The ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

How did humans perceive evil in the earlier days? One of the earliest stories about a human facing the challenge of making meaning out of death and suffering is the Epic of Gilgamesh.

An illustration of a scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the second millennium BC. (Image: DR. L. LEGRAIN/CC BY SA/1.0/Public domain)

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded human attempt to understand and inhabit a world where suffering happens, and perhaps a world where suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human.

The Source of the Epic of Gilgamesh

A clay tablet with inscriptions.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was inscribed on tablets. (Image: BabelStone/Public domain)

The epic is composed in Akkadian out of much earlier Sumerian myths. The Akkadian text is from around 1200 B.C.E., but we have fragments of it from Sumeria that are from 2000–2400 B.C.E.

In Akkadian, the title of the epic is He Who Saw the Deep, sha nagkbu amaeru, where “deep” means more than just the plumbing of a merely spatial profundity. Rather, “to see the deep” means to see something deep about the human experience. Even in the Acadian text, people understood that the Epic of Gilgamesh was incredibly profound.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

A clay relief showing Gilgamesh killing the Bull of Heaven.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. (Image: Own work/CC BY SA/ 4.0/Public domain)

In this story, Gilgamesh is a hard king over the citizens of his city, Uruk, and to stop him from being so oppressive, the gods create Enkidu as Gilgamesh’s equal. Enkidu is going to be Gilgamesh’s friend, though he is called part-animal and part-human, whereas Gilgamesh is part-god and part-human. Theirs is the story of great friendship. When they fight, they realize that they are well-matched and become inseparable.

They go on many legendary adventures together. They journey to the Cedar Mountain—somewhere probably in Lebanon—and defeat Humbaba, the ogreish guardian of the mountain. They kill the Bull of Heaven, who was sent by the goddess Ishtar, to punish Gilgamesh for spurning her seduction. This murder of the Bull of Heaven doesn’t go over well with any of the gods, and so they kill Enkidu as punishment.

The Fear of Death

At the death of his friend, Gilgamesh is distraught. He’s also terrified by death, realizing it will come to him as it did to Enkidu. So, to assuage his grief and palliate his fear, he undertakes a quest to find the key to immortality by undertaking a long and perilous journey to meet the ancient and immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim.

After many difficulties, he finally meets this man face to face. But the old man is unwilling or unable to help, and he tells Gilgamesh, “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.” As predicted, Gilgamesh’s efforts do eventually fail, and he collapses, weeping.

He then returns to Uruk where the sight of its massive walls prompts him to praise this enduring work, the work solely of human hands. Perhaps this recognition of the achievement of human effort is a sign that Gilgamesh has begun to find a way out of utter despair. This indicates a slow turning back toward a merely human life.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists.Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Time of Death

But even then, the old Sumerian myths of Gilgamesh do not spare him from death. There are fragments of a parallel work, or perhaps a coda to the epic, that recounts the moment of Gilgamesh’s dying. This is what is said to Gilgamesh as his life nears its end:

You must have been told that this is what being human entailed. You must have been told that this is what the cutting of your umbilical cord entailed. The darkest day of humans awaits you now. The solitary place of humans awaits you now. The unstoppable flood-wave awaits you now. The unavoidable battle awaits you now.

The unequal struggle awaits you now. The duel from which there is no escape awaits you now.

But you should not go to the underworld with heart knotted in anger.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Consolation in Death

Even here, then, that last clause suggests that there should be some consolation. The life of humans is not entirely bleak when need not be. Another fragment of one of these poems has dead Enkidu speaking to Gilgamesh from the underworld, “I fear you will come to hate our friendship, because it did not last forever.”

Death—the finitude of human life, is the great threat to all human happiness. What the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests, though, is that it is precisely this finitude of human life that is the basis of whatever blessings and joys we can have. It is the manmade walls of Uruk which draw Gilgamesh out of his despair. No lesser animal knows that it will suffer and die. Only we do, and only we know that we are doomed to this fate; and so, we are given double evils in this way, the fact of death and the prior knowledge of it. Yet we are also not yet dead, and we can choose how we live in light of death.

Learn more about Enuma Elish-evil as cosmic battle.

The Allegory of Gilgamesh’s Life

Gilgamesh’s journeys are in this way an allegory for every human’s journey through life. There comes a moment when we know that death is our future, and then we must decide what to do with that knowledge.

In this way, Gilgamesh is the first character of this type that we’ll see again in later stories: Abraham and Job, Dante, or Joseph Conrad’s retired sailor Charlie Marlow. All of these people have a kind of acquaintance with evil that has changed them, but which they cannot exactly communicate to others so that others can share their knowledge. Each person’s quest is their own.

Stories, such as Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, give us more than their own reflections on evil. In many ways, they set the terms on which later texts, thinkers, and writers will debate these questions. Enuma Elish is the dualistic background against which the Genesis creation myth is written, and the dualism of the Enuma Elish will continue to haunt the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a shadow, a rival to their own stories of how the world began and from whence evil came.

Gilgamesh has a more positive influence, for it exemplifies the genre of the quest story, and in particular the quest story as modeling an entire human life, the human’s lifelong search for the meaning of life in the face of suffering and evil.

Common questions about the Epic of Gilgamesh

Q: Who was Gilgamesh?

Gilgamesh was the brave king of Uruk. He was part-god and part- human.

Q: Who did the gods create to be Gilgamesh’s euqal?

The gods created Enkidu, who was part-human and part-animal, as Gilgamesh’s equal.

Q: What does the Epic of Gilgamesh suggest?

The Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that it is the finitude of human life that is the basis of whatever blessings and joys we can have.

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