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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.
Read about another ancient epic character whose excesses cause strife, Achilles from Homer’s Iliad.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!