The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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The Epic of Gilgamesh | Motifs


Prophetic Dreams

Dreams weave their way through Gilgamesh and are always prophetic and often attributed to the gods. Dreams function as a way for the gods to communicate a glimpse into the future, but the dreams are rarely clear and require interpretation. Some dreams come unbidden, as when Gilgamesh dreams of the flaming boulder that lands at his feet. This dream prophesies the coming of Enkidu, the dear companion. Gilgamesh doesn't know, when he has this dream, that he needs this companion or that Enkidu exists, but because Shamhat reports the dream to Enkidu, both men begin to feel the pull toward their future friendship. In other cases, characters seek out dreams when they need guidance. Gilgamesh does so repeatedly, and Enkidu, fortunately, is a talented interpreter of dreams. The dreams are part of the epic's mystery as well, of a kind with the rituals, prayers, amulets, and divine presences that sustain an atmosphere of the supernatural.

Capricious Gods

Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh and Enkidu both benefit and suffer from the gods' interventions in their adventures. Readers should keep in mind the worldview of Sumerian religion (see Context) as they chart the changing attitudes of the gods toward Gilgamesh and other characters. The difficulty of pleasing the gods is a problem in other ancient mythologies as well. In Greek mythology, for example, a hero such as Herakles (Hercules) may please Zeus, king of the gods, but offend Hera, his queen, with the same action. The pantheon's internal disputes spill over into human life, as when the Titan Prometheus angers Zeus by tricking the gods into letting humans keep most of the meat of a sacrificed animal. Not only is Prometheus punished, but so are humans, in the form of the plagues and woes Pandora releases. However, in ancient Greek myths, the gods are at least predictable: Hera is always jealous and suspicious; Ares is always aggressive, and Athena has her prickly pride. Humans at least know the rules the gods expect them to follow and how the gods will react if they break these rules.

Not so the Sumerian gods, who, tied so closely to nature, may change as quickly as the weather. Even those gods most inclined to help humans can't be counted on to do so consistently. When, for example, Gilgamesh decides to kill Humbaba, readers see a contradiction: Enlil, who governs the gods' assembly, assigned Humbaba the task of protecting the sacred forest from mortals, yet Shamash, god of the sun, assists Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the fight. And although Gilgamesh is the son of a goddess, the assembly of the gods will not speak for him, as they did for Utnapishtim. The gods are interwoven into Sumerian life, but they are not to be depended on.

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