Important Themes in Gilgamesh
The story of Gilgamesh is an epic tale that is almost four thousand years old. Many literary experts believe that the story of Gilgamesh is human kind’s first literary achievement. The story has several themes that work together to build a captivating and enthralling story for its readers. The main themes in the story include the dominance of sex in any human narrative, friendship and the inevitability of death (George, 1999).
Dominance of Sex
Sex is a paramount feature in the narrative and motivates many important changes in Gilgamesh. There is a defining lack of a central female love interest but erotic love still plays a huge role in the epic narrative. For instance, Enkidu, one of the two main characters of the narrative, began his sexual initiation with the help of the temple harlot named Shamhat. Before his transformation, Enkidu was a wild man who lived with the animals. A hunter came across him and saw that the only way to tame the man was to have one of the temple’s prostitutes seduce him and teach him the ways of ordinary men. The Mesopotamians believed that sex with a temple harlot connects her lover to the divine forces of nature. This seems to explain how Enkidu became more man than beast after having sex with the harlot.
This is not the only instance where sex was a game changer in the story. Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet when the former attempts to enter the wedding chambers of a soon to be bride. Gilgamesh had formed a habit of raping any woman he desired whether she was a wife of one of his warriors or the daughter of nobility. Enkidu attempts to stop him and they engage in a grueling fight that sees Gilgamesh overpower Enkidu. However, the two end up being friends after the fight. The reader is meant to assume that Gilgamesh did not proceed with raping his intended victim after the fight.
Another instance of how sex dominates the Gilgamesh narrative is when Ishtar is overcome with sexual desire for Gilgamesh. Ishtar, the goddess of love, is completely infatuated with Gilgamesh and she desires to make him completely hers. However, Gilgamesh rejects her proposal completely. As a result, Ishtar called upon her father, Anu, the god of the sky to unleash the Bull of Heaven on Gilgamesh. He relents to his daughter’s demands and sends the Bull to Earth. Enkidu and Gilgamesh manage to fight with the bull and kill it.
Their victory against the Bull of Heaven causes the gods to be very angry with the duo. They held a meeting and decided that one of the two would have to be punished for the sin. They came to the decision that Enkidu needed to die. When Enkidu finally dies, Gilgamesh is devastated and he begins his pointless search for immortality.
The Inevitability of Death
Another concurrent theme in the tale of Gilgamesh is the inevitability of death. Death is an inescapable reality of life and the sooner human beings accept this fact, the easier the transition will be. Enkidu was a prolific warrior and together with Gilgamesh, they had fought off many spiritual beings together. Despite his prowess in fighting and other adventures against the gods, he was cursed with a painful and inglorious death devoid of all his fighting bravado (Foster, 2001).
Gilgamesh had a hard time accepting the fact that death is inevitable especially after the loss of his good friend Enkidu. He is very bitter about the fact that it is only the gods who can live forever while man is subject to wither without even a moment’s notice. He takes off his kingly adornments and exchanges them for animal skins. He sets off into the wilderness in search of Utnapishtim. According to legend, Utnapishtim was granted eternal life by the gods after the flood that destroyed the entire planet. Gilgamesh hoped that the Mesopotamian Noah could tell him how he too can avoid death.
Utnapishtim tests Gilgamesh’s will to look for immortality by asking him to stay awake for an entire week. Gilgamesh ultimately fails the test. In the end, Utnapishtim convinces Gilgamesh that life is more important than death. He however gives him a powerful plant that can restore a person’s youth. The plant is stolen by a snake when Gilgamesh camps for the night. Gilgamesh goes back home and sees that his immortality is visible in all the majestic buildings that he built at the beginning of his reign. He realizes that death is indeed inevitable and only the works of his life will live on while he is rotting in the grave.
Friendship is a smaller theme in the narrative but it has a huge impact on the unfolding events in the story. Enkidu is disappointed after his transformation from beast to man when he hears about the excesses of Gilgamesh. He vows to put an end to the latter’s rule and that is how he ends up stepping in front of the chambers of the bride to be to block Gilgamesh’s entry. The two engage in a fight for the ages, which leaves Gilgamesh as the winner.
However, after the fight, the two instantaneously become the best of friends. They go on to look for different adventures and in the process end up defeating many of the spiritual beings sent by the gods to torment human beings. The reader can also infer that Gilgamesh stops his excesses especially raping vulnerable women due to the friendship he had with Enkidu (Hammond & Jablow, 1987).
The three themes discussed here ensure that there is a moral to the story and that the story is captivating to the audience. The themes also ensure that readers can relate to most of the aspects discussed in the story.
Foster, B. (2001). The Epic of Gilgamesh. 500 Fifth Avenue, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
George, A. (1999). Epic of Gilgamesh. Westminster, London: Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Hammond, D., & Jablow, A. (1987). Gilgamesh and the Sundance Kid: the myth of male friendship.