The Epic of Gilgamesh
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Love As a Motivating Force
Love, both erotic and platonic, motivates change in Gilgamesh. Enkidu changes from a wild man into a noble one because of Gilgamesh, and their friendship changes Gilgamesh from a bully and a tyrant into an exemplary king and hero. Because they are evenly matched, Enkidu puts a check on Gilgamesh’s restless, powerful energies, and Gilgamesh pulls Enkidu out of his self-centeredness. Gilgamesh’s connection to Enkidu makes it possible for Gilgamesh to identify with his people’s interests. The love the friends have for each other makes Gilgamesh a better man in the first half of the epic, and when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and terror impel him onto a futile quest for immortality.
The epic may lack a female love interest, but erotic love still plays an important role. Enkidu’s education as a man begins with his sexual initiation by the temple harlot, and the two heroes’ troubles begin with their repudiation of Ishtar, the goddess of love. Humanity renews itself through the female life force, which includes sex, fertility, domesticity, and nurturance, not through an arbitrary gift of the gods. When Gilgamesh finally sees that his place is here on Earth and returns to Uruk to resume his kingship, Ishtar returns to her place of honor.
The Inevitability of Death
Death is an inevitable and inescapable fact of human life, which is the greatest lesson Gilgamesh learns. Gilgamesh is bitter that only the gods can live forever and says as much when Enkidu warns him away from their fight with Humbaba. Life is short, the two warriors tell each other on their way to the deadly confrontation in the Cedar Forest, and the only thing that lasts is fame. But when Enkidu is cursed with an inglorious, painful death, their bravado rings hollow. Shamash, the sun god, consoles Enkidu by reminding him how rich his life has been, but though Enkidu finally resigns himself to his fate, Gilgamesh is terrified by the thought of his own. Mesopotamian theology offers a vision of an afterlife, but it gives scant comfort—the dead spend their time being dead. If Gilgamesh’s quest to the Cedar Forest was in spite of death, his second quest, to Utnapishtim, is for a way to escape it. Utnapishtim’s account of the flood reveals how ludicrous such a goal is, since death is inextricably woven into the fabric of creation. But life is woven in as well, and even though humans die, humanity continues to live. The lesson that Gilgamesh brings back from his quest isn’t ultimately about death—it’s about life.
The Gods Are Dangerous
Gilgamesh and Enkidu learn all too well that the gods are dangerous for mortals. Gods live by their own laws and frequently behave as emotionally and irrationally as children. Piety is important to the gods, and they expect obedience and flattery whenever possible. They can often be helpful, but angering them is sheer madness—and a character’s reverence for the gods is no guarantee of safety. Thus, the world of The Epic of Gilgamesh differs markedly from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which God is both a partner in a covenant and a stern but loving parent to his people. The covenant promises that people will receive an earthly or heavenly inheritance if they behave well. The Judeo-Christian God represents not just what is most powerful but what is morally best—humans should aspire to imitate him. These differences are noteworthy because Gilgamesh also shares certain common elements with the Judeo-Christian Bible. Both Gilgamesh and parts of the Bible are written in similar languages: Hebrew is related to Akkadian, the Babylonian language that the author used in composing the late versions of Gilgamesh. The Bible comes from the same region as Gilgamesh and shares some of its motifs and stories, such as the serpent as the enemy who deprives humans of eternal life and, most important, the flood. In both the Bible and Gilgamesh, disobedience to a god or gods brings dire consequences.
Although we never learn exactly why the gods unleashed the great flood in Gilgamesh, we know why Ea rescues Utnapishtim and through him all the creatures and people of the world. As the god of wisdom and crafts, Ea is responsible for human attributes including cleverness, inventiveness, and creativity, which enable people to survive independently. Ishtar, too, while a fickle friend, presides over sexual desire, fertility, nurturance, agriculture, and domesticity, which ensure humankind’s future. For the Mesopotamians, piety and respect for the gods are not true moral obligations. Rather, piety and respect suggest a practical acknowledgment of nature’s power and serve to remind humans of their place in the larger scheme of things.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
There are two important seductions in Gilgamesh, one successful and one a failure. When the temple prostitute seduces Enkidu, he loses his animal attributes but gains his self-consciousness and his humanity. In contemporary western society, people often view human sexuality as base and lewd and may be more accustomed to a reversal of roles—with Enkidu seducing a woman, instead of a woman seducing him. Furthermore, Christianity encourages its followers to transcend their bodies and to store up treasures in heaven. Sex played a much different role in the Mesopotamian worldview. The notion of sublimation was entirely foreign to the ancient Mesopotamians, who believed that this world is the only one and that the act of sex mystically and physically connects people to the life force, the goddess. Sacred prostitutes did not embody moral frailty—they were avatars and conduits of divinity.
