Unveiling the Epic of Gilgamesh: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Insights

“The joy of man is this: to shine one’s light into the depth of the heart, to travel into unknown lands, and to live, to carry our lives, not like beggars, but like kings and queens. The life that you seek you will never find. When the gods created man, they allotted him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.” -Epic Of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a collection of poetry about the king of Uruk. It originated in ancient Mesopotamia and is considered the first great work of literature. The composer was a scribe named Sîn-lēqi-unninni.  The poems tell readers a masterful and amazing story of life. King Gilgamesh is a man who has it all. Two-thirds god and one-third man. He was renowned for doing amazing things, such as building impressive buildings like ziggurats, temple towers, and high city walls but not everything is perfect…

King Gilgamesh is appealing in both beauty and strength while also being known for his clever and intelligent mind; however, he has one fatal flaw that cannot be overlooked: He was unusually cruel and uncaring, with a disposition that did no credit to his good qualities. The author highlights the inevitability of mortality and the impermanence of human life, which is a central theme of the epic. It serves as a reminder of the human condition and the limitations of even the most heroic figures like Gilgamesh.

“Gilgamesh, the strong one, the perfect in strength, the hero. In Uruk, he built walls, a great rampart, and the temple of blessed Eanna for the god Anu, and for Ishtar, the goddess of love…Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.” 

King Gilgamesh was an absolute ruler who expected every command to be promptly carried out. He lorded over those in his council, his people, and anyone in his life. He did not possess basic empathy for those around him.

He would rape any women who slightly appealed to him in the least, regardless of their social standing. This meant that no female was ever safe in his court, whether they were a royal servant, a soldier’s wife, or even the daughter of someone in nobility. Everyone was fair game to the king. The atrocities were left unchecked. The people yearned for peace and justice.

The impressive buildings and projects King Gilgamesh undertook were carried out with horrific forced labor, and the people of Uruk felt stifled under his oppressive leadership. Retaliation and change seemed impossible and far from achievable but there was no doubt change was inevitable.

“I will make myself king… and I shall be your lord…He seized her by the throat, and said: ‘Will you compare your lot with mine? You who are to die tomorrow? What is there between you and me? Let me go free, and I will spare you your life…”

The people’s pleas for change did not go unheard by the gods. They decided to create a wild man named Enkidu, who would be Gilgamesh’s equal in every way. The tides of history would be forever altered. Enkidu spent his life in the wilderness among the animals. He learned from them and was happily living out his days in a forest when a hunter found him.

“He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes. He had joy of the water with the herds of wild game…His strength is as mighty as the meteorite, his strength is as mighty as the meteorite of Anu. There is no one like him..”

The strength, innocence, and connection with nature that characterizes Enkidu in the epic is very vital at the core of understanding human nature and how people progress. The contrast and similarities between the two men are meant to be highlighted. Enkidu’s transformation from a wild man to a friend of Gilgamesh is a central element of the story that shows the influence men have over one another. That setting an example is powerful.

Enkidu is not left alone for long.

A prostitute was sent into the woods to find and mate with Enkidu to “tame” and “civilize” him. Enkidu, of course, succumbed to the woman’s charms and slept with her. However, once he had lain with the prostitute, he lost his innocence and was shunned by his animal family. This is a massive turning point where fate flourishes and destiny turns down a different road.

He could no longer live life in the same way and was forced to seek out the human world. After some time, Enkidu heard about Gilgamesh and his tyrannical reign and lifestyle. He was naturally outraged by the audacity of King Gilgamesh and sought him out to challenge him in a duel.

Enkidu located Gilgamesh just as the king was about to make his way into a bride’s wedding chamber to have his way with her. Enkidu blocked the way, and the men wrestled and fought each other for a bit until the prevailing party won. Of course, the winner was Enkidu, who was made to be everything Gilgamesh was, except with more heart and kindness for life.

The two men unexpectedly became the very best of friends. The bond they shared would be everlasting and change Gilgamesh forever. Enkidu was the only person he ever loved and the only family he truly had in his heart. “Enkidu said to Gilgamesh, ‘When you saw us, you said that I was altered…”

Gilgamesh learned kindness and became a better person because of his friendship with Enkidu as time went on. He developed a sense of morals and rightness that appeased his people. Enkidu’s character illustrates the progression of his story and the impact he had on the king of Uruk.

The two go on numerous adventures throughout their friendship. It was during the time they stole trees from a distant cedar forest forbidden to mortals that they stumbled into trouble. Humbaba, a demon in service to the god Enlil, attacked them for their trespass. “Gilgamesh climbed the mountain, he struck the stone monsters; stones of their hearts did he smash. When he had felled the guardians of the Cedar Forest, he left no alive, not one…”

Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeat Humbaba with the assistance of the sun god Shamash. Upon their return, an impressed god of love named Ishtar becomes obsessed with and lusts for Gilgamesh. The king did not return her feelings and bluntly spurned her. This did not sit well with Ishtar.

She was the daughter of Anu, the god of the sky. Anu sent a gigantic bull from the heavens to destroy Gilgamesh named Gugalanna. Enkidu and Gilgamesh defeated the monster easily enough and successfully saved their lives, ending a famine that was brought down by Anu’s monster bull.

Life had been good in the world of Gilgamesh and Enkidu; however, it would not be long until the winds of fate shook things up, and nothing would ever be the same. Enkidu fell fatally sick after an ill-fated meeting with Ishtar. He and Gilgamesh had killed Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.

Enkidu was sentenced to death for his crimes in a council of the great gods. They made the decision that one of the friends must pay for their transgressions, and Enkidu was chosen. He was struck down with some sort of wasting disease, and within seven days, Enkidu was dead. This was devastating to Gilgamesh, who absolutely did not handle this great loss well.

“Enkidu was growing weaker. His eyes were full of tears. He looked at his friend and spoke to him. Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh: ‘Dear friend, I must sit down, my arms no longer have the strength…Enkidu, the strongest of wild creatures, a wild ass among the pure creatures! You were the axe at my side, my hand’s strength, the weapon I could use to defeat Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. The handle of my pickaxe, an alien weapon, which the great goddess forgave. Seven days and seven nights, there lay Enkidu. Over his corpse, the flies gathered…”

Gilgamesh was truly heartbroken over the death of his best friend. It also impacted the king significantly in another way. He began to fear death and did not want life to ever end. This caused the king to embark on a lifelong journey to find the ultimate solution to his massive worries: Immortality.

This quest ultimately led to Gilgamesh wasting his life away.

Gilgamesh journeyed to find Utnapishtim, who was Mesopotamia’s Noah and was granted eternal life after his boat successfully withstood the great flood. Utnapishtim gave Gilgamesh a test when the king demanded that he deserved to live forever as well. The test was that he must stay awake for seven long days. Gilgamesh failed this mission entirely.

It was Utnapishtim’s wife who took pity on the poor man and had her husband explain where a miraculous plant could be found that would restore a person’s youth. Eventually, King Gilgamesh found the treasured plant and packed it away to bring along with him so he could share it with the elders of Uruk. However, it was stolen one night in his camp.

When Gilgamesh returned to Uruk, he had nothing and reconciled that he would not be immortal. He regretted the years and time wasted on his mission. The whole moral of the story, especially the ending, is to take life for what it is and enjoy what you have while it is yours to be had. Live and do not waste your time being unhappy and scared of what is to come.

“You, Gilgamesh, let full be your belly, make you merry by day and by night. Of each day make a feast of rejoicing, day and night dance and play! Let your clothes be clean! Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water! Gird up your loins, may your limbs be taut!… Make merry there on the lap of your wife, whom you love.”



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