Gilgamesh (1800 BC)
Translated By Stephen Mitchell
Gilgamesh is an epic and tells the adventures of the great king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his friendship with Enkidu. It is known to be “the oldest story in the world” and I considered it to have the first true “bromance” of all time.
This text could be situated into the hero’s journey genre where a hero goes on adventures to defeat monsters and returns to his homeland transformed as a great man who made a name for himself. Usually, in a hero’s journey tale, the hero goes on a quest to defeat a monster that’s terrorizing the people. There’s some motivation or reward for the quest. Yet, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu plan to enter the Cedar Forest and kill Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, Gilgamesh’s only motivation to kill was for selfish gains and fame. In fact, Enkidu warns Gilgamesh that killing a divine creature who has not harmed anyone is immoral, but Gilgamesh doesn’t listen to him and does what he wants. Hence, it is a bit difficult to see Gilgamesh as a true hero for some of his actions.
However, the last adventure that Gilgamesh goes on mirrors a hero’s journey. He goes in search of the answer to immorality because he fears death after Endiku suddenly died. He seeks Utnapishtim, the only human that was granted immortality because he survived the Great Flood. Although Gilgamesh didn’t receive the answer he wanted, he comes with some wisdom as he journeys back to Uruk. Shiduri, the tavern keeper, tells Gilgamesh that he should enjoy his life and his blessings as opposed to just constantly worrying about dying. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that death is inevitable and it’s the natural cycle of life. It is kind of insensitive for an immoral man to say that, but Utnapishtim makes a point that his gift of immortality was out of the divine order of the gods, and there is no prophecy that indicates that Gilgamesh also deserves such a gift. As readers, Gilgamesh is a tale that firmly establishes death as a natural human phenomenon.
Yet, the most memorable aspect of this text is the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Their friendship was fated, which was hinted by Gilgamesh’s dream about a bright star that is like an unmoving boulder. Enkidu was designed by the mother of creation, Aruru, as a foil to Gilgamesh. Enkidu is the best friend of Gilgamesh who was sent to earth to guide Gilgamesh away from his tyrannical ways. Gilgamesh’s friend, Enkidu, became his voice of reason when battling Humbaba. Their friendship is true: when Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh gives him a luxurious funeral and memorial in his name and continues to grieve for him while he travels to find Utnapishtim. One could argue that meeting Utnapishtim is his way of letting go of Enkidu and moving on with his life.
It’s interesting to note how both of these two characters undergo transformations. When the trapper encounters Enkidu in the forest, Enkidu lives like a wild beast amongst the animals. It wasn’t until Enkidu meets Shamhat, a priestess of Ishtar, that he experiences sexual desires and discovers the nature of the female body. After making love with Shamhat for several days, the animals realized that he isn’t one of them; all the animals run away from him and Enkidu is unable to run as fast as the animals anymore. He realizes that he is a man: he transformed from a wild beast into a civilized man. In fact, Shamhat taught him how to dress and eat like a man as if he will be fully integrated into living at Uruk. Shamat is the symbol of motherhood because she helps care for Enkidu and kind of “birthed” him into a man.
In contrast, after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes on a journey seeking a way to prevent death. During his journey, he transforms into a wild beast: he looks ravaged and resorts to violence in order to get what he wants. For example, with any good reason, he destroys all the Stone Men that were supposed to guide him across the Deep Waters of Death. Yet, after learning the truth about death, Utnapishtim transforms Gilgamesh back into a civil man and helps him return to Uruk after his long journey. Enkidu and Gilgamesh represent masculinity in its primitive and civil forms; in which these personas are what all men possess within them.
I am not a huge fan of the epic genre, but there are a few that I enjoy. Gilgamesh is one of them. It’s mostly because I enjoy the friendship/bromance between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.
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