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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.
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
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!