselors in the story include Athena, goddess of wisdom and Odysseus’ patron; Circe, the witch-goddess who keeps Odysseus on the island as her sex slave and turns his men into swine; and Shamash, a solar deity and ‘family friend’ of Gilgamesh’s mother, Ninsun, sent at her behest to watch over Gilgamesh and safeguard him throughout his misadventures. It is because of these counselors that Odysseus and Gilgamesh escape their many close-calls with death, all thanks divine intervention. These counselors fall in the category of deus ex machina figures, meaning they can interrupt the flow of the story, popping up time and again to rescue their clients from certain death. They each go about helping their favorite mortals in their own way.
Athena, daughter of Zeus and patron goddess of Odysseus, throws herself into the fray on the side of Odysseus, admiring his intelligence, leadership skills, and ferocity as a warrior. Portrayed as mannish and often oppositional to female figures in the narrative, Athena often impersonates men when she presents herself to Odysseus. Since warmongering is often seen as the exclusive domain of men, and the fact that she is also a deity, contributes to how amenable Odysseus is on listening to what she has to say. Interesting enough, this gives credibility to the idea that Odysseus heeding the wisdom of others is conditional upon whether or not the source of that wisdom is a man or woman, even more so on the degrees of their acquaintance. However, this isn’t to discredit Athena’s preternatural instincts and beneficence from which Odysseus has used to his advantage. However, Odysseus’ gratitude extends only so far: “I didn’t see you then, didn’t sense your presence/ Aboard my ship or feel you there to help me.” (Book XXIII, p. 485, lines 329-331). Athena, in response, acknowledges her interest in Odysseus as purely intellectual, and as the reason why she won’t leave him to his woes: “Ah, that mind of yours! That’s why/ I can’t leave you when you’re down and out: Because you’re so intelligent and self-possessed.” (Book XIII, p. 485, lines 341-343), In any case, Odysseus’ homecoming wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the goddess of wisdom’s tip-offs, which may as well have saved his life on many occasions.
One of his many obstacles on the long road home turns out to have been one of his greatest advice-givers. Circe, sorceress extraordinaire and goddess of magic, relents in freeing Odysseus after he fulfills his end of the bargain and does her bidding for a year. When Odysseus and his men are freed from Circe’s captivity, she provides some guidance in regard to what Odysseus will come face-to-face with next on his journey: “First you will come/ To the Sirens, who bewitch all men… Which is the lair of Scylla. She barks and yelps/ Like a young puppy, but she is a monster… Beneath this tree the divine Charybdis/ Sucks down the black water… Then you will come to Thrinacia, / An island that pastures the cattle of the Sun… But if you harm them/ I foretell/ Disaster for your ship and crew” (Book XIII, pp. 468-469, lines 40-41, 88-89, 107-108). Circe, despite her bad rep for leading heroes to their doom, in this instance her passion for Odysseus is shown as concern for his safety and wellbeing, and so she warns him of the troubles that lie ahead and divulges to him the necessary information that will allow to him overcome these obstacles when they show. Though not much is said of her in the narrative after Odysseus’ departure, her significance in the story is grounded in her role as Odysseus’ life-saver, for which she her only benefit is ensuring his survival of the journey in one piece. Her counsel, which Odysseus tries to follow to the letter, is not because of any male influence encouraging him, but rather because his looking out for his own self-interest demands he obey her as a higher authority with the wisdom to lead him back home.
Shamash, god of the sun and lookout for Gilgamesh, is enlisted by the goddess, Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh to protect Gilgamesh from, primarily, himself, in his travels to slay these monsters of myth: “When Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Humbaba meet, / Raise up for his sake, O Shamash, great winds against Humbaba, / Blasting wind, lashing wind, contrary wind, dust storm,/ Demon wind, freezing wind, storm wind, whirlwind:/ Raise up thirteen winds to blot out Humbaba’s face.” (Tablet III, p. 114, lines 63-69) Subsequently, Shamash did as he was prayed to for, providing Gilgamesh live up to his end of the bargain and make offerings to Shamash in return for his ‘eye in the sky’ patronage. Saving Gilgamesh from one monster after another, Shamash’ heroics are underestimated and taken for granted. Even Gilgamesh’s male companion, Enkidu, concurs: “The wild bull you saw is Shamash, the protector, / He will take our hands in need.” (Table IV, p. 119, lines 150-151) Prophetic in his statement, Shamash did indeed come in handy and proved himself a valuable asset when Humababa charged at Gilgamesh and Enkidu, summoning the full thrust of his power and hurdling the thirteen winds to immobilize Humbaba, which lead to his decapitation at the hands of Gilgamesh: “Hurry, confront him, do not let him go off into the forest, / He has not donned all of his seven fearsome glories, / One he has on, six he has left off!” (Tablet V, p. 120, lines 161-164) All in all, Shamash has shown where his loyalties lie and how valuable his aid was over the course of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s expeditions. Athena, Circe and Shamash have their own distinctive methods of persuasion and are delivered through by various means. Athena, warrior-goddess and scheming patron of Odysseus, puts to work her very tomboyish personality and her domain as a goddess of strategic warfare and courage, character traits Odysseus possesses: “I always knew in my heart/ You’d make it home, all your companions lost, / But I couldn’t bring myself to fight my uncle, / Poseidon, who had it in for you.” (Book XIII, p. 486, lines 350-353) Circe, on the other hand, puts to good use her feminine wiles and seductive talents to attract Odysseus’ attention and lend her his ear. On par with Athena, Shamash also puts to utilizes his godly power via divine intervention to do his best in preventing any harm done to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but even his very best was insufficient to defy the gods in their decision to cut short Enkidu’s life. It would appear to the be the case that masculine personalities seem to take advisers, male or female, farther than it would if they were to express feminine qualities of gentleness, comfort or self-sacrifice that is to be expected from female figures in such epics.
