Epic of Gilgamesh: Origin, Subject and Function
Mark Oppenneer (2002)
The purpose of the essay is two-fold: it will explore The Epic of Gilgamesh by fielding what Robert A. Segal, in his Theorizing About Myth, calls the “three major questions [that] can be asked of myth: what is its subject matter, what is its origin, and what is its function?” (67). It will also, in an effort to render a holistic interpretation of Gilgamesh, employ and critique a variety of methodological approaches in an attempt to understand to what degree the interpretive tools and methods of each school bring us closer to the answers of the questions that can be asked of myth.
What is its Origin?
One hundred and thirty years ago, humankind became reacquainted with a story that had been frozen in time for over a thousand years – the story of Gilgamesh. The twelve fragmented clay tablets detailing his exploits were uncovered during excavations of Ashurbanipal’s great library at Nineveh (modern-day Kouyunjik) in 1853. For nearly twenty years, the tablets sat untouched at the British Museum until the English Assyrologist George Smith deciphered them. The story made its modern debut in 1872, when Smith presented his translation of the eleventh tablet, “The Chaldean Account of the Deluge,” to the nascent Society of Biblical Archeology. Over the next few decades, other accounts of the story were uncovered at Nineveh and other ancient sites, giving scholars a broad sampling from which to develop a clearer understanding the epic.
Through comparisons of the extant versions, most scholars agree that the Semitic Akkadian tablets found at Nineveh are a copy of a “standard version” written by Sîn-Leqi-Unninnĩ, a Babylonian priest about 1200 BCE. The oldest Sumerian fragments, found in the Mesopotamian cities of Nippur, Kish, and Ur, go back to the fourth millennium BCE. The story is also found in Hittite, Hurrian, and Akkadian traditions extending back to at least the third millennium. Contributing to the difficulty of dating and sourcing the epic is the strong likelihood that the story existed in oral traditions, as evidenced by the narrative style and repetitive passages, long before it was ever written down. Although we do not know when or where the first version originated, the Sumerian King List mentions a Gilgamesh who reigned in Uruk between 3000 and 2500 BCE.
The search for the origin of the epic continues through several archaeological efforts across the Mesopotamian valley. However, recently such efforts have been thwarted by the “ongoing international crisis over Baghdad’s weapons programs and the economic effects of sanctions” (Recknagel). Last winter, researchers from the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut in Berlin began to create a magnetometer map of the city of Uruk, which lies untouched under a thin veil of sand. The future of the project is uncertain, as is the progress of several other excavations, since President Bush included Iraq in his “axis of evil” earlier this year. [For historical context: this paper was written in 2002]
What is its subject matter?
One translator of Gilgamesh began his book with the caveat that we should, “Approach what lies ahead not as you might the poems of Homer but as a book part-eaten by termites or a scroll half-consumed by fire. Accept it for what it is, a damaged masterpiece” (George, n.p.). The following outline is presented with this in mind.
The basic movement of the story begins with an overview of the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh as the ruler of Uruk and introduces his few but considerable flaws: he works the men of Uruk hard and abuses his power by sleeping with many women. The people of Uruk complain to Anu who calls on Aruru to create Enkidu, a wild man who will fight Gilgamesh and perhaps teach him a lesson in humility. When a hunter complains to Gilgamesh about Enkidu, who is upsetting the hunter’s traps and keeping the animals from the watering hole, Gilgamesh sends a temple girl to seduce Enkidu. We are told of Enkidu’s seduction, his subsequent civilization, and his arrival in Uruk where he immediately fights with Gilgamesh.
Realizing that they are evenly matched as fighters, the two stop fighting and become fast friends. Upon receiving visions from Shamash, god of justice, Gilgamesh begins preparations for a journey to battle the evil Humbaba, a monster set by Enlil to guard the cedar forest. The two heroes head off together and, with the help of Shamash, conquer the beast. They return to Uruk as heroes. During the victory celebration, Ishtar, goddess of love and war, invites Gilgamesh to be her lover. After he delivers a scathing song about the dangers of Ishtar’s love she becomes irate. In her anger, Ishtar appeals to her father Anu to punish Gilgamesh by unleashing a divine bull on Uruk. The two heroes rise to the occasion by fighting and slaughtering the animal. Adding insult to injury, Enkidu throws a piece of the butchered bull at Ishtar and taunts her.
