The Epic of Gilgamesh

Literature
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Summary

Tablet I

Summary Tablet I

The prostitute tells Enkidu that Gilgamesh is stronger than he is and that he could not hope to prevail over him, but also that Gilgamesh longs for a friend. In fact, Gilgamesh has already had two dreams about Enkidu. In the first dream, a meteor lands in a field outside Uruk. Gilgamesh is drawn to the rock as if it were a woman. After lifting it with great effort, he carries it to his mother, Ninsun. In the second dream, Gilgamesh finds an axe lying in the street. Throngs of people surround it, overcome with admiration. Gilgamesh too loves the axe, as much as if it were his wife. He carries it to his mother and lays it at her feet. Ninsun tells him that both the rock and the axe represent the man he will soon contend with—the man who will become his most trusted companion and counselor, the friend who has the power to save him.

Analysis

The narrator introduces Gilgamesh in the past tense—the high walls of the city he built are already ancient. At the same time he suggests that the story is in Gilgamesh’s own words, and that the legendary king himself wrote it down. Gilgamesh’s story commemorates historical people and deeds, and at the same time, Gilgamesh’s passage through heroism, grief, and wisdom is a perpetual, universal process. The story of Gilgamesh is both timeless and immediate.

Though Gilgamesh’s mother Ninsun plays a fairly significant role in the early parts of the story, we learn very little about his father. The Sin-Leqi-Unninni version of Gilgamesh says his father is Ninsun’s husband, Lugulbanda, but it’s not clear if Lugulbanda is actually Gilgamesh’s biological father. Some versions of the poem declare that Gilgamesh’s father is a priest, while others call him a “fool.” Like Gilgamesh, Lugulbanda was a genuine historical figure. He precedes Gilgamesh on Uruk’s king list by two, and he would have more likely been his grandfather, considering the lengths of the recorded reigns. Like Gilgamesh, people worshipped him as a god after his death.

Though Gilgamesh is legendary, the poet hastens to inform us that he was not always exemplary. An equal was required to counter and control his awesome power. Gilgamesh was more god than mortal, and the narrator suggests that his equal, Enkidu, is a singular force of nature. He is hairy, he grazes with the animals, and he lacks the power of speech. Enkidu anticipates the hairy Esau of the Bible and possibly Ishmael, “the wild ass” of a man. He enables the animals to escape human dominance, which threatens the balance of the world. When Enkidu must depart from his life in nature and come into civilization, his redemption is through a woman. He confronts the strong power of a woman’s sexuality, which tames him. Ishtar is Uruk’s resident god, and the prostitutes in her service epitomize the values of that highly sophisticated urban culture.

Enkidu’s story repeats the story of humankind, the passage from mere animal existence to self-awareness and culture. His fall from nature foreshadows another biblical motif: Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence in Eden when they become aware of their sexuality. Female sexuality is the force that makes domesticity and civilized life possible, and Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, and war, plays a huge role in Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s stories. As the epic continues, however, sexual love does not necessarily figure in to the ultimate human relationship. In Gilgamesh, the love that exists between evenly matched comrades is even more important. Equilibrium, balance, and moderation are essential virtues. Gilgamesh is part god and part mortal, and these different aspects are in constant contention. The very qualities that make him so awesome—his strength and beauty—also make him monstrous, until they achieve balance. Enkidu’s wildness, likewise, must come into harmony with his humanity. He requires an equally developed spirit to control his powerful body. Enkidu’s domestication is a prerequisite for Gilgamesh’s moral education.