The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Purpose in Life

gilgameshWritten between 2500 and 1500 B.C.E., the epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest work of literature modern culture has obtained. Its original recording in cuneiform is a characteristic that any considerate analyst of literature will not overlook in determining the theme of this masterpiece. This expression of writing was time consuming and labor intensive, and the fact that the author, and/or recorder, invested the time and work into these tablets suggests that its purpose is to persevere. Scholars and students contend varying views when considering the epic of Gilgamesh and the changes from one topic to the next. Many of them arrive at the overall theme being that of Gilgamesh’s search for escape from death, and certainly that is a strong topic, but when one considers the individual topics, one can begin to see a larger intent. The epic is not to be broken down into individual focuses, but consider the text as a whole, in which the ending purpose is not of having gained life in death, but of having gained wisdom in life. The descriptive words used to describe the attributes of Gilgamesh, “suckling… towering… opening… digging… traversing… exploring… seeking… reaching…restorer… founder (14),” foreshadow the phases of life and the quest for wisdom that eventually ensues as a person progresses through it.

The epic, through its array of topics, tells the story of the cycle of life. Beginning with the perfect description of what could be any young adult “towering” on the cusp of really entering into life, it describes a young Gilgamesh as “a charging wild bull,” a “wild calf”, and “perfect in strength” (13) as life has yet to batter him with its experiences. Gilgamesh experiences the lust for youth’s sexuality, claiming as he wills and taking selfishly, before realizing one of life’s greatest and most basic assets. Friendship, even by modern standards, is acquired early in life. It is a necessary asset to life, as one reads that Gilgamesh naturally “yearned for one to know his heart, a friend (18).” Through Enkidu, the gods gave an example of wisely choosing one’s partner through life. Companionship is a partnership; equal in strengths, but different enough to rival with the slightest competitive edge.

Tzvi Abusch, who states in his critical essay, “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay” that it is “the death of Enkidu” that is “the catalyst for change” (Abusch), contradicts himself when his following sentence states that, “by making Enkidu Gilgamesh’s friend, the composer has turned the Epic into a tale of growth” (Abusch). It is this last part of his statement that I agree with. It is in the formation of friendship that the reader begins to see the budding of the unfolding of life for Gilgamesh as he develops a heightened level of ambition for pursuing a purpose in life, as seen in his statement, “I must establish eternal fame” (26). It is here that the adventure of life begins.

The beginning of life’s adventures signals the ushering in of a new phase; the “digging” phase. It is in this stage of life that Gilgamesh, partnered with Enkidu, “dig” for knowledge in the seeking of advice from the elders and of his mother. Gilgamesh states his life’s intent to them, and though, as pointed out by the elders, he is “young,” his “feelings carry [him] away,” he is “ignorant of what he speaks,” and he is overtaken with “flightiness” (27), he seeks their advice and they oblige. Life is in its early stages for Gilgamesh, and it has not yet taught its full value of lessons. Gilgamesh has learned to seek advice but not to heartily accept it, and so the two, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, depart from the security of adolescence and young adulthood to embark on their journey through life.

It is during this journey, part of Gilgamesh’s quest for purpose, that he develops into the next phase of life which is the “opening” of his eyes to the beginning lessons of wisdom. This lesson ignites by the killing of Humbaba (40-44) which is the overcoming of life’s first real obstacle. The spark of wisdom’s lesson continues to burn as, in contrast to Gilgamesh’s previously youthful ways with sex, Ishtar propositions and bribes him (45), which he justifiably turns down, using logic as reason for doing so.  This use of logic in making his decision is a hint of the growth of wisdom in Gilgamesh’s life.