Shortly after, Enkidu has a vision that a council of gods has met to set his fate. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh sets off in a fit of grief toward Dilmun to seek Utnapishtim, keeper of the secrets of immortality who survived the great flood. Along the way, he meets Siduri who tells him to eat, drink, and be merry – and to accept his fate as a mortal. Unwavering in his mission, Gilgamesh leaves Siduri in pursuit of Urshanabi, ferryman of the dead, who can take him to Utnapishtim. After a few trials, he is escorted to Dilmun and meets Utnapishtim who also tells Gilgamesh to accept his fate. Through his story of the great flood, Utnapishtim explains how he was granted immortality. Gilgamesh is given several tests and is sent home without attaining his goal.
In a quick turn of events, Utnapishtim is urged by his wife to reconsider Gilgamesh’s situation. He directs Gilgamesh to the hidden location of a plant that will give him immortality. Upon securing the plant, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi begin their voyage back to Uruk. Along the way, a serpent steals the plant of immortality while Gilgamesh is bathing. Crestfallen, Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom resigned to his mortal fate – yet comforted by the knowledge that mortal man can achieve a kind of immortality through great deeds that will be remembered.
This simple summary illustrates the basic subject matter of the epic: friendship, courage, love, and the fear of death. Like the city of Uruk itself, buried under the sand, the story contains deeper elements that aren’t as visible from the surface: it also deals with themes of social responsibility, the rights and duties of kingship, what it means to be “civilized,” how to attain glory, propitiation and appropriate religious attitudes toward the gods, existence after death, perseverance, and acceptance of life’s conditions.
Although the character of Gilgamesh has roots in a historical person, we should not have to trouble ourselves with the question of the epic’s truth value. The “real” Gilgamesh, like the hero Beowulf, did not kill an evil monster, nor did he grapple with a bull whose stomping caused earthquakes. But what should we make of the story then? Is it pure fiction, or is there some form of mythic history involved? A Euhemeristic rendering of the story would reduce it to a purely imaginative explanation of historical events. Euhemeros of Messene (330-260 BCE), “assumed that his ancestors were primitives who lacked the scientific method, philosophical principles, and cognitive sophistication of the ‘modern’ world in which he lived” (Leonard). Did the ancient inhabitants of the Mesopotamian valley, through superstition and fancy, simply embellish facts of actual historical events surrounding one of their great kings?
The better question to ask is what happens to an interpretation of the story if we employ a Euhemeristic approach. To accept the epic as nothing more than distorted history means that we need look no further to uncover deeper truths or hidden revelations. If deeper truths exist, they would be incidental to the main reading of the story as an inflated account of a dearly held king – and therefore unimportant.
But there is something poignant about the epic of Gilgamesh, an ineffable quality that moves beyond the subject matter – like the Mona Lisa whose soft smile eludes us in a discussion of the painting as a portrait of a particular style composed of such-and-such elements. Perhaps because Gilgamesh “has a way of growing within and being completed by oneself” (Olson, 16), we must treat the story as something more than merely historical. Yes, it may very well have its roots in the person of Gilgamesh, fifth king of Uruk, but its themes lure us toward a more meaningful interpretive approach, one that includes us, the listeners or readers, in its effect. That is to say, we must move beyond the relatively concrete aspects of origin and subject and venture into a discussion of the epic’s function.
What is its Function?
An examination of the functions of Gilgamesh necessarily precludes mention of comparatists and their school. Comparative mythology, by its nature, is concerned with origin and content over function. It is to the early anthropologists, psychologists and structuralists we must turn our attention.
