The quest for fame and immortality has been a motivating factor for powerful men throughout history. A tale as old as time some would say. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is an incredibly complex character who by loss and grief finds comfort as he accepts his morality and all that is his life.
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At the outset of the epic, Gilgamesh is described as a prideful and egotistical king, who angers the citizens of Uruk with his cruelty. The people begin to lose hope and ask the gods to intervene on their behalf. They oblige, the goddess Aruru responds by creating Gilgamesh’s rival, Enkidu, in hopes to use him as a deterrence for Gilgamesh’s ambitions. When the two foes finally met, Gilgamesh again willingly shows his arrogant personality by challenging Enkidu to a wrestling match, which he ultimately ends up winning. Shortly after, they become close friends and embark on a series of grand adventures together. During their quest, Enkidu opens a lot of mental doors for Gilgamesh and he begins to perceive life in a different way. Of course, this does not happen all at once. Throughout the saga when the two friends begin their journey, you can see the good start to shine through in Gilgamesh little by little and it inevitably comes full circle by the end of the story. Although Gilgamesh had to endure much strife and loss to get to his realization and reflection, he eventually comes to terms with the fact that he can no longer behave in the manner he has been. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero himself gradually goes from a boisterous, greedy man to an accepting and inspired leader.
From the beginning of the story we notice a few details about Gilgamesh’s characterization. Just reading the first few tablets, we see that it seems as though he is always driven to be doing something that displays his manly abilities. One example, he constantly challenges his male subjects under his reign to one on one combat, knowing he will emerge victorious. He is the king of Uruk and the king always wins. But he is not only a king, but is a demi-god with special abilities that come with that divine lineage. He always seems one step ahead of those that seek to impede his progress. One of the more controversial rituals that Gilgamesh forces upon his people takes place on the wedding night of every newly married couple. The bride is required to sleep with Gilgamesh in his bed on her wedding night. Once he has blessed their marriage, the bride was allowed to return to their new husband. In the novel, a wedding guest conveys this information to Enkidu, He mates with the lawful wife, / He first, the groom after / By divine decree pronounced, / From the cutting of his umbilical cord, she is his due. (p. 67. 69-72) This decree was enforced onto all couples that were wed in the town, and Gilgamesh believed it to be his noble right. When Enkidu heard about this behavior, he instinctually knows it to be wrong. At the man’s account, his face went pale. (p 67. 73) This is quite profound, considering Enkidu had only been living a civilized life for a brief period. Enkidu decides to confront Gilgamesh and suggests that instead of using his power for selfish and less than chivalrous pursuits, that they should instead join forces with him and together embark to accomplish something truly unique and great. As the story progresses and Enkidu and Gilgamesh go on their quest to kill Humbaba, Enkidu takes care of Gilgamesh. He seems content to do this. When we are first introduced to Gilgamesh at the beginning of the story, he is egotistic, arrogant, and downright selfish.
As we get deeper into the story, we see Gilgamesh begin to open up a little bit. We still see a lot of the character we saw at the beginning of the story, but depending on the situation he and Enkidu are put in, his personality changes. For example, as they near Humbaba, he roars loudly at them, and they both become very afraid. Fearfulness is an emotion that Gilgamesh had only openly shown once before, so seeing him actually be afraid of something was a breakthrough in itself. Before the two embarked on their journey, Gilgamesh talks of their quest as though he was the only one going. He speaks with I and carried himself as though he had no partner and could do this on his own. He tells the people of his city, ‘I will hunt him down in the forest of cedars. / I will make the land hear / How mighty is the scion of Uruk. / I will set my hand to cutting a cedar, / An eternal name I will make for myself. (p 70. 208-212) But, when Humbaba frightens him he starts speaking with ‘wes, telling Enkidu that they will work together to fight Humbaba. After Humbaba bellows, Gilgamesh says to Enkidu, Humbaba / We cannot confront him separately. (p. 79. 171-172) During their battle, Humbaba criticizes Enkidu for bringing him Gilgamesh to harm him, given that Enkidu had lived in the wild most of his life. Enkidu knows how it is to be one of them, so Humbaba is enraged that he would have the audacity to bring Gilgamesh along to harm him. After hearing Humbaba speak this way about them, Gilgamesh wants to back out. Again, fear is a recent emotion for him. Something amazing happens here, though. Enkidu uses Gilgamesh’s own condescending words against him. He says, ‘Why, my friend, do you raise such unworthy objections? How you pule. You make me ill. (p. 80. 25-26) At the outset of the epic, we see Gilgamesh expressing these exact words (p. 70. 188-189). Having Enkidu repeat them now mirrors the unpleasant side of Gilgamesh back to him. It seems to give him at least a small taste of his own medicine, and as a result becomes a more humble man. Although the king is slowly coming around, Enkidu, in a way, helps to fuel Gilgamesh’s ego yet again when they finally defeat Humbaba. They have the great beast at their mercy, but Enkidu allows Gilgamesh to strike the final blow. At or around the halfway point of the story we see Gilgamesh maturing very slowly. Not there yet, but well on the way.
