The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story of a legendary king of Uruk in South Baby-lonia (van Reeth 1994). He was the fifth ruler of Uruk after the deluge and possibly ruled Uruk around 2800 BCE (van Reeth 1994). The Epic itself was originally conveyed in oral form, but was written down in Sumerian using cuneiform writing on clay tablets around 2000 BCE (Hooker 1996). Many fragments of the epic also survive in other languages such as Hurrian and Hittite (Hooker 1996). The most complete surviving version of the Epic was written in Akkian on twelve tablets (Hooker 1996); these were “Written down according to the original and collated in the palace of Ashurbani- pal, King of the tablets is named: Shin-eqi-unninni (Hooker 1996). This essay focuses on the life of Gilgamesh and ignores other events, such as Enkidu’s reflections on the value of civilised life or Utnapishtim’s account of the flood. The emphasis also falls on Gilgamesh’s life as described in the Epic, rather than on other sources. Gilgamesh’s essential quest for immortality is then highlighted. Finally, the Epic is compared to well-known heroic patterns typical of such myths.
Gilgamesh is born. His mother is Lady Wildcow Ninsun, a minor goddess who is caring and wise. His father is named Lugulbanda, who we do not learn much about during the course of the story. When Gilgamesh grows up he is strong and handsome. He builds the towering city of Uruk with intricately woven inner and outer walls and beautiful temples dedicated to Anu, the god of the heavens, and for his daughter Ishtar, goddess of love and war. His kingdom is full orchards, ponds, and irrigated fields. But Gilgamesh himself is selfish and evil. He steals any maiden that catches his eye and kills his own warriors just for the fun of it. He works his people so hard that they beg the gods to help them. The gods tell Ninsun it is her responsibility to take care of the problem because Gilgamesh is her son. Ninsun creates another men, a strong wild being named Enkidu. He shuns mankind and goes to live with the animals. Nearby hunters are soon complaining because he un-sets their traps and ruins their trade. They lure him out with a beautiful woman who sleeps with him for six days. He goes back to the animals but they no longer regard him as kin and run away from him. Confused, he goes back to the woman. She comforts him by telling him the wonders of civilization, and she warns him of the great strong Gilgamesh. Enkidu sets out to challenge him. By this time, Gilgamesh had had a dream that foretold a good friend coming into his life. Gilgamesh didn't know it, but this person would be Enkidu.
Enkidu ventures into the town with the woman. They stop at a Shepard's hut. He graciously gives them food and fresh clothes. This is the first time Enkidu has eaten anything other than grass. He sings happily after drinking the wine, and for several days watches over the sheep and protects them from the wolves that prey on them. After a while he hears about a young bride who is going to be forced to sleep with Gilgamesh before she has even slept with her husband. Outraged, Enkidu sets out to stop him, planting himself firmly outside the young woman's bedchamber door. Angry that that anybody dared oppose him, he engages Enkidu in combat, and the wrestle all over the village. Gilgamesh, who is slightly stronger, wins. But as he towers over the defeated Enkidu, he realizes he is a man worthy of his friendship. They embrace and bind themselves together in alliance. Ninsun approves of this and gives them her blessing. Now that the two are friends they seek an epic journey to undertake together. Enkidu tells Gilgamesh of the fearsome Humbaba, a monster that watches over Cedar Forest, a sacred place in which no mortal is allowed to enter. As soon as he hears of him Gilgamesh is determined to fight Humbaba, even though Enkidu warns him winning will be impossible. But Gilgamesh is okay with the idea...
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