With the rise of anthropology, emphasis shifted from literary and static interpretations to a view of myth as a living, culture-preserving phenomena. One such school saw myth only as evidence that the stories form a script from which ancient religious rituals were performed. Proponents of the “myth-ritual” approach “are agreed that all myths are derived from rituals and that they were in origin the spoken part of ritual performance” (Fontenrose, n.p.). If Gilgamesh began with a telling of the cosmogony, or if the story emphasized the annual ritual killing of the king, one could perhaps argue that it had its foundation in ritual. It may be safely reasoned that it was not originally bound to a ritual since none of the hundreds of thousands of archeological artifacts discovered over the last two centuries lends credence to such a theory. This is not to say that ritual is not an integral part of the story, however. Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh makes offerings to Ninsun and Shamash. Rich descriptions of his preparations of the slaughtered bull show the importance of ceremonial propitiation. As instructive about the culture as these scenes are, they still do not suggest that the epic was a ritual-based narrative.
Modern anthropological field research and folkloric methodologies have brought attention to the importance of the living, real-world conditions in which myth operates. Consequently, contemporary mythologists and scholars in other fields have come to understand myth as a social, cultural and moral charter and to accept that the early-19th century comparatists had greatly undervalued what the “primitives” actually knew about the world. Perhaps most importantly, especially as a commentary against Euhemeristic traditions, anthropological field work among cultures whose myths exist as active traditions has taught us “the degree to which they are and are not naïve about the truth-value of these narratives” (Leonard). Malinowski, in his Primitive Psychology, explains the modern anthropological attitude toward myth that:
“myth . . . is not symbolic, but a direct expression of its subject-matter; it is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality, told in satisfaction of deep religious wants, moral cravings, social submissions, assertion, even practical requirements. Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom. (79)
Because Gilgamesh was related orally in various forms for hundreds if not thousands of years, we know that it was a very significant story – not true in a scientific sense, but containing truths. Gilgamesh is not just a story about a quasi-historical king’s search for immortality, but the expression of human fears, longings, and uncertainties and how they play out in the social field. It presents in narrative the problems faced by the culture that possessed the story and forms a standard for appropriate action in response to the problems.
This does not mean that Gilgamesh is merely a lengthy parable, however. The story does not present simple answers. Through our involvement in the narrative as listeners or readers, we must, as Olson suggests, let it grow within us and complete it ourselves. Friendship, for example, is presented as a relationship fraught with complexities: Enkidu is sent to fight with Gilgamesh by a decree from Anu. Yet, once the two realize that their strengths are an even match, they resolve to stop fighting and become friends. Before Enkidu arrived in Uruk, both he and Gilgamesh received visions of the other, and both men outwardly expressed their desires to develop a friendship. Enkidu’s desire for a friend stemmed perhaps from losing his connection to the animals of the wild after Shamhat seduced him. Gilgamesh, the powerful ruler who had everything a man could want, is predictably lacking a true friend and equal. As receivers of the story we are satisfied that a literary conflict has been resolved with the fight and friendship pattern, but we must not forget that Enkidu’s sole purpose for existence is to fight Gilgamesh in response to the peoples’ complaint to Anu. Although our sympathies may be with the protagonists, they have violated a god-given decree by becoming friends. What does this suggest about the nature of friendship to the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia? Is the desire and necessity for friendship more powerful than the will of the gods?
The question of friendship becomes more troublesome as Gilgamesh and Enkidu proceed to upset the gods several more times: by killing Humbaba, Enlil’s guardian of the cedar forest, and by insulting Ishtar and then slaughtering the divine bull that was supposed to be their punishment. On the surface, it seems that our heroes are just asking for trouble. But keep in mind that they killed Humbaba only after Shamash put visions into their heads and later supported them on their mission. And Gilgamesh, although cocksure and waggish, is really only telling it like it is when he sings his song to Ishtar. Enkidu is the one who crosses the line by throwing a piece of the bull at Ishtar, an unparalleled violation of human/divine disparity which ultimately sealed his fate (Gardner, 163).
