An unstable compound of two parts god and one part man, Gilgamesh suffers most from immoderation. He is the greatest of all men, and both his virtues and his flaws are outsized. He is the fiercest of warriors and the most ambitious of builders. Yet until Enkidu, his near equal, arrives to serve as a counterweight to Gilgamesh’s restless energies, he exhausts his subjects with ceaseless battle, forced labor, and arbitrary exercises of power. Beautiful to behold, Gilgamesh selfishly indulges his appetites, raping whatever woman he desires, whether she is the wife of a warrior or the daughter of a noble—or a bride on her wedding night. Enkidu’s friendship calms and focuses him. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grieves deeply and is horrified by the prospect of his own death. Abruptly abandoning glory, wealth, and power, all of which are worldly aspirations that he as king had once epitomized, he begins a quest to learn the secret of eternal life. What he finds instead is the wisdom to strike harmony with his divine and mortal attributes. Reconciled at last to his mortality, Gilgamesh resumes his proper place in the world and becomes a better king.
Hairy-chested and brawny, Enkidu begins his literary life as Gilgamesh’s faithful sidekick. In the most ancient of the stories that compose The Epic of Gilgamesh, he is a helper to Gilgamesh. As those legends evolved into chapters of a great epic poem, Enkidu’s role changed profoundly. Much more than a sidekick or a servant, he is Gilgamesh’s soul mate, brother, and equal, even his conscience. In the later stories the gods bring Enkidu into the world to provide a counterpoint to Gilgamesh. Unlike Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, Enkidu is fashioned entirely from clay. He begins his life as a wild man, raised by animals, and, crude and unrefined, he remains to a certain extent a sojourner in the civilized world. For example, when Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar, the goddess of love, with flowery, allusive insults, Enkidu merely hurls a piece of meat in her face. However, Enkidu is also instinctively chivalrous. He takes up arms to protect the shepherds who first give him food, and he travels to Uruk to champion its oppressed people and protect its virgin brides from their uncontrollable king. Ironically, that king is Gilgamesh. Enkidu overcomes him with friendship rather than force and transforms him into the perfect leader. Perhaps Enkidu feels Uruk’s injustices so keenly because he is such a latecomer to civilization. Though Enkidu is bolder than most men, he is also less pious than he should be. He pays dearly for the disrespect he shows to Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air, when he urges Gilgamesh to slay Enlil’s servant Humbaba, and he incurs the wrath of Ishtar. Like all men, Enkidu bitterly regrets having to die, and he clings fiercely to life.
Utnapishtim’s name means “He Who Saw Life,” though “He Who Saw Death” would be just as appropriate, since he witnessed the destruction of the entire world. The former king and priest of Shurrupak, Utnapishtim was the fortunate recipient of the god Ea’s favor. His disdain for Gilgamesh’s desperate quest for eternal life might seem ungenerous, since he himself is immortal, but Utnapishtim must carry a heavy load of survivor’s guilt. He doesn’t know why, of all the people in the world, Ea chose him to live, but he does know that he tricked hundreds of his doomed neighbors into laboring day and night to build the boat that would carry him and his family to safety while he abandoned them to their fates. What Utnapishtim gained by his trickery was a great boon for humankind, however. He received a promise from the gods that henceforth only individuals would be subject to death and that humankind as a whole would endure. When Utnapishtim tested Gilgamesh by asking him to stay awake for a week, he knew that he would fail, just as he knew that Gilgamesh wouldn’t profit from the magical plant that had the power to make him young again. Gilgamesh is one-third man, which is enough to seal his fate—all men are mortal and all mortals die. Yet since Utnapishtim “sees life,” he knows that life extends beyond the individual—that families, cities, and cultures endure.
Siduri is the tavern keeper who at first bars her door to Gilgamesh and then shares her sensuous, worldly wisdom with him, advising him to cherish the pleasures of this world. Though she tries to dissuade him from his quest, she tells him how to find Urshanabi the boatman, without whose help he’d surely fail. The goddess of wine-making and brewing, Siduri is only one of several sexually ripe, nurturing women who appear in this most explicitly homoerotic tale. The male characters may take these females for granted, but they nevertheless play an essential role. The temple prostitute Shamhat domesticates Enkidu. Utnapishtim’s unnamed wife softens her husband toward Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun adopts Enkidu as her son, not only endorsing his friendship to Gilgamesh but also making him Gilgamesh’s brother. Ishtar herself, fickle and dangerously mercurial as she is as the goddess of war and love, nevertheless weeps bitterly to see how the deluge that she had helped to bring about ravaged her human children. As loudly as it celebrates male bonding and the masculine virtues of physical prowess, The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t forget to pay its respects to feminine qualities.
Very nice article, although it should be noted that the Jacobsen 1949 translation of Siduri's Advice is far more popular:
"Gilgamesh, whither are you wandering? Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands. Gilgamesh, fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy, dance and make music day and night. And wear fresh clothes. And wash your head and bathe. Look at the child that is holding your hand, and let your wife del... Read more→
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