Because Gilgamesh shunned Ishtar’s advances, she demands that her father release the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh (47). Gilgamesh stabs the bull to death. The lesson wisdom attempts to impart is basic to the laws of nature, though it would be lost on the two friends until Gilgamesh is again punished by the slow and eventual death of Enkidu: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It is this same law of nature that is to thank, in part, for another valuable life lesson made evident in the epic. As the realization dawns on Enkidu that he will die as a result of Gilgamesh’s killing of the Bull (50), he begins to curse the harlot as responsible for the way his life has turned out (51). Shamash reminds him that, without the harlot, his friendship with Gilgamesh would be nonexistent and that, alone, is worth the price of an early death (52). The chain of events that Shamash points out to Enkidu not only drives home the point of consequences to every action, but also implies with it that all things happen for a reason. These things lead into another aspect of one’s life. In this same divination, by suggesting that the camaraderie with Gilgamesh is worth the price of death, it establishes the ultimate bond of love as another jewel of wisdom gained in this phase of life.

Enkidu’s worry over his fate of eventual death prompts Gilgamesh to speak on the matter. He tells his friend that it is the living who mourn over death and that “people often die before their time” (51). It is suggested in the narrative of the epic that this is Gilgamesh’s way of comforting Enkidu, but to me it sounds slightly flippant and unconcerned, most likely from the lack of true understanding of death. Gilgamesh has the knowledge of death as a reality, but a lack of life experience blocks his sympathies from imparting sincere comfort to Enkidu on the matter.

This lack of sympathy to the reality of death is short lived as Gilgamesh faces the inevitability of Enkidu’s death. This inevitability is crucial to the purpose of the text, being the acquisition of wisdom through life’s phases, as Abusch further expands on the matter in his critical essay, “Without Enkidu’s death, there is no development” (Abusch). Abusch’s statement is double-sided though I’m not sure he intends it as so. Enkidu’s death is vital to the development not only of the tale, but also to the development of wisdom as Gilgamesh pilgrimages his life. This development of Gilgamesh exposes the reader to new lessons of life: true sympathy, compassion, and the harsh sting of reality. It is also the first time Gilgamesh is subdued with fear (59).

Fear, along with newfound grief and a broken heart, propels Gilgamesh into the “traversing” phase of life. While the reader has had the opportunity to watch Gilgamesh’s growth in wisdom and intellect throughout his life so far, there is now a definite transition from the innocent blunder of youth, to the very discernable weariness of the knowledge of life’s brutalities. The death of a loved one is perhaps one of life’s most fierce, and most misunderstood lessons. Often, people respond with questions they desperately need answers for and spend unknown amounts of their lives searching for these answers.

Gilgamesh did this very thing and began his quest for “life”. His initial quest would be for life after death, or life in the place of death, and though Shamash plainly tells Gilgamesh, “the eternal life you are seeking you shall not find” (60), Gilgamesh refuses to accept that. His following statement, “I have been asleep all these years!” (60), expresses regret for the life he has lived thus far. This regret, coupled with fear, will drive him further in his quest.

Further travel along this quest brings the wanderer, Gilgamesh, to the tavern keeper, Siduri (63). His wanderings through the darkness of depression enables the maintaining of his grief, heartache, and fear, all of which are plainly showing in his disposition and countenance. Siduri, wise beyond expectancy, gives Gilgamesh, the reader, and the epic the most important and timeless words:

“Gilgamesh, wherefore do you wander? The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find. When the gods created mankind, They established death for mankind, and withheld eternal life for themselves. As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full, always be happy, night and day. Make every day a delight, night and day play and dance. Your clothes should be clean, your head should be washed, you should bathe in water, look proudly on the little one holding your hand, let your mate be always blissful in your loins, this, then, is the work of mankind” (65).

Gilgamesh, blinded by grief (65-66), fails to accept her invaluable words.

As Gilgamesh enters the “exploring” phase of his life, the reader sees he has crushed the Stone Charms that protectively guide the boat to the other shore, and instead “explores” other options; more reliant on himself, as though he has a point to prove. It seems an act of self-punishment, but it is necessary in the progression through these phases of life in order to reach renewal and find closure.