As the story comes towards its conclusion, Gilgamesh is completely alone. Enkidu is dead, and Gilgamesh is attempting to decide how to continue without his companion. At this point, Gilgamesh is obsessed over the idea of extending his life indefinitely, seeking true immortality. Enkidu was his physical equal in every way, and yet even he died. This shows Gilgamesh that his own mortality is real and seemingly unstoppable. This obsession begins to drive him insane. The text describes in detail how upset he was over the death of Enkidu. He tells Siduri, the tavern keeper that he meets at the end of the world, that: ‘For six days and seven nights I wept for him, / I would not give him up for burial, / Until a worm fell out of his nose (p. 97. 49-51). Gilgamesh mourns openly, he goes savage and lives wild. In the face of his grief, the king is humbled greatly through this time. Never before has he been forced to confront such emotions to take care of himself, and this presents a unique challenge for him, his struggle purely internal, no sword can defeat this foe. He becomes so depressed that when he meets the tavern keeper she does not even recognize him regardless of his fame. As she sees Gilgamesh coming towards her bar she says to herself, ‘This no doubt is a slaughterer of wild bulls! / Why would he make straight for my door? (p. 96. 11-12). His own inner torment has made him despicable and turned him into an outcast. This is no longer the Gilgamesh from the beginning of the text. He is now a broken man, mourning the loss of his companion, and possibly, his own dignity.
The time at which he seems to come full circle is when he manages to cross the waters of death and has an audience with the fabled Utanapishtim, an immortal who survived the great flood, towards the conclusion of the story. Utanapishtim proceeds to enlighten Gilgamesh of how blessed he was while in Uruk. He states that Gilgamesh had the best of everything but he had managed to ruin even that: ‘Why, O Gilgamesh, did you prolong woe, / You who are formed of the flesh of gods and mankind, / You for whom the gods acted like fathers and mothers? (p. 101. 218-220). The final straw for Gilgamesh is the loss of a rare plant that would have allowed him to finally complete his quest for his long sought immortality. After this tragedy, Gilgamesh at last understands that not even he can conquer all, and he openly weeps. As he gazes on his city upon his return, he finally seems to be grateful to be there and proud for it. His city is his triumph, his legacy, his dominion.
Throughout the tale, we are given a very personal and in depth look into Gilgamesh’s motives and inner-thoughts as he continues to grow as a character. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh could be described as a less than enjoyable person to be around. He has no respect for anyone or has any feelings of gratitude for what his people would do for him and allow him to do. He even hardly expresses any gratitude for his supposedly beloved brother, Enkidu, while he was living. Even though the middle of the story Gilgamesh breaks down a bit, but it didn’t seem genuine. Everything he did was seemingly for his own gain. To finally learn his lesson Gilgamesh must endure almost unbearable pain, but by the end of the story he does manage to come around. We may never know if Gilgamesh actually learns his own lesson, but at this point he truly has come to understand the true beauty and joy to be found in this life we all have.
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