Epic of Gilgamesh: Background and Summary

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Background and Summary
Gilgamesh is the oldest written hero epic, written in cuneiform on clay tablets 1300 years before Homer. An Assyrian tale, as we have it, but scholars believe it first existed in oral tradition of Sumer and was first recorded approximately 2100 BCE.

Gilgamesh’s major quest is unusual for that time period in that it has an intellectual purpose: he must wage a battle against despair in pursuit of the meaning of life and enduring fame. Our text only includes a small portion of this epic, so I will provide a brief overview of key events of the whole thing. Note that the flood story is taken from this epic.

The opening section provides an overview of the whole story: the hero and his quest. When Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, angers his people with his arrogance and selfishness, so the nobles went to the gods for help with him, and they beg the goddess Aruru to create Enkidu to teach Gilgamesh how to become a more compassionate king. They become fsst friends and they journey to the Cedar Forest and defeat the monster Humbaba to gain the cedars of Lebanon. After an epic journey and during this battle, we see significant contrasts between the two: Enkidu doesn’t want to fight the giant because he doesn't want to face death, but Gilgamesh urges him on and together they defeat him. After their return, Gilgamesh encounters Ishtar, kills the Bull of Heaven, and watches his friend Enkidu die as a punishment.

Now Gilgamesh refuses to face death and so embarks on a journey to Utanapishtim to learn the secret of eternal life. On a psychological level Enkidu can be seen as Gilgamesh's alter ego or his shadow self. Gilgamesh very much represents order while Enkidu exemplifies nature. When Ishtar seeks revenge Enkidu must die, not Gilgamesh, symbolizing again man’s dominance over nature.

Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortal life to seek a Noah-like immortal, Utanapishtim. He first encounters Siduri who tells hime the he should return home and be...
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