The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Sîn-lēqi-unninni's epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh | Symbols



Uruk is more than a major setting in Gilgamesh. The city symbolizes Gilgamesh's transformation from cruel to wise king and represents the achievements of his subjects, which are his achievements as well. So it is appropriate that the tablets of lapis lazuli, into which Gilgamesh himself carved the story of his quest, reside not just in the city but inside its cornerstone, the first and founding stone of Uruk's great fortifications.

Before his transformation, Gilgamesh has a greedy relationship with his subjects. He treats them as his personal labor force, given to him to sate his desires. Their relationship echoes what the stories of the creation of humans report about why the gods made people—to work for them so they can live in idle luxury. Gilgamesh emphasizes the divine two-thirds of his nature before he leaves on his journey, so the people cry out to the gods for help. The gods serve as necessary checks on power, and the people get everything they want. Not only does Enkidu tame Gilgamesh, bringing out his human third, but when Gilgamesh loses Enkidu to death and then recognizes his own mortality, he becomes not only Uruk's ruler but its servant as well. He rebuilds the temples, central to city life, and carves new roads through the hills. He becomes the shepherd the gods assigned him to be and makes his city a legend as he becomes one.


The monsters in the epic symbolize Gilgamesh's and Enkidu's desire for fame and power, especially when this desire runs counter to what the gods want. Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven are the epic's most important monsters; both entangle the heroes in a dangerous web of mortals' desires versus gods' desires. But lesser monsters play roles, too, especially after Enkidu's death. The scorpion people can help or hinder Gilgamesh, if he's bold enough to approach them, and the Stone Men's destruction represents his lack of mastery of his own desires and emotions.

Monsters are common to the epic form and to the quest myth; they can serve as symbols not only of what the hero seeks but of how the hero's flaws trip him up. Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat both major monsters; in fact, they dispatch the Bull of Heaven with comic ease. But they pay a terrible price for entering these battles, and that price is linked symbolically to Gilgamesh's flaws in particular. It can be argued that Gilgamesh himself is monstrous, before Enkidu forces the king to confront these flaws.

Hero's Journey

Gilgamesh, as the oldest story known, demonstrates that the hero's journey has been a symbol for self-knowledge and transformation for ages. Gilgamesh's journey shapes the plot and symbolizes Gilgamesh's search for immortality, first through fame and then through finagling an exception to the rule that all mortals must die. In the end, his struggles bring him an epiphany as he learns that living fully and in the moment is the gift mortals receive in place of immortality, and one that should not be undervalued.

In telling of this journey from striving and longing to awakening to life, Gilgamesh follows the outline of the hero's quest, a plot studied extensively and popularized by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. The story is so common throughout the ages that Campbell names it the monomyth. The story begins when a hero is called to an adventure in some way. He may accept or try to refuse the call, but finally he embarks on the journey (or there is no story). He usually receives aid from supernatural beings or a wise mentor, and he's often joined by a companion who travels all or some of the road with him. The hero endures trials that teach him what he needs to know for the next stage of the quest and faces temptations to quit the journey or to subvert it to a less important goal. In many quest stories, the hero suffers through a dark passage of some sort and emerges in some way refreshed or transformed, with greater insight into his nature and his purpose.

Usually, the hero sets out after a particular goal; in some stories, he achieves that goal and returns to his people with new knowledge or treasure to transform them, too. But sometimes the hero either fails to reach his goal or fails to identify a good goal in the first place. In such cases, part of his quest is to replace the faulty goal with a goal that matters to him and his people. Whatever the case, when the hero returns, he restores his community in some way, bringing order and restoration. He himself is substantially changed and ready to play a new role among his people. Gilgamesh reaches this stage when he returns to Uruk, sees the great wall of Uruk "gleam like copper in the sun." Although the story ends before readers witness his actions as the newly awakened man, his optimism and self-awareness hold promise that he will become a great and good leader of his people.


Seven, readers will notice, is an important and symbolic number in the epic. It first appears when Shamhat and Enkidu make love for seven days, and it recurs at many other moments, especially when rituals are involved. The number represents completeness and may be based on the seven heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and five planets visible to the unassisted eye) the Sumerians believed affected their lives and for whom the seven major gods were named. Another significant astronomical seven was the constellation of the Pleaides, near the Bull of Heaven, that guided planting times in the spring. Heptads, or groups of sevens, appear not only in Sumerian literature but also in art and architectural design. In the case of Gilgamesh's mourning, he may have hoped that seven complete days of weeping would bring about a magical or divine cure for his brother and friend.

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