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Review of the Ancient Poem 'The Epic of Gilgamesh'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1564 words Published: 27th Sep 2021

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I would suggest that The Epic of Gilgamesh can be read as a moral allegory. Within the epic the story contains hidden meanings behind its visible meaning; this is done through Gilgamesh’s personal journeys within his literal journeys, where he learns some morals. Also the use of symbolism and characters within the text depict abstract ideas and moral elements. Therefore, I am inclined to suggest that the action, objects and people, can be related with meanings that may reflect the real world. All of these aspects create a continuous parallel of meanings within the story, where the characters and ideas fit together within the journey of the text. I would therefore argue that The Epic of Gilgamesh can be read as a moral allegory.

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The journeys within The Epic of Gilgamesh illustrate development within humanity. The reader is instantly presented with Enkidu’s (sent to teach Gilgamesh) journey from the wild to Uruk. I would argue that this journey illustrates Enkidu’s journey to civilisation. The journeys Enkidu later experiences illustrate his development to becoming a civilised person. Each journey teaches him morals even simple aspects such as eating cooked food and wearing clothes. The reader is presented with Enkidu’s anger about the treatment of women in Uruk; when he finds out that Gilgamesh is going to a party to sleep with the bride. The fact a savage is outraged encourages the reader to feel shock, as civilised humans should have more moral values than a man from the wilderness.

Similarily Gilgamesh faces journeys. Gilgamesh’s journeys within the epic are parallel to his personal journey to become a better king. Gilgamesh and Enkidu travel to the Cedar Forest to kill Humbaba, because Gilgamesh wants glory; instantly depicting to the reader the ego of Gilgamesh. The pair manages to defeat Humbaba with help from Shamash. Humbaba pleads Enkidu and Gilgamesh for his life. At this point Gilgamesh does feel sympathy for Humbaba, perhaps suggesting that deep down he does know what is morally right and wrong. Gilgamesh also travels to the mountain Mashu to find ‘everlasting life’; the purpose of this journey contrasts to his first journey where he desires glory as now he is in search for his soul. I would suggest that the journey to Mashu illustrates a rebirth of Gilgamesh when the ‘sun streamed out’ and he is faced with light after darkness, as he has just entered a place where ‘no mortal man has gone’. I am inclined to interpret this part of his journey, as the beginning of him accepting the human fate of death. Here Gilgamesh seems to forget about what is right and wrong because he is grieving for his friend. However at the end Gilgamesh remembers the morals that Enkidu helped to teach him and he begins to think like a king should; showing how his ‘journey was accomplished’. Both literally as he returns home to Uruk, and internally as he becomes a moral man.’ This narrative I would suggest fits to Robert Cole’s idea:

That a compelling narrative, offering a storyteller’s moral imagination vigorously at work, can enable us to learn by example. (Cole 1989: 191)

The reader is aligned with the moral journeys within the narrative and is inclined to learn something from them. I would suggest that even though the text allows the reader to escape; if the text is read as a moral allegory than the reader will also learn or at least think about the morals within the epic.

The use of symbolism in The Epic of Gilgamesh presents ideas relating to humanity. I would suggest the use of doorways help Gilgamesh gain consciousness, teaching him values in life. Gilgamesh is locked out from being able to get to the goddess of love to rape her, teaching him how he should not treat women. Also at the entrance of the Cedar Forest he becomes weak and needs convincing from his friend to go in, depicting how doorways present a challenge. I have noticed that the thing he wants is always behind the door, illustrating to the reader how Gilgamesh needs to change. He needs to makes the choice to become a more devoted king to his people. This therefore could be illustrating how authority can cause selfishness.

Imagery of water is used to act as a symbol for cleansing. The reader is presented with Gilgamesh washing after his visit to the Cedar Forest; almost as if he is trying to cleanse himself from his wrongs. An image of Baptism is also created when Enkidu is reborn after washing himself. In a sense water acts as a symbol for morals being accepted by the individual.

