The Transformation of Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Transformation of Gilgamesh in the Epic of Gilgamesh


In many literary works we see significant transitions in the hero's character as the story is developed. This is also true in the Epic of Gilgamesh with its hero, Gilgamesh. In this narrative poem, we get glimpses of who Gilgamesh is and what his purposes and goals are. We see Gilgamesh act in many different ways -- as an overbearing ruler resented by his people, a courageous and strong fighter, a deflated, depressed man, and finally as a man who seems content with what he's accomplished. Through all of these transitions, we see Gilgamesh's attitude toward life change. The goals he has for his own life alter dramatically, and it is in these goals that we see Gilgamesh's transition from being a shallow, ruthless ruler to being an introspective, content man.

The epic begins with the men of Uruk describing Gilgamesh as an overly aggressive ruler. "'Gilgamesh leaves no son to his father; day and night his outrageousness continues unrestrained; And he is the shepherd of Uruk, the enclosure; He is their shepherd, and yet he oppresses them. Strong, handsome, and wise. . . Gilgamesh leaves no virgin to her lover.'"(p.18, Line 23-27) The citizens respect him, but they resent his sexual and physical aggression, so they plead to the gods to alleviate some of their burden. The gods resolve to create an equal for Gilgamesh to tame him and keep him in line. This equal, Enkidu, has an immediate impact on Gilgamesh. When they first meet, both having never before met a man equal in stature, they brawl. "They grappled with each other, Snorting like bulls; They shattered the doorpost, that the wall shook."(p.32, lines 15-18)  In giving Gilgamesh a real battle, Enkidu instantly changes him; having this equal gives Gilgamesh a sense of respect for another man. These two men fighting each other creates a serious mess, but they both end up without animosity toward the other.

     The next time we see them, their friendship is concrete. "They kissed one another, And formed a friendship."(p.33, line 19-20) Gilgamesh seems to be the leader at the start of their relationship, and right away, he plans an adventure for them. "In the forest dwells the terrible Huwawa. Let us, me and thee, kill him, And let us destroy all the evil in the land."(p. 34, line 96-98) Here, Gilgamesh reveals one reason that he wants to kill Huwawa - to destroy the evil in the land.

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It is possible that through finding a bond with another human, Enkidu, Gilgamesh decides that he wants to better the lives of all of his people. In killing the 'terrible Huwawa' he will do away with one threat to them. Now, instead of being an overly aggressive ruler, he is more of a protector.

     Another side of Gilgamesh that we see at this stage is his arrogance. When Enkidu expresses reservations about this dangerous mission and asks why Gilgamesh wants to go on it, Gilgamesh replies, "Already here, thou art afraid of death. What has become of thy heroic power? I will go before thee. . . If I fall, I will establish a name for myself! 'Gilgamesh is fallen!' they will say. 'In combat With terrible Huwawa!'"(p. 36, lines 144-150) He is not scared of Huwawa and all of his power. Gilgamesh wants to use this adventure to have fun and earn glory.

    Another important thing that Gilgamesh shows in his pre-adventure arrogance is that he is unafraid of death. He seems to almost welcome it as a way to gain fame and preserve his name. Here, he says "as for mankind, their days are numbered, whatever they do is but wind!"(p. 36, lines 142-143) He accepts his mortality without remorse.

Gilgamesh's view of life and death changes dramatically in this story; it is perhaps the biggest transition that we see in him. After defeating Huwawa, humiliating Ishtar together, and killing the bull from heaven, Gilgamesh and Enkidu's friendship is further solidified. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes into a deep depression. "Enkidu, whom I loved so dearly, who went with me through all the hardships, He has gone to the common lot of mankind. Day and night I have wept over him. . . Seven days and seven nights. . .since he is gone, I find no life."(p.69-70, lines 2-10) Enkidu's death is a terrible loss for Gilgamesh. Not only has he lost a friend, a 'little brother', and some might say a lover, he has also lost his ability deny his own mortality.

    Seeing his friend perish and go to the underworld, Gilgamesh is haunted by the vision of what will happen to himself when he dies. Other then the fleeting moment before fighting Huwawa, this is the first time that we see Gilgamesh truly afraid of something. "'When I die, shall I not be like unto Enkidu? Sorrow has entered my heart. I am afraid of death and roam over the desert.'"(p.64, line 3-5) Before, when Gilgamesh went on a journey he did not try to avoid death, but he went to find glory and everlasting fame no matter the cost. Now, aware of his mortality, he wanders in fear of death.

