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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.
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 symbolize his internal journey to become a selfless and devoted king.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Epic of Gilgamesh!