Enkidu’s Impact on the Epic of Gilgamesh

Chaos Monster and Sun God | Austen Henry Layard's
Chaos Monster and Sun God | Austen Henry Layard's "Monuments of Nineveh" | Plate 19 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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. Avatar
    Steven Clinton

    Interesting article. I have never read the epic of Gilgamesh, but from your article, I know that Enkidu had a life to change influences on the King Gilgamesh. In life, some people come in seasons, but during that time certain people can impact the thoughts and mindsets of others. I like the way you told the story; the flow and tone matched the topic.

  2. Avatar
    Alejandro Garza

    Well written article. As someone that is working on my own article concerning Gilgamesh this has provided me with valuable insight into what i should look for when writing my own. The message and morals taught by the epic also carry great weight even in today’s world where most people have yet become acquainted with suffering and other emotions that make us human as well as provide a better understanding of human nature through Gilgamesh’s bond with Enkidu.

  3. Avatar
    Daniel Bailey

    This article was nicely done, before this I never heard of the Epic story of Gilgamesh and so I got a pretty good view in the story that depicts the demigod that learns what it means to be human. Its interesting that this epic story is so old that its unknown what aspects of the story could be true. I agree that to really understand someone you have to be able to understand there pain. Gilgamesh’s failed search for immortality and the lost of his friend where the two events that caused Gilgamesh to realize what it means to suffer and to understand that time and death affects us all.

  4. Avatar
    Erik Rodriguez

    Great article! I am familiar with Gilgamesh but I think the way your organized and presented your article was amazing. This epic teaches us not to take people for granted. I like how you concluded your article, stating Gilgamesh died despite his morality, but he is still alive in the epic retold today.

    Amazing article!

  5. Avatar
    Christian Lozano

    What a beautiful story, presented well in this article. I see a similarity between Enkidu’s information on the afterlife and The Buddha’s view on life. Everything is suffering, of course Nirvana is not presented in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but it is still great to see Gilgamesh embrace the true way of things, and not being apathetic towards his subjects like he was.

  6. Avatar
    Tina Valdez

    As someone who has not yet read the epic of Gilgamesh, your article gave a great deal of insight into Gilgamesh’s character and particularly his character development throughout the story. I think it extremely interesting that although there are many versions of the spic, the story line and themes remain the same. From reading your article I could say that morality is a prominent theme, I wonder what other themes are prominent. Your article sparked my interest in the epic, I am now hoping to read it. Great article, it had a great flow!

  7. Avatar
    Rachel White

    This article did a great job in terms of research, fully describing the story and its moral, and flowing efficiently. The story itself is one that should be remembered for all of us. We are not completely invincible. We are not immortal. We all possess the ability to die at any moment and we should learn to not fear this fact, but to search for immortality in our actions that may live on for time to come. It is important to realize who we are and what we cherish before time catches up and takes it away from us. I believe ancient stories reveal a lot about what life was like back in that era, but also about how little we have changed as humans. After all this time, we still find ourselves thinking we are forever young and taking things for granted, even though our elders tell us differently. It seems we do not learn until we are hurt.

  8. Avatar
    Mehmet Samuk

    I loved the flow of the article, it was organized really well. The ancient story also reveals some truths about human nature. We can not comprehend the importance of things until we lose them.

  9. Avatar
    Analina Devora

    Your article is extremely well organized and easy to read. I didn’t know anything about this epic poem until reading your article and the clarity of it really gave me a sense of the plot line and the development of the story. It’s interesting to hear how it takes the death of someone close to us to bring us to a realization of truth. This element is brought up in stories and movies everywhere, however, I suppose it teaches a good lesson. Well done!

  10. Avatar
    Andres Palacios

    Excellent well written article, It is incredible how the epic relates so much to our own lives. A lot of us don’t understand suffering and what it represents until we lose someone who is very significant to us. Just as Gilgamesh didn’t understand what really human suffering was until he lost Enkidu most of us don’t really understand suffering until it hits us.

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