When we say that Gilgamesh is the first epic in the world, we are claiming that
it has most or all of the characteristics of the genre called “epic,” but what
exactly is an epic? Simply put epics are long narrative poems centered on the
deeds or quests of a central hero. Epics typically have a central theme and a
main task or quest that the hero must achieve or complete before the end.
Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero, has several adventures that could qualify as
“epic” on their own merit, but ultimately they are all just signposts on his
journey from being a vicious tyrant to becoming a shepherd-king. Interestingly,
Gilgamesh’s journey is not physical but a moral, ethical, and spiritual quest to
become a better man. Along the way he will meet and lose his soul-mate and best
friend Enkidu, kill monsters, resist the temptation of a deceitful goddess, and
search for the cure for death, but in the end he will find himself, and his
people will hail him as the greatest of kings.
Uruk: 150 miles south of modern-day Baghdad
Historical Gilgamesh: Gilgamesh was a King in Uruk sometime around
The Epic: Old Babylonian epic (taken from
5 Sumerian poems and 1 Akkadian epic) was
recorded in the 18th century BCE.
Themes and Motifs
A theme is a unifying idea or concept that is woven into the fabric of a
literary work. Some of the themes of Gilgamesh are:
Think of a motif as a visual theme; it is an image that is repeated throughout a
text and that points to a theme; some motifs may appear in several texts in a
genre or over a literary period. Some motifs in Gilgamesh include:
- Anu: chief of the gods; sky god; father of Ishtar; patron god of Uruk
- Aruru: earth goddess; Great Mother; creator of Enkidu
- Ea: god of wisdom, crafts, and mischief; creator and ruler of humans;
half-brother of Enlil who warns Utnapishtim of the Flood
- Enkidu: Gilgamesh’s friend and equal; 2/3 beast and 1/3 man
- Enlil: god of earth and wind; sent the Flood
- Gilgamesh: King of Uruk; 2/3 god and 1/3 man; son of the goddess Ninsun
and King Lugalbanda of Uruk
- Humbaba: “a ferocious giant” set by Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest
- Ishtar: goddess of love, fertility, and war; queen of Heaven; also known
- Ninsun: moon goddess (“Lady Wild Cow”); mother of Gilgamesh
- Shamash: sun god; god of travel and justice; patron of Gilgamesh who
sends him dreams and gifts
- Shamhat: The temple prostitute and priestess of Ishtar who was sent to
seduce and civilize Enkidu
- Siduri: the alewife or tavern keeper who counsels Gilgamesh to take
pleasure in life and abandon his search for immortality.
- Utnapishtim: priest and king; survivor of the Great Flood; dwells in
Dilmun or Paradise; granted immortality by the gods
Gilgamesh goes from being a bad king (a tyrant) to a
noble and beloved king. How and why does the transformation take place?
What is the nature of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s
relationship? How do each of the men benefit from their relationship? What
gifts does each man give the other?
The serpent that eats the plant should remind you of
another serpent in a certain Middle Eastern garden. What do these two
serpents have in common?
What are all the possible meanings of water in this
Women play a particularly interesting role in the
epic. Describe the different types of women and what roles they play.
When and why or of what are Enkidu and Gilgamesh
Fragmentary relief dedicated to the goddess Ninsun, mother of Gilgamesh. Steatite, Neo-Sumerian Period.