Only with the counsel of others do heroes such as Odysseus, Enkidu and Gilgamesh survive their encounters with every villain thrown at them at every turn. With the exceptionally wise words of Athena, Circe and Shamash given to their respective heroes, they become responsible for their safety and overall well-being. Overcoming tremendous hardship in the pursuit of their goals, the achievements of Odysseus or Gilgamesh wouldn’t have been possible without the brains and brawn of their counselors, helping them each step of the way. Suffice to say, these counselors help their heroes achieve their ends through various means.
The famous Italian priest Thomas Aquinas once said: “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” How does the loss of a friend affect a human being? In Herbert Mason’s retelling book Gilgamesh: A verse narrative, the concept of friendship and death in Sumerian society is an important theme. The main character – Gilgamesh – is a tyrant king and the only one who befriends him is Enkidu. However, Enkidu passes away and his death brings sorrow and loss to Gilgamesh, but also becomes the motivation for Gilgamesh to become a better person and teaches the king life lessons about the importance of friendship and death.
When Enkidu takes his last breath, Gilgamesh is drowned in pain and depression. Memories of their friendship takes over him. Enkidu, struggling in his final moments of life, witnesses his bitter tears: “You are crying. You never cried before./ It’s not like you./ Why am I to die,/ You to wander on alone?/ Is that the way it is with friends?” (Mason, 50). Perhaps too late, but Gilgamesh realizes how the loss of a soulmate will leave him in loneliness forever. This sudden acknowledgement makes him cry, which Enkidu says: “It’s not like you”. As Gilgamesh struggles with melancholy, he : “…wept bitterly for his friend./ He felt himself now singled out for loss/ Apart from everyone else…” (53). The vicious and careless king whose only joy in life is to sleep with other people’s bride, is shedding tears. This major change indicates how Enkidu influences Gilgamesh’s personality and emotions. A feeling of empty and meaninglessness starts to sink into his soul: “Gilgamesh wandered through the desert/ Alone as he had never been alone/…/ He was no more a king/ But just a man who now had lost his way” (54). What is life without Enkidu? What is life without a soul mate? That is what Gilgamesh is wondering as he ponders through the death of his best friend. His loss soon turns so painful that it gives him illusions: “He could almost touch his friend,/ Could speak to him as if he were there:/ Enkidu. Enkidu” (60, 61). The hallucinations soon vanishes: “But suddenly the silence/ Was deeper than before/ In a place where they had never been/ Together” (60,61). The phrase “Deeper than ever” describes perfectly how Gilgamesh’s mood blooms for one moment, but then is dragged down when he realizes that what he has seen are just simply illusions. If not because Enkidu’s image in his memory is so vivid, how can Gilgamesh have such lively hallucination? The loss of the only friend has twisted his mind, turned him into a depressed man and no longer the lackadaisical and ruthless king.
Not only does Enkidu’s death bring Gilgamesh agony and sorrow, it also becomes his motivation. Because of Enkidu, he is motivated to find the key to immortality and bring it to his soulmate, though acknowledges that it is almost impossible: “Perhaps insane, he tried/ To bring Enkidu back to life” (55). Grief and loneliness has tortured Gilgamesh for so long that he has to do something to stop: “To end his bitterness,/ His fear of death” (55). He turned his life into: “…a quest/ To find the secret of eternal life” (55). Before Enkidu’s death, Gilgamesh’s life goal is to nothing meaningful. But now, his life becomes a mission for something else much more than he has ever thought of. Gilgamesh also grows more mature and less selfish: he cares for someone else beside from himself. His development of selflessness is also demonstrated through his self-sacrifice. Gilgamesh fearlessly says: “Even if there will be more pain,/ And heat and cold, I will go on!/ Open the gate to the mountains!” (57, 58). This act does not come from inconsiderateness, but rather bravery and devotion for Enkidu. The path to find the secret of eternal life is full of risks and hidden threats, but Gilgamesh is no longer afraid. Even when he is deep in pain, knowing that he has in hands what can bring his friend back to life, he breaks down in joy: “…When he saw the plant/ Of rich rose color and ambrosial/…/ … He seized it, and it cut/ Into his palms. He saw his blood flow in the water./…/ He was calling out, I have it! I have it!” (85). His reaction is not someone being injured, but rather that of a drowning man who sees a rope to cling onto. Sudden cheerfulness of acknowledging that he can bring Enkidu back to life again makes his pain and efforts worthwhile. Being hot-tempered is also one serious flaw of Gilgamesh. Because of his arrogance, he angers Ishtar and that action results in the death of his beloved friend whom he considers a brother. However, Gilgamesh learns to control himself in front of those that are more powerful than him, such as when he approaches the Scorpion people of the mountains of Mashu: “When he saw them, his face turned ashen with dismay,/ But he bowed down to them, the only way to shield himself” (57). Though upset, Gilgamesh makes a wise decision: not to express his unpleasantness. He knows very well that if he makes these gods unhappy, he will have to pay the price. Thus, Enkidu’s death influences Gilgamesh to be a better being.