It is also in this phase that I began to wonder if Gilgamesh’s laments turned into a fear, not necessarily of death itself, but of having to face life, especially without his companion. Though his words are the same, it seems a natural progression, in keeping with the theme, that the tone of his words change as a by-product of the inadvertent growth of his wisdom.

Gilgamesh addresses the weariness that comes with the course of that natural progression as he admits to Utanapishtim that he has had little sleep, he’s worn himself out, and his muscles ache as the result of this weariness (71). This acknowledgement, after a long, miserable quest, is the pivotal moment in which Gilgamesh enters the “seeking” phase of his life. Utanapishtim offers the relief Gilgamesh seeks by pointing the things he is doing to himself that he should avoid. These, also, are classic lessons of life that the author intends the reader to learn: stress has adverse effects on one’s health, and for no reason; there is nothing to gain through grief and worry but a shortened lifetime (71). Utanapishtim, as does the author, spares no realities as he continues in telling Gilgamesh the second most important set of words in the epic: life is short and it goes by quick; the building up of material lives, family feuds, natural disasters… all of these are natural to life, but none last forever. The only two things natural to life that exist consistently are life and death (71-72).

Gilgamesh, as he is entering the “reaching” phase of life, now begins to reach an understanding that the purpose of his quest may not be ending up as he had expected. For each night Gligamesh sleeps, Utanapishtim lays out bread, symbolic of life being wasted in Gilgamesh’s need to avoid death.

As Gilgamesh awakens, notes the bread, and resigns himself to a life of mortality, Utanapishtim presents the realization that Gilgamesh is the opposite of the way Siduri has said mankind is to be and orders him to be cleaned, groomed, and carry forward with some self-pride. This brings in the “restoring” phase and as it is stated that “until he completed his journey, his garments would stay spotless, fresh and new” (79), it is a statement that Gilgamesh will maintain his life’s purpose for the remainder of the life he has. This restoring phase is re-established one final time as James Keenan interprets in his critical essay, “Gilgamesh: An Appreciation,” “Gilgamesh plucks the plant from the bottom of the lake; but on his journey back to Uruk, he bathes in a pool, leaving the plant beside the pool. A snake slithers along, filches the plant and sheds its own skin in exchange, ‘throwing off the past and continuing to live’” (Keenan). This is life’s final lesson in wisdom, ushering in the final phase of life, the “founding” phase, in which the story concludes with the same words as it began (81), thus completing life’s cycle.

It is this cycle of life and the lessons contained within that made the epic important enough to carve as wedges into tablets, and it is this cycle of life that makes the story “epic”, even as time progresses. Abusch defines “epic” as “…a hero, that is, a powerful warrior who shows his mettle in battle…is aggressive and courageous…battles strong enemies…” (Abusch). The epic of Gilgamesh tells that all of life is an epic battle between searching for life, and living it.

                                                                Works Cited

Abusch, Tzvi. “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay.” Journal of the American Oriental Society (2001): 614-622. Literature Resources    Center. Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

Keenan, James G. “Gilgamesh: An Appreciation.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism.                 Ed. Jelena O.Krstovic. Vol. 74. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005. Literature Resources Center.             Web. 4 Jan. 2012.

“Gilgamesh.” The Norton Anthology World Literature. Shorter Second Edition. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2009. 13-81. Print


2 thoughts on “The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Purpose in Life

  1. Amy–wow, i’ve never seen such an exhaustive analysis of Gilgamesh online, and i should know–i’ve just published Gilgamesh tablets 1-4 via (and next month on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. though i work closely with the original materials, i’ve also filling in the gaps in the text using the story’s logic and my own intuitions. it’s worth a read…check it out at (under Gilgamesh: The Ancient Epic.

    But i don’t mean to be too commercial here, and will also say that i like your self-description and am looking forward to reading more of your posts… RT .

    & p.s.: i’ve reposted this post…thx for sharing!

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