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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 in itself.
Read about another book that uses doubles as a structural motif, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!