Another way to approach the heroic friendship is to see it in literary terms as setting up the main conflict of the story, which is Gilgamesh’s fear of death and subsequent search for immortality. When we first meet Gilgamesh, he has no one dear to lose to death. His mother Ninsun is a goddess, and her husband Lugalbanda (who is not Gilgamesh’s biological father) is a deified past ruler of Uruk – both are immortal. The story mentions no other character in direct relation to him. Enter Enkidu as friend, sidekick, and doppelgänger of sorts, who allows the movement of the story to proceed toward its major theme of death through the secondary theme of friendship. It is the death of Enkidu that forms the catalyst for Gilgamesh’s transformation from warrior-hero to wisdom-seeker.
More recent interpretive methodologies give us other ways of making sense of the theme of friendship, but before they are introduced, we will look at another secondary theme: love. There are two distinct aspects of love conveyed in the narrative as represented by Shamhat and Ishtar. Shamhat is the temple girl, or sacred prostitute, that Gilgamesh sends back with the hunter to seduce Enkidu. It is through the powers of her sexuality that Enkidu is transformed from wild nature-man into a civilized human capable of entering cosmopolitan Uruk. The story makes very clear that he is not only physically changed – he grows weak and cannot gallop as he used to – but that he “had knowledge, wider mind” (Gardner, 78). One can compare his transformation to what happens to Adam and Eve in the biblical Genesis after they have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Enkidu no longer belongs to the natural world; he is cut off from the paradise he once knew as home. On the way to Uruk, he learns how to use weapons, how to use utensils for eating, and generally completes his transition into a cultured man.
The influence of love as a civilizing agent is sharply contrasted by the introduction of Ishtar. After the two heroes return from killing Humbaba in the cedar forest, Ishtar comes on to Gilgamesh with a marriage proposal. In one of the epic’s more delightful episodes, Gilgamesh rebuffs Ishtar by listing the unfortunate fates of her past lovers. In a fit of rage, she implores her father Anu to let loose a heavenly bull to trample Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Anu expresses initial concern for the people of Uruk, but after Ishtar assures him that her worshipers would be protected, he unleashes the bull. The effect is catastrophic: earthquakes and fissures appear at its every step and hundreds of people die before the heroes can subdue and kill it. As mentioned earlier, during the celebration that ensued, Enkidu insults Ishtar by throwing a piece of the slaughtered bull at her. This of course, leads us back to the gods’ decree of death for Enkidu.
Ishtar is anything but the vision of romantic or erotic love we find in Aphrodite or Venus. After all, unlike her counterparts she is also the goddess of war. The aspect of love she conveys is brooding, selfish, painful, vindictive, and conditional. Contrasted with the transforming and civilizing love of Shamhat, Ishtar’s love is frightening and destabilizing. What does this suggest about the nature of love to the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia? Were they ambivalent about it? The unresolved questions involving the complex themes of friendship and love hinder us from reading the epic as merely an extended parable.
As modern anthropological methods of interpretation were developing, the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung gave a wholly different approach to understanding the stuff of myth. The basic notion that mythic symbols were projections of the unconscious mind – and that dreams, myths and other creative works of the human imagination embodied these symbols – has perhaps been the most enduring contribution to myth studies. In opposition to the beliefs of Freud, Jung saw the Unconscious as “not individual but universal [collective]; unlike the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behavior that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals” (3-4). These contents, Jung’s “archetypes,” are the projections into symbols of the basic building blocks of our psyche.
