Early World History
December 6, 2010
Ancient Mesopotamia and The Epic of Gilgamesh
The epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest epics known to man, reflects the challenges of life in ancient Sumer by dealing with them metaphorically. The most important challenges in ancient Sumerian life were deforestation and flooding. After Enkidu and Gilgamesh meet and become friends, Gilgamesh proposes that they go to the cedar forest and cut down all the trees. Though Gilgamesh’s reasoning for cutting down all the trees isn’t very reasonable, he still persuades Enkidu to come along with him. “At dawn Gilgamesh raised his ax and struck at the great cedar. When Humbaba heard the sound of falling trees, he hurried down the path that they had seen but only he had traveled.” 1 Gilgamesh and Enkidu cutting down trees was a metaphor for the ongoing problem of deforestation in ancient Mesopotamia. Because Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the trees that were sacred to the gods, the gods cursed mankind with fire and drought. “Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs.” 2 In ancient Mesopotamia, the land was savagely deforested. In this way, deserts formed, and civilization declined. Gilgamesh yearns for immortality, and chases after the dream of being immortal. When he fails to achieve immortality, he returns to his town and realizes that because he built the wall of Uruk and other constructions and because they would last long after he was gone, he would thereby gain immortality. “He looked at the walls, awed at the heights his people had achieved and for a moment- just a moment- all that lay behind him passed from view.” 3 In the epic of Gilgamesh immortality is a theme that frequently recurs, and is a metaphor for how Sumerians, as like all humans, desire immortality but cannot achieve it. Also, a possible explanation for the reason humans do not have immortality is because Gilgamesh did not obtain immortality. Humans living in ancient Mesopotamia had...