The loss of a companion teaches Gilgamesh an important lesson that he does not know when Enkidu is still alive. Friendship can be the strongest thing in the world, but can be very fragile at the same time. Only when his friend has passed away does Gilgamesh realize that Enkidu is much more meaningful than just a normal friend, but a brother, a sibling: “My young brother who saved me from/ The Bull of Heaven and Humbaba/” (68). He also acknowledges that Enkidu is also a listener and a soulmate: “Who listened to my dreams,/ Who shared my pain/” (68). Being a king and part god pushes everyone away from Gilgamesh, thus, having Enkidu by his side is remarkable. Gilgamesh, more than anyone, understands how loyal and compassionate Enkidu can be, as he mourns: “Why did he have to die?/ He would have stayed with me in death./ He would not have let me die alone./ He was a friend” (68). Gilgamesh mourns words of regrets, but it is all too late. The belated realization only makes Enkidu appears more vivid in him: “My friend has died so many times in me,/ And yet he still seems so alive,/ Like a younger brother,” (73). He also acknowledges how frightening death can be: “I was afraid./ Is there something more than death?/ Some other end to friendship?” (73). His words, “Is there something more than death?”, are not just simply a question, but an exclamation, an expression. Enkidu’s death teaches Gilgamesh so much than he has ever learned in life.
Enkidu’s death has great influence on Gilgamesh, not only on his feelings but also how he is as an individual. The loss of a soulmate brings him agony and sorrow. At the same time, it becomes his motivation to become a better person and teaches him a pivotal lesson of friendship and death. The moral values in Sumerian culture are different from modern society’, but they are the baseline for our ethics. Friendship and death are two important concepts that make us recognize the vitality of companionship in life. Acknowledging their cruciality is necessary for self development.
The Epic of Gilgamesh focuses on the inevitability of death and the ways mortals can come to terms with their mortality. In the classical Babylonian epic, He Who Saw the Deep, Gilgamesh is a mighty king who longs to achieve fame and glory, unafraid of death. After the death of a beloved friend, however, he fears death and seeks to find a way to immortality. However, by the end of the epic, he realizes that death is not as scary as it seems and that his actions in life matter more than his impending death. In the more ancient Sumerian version, The Death of Bilgames, legacy is the most critical factor, and Bilgames is consoled by the promise that he will be commemorated even after his death. Thus, although Gilgamesh comes to terms with his mortality in both He Who Saw the Deep and The Death of Bilgames, the path he takes to come to that realization differs. The classical epic emphasizes death as the culmination of the quality of one’s life, while the more ancient version focuses on the legacy left behind.
In both He Who Saw the Deep and The Death of Bilgames, the inevitability of death is emphasized to a great extent, as well as living life to the fullest. Both life and death are tied together, and Gilgamesh initially realizes this early on in the epic when he tells Enkidu “As for man, his days are numbered, whatever he may do, it is but wind…” (19). Gilgamesh initially views death as unavoidable and seeks to achieve fame to bring meaning and significance to his life. He convinces Enkidu to fight Humbaba despite the fear, saying that his fame will live on even if he dies. Furthermore, Gilgamesh comes to realize the importance of life and how it is measured by the influences one has on others in life. “O Ur-Shanabi, climb Uruk’s walls and walk back and forth!” (99). By boasting of Uruk’s features to Ur-Shanabi, it is shown that Gilgamesh has overcome his fears of death and come to appreciate his city and life. After the failed quest for immortality, Gilgamesh comes back to Uruk and accepts that although his name will not live on forever, his feats and accomplishments will inspire others forever. In The Death of Bilgames, after learning of his impending death in a dream, Bilgames decides to build a great tomb instead of pondering his death. “The lord levied a workforce in his city, the herald sounded his horn in the lands.” (205). Through the erection of his magnificent tomb, Bilgames decides to fulfill his life’s desires before his impending death, knowing that it is unavoidable. Thus, in both versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the inescapable nature of death is highlighted, as well as the appreciation of life.
In He Who Saw the Deep, Gilgamesh realizes that immortality can be achieved through one’s actions by leaving an impact on the lives of others while alive. However, The Death of Bilgames seems to focus on a more lasting impact that will span across time and allow for Gilgamesh to be commemorated. In the classical version of the epic, Gilgamesh obtains a plant that allows one to be youthful again and decides to share this plant with the elders of Uruk. “[For whom,] Ur-shanabi, toiled my arms so hard, for whom ran dry the blood of my heart?” (99). However, upon losing the plant to a snake, Gilgamesh realizes that death is unavoidable, and describes to the boatman the city in which will be his final resting place. He realizes the significance of Uruk and the extent to which he has left an impact on the lives of others through being the king of Uruk. In The Death of Bilgames, the dream that Bilgames has tells him of the lasting legacy that he will leave behind after his death. “[In the Month of Torches, the festival of ghosts, without him being present light will not be provided before them.]” (200). Even after death, Bilgames will be commemorated as a god and celebrated in a festival. After consultation, Bilgames realizes that his everlasting legacy will allow him to live even after his death, and his fear of death finally dissipates. Thus, while He Who Saw the Deep focuses on the values of life before death, The Death of Bilgames centralizes on the status after death.
Although the vision of death is similar in both He Who Saw the Deep and The Death of Bilgames, the essential idea behind death differs in the two versions of the epic. In the classical version of the epic, Gilgamesh ends up coming to terms with the fact that his quest for immortality is a complete failure, and tells O-Shanabi that the city of Uruk will be his final resting place. He realizes how important his life is, and seeks to leave a lasting impact on the people of Uruk before his death. However, in the more ancient version of the epic, Bilgames is given consolation before his death in the form of the promise of commemoration. By giving assurance to Bilgames that his death will not be the end of him, he ceases his effort to live life to the fullest. While uncertain of the outcome of his life, Gilgamesh, in the classical version of the epic, would attempt to create his own legacy by passing on his ideas to the people of Uruk. Thus, it can be argued that the Bilgames in The Death of Bilgames has essentially already ceased to live even before his death, as after being assured of his name living on, he focuses only on his tomb and his death. On the other hand, the Gilgamesh in the classical version truly lives his life to the fullest and the quality of his time can measure the quality of his life. Overall, Gilgamesh comes to terms with death by himself, while Bilgames requires the assurance of the gods to dispel his fears of death.