The story of Gilgamesh, as seen through the lens of Jung’s archetypes, can be interpreted as the collective Unconscious at work to reconcile contradictory impulses imbedded deep within the psyche. The cedar forest, for example, is not important as an actual or historical place, but as a symbolic realm of uncertainty in which the evil beast Humbaba lurks. Humbaba, in a similar fashion, is the archetypal “bad guy,” the purportedly invincible (he wears seven layers of armor) and purely evil nemesis of the hero who is himself an archetype. If Jung’s theory is to bear fruit, we should see these symbols repeating in various fashions throughout the stories of other cultures. Compare the symbolic structure of these symbols to the Ainu hero epic Kotan Utunnai in which the Yaunkur hero fights Dangling Nose, the evil and powerful Rapunkur warrior, in the battle chasm of a metal spruce forest. Or picture Hansel and Gretel confronting the wicked witch in the deep of the woods. Robin of Locksley was no fool when he set up camp in the Sherwood Forest: he knew that the fears and superstitions others held about the forest would keep them away from his band of merry men. In regards to the themes of friendship and love, a Jungian interpretive approach allows us to see the epic of Gilgamesh as representative, expressive rather, of the collective components of our psychic tendencies.
Joseph Campbell, a popular and controversial mythologist, took archetypal interpretation to new heights. A student of Jung’s, Campbell acknowledged and borrowed greatly from the work of his mentor, but transformed the application of Jung’s ideas through his attempt to arrive at a unified theory of myth. Although one might criticize Campbell for creating a brand of self-help myth interpretation, his theory of the “monomyth” has nonetheless been widely influential. He was not, as Leonard notes, “a member of the new wave of anthropology and folklore that searched myths for references to material, political, and social culture. Nor did he seem particularly interested in questions of translation, of variants, or in the possible social, religious, and ritual contexts of the myths he used” (n.p.). Instead, Campbell promoted a non-sectarian path that enabled the individual to use myth as a means to make sense of his or her place in the world and return society to a Golden age of “simplicity and moral virtue” (n.p.).
Through the eyes of Campbell, the epic of Gilgamesh can be seen as the individual’s journey through a multi-stage process of departure, initiation, and return. We should read the story, not as a culture-bound telling of pseudo-history, not as etiological treatise, but as a mirror of humanity’s greatest life lessons as delivered through our own heroic path. For Campbell, a myth is not whole unless the reader completes the cycle of interpretation by seeking themselves in its movement.
An examination of the function of Gilgamesh cannot bring us back to the time when the story was a living text. We cannot know for certain in what social, political, religious, or other contexts the epic was related. Guided by our modern theories, biased by our own cultural paradigms, in general trapped by our modernity, we struggle with many modes of interpretation. Perhaps, Campbell (although he neglects altogether the historical aspect of myth) offers the most sensible approach for us: find ourselves in the stories. This is not to suggest an interpretive relativism that gives permission for myths to be bent to the will of whoever is reading them. Rather it is to say that our attempts as individuals to connect with the stories and relate them to our concerns, our movements through time, the problems of our human nature, might bear more personally meaningful fruit than other of the various schools of interpretation can. That a story, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, can last for hundreds or thousands of years suggests a universality and timelessness of theme that allows generation after generation to connect with it. As long as humankind struggles with those themes, the Epic of Gilgamesh will continue to resonate with us and remain meaningful.
See also Updating the Map: Toward a “Restorative” Hermeneutics of Mythology
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949; Bollingen Series 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Fontenrose, Joseph. The Ritual Theory of Myth. University of California Publications, Folklore Studies, 18. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1966.
Gardner, John & Maier, J. Gilgamesh. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. 1959; Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980
Leonard, Scott A. & McLure, Michael. Myth and Knowing: An Introduction to World Mythology. New York: McGraw Hill, not yet published. Available online at http://cc.ysu.edu/~saleonar/Chpt.01_MS.doc.
Malinowski, Branislaw. Myth in Primitive Psychology. 1926; Westport, CT: Negro Universities, 1971.
Olson, Alan. M. (Ed). Myth, Symbol, and Reality. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.
Recknagel, Charles. Iraq: Archaeological Expedition Mapping Ancient City Of Uruk. Available online at http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2002/05/03052002101632.asp.
Segal, Robert A. Theorizing About Myth. Amherst: University Massachusetts Press, 1999.