      Another attitude adjustment we can see in Gilgamesh is that after Enkidu's death, he is much less materialistic. Just after the death, Gilgamesh cries out, "'It is for Enkidu, my friend, that I weep, Crying bitterly like unto a wailing woman. . . My festal attire, my only joy!'"(p.62, lines 2-6) He realizes his loss, but still takes a bit of comfort in his material wealth. Further through this same tablet after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh rejects even that comfort. "He went back and forth before his friend . . . Taking off and throwing down his beautiful clothes."(p.63, lines 20-22) By the next column, Gilgamesh has rejected all the cosmetic goods he once held dear, "And I myself, after thou art buried, will cause my body to wear long hair. I will clothe myself with the skin of a lion and I will roam the desert."(p.64, lines 6-7) This willingness to reject much of what makes him human and live in nature like an animal represents a definite change within Gilgamesh. He used to be a tyrannical ruler in the city of Uruk; now he is a roamer clad in 'lion skins' and fearful of death.

    This fear of death is what pushes Gilgamesh to look for Utnapishtim and the key to immortality. He comes across many obstacles, but none of them can dissuade him from pursuing the answers to everlasting life. The barmaid tries to convince him that it is impossible for a man to find immortality, but she is unsuccessful. "'What are the directions? Give me, oh, give me the directions! If it is possible, even the sea I will cross'"(p.74, lines 17-18) This desperate questioning is a stark contrast to Gilgamesh's earlier arrogance. He is humbled by his fear of mortality. Eventually, he reaches Utnapishtim, who tells Gilgamesh of a "'wondrous plant, Whereby a man may obtain his former strength."(p.91, lines 278-279)

At last, Gilgamesh finds a key to immortality, and he becomes very excited to take it back to Uruk with him. The translation makes it unclear whether or not he plans to share it with his people there, but if so, then that would show Gilgamesh's generosity, something we did not see before this. Yet, he does not make it home with his bounty intact. While Gilgamesh is bathing in a pool, "A serpent perceived the fragrance of the plant; it came up from the water and snatched the plant"(p.92, lines 287-288). After the product of all his searching is taken from him by an "earth-lion", "Gilgamesh sat down and wept, His tears flowing over his cheeks."(p.92, lines 290-291) Even though Gilgamesh cries at this loss, it is a much less dramatic reaction than the one he had when Enkidu died. Understandably so, it is much sadder to lose a friend than to lose a material good. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh did not seem to have friends, or to value peoples' lives, but after all that he has gone through, he learns to deal with this material loss and go on with his life.

The next we see him, he and Urshanabi, the boatman, are back in Uruk. Upon arriving home, Gilgamesh says to Urshanabi:

     'Urshanabi, climb upon the wall of Uruk and walk about;
    Inspect the foundation terrace and examine the brickwork,
      if its brickwork be not of burnt bricks,
    And if the seven wise men did not lay its foundation!
    One shar is city, one shar orchards, one shar prairie;
    then there is the uncultivated land, the temple of Ishtar.
    Three shar and the uncultivated land comprise Uruk.'(p.93,             
   lines 303-307)

It is not entirely clear whether this speech is resigned or boastful. It seems to me though, that Gilgamesh is praising his home, and exhibiting his pride in this land that he rules. He emphasizes that the bricks are "burnt bricks" and that the seven wise men laid the foundation. He even emphasizes the diversity of the land in Uruk. The changes we have seen in Gilgamesh leading up to this point also hint that this is a boastful speech. He has learned that material wealth does not always make one happy, and he has matured enough to be content with what he has in Uruk.

     It is clear that Gilgamesh has learned a lot through his journeys. It seems that he has learned about life and is now content with who and where he is. We first saw him as a tyrannical ruler, feared by his people, but through his travels, Gilgamesh changed. He learned to be humble, he learned his own limitations, and he learned to love another human being. He seems far-removed from the man who was ruthless in his public humiliation of Ishtar. Indeed, he does not seem like he will be an overly aggressive ruler anymore. No longer is he blind to the feelings of others - he has experienced his own pain, and he knows what it is to suffer. Through his journeys, Gilgamesh learned that in order to be happy, one has to be content with oneself.


Works Cited and Consulted

Bailkey, Nels M. Readings in Ancient History: Thought and Experience from Gilganesh to St. Augustine. Third edition. Lexington, MA: D.C.Heath and Co., 1987.

George, Andrew R., The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, New York, N.Y.: Barnes and Noble, Inc. 1998

Maier, John ed. Gilgamesh. A Reader. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997. 

Sandars. N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.


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