In conclusion, The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic that focuses on the theme of death and the ways mortals can cope with the inevitability of it. The essential question that arises from the epic is how one can face death without fear, knowing that they have lived their life to the fullest. He Who Saw the Deep provides a path to the answer, while The Death of Bilgames provides the answer to the significant question itself, thus making The Death of Bilgames an unsuitable epilogue to He Who Saw the Deep. The classical epic provides a clear path by focusing on the impact one has while they are alive, one can face death without fear, knowing that they live on in other’s memories and actions. The ancient version of the epic, however, merely emphasizes the legacy one has to leave behind to not fear death. Overall, the epic challenges the reader to interpret how to create meaning in the face of death.
The moral message of a piece of literature reflects the culture which the author belongs to. The three pieces of work here progress in chronological order. The Epic of Gilgamesh is from the early days of human civilization, by the ancient Mesopotamian city-state Uruk. Homer’s Odyssey, in contrast, was written around the 8th century B.C. during the early days of ancient Greece. Following Homer, a period defined by cultural historians to be classical antiquity ensues. Here, we find our next story Orpheus and Eurydice. Within the great literature in early civilizations these three elements are prominent: the embrace of power, an amoral attitude toward manipulation, and a favorable attitude toward sexuality. Odyssey shares some aspect of Gilgamesh’s moral, but its moral message lies between that of early human civilization and classical Greece. Finally, readers will find that classical antiquity champions emotional restraint. Gilgamesh, Odyssey, and Orpheus and Eurydice demonstrate a transition of culture from one centered around life and power to one that placed an emphasis on control of emotions because the morals of these stories progress in such an order. As a study of cases, we seek to provide insight and does not claim to generalize. The elements will be elaborated in sequential order.
The Epic and Gilgamesh demonstrates a praise of power, an amoral attitude toward manipulation, and favorable attitude toward sexuality. (Odyssey also shares the previous two elements.) We will start by examining the nature of Gilgamesh as a person who become heroes for his power, which will introduce us to the worldview that the books has. Then we shall proceed into the attitude toward sexuality implied in Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh’s deeds make him a hero because mighty acts glorify his existence and build a ceremonial tone, and by praising a man who craves for glory and life, the epic is precisely praising power. One dictionary has defined power as “ability to act or produce an effect.”(Merriam-Webster) In this regard, fame and wealth are but forms of power. Nietzsche has also argued that human’s “intrinsic Will to Power” is “is precisely the Will to life.”(Nietzsche 259) We will also use the concept of power and life interchangingly as an object of pursuit. Unsatisfied by the pleasures that his kingdom, Uruk, can provide, Gilgamesh seeks outside the wall for exploits to impress others. His expedition into the cedar forest against Humbaba is a spectacle for gathering fame, as he says, “I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed; therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled” (Gilgamesh 18). His quest for immortality is an ultimate expression of human’s lust for power. After all, being alive is the premise of exercising any power.
The seduction of Enkidu by the harlot, or priestess of love, reveals an amoral aspect of Uruk’s culture by showing its neutral stance toward manipulation. A trapper finds Enkidu in the wild and feels threatened by his ferocity. Thus, he asks his father for help, who answers, “Go to Uruk, find Gilgamesh, extol the strength of this wild man. Ask him to give you a harlot, a wanton from the temple of love; return with her, and let her woman’s power overpower this man” (Gilgamesh 14). Then the trapper indeed goes to find Gilgamesh and, just shortly after he has explained his plight to him, Gilgamesh also voluntarily proposes the same trickery that the hunter’s father brings up, as he says, “Trapper, go back, take with you a harlot, a child of pleasure… he will embrace her and the game of wilderness will surely reject him” (Gilgamesh 14). We see here that the trapper’s father and Gilgamesh share the same outlook in handling the situation. It seems to them not just fine, but almost as a rule, that to subdue a wild man one should use a harlot to seduce such him. This aspect of their culture stands in contrast with our modern morality, as while seduction has been deployed in statecraft and espionage, we hardly see this tactic as a part of our normal life. Arguably, for the people of Uruk, manipulation does not have a negative connotation to it. The amoral attitude toward manipulation is, in fact, a part of Uruk’s power-centered culture. To put it in ordinary English, if it gets the job done, don’t question how it happened.
While the priestess of love here serves to seduce, her post also has a higher meaning because the culture of ancient Uruk is one that embraces life(or power). From the fact that Uruk has temples of love in the epic, it is clear that sex and love might be a source of divine connection for the people of that society. As for what it is connecting to, the answer necessarily revolves around what they embrace – power and life. Admittedly, the relationship between Enkidu and the priestess of love also brings the burden of culture to Enkidu, as he “was grown weak, for wisdom was in him, and the thoughts of a man were in his heart”(Gilgamesh 15). However, it does not interfere with the ultimate point. Rather than weakening Enkidu, per se, his relationship with the harlot is evoking in Enkidu the aspects of humanity that he didn’t manage to fulfill before meeting her. Enkidu “longed for a comrade, for one who would understand his heart”(Gilgamesh 15). and precisely this need is only addressed with the help of the priestess of love, as she says, “O Enkidu, you who love life, I will show you Gilgamesh”(Gilgamesh 15). Enkidu thrives because of his encounter with the woman. Before his death, god Shamash points out to Enkidu that he has gained more than he would have in the wild by meeting the harlot, “who taught… to eat bread fit for gods and drink wine of kings.” In contrast, when Gilgamesh rejects Ishtar’s love, he faces punishment from god Anu, which eventually leads to the death of his companion Enkidu. In short, love and sexuality are to be praised in the epic.
