Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian culture hero, originally Sumerian, but adopted by later peoples such as the Akkadians (Kirk, 1970, p. 133). Mesopotamia refers to the region between the two rivers Tigres and Euphrates, present day Iraq. Mesopotamia is the site of the earliest known cities, and, appropriately, Mesopotamian myths often deal with the problems of early civilization: irrigation, order, kingship (Kirk, 1970, p. 119). This problem can be seen as a conflict between nature and culture, or, more specifically, the conflict between two lifeways: the nomadic ways of the desert, and the settled ways of the agricultural city-state (Kirk, 1970, p. 146).
The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is the mythologized account of an early Sumerian king of the city-state Uruk (Leeming, 2005, p. 149). Gilgamesh’s bad treatment of his people prompted the Gods to create a companion, Enkidu, of near equal energy to balance Gilgamesh’s aggression (Abusch, 2001, p. 617). Gilgamesh and Enkidu embark on a series of adventures together to gain the immortality of fame, but their arrogance causes the Gods to kill Enkidu (Abusch, 2001, p. 617). After a period of severe mourning, Gilgamesh develops a fear of his own death and roams the wild until he decides to seek true immortality by questing to find Utnapishtim, the only mortal man to have achieved immortality (Kirk, 1970, p.138). After overcoming many obstacles Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim gives him a magical plant of immortality, but Gilgamesh loses it on the return journey (Puchner, 2012, p. 96). Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and takes up his kingship, a wiser man (Abusch, 2001, p. 619).
The separation stage. “Shall I not die too? Am I not like Enkidu?” (Puchner, 2012, p. 134). Enkidu’s death, and Gilgamesh’s subsequent awareness of his own mortality are the hero’s call to adventure. At first, he just roams the wilds in his fear and grief, but eventually he makes a decision. “Having come this far, I will go on swiftly towards Utanapishtim, son of Ubar-Tutu” (Puchner, 2012, p. 134). Gilgamesh’s call to adventure is an internal yearning to exceed himself, which he interprets as a need to gain immortality. He begins his journey and crosses his first threshold at the “twin peaks of Mashum” which are described as reaching “to the vault of heaven” and descending “downward to hell” (Puchner, 2012, p. 135). Scorpion monsters guard the threshold, but Gilgamesh is let through.
The initiation stage. Upon reaching the other side of the mountains Gilgamesh comes upon a tavern. The tavern keeper is a woman named Siduri, and she at first tries to dissuade Gilgamesh from his journey. Eventually she accepts that he is going to continue, and she gives him advice on how to proceed. This is the meeting of the Goddess. Campbell equates Siduri with the goddess Ishtar (Campbell, 1968, p. 185). Gilgamesh follows Siduri’s advice, crosses the waters of death, and finds the immortal Utanapishtim. Utanapishtim is reluctant to show Gilgamesh the secret of immortality, but he is convinced by his wife to tell Gilgamesh of the magical plant that brings back youth. This is the giving of the ultimate boon. Gilgamesh gets the plant and begins his journey home.
The return stage. Almost immediately, Gilgamesh loses the plant to a snake. The rest of his journey home is uneventful. Upon returning to Uruk he has crossed the return threshold. His transformation is complete, and he “resumes his role as king, brings back the wisdom and the lessons that he learned in his exhausting wanderings, and sets down in writing his tale and his new-found knowledge” (Abusch, 2001, p. 619). Gilgamesh has earned his freedom to live.
The “Epic of Gilgamesh”, like all hero myths, resembles a rite of passage. In this instance the myth appears to be about the passage to kingship. Gilgamesh learns to “express his tremendous energy… in a manner that accords with the limits and responsibilities imposed upon him by his society” (Abusch, 1986, p. 144). The myth of Gilgamesh points to the importance of kingship for a culture for which the city-state was a relatively new way of ordering society.
By Keith Mako
Abusch, Tzvi. “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive
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—. “Ishtar’s Proposal and Gilgamesh’s Refusal: An Interpretation of the Gilgamesh Epic,”
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Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Princeton
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Kirk, G.S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. London:
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Leeming, David, ed., The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford
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Puchner, Martin, ed., The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, 3rd ed. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Featured image photo by SAC Andy Holmes (RAF), 2008