Gilgamesh overview

I rarely give such spoon-feeding help as plot summary for the works we read, but since some of you don't yet have the Norton textbook and cannot read the editors' headnote to the poem (introduction and background), I’ve included a plot overview written by one of my former colleagues at Rogers State University, Dr. Gary Ernst, from an online course we both taught there.

A word on reading: For all the works you read in this class (if not for all reading you do anywhere), you should read critically, meaning that you read not passively, just "listening to the author tell you a story," but alertly, engaging with the text in an active fashion, seeking significance in each character, each plot event—each detail of setting or scene the author seems to stress or emphasize. Ask yourself constantly, "Why is this important? Why did the author put that in the work? What am I supposed to think, learn, or feel from this character?" Beyond the simple level of plot (what happens in the story at the literal level), strive to seeks depths of meaning in what you read.

The story: Gilgamesh begins with the problem Gilgamesh poses for his community and the gods’ solution to that problem: Enkidu. Gilgamesh is the gods’ creation. He is to function as the king of Uruk, a city in Mesopotamia. Since he is so "perfect," he begins to develop arrogance and to engage in activities that are destructive, including kidnapping young men and essentially raping virgin brides on their wedding night (by his legal "right" as king). When the people of the city complain to the gods, the gods implore that Aruru, goddess of creation, create another being who can balance Gilgamesh’s power. Aruru creates Enkidu half-human, half-animal, made from clay and water. He begins his life living with wild creatures and becoming protector of wild game. He is a "good king" to the animals, unlike Gilgamesh, who is a bad king to the people. A hunter, encountering Enkidu and frightened by him, is counseled by his father to take a prostitute to Enkidu and lure him to human society with sexual attraction. After the prostitute awakens Enkidu’s humanity, Enkidu joins the shepherds and protects their flocks from the same wild animals he once protected. The prostitute then takes Enkidu to Uruk so he can battle Gilgamesh, who, warned by a dream, expects the approaching battle. Gilgamesh’s mother has told him he will find true companionship through the battle. When Gilgamesh, with great difficulty, overcomes Enkidu, he takes him as a friend, uniting the wild (Enkidu) with the civilized (Gilgamesh).

Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out to slay a monster, Humbaba, who has seven treasures. Humbaba begs for mercy and then curses them as he dies. The god of wind and storm, Enlil, is distressed by the death of the creature he has created and also curses them and refuses them the treasures.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu then begin a second adventure. Gilgamesh turns down Ishtar’s marriage proposal on the basis that she has mistreated her other seven husbands. Ishtar sends the Bull of Heaven to ravage Uruk, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu must destroy it. Its destruction causes Ishtar to petition for vengeance, and the gods grant the death of Enkidu, who curses those who introduced him to civilized humanity until reminded by Shamash, the sun god, that he has had glory as a man.

Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu. Shaken by the death of his friend, Gilgamesh desires immortality, which he thinks he can receive from Utanapishtim, another human. Gilgamesh journeys through many trials and perils to a faraway island, Dilmun, where Utanapishtim tells how he won immortality from the gods. Utanapishtim challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake for six days and seven nights. Since sleep is known as the "little death," if Gilgamesh cannot conquer sleep, he will not be able to conquer death. He cannot stay awake, but Utanapishtim tells him of a plant that will restore youth, a prize close to immortality, but not immortality exactly. Gilgamesh finds the plant at the bottom of the sea, but a serpent steals it from him, dashing his chance at perpetual youth. He returns to Uruk, knowing the he, the greatest of men, greater even than Enkidu, will die but that his deeds will live after him.

Note that the gods in Gilgamesh are not ordered into such a rigid hierarchy as the Greek and Roman gods; they are simply a grouping of related immortal beings.

So there’s the basic story. Now ponder what the work means—ask yourself, why is it significant? Why is it considered “literature”? How does it relate to me? What does it say about humanity in general? What are its central themes?

Definition of theme: In the simplest, broadest terms, one quality that differentiates works of “literature” from other written texts (especially those intended primarily to entertain) is that literary works often present a theme, or “message” that applies beyond the level of plot with continuing relevance for an audience beyond the world presented in the text. A literary work’s theme makes some commentary upon or offers insight into the human condition. Think of a fable, for instance, where the universal theme is stated directly as the “moral of the story.” In the famous fable about the tortoise and the hare, the message is that “slow and steady wins the race,” or more precisely, focused, extended perseverance leads to a better outcome than erratic bursts of frenzied high-speed activity. The theme isn't a matter limited to the two characters in the story, or even turtles and rabbits generally: the fable's theme pertains to you and me and all of humanity.

Some works’ themes are relatively limited in scope: among other themes, for instance, Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House points out the destructive nature of a legal system more intent on perpetuating itself as a system than providing justice. On the other hand, the commentary on the destructive nature of guilt in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment clearly applies to all human beings—we all experience powerful feelings of guilt at times. To an extent, literary works exploring the most universal themes have the longest staying power.

Reading points:

As you read Gilgamesh and each of the other works we’re covering this semester, be on the lookout for themes or “messages” that are universal, so much so that the works still hold relevance for modern readers despite the great distance of time, language, and culture separating us from the original writers and the cultures in which the works were composed.

Some questions to ponder as you read: