Love Motivates Change in the Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh revolves around Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, and the unlikely friendship he formed with Enkidu, a mad man who lived in the forest. Gilgamesh, who is part-man part-god, begins the epic as a cruel leader. The gods become unhappy with Gilgamesh’ rule, and create Enkidu to keep the king in check. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu humanizes Gilgamesh to the point that his heart is broken when his friend dies of a disease sent by the gods. In his despair, Gilgamesh travels to the ends of the earth in search of the secrets of the gods, which he finds and records them on stone tablets. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that love (and desire) can be a motivation for change in all beings and goodness can emerge from the worst of people as evidenced by the transformation that Gilgamesh went through after the loss of his dear friend, Enkidu. Love can make people change their ways, perceptions, as well as make them find what truly matters to them.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a testament to how love can turn someone from an out-of touch, cruel, cold, and malicious person, to one who is affectionate, and good-natured to others. When we are first introduced to Gilgamesh, we learn of his callousness as a leader and the pain that he consistently caused his people by separating fathers from their children, and by taking all the virgin girls as his own as well as all the other women in the kingdom of Uruk. The people lament that ‘…his arrogance has no bounds by day or night. No son is left with his father…His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble…’ (1). His behavior becomes even more deplorable when while awaiting his own marriage to the Queen of Love, he demands to sleep with newly wed brides before their husbands can. The story states ‘…the king is about to celebrate marriage with the Queen of Love, and he still demands to be first with the bride, the king to be first and the husband to follow…’ (15).
The gods decide it wise to make his equal in order to dissuade the king from causing unhappiness in the kingdom, ‘…now create his equal; let it be as like him as his own reflection…let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet…’ (2). When the two confront one another, they engage in a fight whose intensity has never been seen before. However, they stop the fight and promise to become the closest of companions as postulated in the text, ‘So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed’ (17). This is the beginning of a friendship that transforms Gilgamesh from a cruel leader to one beloved by his people.
The fight and the beginning of this new friendship helps Gilgamesh change his abusive behavior towards his subjects. For instance, the fight between him and Enkidu occurred just when he was about to enter into the house of a newly married couple on their wedding night. He had planned to sleep with the new bride before her husband did, which had become habit to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh viewed his acts of sleeping with newly wedded brides before their husbands as his birthright. However, because of the fight with Enkidu, and their newly found kinship he did not go ahead with his plans that night, or any other night, as we will come to see.
Gilgamesh also transforms from being a cruel individual whose only interest is to satisfy his own needs into one who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of others, in this case, his beloved friend Enkidu. He chooses to risk his life to fight the idleness that seems to be afflicting his dear friend. Enkidu had begun to grow weary seemingly because of a lack of something to do. Enkidu mentions to his companion that, ‘…I am weak, my arms have lost their strength, the cry of sorrow sticks in my throat, I am oppressed by idleness.’ (19). He is willing to lose his life in a bid to create an adventure for both he and his only friend, in order for Enkidu to stop feeling bored and restless. He says, ‘…we will go to the forest and destroy the evil…’ (19). He is even willing to go first into the dangerous forest even though Enkidu has warned him of the danger that awaits them should they embark on the adventure. He tells Enkidu, ‘…How is this, already you are afraid! I will go first although I am your lord…’ (20).
Gilgamesh’ new found ability of caring for the welfare of others was also demonstrated when he took care of Enkidu, as the latter was ailing. He showed great emotion when his friend told him that he could be dying because he was cursed by the gods. The text reads, ‘Gilgamesh had peeled off his clothes, he listened to his words and wept quick tears, Gilgamesh listened and his tears followed.’ (62). He took it upon himself to stay by Enkidu’s side, hoping, praying, and weeping for his close companion to get better. ‘…and Gilgamesh watched over him but the sickness increased…and Gilgamesh wet over Enkidu’ (63). Gilgamesh continued praying to the gods to save Enkidu from death. ‘I weep for Enkidu, my friend…I weep for my brother…’ (64).
When Enkidu finally died, the readers catch a glimpse of another side to Gilgamesh that they have not seen before. He becomes very emotional at the loss of his dear friend, a sharp contrast to the obstinate, cruel, and arrogant Gilgamesh we had been introduced to earlier in the text. The text reads, ‘He began to rage like a lion, like a lioness robbed of her whelps…he tore out his hair and strewed it around. He dragged of his splendid robes and flung them down as though they were abominations.’ (65). This demonstrates how distraught Gilgamesh was at the loss of his dear friend, and how he suddenly could not imagine having Enkidu at his side.
From the text, it is also clear to see that love can lessen the pride of an individual. Before Gilgamesh ever encountered Enkidu, there is no mention that the king had any advisors. He was too obstinate to listen to the advice of others. However, throughout the text, we see Gilgamesh heavily relying on Enkidu for counsel after their first encounter. He was willing to listen to Enkidu’s counsel because he loved and trusted his newly found companion. When he had a disturbing dream at the beginning of the second tablet, he relied on Enkidu’s wisdom to interpret the dream. Enkidu told him the meaning of the dream, and also counseled him to be brave. He said to Gilgamesh, ‘…because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed…’ (18).
Another instance when Gilgamesh heeded his friend’s counsel was when the king was confused as to whether to kill Humbaba or not. Humbaba pleaded with Gilgamesh to spare his life, and Gilgamesh was moved to compassion to do just that. However, before he made his final decision, he sought the wise counsel of Enkidu, his trusted companion and acted upon it. According to the text, ‘Gilgamesh listened to the word of his companion, he took the axe in his hand…and he struck Humbaba…’ (44).
Further evidence of Gilgamesh’ willingness to listen to the council of his friend came when Ishtar, furious at Gilgamesh for refusing to marry her, decided to use the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. When confronted with the Bull that threatened to destroy them and the entire kingdom, Gilgamesh took the advice of Enkidu on how to kill the Bull of Heaven. Enkidu spoke to Gilgamesh and said, ‘…thrust in your sword between the nape and the thorns (50).’ Gilgamesh did what he was told, and the Bull of Heaven was finally defeated. Without his love for Enkidu, Gilgamesh would have never listened to this piece of advice, and would have probably wound up dead by the hand of Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven.
We also see how plutonic love can inspire action in friends through the text. Love spurring one into action is evidenced when Enkidu accepts to go to the dangerous Land of Cedars, alongside Gilgamesh, so that they can destroy Humbaba. Enkidu was hesitant at first to go on the journey when Gilgamesh suggested it. This is because he had discovered the forest of cedars while he was still living in the wild, and had the roar of the watchman of the forest. He knew that Humbaba was a force to be reckoned with and no man in his right mind would ever dare confront the ferocious giant. He laments to Gilgamesh by saying, ‘…terrible to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire, and his jaws are death itself…What man would willingly walk into that country and explore its depths?...’ (19). Even when the duo had reached the forest, Enkidu was still terrified. At the edge of the forest, he pleaded with Gilgamesh saying, ‘…you do not know this monster and that is the reason you are not afraid. I who know him, I am terrified.’ (39).
Even though Enkidu knows the dangers that await them should they seek to fight Humbaba, and that their chances of survival were minimal, he still decides to accompany his friend out of the love he had for Gilgamesh. He would rather die alongside his companion, than watch Gilgamesh embark on this journey on his own. He agrees to lead Gilgamesh to the forest, as well as protect his closest friend. The elders bless him saying, ‘Let Enkidu protect his friend, and guard his companion, and bring him safe…We entrust our king to you bring him back safely to us…’ (28). Enkidu also seeks to reassure the elders as well as Gilgamesh by promising there is nothing to fear. He states, ‘Forward, there is nothing to fear. Follow me, for I know the place where Humbaba lives and the paths where he walks…Here is no cause for fear.’ (29). He was also very instrumental in rallying the courage of Gilgamesh when they finally came face to face with Humbaba. Enkidu said to his friend, ‘Forward, attack, son of Uruk, there is nothing to fear.’ (40). From this evidence, it is clear to see that the love that Enkidu had for Gilgamesh spurred him into taking a risk on his life, one that he would have never dared had he not have truly loved Gilgamesh.
The power of love and desire as motivators for change is also evidenced when Enkidu decides to abandon the forest and his ways, in order to follow the harlot. At the beginning, Enkidu was content with his life in the world as it is written, ‘Enkidu ate grass in the hills…and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game…’ (4). However, his contentment faded quickly when he meets the harlot sent to him by Gilgamesh and the trapper. She convinces him to move out of the forest by saying, ‘When I look at you you have become like a god. Why do you yearn to run wild again with the beasts in the hills? Get up from the ground, the bed of a shepherd…’ (14). With this statement, he quickly followed her to wherever she would take him because he was besotted with the harlot.
The Epic of Gilgamesh also demonstrates that love and desire can change an individual’s preferences and personality as well. Before meeting the harlot, Enkidu ‘…could only suck the milk of wild animals…’ (14). However, Enkidu began to eat and drink wine when the harlot persuaded him to do so. She says to him, ‘…eat bread, it is the staff of life; drink the wine, it is the custom of the land…’ (14). Enkidu heeded her advice, and ‘…ate till he was full and drank strong wine…Enkidu had become a man…’ (14).
In addition, the love between Enkidu and Gilgamesh led the former to recall the curse he had placed on the harlot. When he lay sick, and dying because of angering the gods, he began to curse the harlot for having led him down this path that would inevitably lead to his death. However, he realized that if it was not for the harlot, he may have never met his closest companion, with whom he shared an inexplicable bond. According to the text, ‘…he called back the curse and said, ‘Woman, I promise you another destiny. The mouth which cursed you shall bless you!’ (59).
In conclusion, love, combined with friendship and desire can motivate change in people. We see this when the love and friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms Gilgamesh from a cruel leader into one who is beloved by both gods and man. We also see that love can spur people into doing things they would never have done such as the way Enkidu decided to risk his life by accompanying Gilgamesh into the treacherous Land of Cedars, and killing Humbaba. Desire also plays a strong part in the epic, and motivates change as evidenced by how Enkidu changed his living conditions and eating habits, in order to remain with the harlot.