Odyssey reveals a transitional moral in early Greece by praising both power and restraint. Odysseus(or Ulysses) is quite a trickster hero, as he presents himself in Book IX as “…Ulysses son of Laertes, renowned among mankind for all manner of subtlety”(Odyssey Book IX 1). However, whether by wit or by force, power is still power. Boox IX of Odyssey is mostly about Odysseus and his crew’s encounter with the Cyclopes, Polyphemus, and their escape from its cave. After two of his men are eaten by the Cyclopes, Odysseus remains calm about their death and talks Polyphemus into dozing on wine, “Look here, Cyclops… you have been eating a great deal of man’s flesh, so take and drink some wine…” He is a master of persuasion too, as he uses guilt against the Cyclopes, claiming that “he was bringing it to you as a drink offering… whereas all you do is to go on ramping and raving most intolerably… You ought to be ashamed yourself”(Odyssey Book IX 4). We celebrate the Odyssey because of many similar instances like this where Odysseus’ cleverness and charisma bring him victory. Evidence for a power-centered culture is implicit in Odysseus’ character. We also find direct evidence that, at one point, Odysseus simply tells his crew to stay, while he will go to the Cyclopes’ island with his own ship to “exploit these people”(Odyssey Book IX 3). The way Odysseus operates seems to suggest that morality is not concerned here as it is a world of all-against-all. No wonder the power to deceive is praised in the story. Patience plays a great role in Odysseus’ victory over the Cyclopes too. Odysseus “at first was inclined to seize [his] sword” after Polyphemus has eaten two of his men, but he reflects and decides that they “should all certainly be lost, for [they] should never be able to shift the stone which the monster had put in front of the door.” Thus, they wait until the morning. After the Cyclopes goes to shepherd his sheep, Odysseus ordered his men to sharpen a piece of wood into a weapon, with which they are able to blind the giant in his drunkenness. The meticulous plan of Odysseus shows self-restraint in front of danger and threat. Only with the combination of power and restraint is Odysseus able to escape from the cave.
The end of a story always has something to say about its moral. In Odyssey, despite many affronts to the gods, the protagonist’s story still has a good ending. Odysseus has angered Poseidon countless times, but he still ends up returning to his city and family. Having blinded Poseidon’s son Polyphemus, the giant pleads to his father to “grant that Ulysses may never reach his home alive”(Odyssey Book IX 6). Responding to his son’s request, Poseidon “picked up a rock much larger than the first, swung it aloft and hurled it with prodigious force,” although the rock “just fell short of the ship, but was within a little of hitting the end of the rudder”(Odyssey Book IX 7). This coincidence is representative for the book in general: man is able to walk on the edge, as long as his wit and virtues afford him. Behind this certainly is not a culture of restraint, but of power.
In contrast with the praise of power that we have seen in earlier times in human civilization, works in the Classical era tend to have a moral of restraint. In Orpheus and Eurydice, while the gods still allow for exception, it is the failure to obey the gods that leads Orpheus to his doom. This end tells a different story than Odyssey or Gilgamesh. Orpheus seeks to recover his lover from the underworld by asking the Lord of the Dead Hades for an exception. He has a form of power, musical genius, that is highly centered around human culture and is apparently weaker than Gilgamesh’s strength and Odysseus’s cunning. His lyre does manage to “[draw] iron tears down Pluto’s cheek, and made Hell grant what Love did seek”(Orpheus 1). Hades, or Pluto, does agree to his request, but under very peculiar conditions which Orpheus fails to fulfill: “that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they had reached the upper world”(Orpheus 2). One way to interpret this condition might be that Hades want to see if Orpheus can take Hades for his word and indeed believe that Eurydice is following him as he leaves, in a test of trust and respect. However, that is unlikely, since gods’ promises are almost always fulfilled in tales and they do not demand the trust of a mortal as much as we do. Thus, it is safe to assume that this plot is almost certainly added to the tale to make a point. Orpheus has two flaws here: first, he is insecure, incapable of restraining his love in order to fulfill a rational goal; second, he lacks the patience that Odysseus has as he looks back when “he had stepped out joyfully into the daylight”(Orpheus 2). The story’s ending punishes Orpheus for his excesses, condemning him to death in solitude and madness, as “he wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace, comfortless except for his lyre.”(Orpheus 2) The moral here is clear: expressions of emotions shall be restrained.
The different morals we see in these three pieces of literature are consistent with the settling-down of human society, as Gilgamesh was written in a more chaotic time than Odyssey. The morality we have today is a fruit of a long dialectic process and, at its start, it progresses from power to restraint (while leaving power to the hands of gods). Nowadays, while our culture is primarily based on that of Greece, we have also regained some of the instinctive elements from Gilgamesh’s time, most evident in America’s individualism.
“Power.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power/. Accessed 26 September 2017.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W, and Walter A. Kaufmann. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Print.
Lawall, Sarah N., and Maynard Mack. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: the Western Tradition. W.W. Norton, 1999.