When Gilgamesh spurns Ishtar as she attempts to seduce him, he brings disaster upon himself and Enkidu. When he asks Ishtar what he could offer her in return since she lacks nothing, he misses the point of her seduction. When Gilgamesh—who has no afterlife to look forward to and no moral ideal to aspire to—spurns the goddess, he spurns life itself.
Doubling and Twinship
Gilgamesh is full of characters and events that mirror or resemble one another. For example, Gilgamesh and Enkidu look almost identical. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grows his hair and dons animal skins, as if trying to become his lost friend. Two scorpion monsters guard the twin-peaked mountain, Mashu, which Shamash travels through nightly. The gods Ea and Shamash champion the human heroes. The heroes undertake two successful quests, one against Humbaba the demon and one against the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh’s solitary quest to find Utnapishtim mirrors his journey with Enkidu to the Cedar Forest. These repetitions sometimes serve to reinforce or emphasize important features of the story, such as Gilgamesh’s and Enkidu’s power and heroism. At other times they create contrasts, calling attention to the differences between two similar events. Alternately, the story may be structured in terms of twins and doubles primarily for aesthetic reasons—in other words, because the repetitions lend the story a symmetry or cyclicality that is beautiful or poetic in itself.
Almost all of the action in Gilgamesh begins with a journey. Enkidu journeys from the wilderness to Uruk and Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh and Enkidu journey to the Cedar Forest. Enkidu journeys to the underworld. Gilgamesh journeys to and then through the twin-peaked mountain Mashu. He journeys to Urshanabi to find Utnapishtim, then travels with Urshanabi across the sea and through the sea of death, only to return to Uruk. Gilgamesh’s many journeys mirror his internal journey to become a selfless and devoted king.
Baptism imagery appears throughout Gilgamesh, signaling a continual renewal and rebirth of the characters. Enkidu washes and anoints himself after he tastes cooked food and beer at the shepherd camp. Ninsun washes herself before she communes with Shamash. Gilgamesh washes himself after his return from the Cedar Forest. Gilgamesh and Enkidu wash themselves in the Euphrates after they subdue the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh undergoes a reverse baptism after Enkidu’s death, when he dons skins and lets his hair grow. Siduri urges Gilgamesh to wash himself, but he refuses. Utnapishtim orders his boatman to baptize Gilgamesh before they journey home. Gilgamesh is in a pool of pure water when the snake steals the magic plant. Though Gilgamesh regrets losing the plant, the baptism imagery suggests he doesn’t need it anymore. He has finally come to terms with his morality and is ready to resume his place in the world.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Gilgamesh is rich in religious symbolism. Religious rituals in Mesopotamia involved sacrifices, festivals, sex, dream interpretation, and shamanic magic, all of which appear in the story. Enkidu’s hirsuteness symbolizes the natural, uncivilized state. The walls of Uruk symbolize the great accomplishments of which mortals are capable. In the context of the ancient king who built them, they represent the immortality he achieved through his acts. Bulls represent explosive, destructive natural power, and the ability to wrestle a bull suggests humanity’s ability to harness nature’s power. This symbolism accounts for Enkidu’s interpretation of Gilgamesh’s dream about the bull in the Cedar Forest. Enkidu says the bull is Humbaba, and that the act of wrestling the bull is Shamash’s blessing. Later in the poem, Enkidu and Gilgamesh do subdue a bull together, perhaps suggesting that humankind has the power to conquer famine.
Images of doorways, portals, and gateways constantly recur in Gilgamesh. Enkidu blocks the doorway of the bride’s chamber and wrestles with Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh stand awestruck and terrified before the gates to the Cedar Forest. After their triumph there, they fashion the tallest tree into a gate for Uruk. The Scorpions guard the gates of Mashu. Siduri the barmaid locks the door to her tavern. The hatchway of Utnapishtim’s boat is caulked shut. In most cases, doorways mark a transition from one level of consciousness to another. They also represent choices, since characters can either shut themselves behind doorways to seek safety or boldly venture through them.
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