February 02, 2023

#08-281: Gilgamesh Part I: Gilgamesh and Enkidu

A man holding a snake and a lion
is believed to be Gilgamesh (Wikipedia)

Note: The oldest known epic is a cracking good "buddy movie," one which explores friendship, love, loss, death, and immortality.

Get Ready: Should a person be punished for wrongs committed in a moment of exuberance?

The oldest story known to literature is like a "buddy movie," a story where two protagonists support each other in completing a task, going on an adventure, etc.

The Epic of Gilgamesh began shaping up around 2100 BCE, centering on the exploits of Gilgamesh, an historical king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk (from the name of which we get Iraq). But his story had become highly legendary by the time it was written down about a millennium later.

Although hugely popular in ancient times, it was subsequently lost to history, and was not rediscovered until European archaeologists working in the ruins of Middle Eastern cities began excavating the tablets on which it was written. For this reason, it does not feature prominently in the art or literature of the three thousand years between its inscription and its rediscovery in the 19th century.

The story falls neatly into two parts.

In the first, King Gilgamesh is so abusive toward his people that they call for divine intervention. The gods in reply send a "wild man" named Enkidu. Once tamed by a temple priestess, this child of the forest balances Gilgamesh's power (and becomes his "buddy"). They then set off on adventures, such as killing Humbaba, the demon who guards the Cedar Forests of Lebanon.

After they return to Uruk, the love goddess Ishtar woos Gilgamesh. When he rejects her, she asks her father Anu to send the monstrous Bull of Heaven to avenge her. The heroes kill the Bull, too, and in a moment of exuberant hubris, Enkidu rips off the bull's hind leg and flings it at the goddess. For this he is fated to die.

When Enkidu learns of his doom (in a dream), he curses the events that led him to this moment, but Shamash the sun god reminds him that without all those sorrows, he would never have gained the friendship of Gilgamesh. He repents his curses, and in a second dream visits the underworld. (This was probably another text that was later inserted into the story.)

Upon the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh is naturally heartbroken, but arranges a grand send-off, and even dams up the course of the nearby Euphrates River so Enkidu's tomb can be built in the river bottom, ensuring that once the river was flowing again the grave would remain secure.

We'll look at Gilgamesh's further (solo) adventures in Lesson #08-282.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. avenge
  2. divine intervention
  3. exuberant
  4. hubris
  5. prominently
  6. repents
  7. send-off
  8. subsequently
  9. underworld
  10. woos

  1. the celebration of a departure (or death)
  2. overwhelming pride
  3. overly excited; enthusiastic
  4. tries to marry
  5. noticeably; as a key element of
  6. following; thereafter
  7. get even for
  8. is sorry for
  9. the place of the dead
  10. interference by the gods

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for February 2, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. j; 3. c; 4. b; 5. e; 6. h; 7. a; 8. f; 9. i; 10. d