Homer. Odyssey Book IX. The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays & Summaries, www.online-literature.com/homer/odyssey/4/.Accessed 6 July 2016.
Hamilton, Edith. Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/eurydice/eurydicemyth.html/. Accessed 6 July 2016.
Through history, civilizations and cities have typically put men in positions of authority, showing their dominance in society and giving them all the power. Ancient Sumeria was a refreshing sight in contrast to this. Evidence from literature and myths of the ancient Sumerians heavily support the idea that Sumeria was a matriarchal society. Women, instead of men, were the ruling sex. Ancient hymns praise Inanna—a goddess who ruled over all the humans, animals, and other gods in Sumeria. She can easily be seen as the ultimate god in Sumeria, the one who all look up to. Indeed, she may have helped the matriarchy in Sumeria, as women were revered as being higher than men, and were given more rights than they were. Much as the Ramayana serves as a prime example of what a relationship should be like for couples in India, Inanna could have served as a role model for women in Sumeria. However, as androcratic ideas began to blend into Sumerian society, the matriarchy was slowly overthrown, and ancient Sumeria became as patriarchic as the rest of the world’s history. The fall of Inanna in literature showed the drastic shift from a female-dominated society to an androcratic one. The tale of Gilgamesh rose to popularity and remains more well-known than the hymns of Inanna. A great empire ruled by a great goddess, overthrown by influential powers. Sumeria, much like the rest of the world, had its power falling into the hands of men.
Inanna was hailed and worshipped under many titles. She was the “Queen of the Earth Gods, Supreme among the Heaven Gods”, the “First Daughter of the Moon”, and many other titles (Wolkstein and Kramer, 1983). The hymns portray her in such a bright light that showcases how much they worshipped her. “The people of Sumer parade[d] before the holy Inanna” and “purif[ied] the Earth for her” (Wolkstein and Kramer, 1983). It is hard to identify, based on the hymns, if she was human or not, as the texts make many references to both ideas. Ultimately, Inanna was a savior of all people, someone that all the Sumerians could look up to. To love someone so much and hold them as a symbol of power, love—whether they were human or not—shows how Inanna may have been a model to, not just women in Sumerian society, but all other people as well, as “the male prostitutes comb their hair before” her (Wolkstein and Kramer, 1983). By contrast, ancient India was a strong androcracy, in which males were treated better than their female counterparts. The Ramayana serves as an example, in which Sita, the devoted wife to Rama, speaks multiple times of her place beside her husband, as her duty lies with him. Rama and Sita are hailed as models for couples in India. If the couple is comprised of a male and female, the male takes after Rama, and the female after Sita. It is clear that Sumeria was unique in itself in this right. Inanna was the one major god that everyone could look to for almost anything. Being one of the few matriarchies in the world, however, the female ruled society soon began to assimilate to match the rest of the world.
Sumeria began to advance and allow more foreigners into their land. The influence of foreign populations began to change ancient Sumeria. Either willingly or by force, Sumeria was pushed to shift into a patriarchy. Akkadians and Assyrians from the neighboring territories began to ease into Sumer. Both were strong cultures that had spoken Semitic languages and both were very involved with warfare (Wilson, 2013). Sumeria began to develop its own army, as they moved out of their land to find materials they did not have themselves, and the influences of more warlike nations on their territories encouraged the behavior. Militaristic ideas and the leaders of the army slowly became permanent, and democratic ways of governing fell, as the rise of the monarchies led by kings emerged (Wise, 2013). Inanna was pushed back, no longer the goddess that all Sumerians looked up to and worshipped. The goddess Ninlil did not take Inanna’s place, but her myths and legends may have contributed to the harsher treatment of women in Sumeria. Ninlil was raped four times by Enlil, once when he was not under a guise, and three times when he had disguised himself as someone else (Black, 1998). The legend may have served as an excuse for men who saw fit to rape women and ultimately hold power over the Sumerian women. The fall of Inanna spelled disaster for the female population of Sumeria, as men began to decrease the value that women held in society and traded them off as slaves and wives for money (Wise, 2013). They were seen as expendable members of society with no other purpose aside from childbearing, cooking, and standing beneath men, much like the rest of the world had come to see women in their societies.
From a position of power to one of ridicule, Inanna’s popularity decreased amongst the ancient Sumerians, as even Gilgamesh himself looked down upon her and who she was. long gone was the highly respected, all powerful god of Sumeria. Gilgamesh, in which she is known as Ishtar, portrays her as a liar who wants nothing more than to seduce him, then throw him away like she had to all her previous lovers (Mitchell, 2004). She comes off as a spoiled brat and a manipulator, as she convinces her father to give her the Bull of Heaven, then proceeds to use it to kill three hundred innocents—there is no trace of the once highly renowned and loved goddess that used to be known as the Great Lady of Heaven in ancient Sumeria. Gilgamesh is the strongest literary example of how Sumeria had morphed from a matriarchy into a patriarchy. Inanna, who was once seen as the greatest being in all of Sumeria, had been replaced by Gilgamesh, a cruel king who did as he pleased as long as it was for his own benefit. He took sons from their fathers and daughters from their mothers and broke them. He was the sole ruler of Sumeria; there was no queen to rule by his side. There is a stronger sense of monarchy now than there was when Inanna was revered with power. The city now looked up to Gilgamesh, and even after seeing his abuse of power, they did not remove him from where he stood in the social hierarchy. Instead, they saw fit to placate him with another man, Enkidu, who would change Gilgamesh into a better ruler of the people. And so Inanna fell and Gilgamesh rose to power, symbolizing the overthrowing of the matriarchy and introduction of the androcracy.
