The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Things to Consider while reading Gilgamesh.

Stories tell us about a triad of human experience: (1) our relationship with the cosmos, god or the gods; (2) our relationships with each other and "Self"; (3) and our relationship with the natural world and the other species that inhabit it. The first category is the house of cosmogony, theology, death, and destiny. The second, the reside of agriculture, culture, humanities and science, civilization, technology, and genuine warfare. Then there is the planet earth, our environment and stories of homo sapiens living on the land and sea. The categories overlap, evident in seminal essays like "The Land Ethic" where Aldo Leopold suggests that the law of ethics, the evolution of human rights, will be extended to include the land itself and all species that inhabit it.

Mythology of State/ Mythology of Self: a common theme in mythology which underscores the tension between the individual and what the individual desires (private agendas) and the individual and the obligations to the group in which he or she lives (public agendas). Ultimately in most stories the outcome demonstrates how heroes come to understand the necessity of community and thus come to see themselves more clearly as interdependent members of a particular group or society. We will see this emphasis in Book Seven of The Rebublic: Plato uses an allegory of the cave to underscore the duty of philosopher-kings to guide and govern those who remain in the dark. In truth, perhaps we can share a common hope: to be at peace with the world, to come to terms with the failings of love and the ramifications of hate, to shed the strategies of division that systematically teach us to think narrowly. I believe that The Epic of Gilgamesh includes a bewildering story of a hero's capacity to do good, to be a living creature with dignity--regardless of the agony of life. In this, a great many of the mythic voices are consistent even in the matter of details.

1. The individual in the world, particularly in relationship to others and to the natural world.

Begin with the assumption that storytelling is vital to human health. In Western World Literature, our relationship to the world at large has been, in part, the story of ethics and humanity, the actualization of equality and peace through narrative art. The central theme of Gilgamesh begins with a simple question: Gilgamesh is portrayed in the prologue as an oppressor or tyrant. What happens to this view of him as the story progresses?

Other themes are worthy of in-depth discussion. Heroes are people who know secret things. Plato's allegory of the cave again characterizes the place of the hero within the world. Are heroes ever to be pitied?

2. The limits of creative imagination and human possibility. Gilgamesh pushes the boundaries of known human experience.

3. The significance of history and literature. Euhemerism.

4. The quest for peace.

5. The role of wilderness in shaping human identity and consciousness

6. Nature and culture: the coming of Enkidu

7. The hero's journey: Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) delineates the stages of the heroic quest--the call to adventure, the aid of mentors, the crossing of thresholds, the trials and tribulations, the supreme ordeal, the road back, and the revitalization of the community.

What happens in the story: a first step.

From the Corse Objectives in the Syllabus

  • summarize various texts in canonical Western World Literature from the Classical period, Medieval Period, and the Renaissance

    Prologue: "Gilgamesh King of Uruk"

Many believe that the "I" in the prologue is perhaps Gilgamesh himself. Consider Gilgamesh's character here. What might be said about him in the prologue? This is the older and wiser Gilgamesh, at home, long after the heroic journey took place. It is a common sturcture in literature. Here I am now, but in the past when I was younger, things were much different, problmatic. And so the narrator begins the story of that past: "The Coming of Enkidu."

But in the Prologue, consider Uruk, the city-state. What is it like? What might this city represent in human accomplishment?

In epic formula, the concept of Renewal or of a New Beginning is defined in part by the hero's return and the reformation of the society.

"The Coming of Enkidu"

Why is it significant that Gilgamesh has one divine parent and one mortal parent?

Why do the people lament? What is the result? What is divine intervention?

What are Enkidu's characteristics?

The trapper fears Enkidu. Why? Why does the trapper set out for Uruk?

What is the consequence of Enkidu's murmuring love for six days and seven nights with the harlot?

The woman takes him to the holy temple in Uruk. For what purpose?

What is the significance of dreams?

What does Enkidu learn from the shepherds? What does he do for them? He lives happily until what happens?

The campaign against Humbaba has mixed results. Explain.

Chapter 3:

Gilgamesh's conversation with Ishtar shows us that the relationship between gods and humans is risky, at least for humans.

What does Ishtar offer him? Why does he refuse?

Does the Forest Journey teach Gilgamesh enough so that he can better resist temptation?

Explain the concept of reversal as portrayed in the stories of the lovers of Ishtar.

Ishtar threatens to do what if she is not allowed to take the Bull of Heaven to Uruk?

If Anu agrees then their will be seven years of drought. This story occurs again later in narrative history. In what story ?

Chapter 4: the Search for Everlasting Life

Why does Gilgamesh withdraw from the world of culture into that of Nature after his friend's death?

Who is Utnapishtim and why is Gilgamesh looking for him?

Gilgamesh goes through a series of challenges on this journey. What are they?

What does Siduri tell Gilgamesh about death. What advice does she offer about life?

Who is Urshanabi?

What does Gilgamesh do in anger?

How do they get across the waters of the dead?

Chapter 5: The Story of the Flood

Why do the gods decide to exterminate mankind?

Who is Utnapishtim? What do he and his wife have that no other mortals can claim? Why? Is it a blessing or a curse?

Who warns Utnapishtim about the coming of the flood?

What is the secret of the gods?

Utnapishtim gives us another view of Ishtar in his telling of the story of the flood. How is Ishtar different than how she was in chapter three?

Chapter 6: The Return

What is the test of the bread?

What does Gilgamesh want to do with the marvelous plant?

Has Gilgamesh changed in any way?

Who steals the plant?

Who returns to Uruk with Gilgamesh? Why is it significant?

What is significant about the "precinct of Uruk?"

Understanding What happens in the story: a second level of questions:

  • argue their point of view about specific texts in different genres; assess the significance of historical thinking within literary studies
  • use critical thinking skills and categorize and judge classical pieces of art, music, theater, and literature
  • evaluate how Western World Literature is closely connected to other disciplines and ideas such as philosophy, mythology, religion, morality, love, happiness, death, nature, and technology
  • correlate literature to the challenges and experiences in life

Gilgamesh was 2/3 god, and 1/3 man. What conflict might derive from such a combination?

As Gilgamesh's second self, how does Enkidu represent an undiscovered side of Gilgamesh?

The process of civilizing Enkidu opens up a discussion of the significance of the Nature/Culture dichotomy in human history. Discuss the relationship between Nature and Culture in the epic.

The immediate effect of Enkidu's sexual initiation (through his encounter with the harlot) is to alienate him from the animals with whom he had previously lived, or more generally to alienate him from nature itself. How is it that wisdom makes one weak?

One way of achieving figurative immortality is through fame. To what extend does this idea emerge in Gilgamesh and how convincing is it?

According to the epic, how might humans come to terms with death?

Is immortality possible? Is it desirable?

What is Utnapishtim's attitude about Gilgamesh's quest for immortality?

In-depth discussion:

No one suspected that the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood was neither original nor unique until a portion of Gilgamesh was first published in 1872. What conclusions can we make about the origins of stories in the Old Testament?

The Hero's journey is primarily a male story of adventure and fulfillment. Is this same quest available to women in the story? What might traditionally be the female version of a heroic quest?

What are the roles of the following women in this story: Aruru (goddess that creates Enkidu), Ishtar, Ninsun, the Harlot, Siduri, Utnapishtim's wife. What do these roles suggest about the significance of women in this ancient culture?

What makes a person heroic?

What are the purpose of this story?

Further Optional Reading:

Gilgamesh: Storytelling and the Meaning of Life