The Epic of Gilgamesh | Study Guide

Sîn-lēqi-unninni

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Course Hero, "The Epic of Gilgamesh Study Guide," June 14, 2017, accessed October 19, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Epic-of-Gilgamesh/.

The Epic of Gilgamesh | Themes

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Balance and Order

The theme of balance and order is both overt and covert in Gilgamesh. After the Prologue assures readers that the story has a positive ending, the plot plunges into the suffering of the people of Uruk, a city so disordered and ruled by so unbalanced a king that the people despair. Everything about Gilgamesh is outsized and extreme. He's splendidly handsome and dangerously violent, stronger than any man and wilder than a bull. No one in the city can check his behaviors; the gods themselves see him as a shepherd destroying his own sheep. The king's power should enhance the city; instead, because he's so extreme, so unbalanced, that Gilgamesh is preying on Uruk.

Anu's instructions to Aruru make clear the need for balance: she must create a "double ... his second self ... a man who equals his stormy heart." Gilgamesh blends the divine and the mortal; he's a man of the city who dresses in fine garments and oils his body. Enkidu is the wild man associated with nature and animals; he has no language, and he is a true shepherd to the herds. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, the city meets the natural world, the predator meets the protector, and the unjust king meets the just servant.

The importance of balance is embedded in Sumerian creation stories as well. When opposites meet and mingle, order arises. The first gods, for example, came into being when Apsu, male god of calm, fresh waters, and Tiamat, female god of turbulent salt water, "mingled their waters." But as more gods were born, chaos ensued until the god Marduk imposed it again. Some Sumerian rituals, such as the yearly reading of the creation story in the Enuma elish ("When on High"), were intended to restore the order of early creation. Even the cycle of death and life, which Gilgamesh wants so badly to escape, is a matter of balance and order. "This is the way / the world is established," Utnapishtim declares, and the sooner Gilgamesh accepts the divine order, the sooner he can find contentment.

Fame and Mortality

Epic heroes often seek fame. They want to establish their names and deeds so no one forgets them after they die. Fame keeps memory alive, and since mortals must die, fame is a substitute for immortality. So it is for Gilgamesh as he plans the attack on Humbaba. Everyone advises him against it—Enkidu, who has seen Humbaba, Uruk's elders, and even Ninsun, Gilgamesh's goddess mother. Yet Gilgamesh is determined to "stamp my fame on men's minds forever." And, given that the epic is still read thousands of years later, Gilgamesh seems to have succeeded.

The epic suggests a question, however, about the price of such fame. The cost to Gilgamesh is high: he pays with his grief for Enkidu. Enkidu pays with 12 days of intense suffering that end in death, trading his brief existence because Gilgamesh persuaded him the trade was worth the cost. During Gilgamesh's wandering, this question obsesses him and wears his health away.

One way in which he tries to address this question is by pursuing the secret to immortality. He goes to great lengths to find it, and it is almost within reach, but he fails to grasp it. Why? He fails because he is human and cannot overcome his human weakness—his exhaustion from his long journey, his sacrifices, and his sufferings. And when Gilgamesh fails even to hold on to his consolation prize—the plant that offers to restore his youth, his failure is complete. What's left is his humanity, qualities that never seemed enough to him before. He doesn't comprehend it at first, but when he reaches Uruk and sees the strong, beautiful walls, his eyes are opened. He lets go of the hope of fame and immortality and embraces his mortality, ready to live in the moment.

Heroism and Hubris

Gilgamesh is the hero of his story, but he's far from perfect. Enkidu, too, is imperfectly heroic, and because the two men balance and complement each other in terms of strengths and weaknesses, they achieve mighty deeds. Yet ultimately, not only do the twin heroes fail to defeat divine decrees, but they bring disaster on themselves. The epic hero walks a blurred line between bold courage and reckless pride. That pride, or hubris, is Gilgamesh's undoing and a theme of the epic.

Hubris is a dangerous form of pride. It goes beyond pleasure and satisfaction in one's achievements or joy in the good fortune of those one loves. Hubris is excessive pride that leads a hero to behave with too much confidence that he can prevail. A hero who thinks he is the exception to divine order or who, because of his place in society or his strength or intellect, thinks he can skirt the rules suffers from hubris. In ancient stories, the gods think poorly of hubris and often punish it with poetic justice, as they do to Gilgamesh, who thinks too highly of his special status as semidivine. Since one function of epics is to teach young listeners what their culture expects of them, the smacking down of a hero's hubris is not just a plot point—it's a moral lesson.

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