The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Context


Mesopotamia and Uruk

Gilgamesh comes from the ancient culture of Mesopotamia, an area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that is today part of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Sumerian civilization, which produced the stories of Gilgamesh, dominated the region from about 3500 to 2350 BCE. Its greatest city, Uruk or Erech (present-day Warka), was the site of the invention of cuneiform writing around the end of the fourth millennium BCE. Cuneiform writing is the earliest known system of writing; it is based on combinations of wedge- and circle-shaped markings pressed into wet clay. It spread throughout the region, influencing other cultures to adapt it and to create their own systems of writing.

In Sumer, cuneiform made record-keeping, and thus trade and finance, easier. Many surviving clay tablets record these transactions. But cuneiform also fueled an explosion of legal texts, poetry, stories, wisdom literature, and other writings that were preserved in clay that could endure centuries. The historical Gilgamesh, on whom the epic and other stories are based, ruled Uruk around 2700 BCE, before his name passed into legend.

Sumerian Religion and Mythology

When the fictional Gilgamesh invites readers to admire Uruk, he points out "its mighty foundations ... the glorious palaces and temples." The temple was a focal point of the city for a culture in which religion was part of daily life. While the king—himself a representative of the city's patron god—saw to the strengthening of the city and its walls, temples, canals, and roads, a class of priests and assistants managed much of the city's legal and economic business. They also managed the calendar of religious observances and rituals. These were tied closely to the passing of seasons and other natural phenomena, all represented by various deities in the Sumerian pantheon. Each god has duties, such as ruling the underworld or bringing the floods to the fields; many have named assistants to help them, just as the priests in the earthly temples delegate work to their assistants. So, for example, Shamash, god of the sun, tends to matters of justice among gods and humans. The major gods could also take human form, as Ishtar does when she wants to take Gilgamesh as her lover.

While women in Sumer filled the traditional roles of mother, wife, and housekeeper, their roles were seen somewhat differently than in some other ancient cultures. In many ways, they enjoyed greater independence and power, but they were also somewhat at the mercy of their families, who could, for example, sell them to the temple where they would become priestesses. Prostitution, interestingly, was not considered an evil or unacceptable practice, which explains the role of Ishtar's priestesses in the story. The modern reader may consider Shamhat little more than a prostitute, but ancient Sumerians would have seen her role as normal, in service to the goddess of sexual love. As such her assignment to tame the wild man, Enkidu, would have been entirely reasonable.

Sumerian mythology provides more than one explanation of how the world was created, but several details about the gods' creation of people stand out. The people were made of clay (and, in one story, the blood of a hero-god), just as their cities and tablets are. And they were created to serve the gods—literally. Before humans, the gods had to dig their own canals and build their own temples, so they created people to do the work for them. For the Sumerians, then, the gods had their divine status. At the same time they were also the people's employers and landlords. By creating people the gods freed themselves to enjoy immortal lives of recreation and luxury. Although a god might favor a particular human or city, and although each human was thought to have a personal god (Gilgamesh's is his deified father, Lugalbanda), humans are essentially living tools for gods. Humans built the gods' homes (their temples) and prepared food each day for the gods. They created statues of the gods—representatives of the gods to whom humans could pray, sing, and petition—to live in their temples, and they clothed them in fine garments. What readers now regard as mythology permeated the daily lives of Gilgamesh's subjects and permeates Gilgamesh as well.

Finally, the reader cannot overlook certain parallels between stories from Sumerian mythology and Christian biblical stories. The story of the Great Flood, which Utnapishtim survived, is one that stands out. In Gilgamesh, skies open, and it rains for seven days, destroying all living things that were not on Utnapishtim's boat, an almost exact rewording of the story of Noah and the ark. And just as Noah in the biblical tale releases a bird to find land, so too does Utnapishtim. Noah's ark finally comes to ground on Mount Ararat; Utnapishtim's ship settles on Mount Nimush.

The Epic Form

An epic is a long narrative poem from the oral tradition that follows a set of conventions, or "rules," to present a story of heroism. Epics tell the story of a hero—usually a man whose strength and courage are extraordinary—and also of the people or nation of that hero. The hero's deeds reflect the people's achievements, and his quest often results in new knowledge or treasure that helps the community. Gilgamesh has characteristics common to many epics:

  • Its hero, Gilgamesh, is semidivine and powerful. Like many epic heroes, however, he has a flaw that prevents him from being the ruler he should be.
  • The epic's action takes place in a vast setting. Gilgamesh's journey begins and ends in Uruk, but he travels, with Enkidu and alone, enormous distances through mysterious lands to the edge of the world.
  • The plot features great deeds that require courage and strength beyond what most mortals possess. Powerful gods and weapons assist Gilgamesh (as Shamash does) or oppose him (as Ishtar does).
  • The epic reminds its listeners about early cultural heroes. It helps keep cultural memories fresh and teaches young listeners about right behaviors.
  • The epic uses memorable poetic lines and, often, striking similes to help listeners internalize its cultural lessons.

Epics often pose an important question that drives the hero's story. In Gilgamesh, that question is how mortals can best live with the knowledge that no mortal escapes death.

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