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Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh
“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase.
At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.
Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.
All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.
The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.
Gilgamesh in his lion-strangling mode. TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).
Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.
The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.
The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.
In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.