The story of Gilgamesh was one of the world’s first literary works but most importantly the very first epic. “An epic or heroic poem is a long narrative poem, on a serious subject [that was] written in a grand or elevated style, centered on a larger-than-life hero” (Lynch). Because it was only recited orally for many centuries it was forgotten and vanished until “it was recorded at Sumer in the late third millennium B. C. E” (Fiero 19).
The story of Gilgamesh is about an arrogant ruler, who changes because of an immense love and friendship with his companion Enkidu, it is a story about the wisdom he acquires with his journeys, and the inevitability of death. The story begins with the introduction of the two main characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The love these friends will stumble upon for each other makes both of them change as individuals. From their initial encounter they will discard part of their own lives and give a piece of them to each other. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk is described as two thirds god and one third human.
The Gods bestowed upon him courage, strength and beauty. “In our first view of him, Gilgamesh is the epitome of a bad ruler: arrogant, oppressive and brutal” (Lawall 10). He has no consideration for the people in Uruk he forces labor upon them, kills their sons and rapes their daughters, leaving “neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble” (Lawall 13). The people of Uruk soon get irritated with Gilgamesh’s ways and pray to the gods to make his equal so that he may see his own evil ways and ultimately change.
Aruru, the goddess of creation then creates Enkidu, the second main character, as a counterpoint to Gilgamesh. Far different from Gilgamesh he still contains his strength. “His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s […] his body was covered with matted hair […] he was innocent of mankind” (Lawall 13). Gilgamesh is told of Enkidu and his immense strength and devises a plan to overpower him by seducing him with a harlot so that he may grow weak and loose the powers of the beasts.
Close to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Enkidu is stripped of his primitive self and his innocence by the harlot. Gilgamesh has accomplished to civilize Enkidu there by weakening him as an individual. “The thoughts of a man were in his heart now” (Lawall 15) and he had become aware of the ways of the world. Meanwhile through Gilgamesh’s dreams he is told that a friend whom he will love like he would a woman is going to rescue him in this time of need. Enkidu then arrives at Uruk to challenge Gilgamesh but instead become friends, marking the beginning of Gilgamesh’s complete transformation.
The journey to fight Humbaba, the guardian of the forest was Gilgamesh’s next component of change. Deciding to kill the evil in the land for the sake of his people gave him some wisdom and connection to the people, something Enkidu had already begun doing. By facing Humbaba in the forest Gilgamesh makes a name for him and changes the outlook of the people in the kingdom. Although the journey was at first only beneficial for him it would later be helpful in his own journey to become a more justly and praiseworthy ruler. The death of Enkidu also significantly changes Gilgamesh.
After the killing of Humbaba, Ishtar deeply wanted to marry Gilgamesh but he refused. Extremely enraged she asked her father for the Bull of Heaven to kill him, which failed. Instead Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven and feast, for now they were heroes, “endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for [their] bold exploits” (American Heritage Dictionary). She then puts a curse on Enkidu which leads him to a great sickness and finally after twelve days, to his death. Gilgamesh could not be anymore devastated about the loss.
We can see his anguish when he says “the joyful people will stoop with sorrow; and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion” (Lawall 30). Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu’s death by making the people weep over his death. By using garments such as he did and wandering like his old companion he is able to keep a part of Enkidu close to him and ultimately gain something from him. Following this, Gilgamesh comes to a realization that his day will soon come too “How can I rest, how can I be at peace?
Despair in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead. (Lawell 30). This will lead Gilgamesh to his quest for eternal life, it is in this journey where we he will find his real destiny. Gilgamesh’s quest is to find Utnapishtim who was the only mortal to receive everlasting life. In an effort to erase humankind because of an uproar, the gods sent a big flood and asked Utnapishtim to build a boat to save himself. “Tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive” (35).
Here we are able to see another biblical reference to the Old Testament. Just as Noah did when he was warned of such a disaster, so did Utnapishtim. Because they were the only mortals to survive, the gods gave him and his wife everlasting life to live at the mouths of the rivers. When Gilgamesh finally reached Utnapishtim he also gave him a chance at immortality. “As for you Gilgamesh who will assemble the gods for your sake, so that you may find that life for which you are searching? […] only prevail against sleep for six days and seven nights” (38). But his attempt failed.
Just as Siduri, the woman of the vine had for told Gilgamesh that he“[would] never find that life for which [he was] looking” (Lawall 32) for. Before Gilgamesh returns to Uruk Utnapishtim tells him of a plant that will restore his youth. Despite its hard catch, he obtains it to give to the old men in his kingdom. But while bathing, a serpent snatches the plant and immediately his skin sheds to a new form. Most commonly in religious text serpents symbolize evil but here the gift of immortality is taken by the serpent because this destiny is forbidden for Gilgamesh.
Although he did not achieve his most desired attribute Gilgamesh acquired many other things. From his journey of killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven to the death of his dearest friend Enkidu he most definitely gained more wisdom, ultimately understanding the people which in turn gained their trust and the glory. His failed attempt at his most endearing and significant journey to find immortality led Gilgamesh to find the meaningfulness of being human. Gilgamesh finally understood his true destiny. “You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny”.