One can use ancient Sumerian literature to trace the power shift between men and women in the civilization. Early ancient Sumeria hailed Inanna, either a goddess or an ordinary human, as their queen, the strongest power in Sumeria whom all could look up to for guidance in many things. Hymns would praise her beauty, strength, and abilities, and she had quickly become someone that all the citizens of Sumeria would have liked to look up to. As time passed, however, invading powers began to shift Sumerian ideals, bringing with them their patriarchal claims and beliefs that would forever change Sumeria. Inanna lost popularity amongst her worshippers and men rose to power then. King Gilgamesh, now seen as the strongest being in Sumeria, stole Inanna’s thunder and used his own privilege to put her down and cast a dark light on her. From there, the power never did shift back, and along with the rest of the world, Sumeria moved through history, a society dominated by men, their great priestess discarded and forgotten.
Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The ElectronicText Corpus of Sumerian Literature (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/), Oxford 1998Brisch, N. (n.d.). Ninlil (Mulliltu, Mullissu, Mylitta) (goddess). Retrieved November 4, 2015,from http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/ninlil/
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English version. New York: Free, 2004
Wilson, E. (2013, October 8). Development of Patriarchy in Sumer. Retrieved November 4,2015, from https://heartwellproductions.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/development-of-patriarchy-in-sumer/
Wise, J. (2013, July 26). Part V: Punishing Eve: Tracing the Shift to Patriarchy in Sumer. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/07/26/1226749/-Part-V-Punishing-Eve-Tracing-the-Shift-to-Patriarchy-in-Sumer#
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York, Harper and Row, 1983
The story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 in the Old Testament is familiar to the readers of the Bible, but the record of such a flood first appears much earlier in ca. 2,500 B.C. on the eleventh tablet of the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh. Although thousands of years stand in between the Bible and Gilgamesh, the story of the flood prevails; the authors of the Bible mirror the flood of Gilgamesh in Genesis. The flood is significant to the Bible and makes an appearance in Genesis because it carries values of human life and piety, and messages about the relationship between God and mankind. The Biblical flood follows closely to the Gilgamesh flood, but the two are not identical. Comparing and contrasting the two stories of the flood, the authors of the Bible mimic much of the mythical flood, but also change and innovate certain pieces of the plot. Both similarities and differences between the flood in Gilgamesh and the flood in Genesis matter because they tell us what values and messages of the flood the authors of the Bible wanted to preserve from the Mesopotamian epic and communicate to the readers of the Bible, and what values and messages the authors of the Bible wanted to change about the Mesopotamian epic, why, and what these changes mean.
The story of the flood in the epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s flood in Genesis share a series of similarities. First, the flood is a result of godly anger and/or disappointment with mankind. In Gilgamesh, Enlil is disturbed by man’s clamor and uproar. In Genesis, God repents his creation because it has become wicked and evil. Second, two men, Utnapishtim of the epic of Gilgamesh and Noah of Genesis, are chosen to be saved from the flood and given instruction on how to survive. In Gilgamesh, Ea tells Utnapishtim to “tear down his house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life.” In Genesis, God finds grace in Noah and tells him to “make thee an ark.” Third, Utnapishtim and Noah save their relatives and samples of species of land animals. In both stories the instruction is to bring “two of every sort [of living thing of flesh] into the ark.” And finally, after the flood subsides there is a sacrifice where the Babylonian gods and the Biblical God feel sorry about and/or regret the flood. In Gilgamesh, Ishtar cries “I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean,” and later with Ea chastises Enlil for “senselessly bringing the flood without reflection…and consigning [Ishtar’s people] to destruction. In Genesis, God promises “never to curse the ground for man’s sake and smite every living thing again…day and night shall not cease.”
The similarities between the Gilgamesh flood and the Biblical flood show the values and messages the authors of the Bible preserve from the Mesopotamian era and pass on to the readers of the Bible. First, much like the mythical Mesopotamian flood, the Biblical flood presents a world where mankind angers the god(s) that created it, and where disobedience is met with dire results. Mankind is corrupted and intolerable, and evil beyond reproach, and the divinity is set to exterminate it. This demonstrates not only the fact that men are capable of sin and that they should keep pious, that is, they should never abuse their God and drive him to his limit, but also that God ultimately holds the power over men and can do with men what is suitable or even what he pleases. This reveals that the authors of the Bible wanted to preserve an image of a strong and powerful God, one who can exhibit his power and punish his people when the situation calls for it. Second, in both flood stories the divinity chooses a man to save himself, his family, and a number of land animals. Though both the gods of Gilgamesh and the Biblical God send the flood to wipe out all life, there is a clear message; men must die, but humanity is meant to survive and continue, animals are meant to multiply, and earth is meant to be fruitful again. This part of the flood story communicates a very important value, that there are second chances, because no matter how mankind has angered its god(s), the god(s) still finds it within himself to give humanity another chance. This second chance demonstrates that though men will do bad and they will be punished for it, God is not all vengeful, he is loving enough to forgive and start over again. Finally, like in the flood of Gilgamesh, in the Biblical flood God feels sorry for sending the flood and regrets it. This puts the divinity in a better light with men; god(s) is caring and compassionate after all, and most of all admits to his own misdoings. The gods in Gilgamesh regret the flood almost immediately and “when Utnapishtim prepares a sacrifice the [gods] gather like flies” because they depend on humans to eat. The God in the Bible especially is portrayed to lament his actions because though he exterminated evildoers, these evildoers were still his people. The authors of the Bible wanted to show that God, just like men, is responsible for his actions, and he must also think of the consequences of his actions. When god(s) feels sorry for the flood in the end, the conclusions is meant to teach a lesson not only to mankind, but also to God, and the message is to foster a new, better relationship between men and their god(s), one where both parties respect one another. The similarities that lay in common between the flood of Gilgamesh and the flood of Genesis shows that the authors of the Bible saw an important lesson they wanted to preserve and teach to the readers of the Bible; men should respect their God and God will respect them, and men need God as much as God needs men. It predates the Bible and Genesis, but it is the staple of Christian theology to this day.
