Enkidu’s Impact on the Epic of Gilgamesh

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The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest and greatest works of literature. There are many different versions of this epic, but most are the same in story and themes. This ancient poem follows the story of the titular character Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. It is a mystery as to whether or not this person existed, but the story portrays him as a demigod of great strength. He is made out to be a very powerful ruler who is also obnoxious and ignorant to human suffering. He is a great ruler in some aspects. For one, he built a wall to protect his city and people. Still, he abuses his people and even rapes maidens on their wedding night. Gilgamesh does seem to care for his people, but his status as a demigod blinds him from his own flaws and he is unable to understand the ramifications of his actions towards his people. He has yet to learn about human suffering. The creation of Enkidu changes this aspect of his character and helps him understand the delicacy of life.

It is Enkidu who drives the story’s development. The people of Uruk dislike Gilgamesh’s rule and pray for the gods to create his equal to counteract him. And so Enkidu the man-beast is created. With the introduction of Enkidu, we get a thematic contrast between nature and civilization. Enkidu is a wild, dirty, man-beast who resides in the wilderness, while Gilgamesh is a godly king that rules over the civilized city of Uruk. The setting of the story also bears significance and plays into this contrast because Uruk is one of the earliest city in recorded history. As king of this civilized city, Gilgamesh serves as a symbol of civilization itself in this story. Just as man domesticated animals, Gilgamesh sets off to domesticate Enkidu when he hears of him. When Enkidu is brought to the kingdom, the two characters face off in a show of brute force. Enkidu proves himself to be Gilgamesh’s equal and earns his respect and friendship.1

One of many Tablets for the epic of Gilgamesh| Courtesy of Photos.com/Jupiterimages
The Flood Tablet, from the Epic of Gilgamesh | Nineveh, 7th century BCE | Courtesy of the British Museum, London

Over the course of their adventures and their newly found friendship, Enkidu’s character slowly rubs off on Gilgamesh. He comes to have a better understanding of  his subjects and his responsibilities to them as king. In a way, he becomes more human. Still, it is not until Enkidu’s death that he, Gilgamesh, will be able to understand human suffering fully.2

His death brings Gilgamesh great sadness and makes him come to the realization that no matter how strong or godly he thought he was, he too will someday be faced with death. The story symbolically shows that nature has an impact on civilization and makes it clear that the author or authors prefer civilization but still acknowledge the importance of nature. Also tying in with contrasting symbols, Enkidu curses civilization and blames it for his death, though he ends up going back on his word when he remembers all the great things of civilization and the friendship that Gilgamesh has shown him. And so Gilgamesh mourns his best friend and goes off on a quest to search for immortality. Through his long search he finds the plant that can grant renewed youth to the person who eats it. However, after obtaining what he sought, a snake promptly steals it away. And so the quest comes to an abrupt end.3

Gilgamesh later uses the gods to contact the dead Enkidu and ask about the afterlife, but was disappointed with the answer. Enkidu told him that nothing but more suffering awaits those who die.4 Gilgamesh comes to accept that despite his godly strength and title of king, he too is human and is vulnerable to human suffering and death. Not even his best friend was spared from the grip of death. Or perhaps the reason Enkidu met death was because of the way the author(s) favored civilization over nature; Gilgamesh over Enkidu. And so concludes the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh may not have found the immortal life he sought, but nevertheless he has found immortality in that his story still lives on though the epic and its many versions to today and beyond.

 

  1.  Masterplots, Fourth Edition, November 2010, s.v. “The Gilgamesh Epic,” by Hartley S. Spatt.
  2.  Tzvi Abusch, “The Development and Meaning of the Epic of Gilgamesh: An Interpretive Essay,” The Journal of the American Oriental Society, no. 4 (2001): 614.
  3.  Masterplots, Fourth Edition, November 2010, s.v. “The Gilgamesh Epic,” by Hartley S. Spatt.
  4.  Masterplots, Fourth Edition, November 2010, s.v. “The Gilgamesh Epic,” by Hartley S. Spatt.

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This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Gilgamesh is pushed towards his quest for immortality because of Enkidu’s death and how he shed light on the idea that Gilgamesh one day will also die. While Gilgamesh is a king and he has many subjects and followers Enkidu is his only friend and his death is the only thing that can really impact Gilgamesh the way that it does.

  2. The title brought my attention and so did the characters. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a very interesting perspective on society and its relation to nature. I find Gilgamesh’s development very similar to some characteristics many leaders had. Some human aspects we condemn have been present in some members of humanity nonetheless. Getting to know someone who you can call an equal is a strong point on how to notice your ego and later reduce it. I can now see why it influenced so much on Mesopotamia’s morals.

  3. I have always heard of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”, but I never read it, and I never understood what it was about. I was honestly a little disturbed when I read that Gilgamesh was a ruler who would sometimes rape his maidens. I was distributed to see how a ruler of that stature, would do something so dishonorable. I also find it fascinating on the fact that this is one of the oldest epics ever written in human history, which is mind blowing if I really think about it. This was an interesting article and was well worth the read.

  4. I had been introduced to some stories of the epic of Gilgamesh, but this story was by far the most interesting. I found this article unique because Gilgamesh contacted Enkidu asking how life after death was, but Enkidu perceived life after death as a place where people are forced to suffer more. Modern day, people’s perception on life after death is beautiful, so I find it unusual how Enkidu would claim that the afterlife is filled with more suffering.

  5. Being one of the oldest known literature, I did not expect the Epic of Gilgamesh to be so engaging. I am surprised that there has not been a movie or show adaptation for this (that I know of). I wonder if there are any modern day films, tv shows or even literature that has taken inspiration and plot elements from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Really interesting article, great job!

  6. I think that Enkidu had a greater impact on Gilgamesh than the one described on the article. When he acquires the flower that would give him immortality, before it was stolen by the snake, Gilgamesh considered giving it to the older people of his city, making him more human in the sense that he set his selfishness aside and thought about his people. Also when he concluded that he would reach immortality in a way he didn’t expect to gain it, he seemed satisfied enough with it.

  7. Osman Rodriguez

    After reading your article, i am now really interested in reading the Epic of Gilgamesh. I have known the character of Gilgamesh for awhile now, but have never read his epic. I had encountered Gilgamesh in show and the way he was portrayed was very interesting to me. So, naturally, when I stumbled upon your article, I had to read it. The epic seems interesting and the point it tries to get across is a valuable one.

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