The Two Sagas of the Epic of Gilgamesh


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The Two Sagas of Gilgamesh

 

Western literature has few epics of any real greatness: readers can probably name most of them and count them on their hands with a few fingers left over. Of these, The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the oldest. The standard version of the epic grandfathers Homer's Iliad and Odyssey by centuries. But what does it mean to call Gilgamesh an epic?  By the standards of Homer's outline of an epic, Gilgamesh's tale could be seen as two distinctly different, yet drawn together sagas.

 

"There is a hero of great national or even universal importance in a vast canvas, a setting that may be the whole world or larger." In the beginning we are introduced to our hero as not only the great king of Uruk, son of the goddess Ninsun and the great king, Lugalbanda, but also a great tyrant who became a hero. From the beginning of his story this man is destined for a fantastic journey that spans the worlds beyond what any of his peasants can dream to see. We are told that he is more godly than not, yet still must suffer the same fate as all mortals. With destiny set against his mortal, or physical life Gilgamesh must take the journey to the great cedar forest of Lebanon where he will prove his superior strength (and favor from the gods) to the world.

 

"The plot involves battles involving superhuman deeds or a long, difficult journey while gods or other supernatural beings are interested and involved." Gilgamesh does encounter all of these things. Not once, but twice. In the first part of this tale he battles Humbaba, the feared giant who protects the trees of the cedar forest. Alongside him is his trusted friend, Enkido. Enkido was made by the gods, an equal of Gilgamesh which they planted in the wild as a man to grow strong in the wild of the animals. It is after Enkido has become Gilgamesh's friend that he complains of feeling weak from civilization, and gives Gilgamesh the idea of conquering something great to reclaim his strength and perpetuate their names. In this task they are also helped by Shamash; the god responsible for the cedar forest because he takes pity on Gilgamesh's mortality. Yet his story does not end at the defeat of Humbaba. Nor does it stop at the return of the mighty king of Uruk.

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His return to his strong-walled city is greeted by the marriage proposal of the goddess, Ishtar. He turns her down. This spurns the bitter goddess to beg of her father the bull of heaven. The beast is defeated by the daring duo, but Enkido grows ill and falls victim to the fate of all men.

 

An epic can be defined by the extravagances of its journey, but Gilgamesh takes more than one journey. There is a distinct break between two tales about the same man. After the death of his "beloved friend" Gilgamesh yerns to avoid the fate of all human men. He sets out on his own this time, and after "many weeks of travel over land and sea, Gilgamesh came to Mount Mashu, whose twin peaks reach to the roof of heaven and guard Shamash as the sun rises and sets each day." Great canvas? Universal importance? Perhaps. The guardsmen of the gate tell Gilgamesh they will open the gate of Mount Mashu, but it is a long dark journey. Twenty-four miles to be exact. Yet, his drive to survive for all time, even if it means suffering at the moment, thrusts him forward. With this little hole behind his belt Gilgamesh manages to cross the great sea with Urshanabi, the boatman. Despite his destructive temper Gilgamesh manages to visit Utanapishtim (whose name means "I found life") an immortal man who was alive at the time of the "Great Flood." He tells Gilgamesh that no other man will find eternal life and that his journey was in vain. In this second epic Gilgamesh does not conquer a large, nefarious giant, but his own demons. When he goes home to his people he uses his newfound appreciation of the human spirit and the fragility of the human life to rule his strong-walled city with a wisdom which has been retold over the ages.

 

In the first half of Gilgamesh our hero takes a very physical journey along with the help of many forces. He returns home to find people who worship his trials. Yet this worship is not enough to comfort him after the life of his friend, Enkido ends and Gilgamesh's quest to find the loop-hole to death begins. This second excursion is driven by Gilgamesh's intense, existential loneliness, in the face of society and in the face of mortality. It is the story of Gilgamesh's coming to grips with that loneliness, with his own place in society and in the cosmic order; the story, in modern psychological terms, of his socialization and maturation. If made into movies, the first half of Gilgamesh's biography could be easily made into an action flick, while his second journey could be retold as a "coming of age" tale.

 

Submitted by Angie

 


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