This essay is abstracted from my lectures on the Epic of Gilgamesh, an audio recording is available below through the YT video:
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest work of extant literature in the world as of 2018. The text was discovered in the nineteenth century and patched together into a working piece of literature and is a foundational read in any mythology or ancient Near East class. It is also an ancient tale we are all familiar with: The heroic warrior who defeats a monster, loses his companion, and reaches the end of the journey—only to have his prize remain elusive. Beyond being a thrilling read and a prism into a world seemingly very distant from our own, are there any deep truths or meanings behind the text?
I wish to examine several key features of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The first feature is Gilgamesh as the Hero archetype. Second is the relational aspect of Enkidu and what the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu tells us about the human condition. The third feature is the giant/monster archetype in the creature Humbaba and why he resides in the Cedar Forest. Lastly, I wish to examine the issue of a “plant of life” and what it represents in the broader context of the Neolithic revolution.
I. Gilgamesh as the Hero-King, Founder of Civilization
The main character of the Epic of Gilgamesh is its titular protagonist. Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk; and most scholars agree that there was a historical Gilgamesh who ruled in the early third millennium B.C. Gilgamesh is the literary embodiment of the “Hero” archetype of Hegelian anthropology.
The opening lines of the epic give paeans to Gilgamesh. It recounts the story of Gilgamesh having seen “the Deep,” wandering the lands, and founding the great city that the people of Uruk now occupy. This is the prototypical praise of the founding father who is worshipped as a semi-divine being; “two-thirds god” and “one-third man.” According to Hegel the founder of civilization is conceived as a deity with his successors (or heirs) being the “divine-king” or “divine-emperor” who, over time, loses his divine status as the democratization of society commences. Regardless, Gilgamesh is certainly cast as the heroic god-king in the opening lines of the poem, a testament to the reality of the divine hero archetype in ancient mytho-poetic literature.
Moreover, he is the great king, the greatest king, the king that “no later king could ever copy” and “surpassing all other kings, heroic in stature.”
Gilgamesh serves as the secular deity and father of the people of Uruk. This is partly due to the nature of Sumerian anthropology and religion which was, in comparison to Christianity, very bleak. Men were created as the toiling slaves of the gods. The “puppets of the gods,” to borrow a phrase from the Greeks. The gods crafted man and decreed their fates—there is nothing man can do about this (as Gilgamesh will find out by the end of the epic). While the Sumerians were deeply religious, and the Sumerian city and social life was organized around the temple cults and religious festivals—as Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer and Henri Frankfort detail in their works on ancient Mesopotamian society—the worship of Gilgamesh as father figure represents the origin story of the Sumerian people, who give praise to a man rather than to the gods for it is a man, not the gods, who have brought them civilization and liberty. This is no different, in some respects than King Arthur or George Washington as fathers of their countries.
This issue of Gilgamesh as father king is an issue of fatherhood. People come into being by genealogy and trace genealogy as their roots. Nations have their fathers, just as children have their fathers.
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel notes that the “Hero” archetype is the founding father of states, thus the founding father of particular societies. Gilgamesh, whether he was the first king or not, is remembered as that hero founding father of the state of Uruk. Thus, the people of Uruk praise him and credit him for their life and prosperity. Hegel also asserted that these heroes achieve immortality through their divinization by the successive tribe which they brought to settlement. Gilgamesh, again, checks that credential off the list as the settlement of Uruk, commenced by him, is his enduring and immortal legacy which is what the people remember him for.
While the opening of the poem gives praise to Gilgamesh, the rest of the story—which chronologically begins with the creation of Enkidu to rival Gilgamesh—casts Gilgamesh in a sort of “coming of age” light. While the opening stanzas depict Gilgamesh, the wanderer having become the judge king whom settles disputes and maintains the rule of law while winning the praise of his fellow citizens, in praise, the Gilgamesh of the story—as it unfolds—is not always depicted in the most favorable of lights.
For one he is frightened by the prospects of journeying and confronting Humbaba in the Cedar Forest. He has an existential dread of death after Enkidu dies. He is excoriated by the wise-man Uta-napishtim for abandoning his people and the duties that fall to a man and to a king, also mocking him for dressing like a wild-man when in lion’s garb. Gilgamesh weeps like an immature child when the snake eats the plant of life. There are plenty of moments where Gilgamesh comes across as an immature and frightened boy—but given that the epic is, in many ways, a coming of age tale of the great king, it makes Gilgamesh’s transformation into that great king more laudable.
The poem ends with Gilgamesh telling the ferryman of the walls and city he has helped to build, the very city whose foundation is praised in the opening stanza. Thus, the epic ends where it started. Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality failed, so in place of bodily immortality he leaves his legacy through a monument; the very city of Uruk which gives life to people.
In this sense Gilgamesh did achieve what Uta-napishtim achieved in creating the great boat that survived the Deluge earning him eternal life from the gods. In accepting the reality of death Gilgamesh establishes the foundation for life in the walls of Uruk. For when Gilgamesh fretted over death he became an animalized man, reminiscent of Enkidu, journeying out in the wild and wearing lion’s skin. He had abandoned the duties of a man and a king, the duties to home, family, inheritance, and country, “Ever do we build our households, ever do we make our nests, ever do brothers divide their inheritance, ever do feuds arise in the land.” And it is precisely because Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, builds up the city, passes it on to his people who trust him to rule over them and look after them, that he achieves “immortality” and ensures life continues for his people.
The hero who founds the state, civilization, according to Hegel, is the individual who acts with the common good in mind and ensures—through his actions—the settlement and continuity of his peoples. Part of the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh is Gilgamesh’s adventures and quest for immortal life. Another part of the story is Gilgamesh’s obvious role as the hero founder of Uruk memorialized through the epic itself. In founding Uruk Gilgamesh is a divine father, giving life to his children, the citizens of Uruk, who commemorate him because of his heroic actions which they are now the beneficiaries of. Thus, Gilgamesh is the god-king, “God the Father,” so to speak, who has created the world of life and liberty which humans can now fruitfully enjoy without fear and dread.
Moreover, the praise of Gilgamesh is reflective of the Catholic anthropological insight of man as a cultural animal—an animal of praise. Man seeks praise and wants to give praise when he has an appreciation of life. In appreciating the lives they now enjoy, the people of Uruk give praise to Gilgamesh. And the praise Gilgamesh receives is the immorality he wins for bestowing life, civilization, and culture, to the people.