Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Love, both erotic and platonic, motivates change in Gilgamesh. Enkidu changes from a wild man into a noble one because of Gilgamesh, and their friendship changes Gilgamesh from a bully and a tyrant into an exemplary king and hero. Because they are evenly matched, Enkidu puts a check on Gilgamesh’s restless, powerful energies, and Gilgamesh pulls Enkidu out of his self-centeredness. Gilgamesh’s connection to Enkidu makes it possible for Gilgamesh to identify with his people’s interests. The love the friends have for each other makes Gilgamesh a better man in the first half of the epic, and when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh’s grief and terror impel him onto a futile quest for immortality.
The epic may lack a female love interest, but erotic love still plays an important role. Enkidu’s education as a man begins with his sexual initiation by the temple harlot, and the two heroes’ troubles begin with their repudiation of Ishtar, the goddess of love. Humanity renews itself through the female life force, which includes sex, fertility, domesticity, and nurturance, not through an arbitrary gift of the gods. When Gilgamesh finally sees that his place is here on Earth and returns to Uruk to resume his kingship, Ishtar returns to her place of honor.
Death is an inevitable and inescapable fact of human life, which is the greatest lesson Gilgamesh learns. Gilgamesh is bitter that only the gods can live forever and says as much when Enkidu warns him away from their fight with Humbaba. Life is short, the two warriors tell each other on their way to the deadly confrontation in the Cedar Forest, and the only thing that lasts is fame. But when Enkidu is cursed with an inglorious, painful death, their bravado rings hollow. Shamash, the sun god, consoles Enkidu by reminding him how rich his life has been, but though Enkidu finally resigns himself to his fate, Gilgamesh is terrified by the thought of his own. Mesopotamian theology offers a vision of an afterlife, but it gives scant comfort—the dead spend their time being dead. If Gilgamesh’s quest to the Cedar Forest was in spite of death, his second quest, to Utnapishtim, is for a way to escape it. Utnapishtim’s account of the flood reveals how ludicrous such a goal is, since death is inextricably woven into the fabric of creation. But life is woven in as well, and even though humans die, humanity continues to live. The lesson that Gilgamesh brings back from his quest isn’t ultimately about death—it’s about life.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu learn all too well that the gods are dangerous for mortals. Gods live by their own laws and frequently behave as emotionally and irrationally as children. Piety is important to the gods, and they expect obedience and flattery whenever possible. They can often be helpful, but angering them is sheer madness—and a character’s reverence for the gods is no guarantee of safety. Thus, the world of The Epic of Gilgamesh differs markedly from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which God is both a partner in a covenant and a stern but loving parent to his people. The covenant promises that people will receive an earthly or heavenly inheritance if they behave well. The Judeo-Christian God represents not just what is most powerful but what is morally best—humans should aspire to imitate him. These differences are noteworthy because Gilgamesh also shares certain common elements with the Judeo-Christian Bible. Both Gilgamesh and parts of the Bible are written in similar languages: Hebrew is related to Akkadian, the Babylonian language that the author used in composing the late versions of Gilgamesh. The Bible comes from the same region as Gilgamesh and shares some of its motifs and stories, such as the serpent as the enemy who deprives humans of eternal life and, most important, the flood. In both the Bible and Gilgamesh, disobedience to a god or gods brings dire consequences.
Although we never learn exactly why the gods unleashed the great flood in Gilgamesh, we know why Ea rescues Utnapishtim and through him all the creatures and people of the world. As the god of wisdom and crafts, Ea is responsible for human attributes including cleverness, inventiveness, and creativity, which enable people to survive independently. Ishtar, too, while a fickle friend, presides over sexual desire, fertility, nurturance, agriculture, and domesticity, which ensure humankind’s future. For the Mesopotamians, piety and respect for the gods are not true moral obligations. Rather, piety and respect suggest a practical acknowledgment of nature’s power and serve to remind humans of their place in the larger scheme of things.