Imagery and Themes in the Epic of Gilgamesh

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Historical Context - Imagery and Themes

Rosenberg notes that Gilgamesh is probably the world's first human hero in literature (27). The Epic of Gilgamesh is based on the life of a probably real Sumerian king named Gilgamesh, who ruled about 2600 B.C.E. We learned of the Gilgamesh myth when several clay tablets written in cuneiform were discovered beginning in 1845 during the excavation of Nineveh (26). We get our most complete version of Gilgamesh from the hands of an Akkadian priest, Sin-liqui-unninni. It is unknown how much of the tale is the invention of Sin-liqui-unninni, and how much is the original tale. The flood story, which appears in the Sin-liqui-unninni version, is probably based on an actual flood that occurred in Mesopotamia around 2900 B.C.E. (26).

The Sumerian culture influenced the entire Near East (Swisher 13). The success of their culture was dependent on the agricultural viability of the area. Every year there were floods which provided rich silt for successful farming that encouraged the people to stay in the same area year after year instead of migrating to find new areas for crops (19).

There are indications that the Sumerians were composed of two different peoples which mingled in the same area. The Semites are believed to have mixed with the Highlanders. The Semites were patriarchal hunters and more warlike than the Highlanders. The Highlanders were matriarchal and peaceful. Swisher suggests that there is evidence of both social groups and that the combination of the two led to changes in the perception of the roles of the gods and goddess as well as the men and women (21).

Sumer was originally small groups of people that eventually grew to form cities. As a country it included 13 ...

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...der to receive eternal life. The apparent belief in an afterlife which is indicated by the burial with useful objects may show that eternal life is achieved after physical death. The Flood - recounted by Utanapishtim is representative of the purification of human life by the gods. Their transgressions are swept away (with most of the population) and they are reborn into a fresh, new world and relationship with the gods. Ark - the symbol of the gods' love of the humans and their interest in preserving the human race.

We also identified five themes in the Epic of Gilgamesh: Conflict between chaos and order, represented by nature and civilization; Man's quest for immortality and knowledge; Dealing with loss; Male bonding/brotherhood; Heroism (man's victory over nature).
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