Symbolism of a bull is also used to illustrate a moral. Ishtar asks her father to call upon the “bull of heaven” after Gilgamesh rejects her. In the epic the bull illustrates its destructive nature as it is called for to destroy the land and kill people. Gilgamesh and Enkidu manage to kill the bull perhaps showing how humanity can control the power of nature. It could even be interpreted as showing how humanity can control their destructive nature by consciously defeating it.

The concept of death acts as a moral lesson for how humanity has to accept death; because even though people will die, humanity as a whole will live on. I would suggest this is one of the main lessons Gilgamesh learns from his journeys. After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh grieves saying “what my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead.” Gilgamesh is clearly ‘afraid’ of death. He cannot accept his friend’s death and will not let go of his body. Gilgamesh even changes within himself as he grows his hair and wears animal skins; he changes into the wild Enkidu that the reader was first presented with. I would suggest that this is conveying a truth about humanity, where we find it hard to accept death and loosing people close to us.

I would argue that the characters in the epic fall into moral elements. The friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu motivates the change in Gilgamesh. The love he feels for his friend teaches him to understand what the people of Uruk want. The love between them grows so strong Gilgamesh refers to Enkidu as his ‘brother’. In a sense the wild Enkidu teaches Gilgamesh how to be human. Enkidu teaches him morals of how he should treat women. He also tried to persuade Gilgamesh not to go to the Cedar Forest as it was not for mortals. I would agree that:

Being connected with Enkidu, being united with him, gives Gilgamesh the strength and the animal wisdom…to fulfil his heroic deed. (Rivkah1991: 71)

I would argue that because Gilgamesh and Enkidu are opposites they bring out the best in each other, they seem to make one whole person. The friendship between them also helps Enkidu to become human and civilised. Therefore I am inclined to believe that The Epic of Gilgamesh is a moral allegory because the characters contain moral elements, teaching each other what is right and wrong; the characters also depict some truth about humanity.

Enkidu illustrates the innocence of humanity as he is learning how to be human. This contrasts to Gilgamesh who illustrates human traits of selfishness, arrogance and corruption; however by meeting the natural Enkidu, he learns what friendship is and loses the selfishness to become a better person. When Enkidu dies Gilgamesh feels an intense sense of loss. Illustrating how:

The motif of friendship serves as a device whereby Enkidu’s death can be made to shock Gilgamesh into an obsessive quest for immorality. (Tigay 2002 :29)

Gilgamesh is grieving for his ‘brother’ and fears death himself, he therefore decides to go on a quest to find ‘everlasting life’. Gilgamesh goes to meet Utnapishtim in hope that he too could be made immortal like Utnapishtim was after the story of the flood.

I would argue that the story of the flood has a hidden meaning illustrating a new beginning for human existence, where the flood water cleanses humanity. The gods in an act of selfishness create the flood to ‘exterminate mankind’; however they later regret this as they rely on the gifts from humans. I would therefore suggest this again illustrates that even though people may die humanity needs to live on.

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Women in The Epic of Gilgamesh also fall into moral elements. Siduri teaches Gilgamesh about wisdom and tells him to enjoy life. The epic illustrates how women were dominated by men but also shows the importance of women. When Enkidu comes from the wilderness Shamhat teaches his how to be civilised, also Utnapishtim’s wife encourages her husband to be nicer to Gilgamesh. The women are therefore helping to teach morals of what is right and wrong. Even Ishtar realises she is wrong and feels guilty.

I would therefore argue that the characters, symbolism and journeys within the text encourage The Epic of Gilgamesh to be read as a moral allegory, as they all contain moral elements behind their initial visible meaning. The journeys teach the characters to become better people. The objects reflect truths of humanity like the plant depicting the human fate of death. The characters themselves help each other to learn morals of what is right and wrong. The story contains many hidden meanings, teaching its readers different morals. The characters, actions and symbols all weave together to depict the meaning of life.


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