The story of the flood in the epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s flood in Genesis also differ. These difference show the values and messages the authors of the Bible change about the Mesopotamian epic. First, the gods of Gilgamesh send the flood without a reasonable cause, whereas the Biblical God sends the flood as a punishment. The Babylonia gods, though they form the decision in a counsel, are never in consensus about the flood. Ishtar says that she will “remember these days as she remembers the jewels on her throat, that these last days she will not forget.” Ea, and all the rest of the gods except Enlil seem to have never agreed with the flood as a suitable punishment; Ea proclaims, if man has sinned, punish him, but punish him a little or he will perish…a lion, a wolf, famine, pestilence would have ravaged mankind rather than the flood,” in other words the punishment does not fit the crime. Enlil is left alone to blame, and his decision to send the flood is ultimately a mere impulse. In Genesis, God brings the flood as a form of a punishment, there is a reason for the flood, and the object of the punishment is plain. God makes a rational verdict because he is motivated by an ethical reason; he punishes the corrupt, but saves the righteous. The authors of the Bible see in the Mesopotamian epic gods who are dangerous to mortals, who play by their own rules, and act as emotionally and irrationally as children, sending the flood to kill all of mankind on a mere caprice. Genesis has one God, he is neither dangerous nor childlike. God is a rational, an ethical, and a thinking god, who is not only what is most powerful, but also what is morally best. And most importantly God sends the flood not because men are too noisy, but because he “repents his creation…and it grieves him at his heart.” Another difference on the topic of divinity is certain actions of the gods in and around the flood. One difference is how the Babylonian gods behave during the flood; “the gods are terrified at the flood, they flee to the highest heavens, crouch against the walls, and cower like curs…Ishtar cries like a woman in travail.” The Gilgamesh gods are fearful and weak, whereas God is strong and determined, he is not made to fear his own flood and look weak or vulnerable. Another difference or rather omission in this case that the authors of the Bible make is when Utnapishtim asks god Ea how to answer the people and the city when he will perform Ea’s commands. Ea directs Utnapishtim to tell the city this: “’Enlil is wrathful against me and I will no longer live in his land, so I will go down to the Gulf of dwell my lord Ea … but to you Ea will rain down abundance of rare fish, wild fowl, rich harvest … and wheat’.” This of course is false, and Ea is the one who promotes the lie. What makes this even worse is the irony of the situation, that is, Utnapishtim promises his city an abundance of fish and fowl and rich harvest where really all the city is going to get is the flood. Genesis omits this part of the story, God is not made to promote falsehood, and Noah simply builds the ark and boards it. But there is a better explanation for this, and it is the difference between Utnapishtim and Noah.
A third important difference lies between Utnapishtim and Noah. Utnapishtim is not selected to survive the flood based on any virtue, he merely owes his survival to Ea’s cleverness. The gods do not distinguish men who are worthy to be punished from men who are not, reverence and piety have no effect on who lives and who dies and why Utnapishtim is chosen to survive. Noah, on the other hand, is selected by his grace, God chooses him because of how good of a man Noah is compared to the rest of mankind. His righteousness and piety matter. Utnapishtim also loads all of his gold into his boat. The authors of the Bible make no reference to gold in Genesis to avoid placing any emphasis on gold, because the focus of the Biblical flood is the survival of life, and life alone, not wealth.
The final difference between the flood in Gilgamesh and the flood in Genesis is the ending scene of the story, the last interaction between the survivor and his God(s). The gods in Gilgamesh make an error sending the flood to exterminate mankind and try to atone for it by making Utnapishtim and his wife immortal so that humanity is never in danger of extinction again. The immortality aspect of the story demonstrates not only that gods fear they are harmful to humanity because they cannot control their actions, but also that something like the flood may reoccur, so immortality is the safest way mankind survives its gods. God in Genesis, in contrast, makes a covenant with his people, they are to behave and be good and God will be good in return according to the covenant. Thus, God is a partner in a covenant and a strict but loving parent. He does not need to make Noah immortal to make sure humanity survives, but instead simply builds mutual trust between man and himself, and that is enough for mankind to coexist with God and live on.
When composing the story of the flood in Genesis, the authors of the Bible mimic much of the earlier mythical flood in Gilgamesh. In fact, the two stories are so similar that it becomes significant to see exactly what values and messages, that the story of the flood carries, Genesis borrows from the epic, and in turn preserves from the ancient Babylonian era. And that is, god(s) are powerful and vengeful, but also caring and loving, and men should respect their god(s) and god(s) will respect them. However, as similar as the two stories of the flood are, there are differences, and these differences are peculiar because they tell us what the authors of the Bible wished to omit, innovate, or change about the original. It is with the differences, that we see that the two stories of the flood, though again similar in plot, happen to promote two very different moral dimensions. While the lesson in the Gilgamesh flood is that though human life is brief and men die, humanity continues and gods are a reminder of a man’s place in the large scheme of things, the lesson in the Biblical flood is that there is a powerful but caring God who fosters a relationship with men in which he rewards the good and punishes the bad.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Flood.
The Bible. The Great Flood.