The Epic of Gilgamesh is a classical piece of literature from Mesopotamia written over 4000 years ago. This widely acclaimed poem is one of the longest surviving works of literature. The poem chronicles the adventures of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk. The story takes place somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BCE. Gilgamesh is an oppressive king who torments his people through various actions. The part of this epic story explores that friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a wild man who has been created by the Sumerian gods. He is created to act as a peer to Gilgamesh and distract him form further oppression of his people. Enkidu later dies at the end of the first part of the story, and in the second part, Gilgamesh is distressed about the death of his friend and therefore, embarks on a journey to seek eternal life. He eventually finds out that it is impossible to have eternal life. At the core of the story’s plot is the separation between a civilized human nature and a wild animal nature. The story explores the crisis that this rift between human nature and wild nature causes. Enkidu who is initial more of a beast than a man is later detached from his primal identity and changes into an oppressor of nature. This transformation is a reflection of man’s need to identify or relate with nature and the consequences that emerge when this fundamental link is denied.
Gilgamesh is described as being “ two thirds divine and one third human”. He is extremely, arrogant, violent and aggressive. For example, at the story’s beginning, he makes a demand that all the brides of the land should sleep with him first before they do so with their new husbands. He oppresses the Uruk population, harnessing their strength and power to build protective boundaries and walls around the kingdom. The people lament Gilgamesh’s oppression and voice complaints to their gods who answer their prayers. The god answer to the people’s complaints is through the creation of Enkidu who is a wild man covered with thick bodily hair and whose head is covered with womanly hair (Westling, 34). Enkidu does not know any man and he do not also know any homeland. He feeds on grass with wild animals such as gazelles. He also drinks with the wild animals at waterholes and with the animals; his heart essentially grows light. Although is seem it is plausible to argue that the gods created Enkidu to battle Gilgamesh’s oppressive reign, his creation rather appears to counterbalance Gilgamesh’s fundamentally civilized persona. This mix comprised of two hot-blooded extremeness of complete civilization and total wilderness backfires and instead of equilibrium being established; it results in the destruction and manipulation of the wild element that is Enkidu (Westling, 23).
Enkidu is initially very conservative of nature because of his primal instincts, but as the story proceeds, he is slowly detached from his wild animal nature. At the beginning, he is innocent of ‘ wisdom and fear”. He frees some of the animals that have caught by hunters and also destroys the traps set up by these hunters (Oelschlaeger, 57). His life among the wild animals foreshadows, Humbada, a monster who is the guard of a sacred cedar forest and is ironically killed later by Gilgamesh with the help of Enkidu. Enkidu’s primeval man image corresponds to Gilgamesh’s consciousness level. He is essentially a Gilgamesh’s underworld correlate. The two are clearly representative of two very extremes: total domestication and civilization associated man, and total wild animal natured man. Together, the two form a tremendously volatile pair, and are roughly viewable as divided correlates of a high social self. However, this mix is not whole and can never be. This is because of Enkidu’s severance or detachment from the wild animal nature which inadvertently dooms the coupling. Its basis has been shattered and ruptured from within the souls of Enkidu.
At first, Gilgamesh is made aware of Enkidu’s existence by a hunter who sees him at a watering hole. The hunter sees Enkidu as frightening and threatening, and he sends a word to his king (Oelschlaeger, 58). To detach Enkidu from his wild animal nature so that he can become his ally, Gilgamesh an extremely beautiful priestess who seduces Enkidu for a total of six days where they repetitively make love. After six days, the two rise from their rendezvous only for Enkidu to find that his animal friends have abandoned him. “ He felt a strange exhaustion, as if life had left his body. He felt their absence. He imagined the gazelles raising the dry dust like soft brush floating on the crest of sand swiftly changing direction, and the serpents asleep at the springs, slipping effortless into the water, and the wild she-came vanishing into the desert. His friends had left him to a vast aloneness he had never felt before” (Mason, 18). He attempts to run after the animals, but h is failed by his knees and stricken by great grief, he becomes depressed as a result of his permanent loss of identification with wild nature. The priestess names Shamhat then goes forward to civilize and humanize Enkidu by teaching the laws and the language of humans. She slowly builds up his ego, clothes him and finally takes him to the city to meet Gilgamesh. Shamhat here performs the function of severing Enkidu from his wild animal nature and then imposes a civilized human nature and culture on him.
The severance of Enkidu from a wild animal nature to a civilized human nature starts to exhibit its tragic effects as soon as Enkidu arrives at the city. He blocks Gilgamesh ways at the door of a bride house and the two fight viciously, without either of them being unmatched until they are extremely exhausted. From here, a friendship ensues. It is from here that they start plotting various ventures that are meant to destroy nature (Oelschlaeger, 63). For instance, they plot an attack on the cedar forest together with its protector, Humbaba. At first, Enkidu is very fearful of Humbaba but Gilgamesh convinces him that their mission is achievable (Hansman, 27). Their endeavor has disastrous results, for example, when Enkidu touches the cedar forest gate, his hand is paralyzed and experiences massive pain throughout his body. He is not able to sleep at night and is ironically frightened by both imagined and real animals. “ But alone and awake the size and nature of the creatures in his mind grow monstrous, beyond resemblance to the creatures he had known before the prostitute had come into his life. But alone and awake the size and nature of the creatures in his mind grow monstrous; beyond resemblance to the creatures he had known before the prostitute had come into his life. He cried aloud for them to stop appearing over him, emerging from behind the trees with phosphorescent eyes” (Mason 36-7).
In spite of this setback, the two are, however, finally successful in killing Humbaba (Hansman, 30). Later in the story, the gods send a creature named the “ Bull of Heaven” cause chaos to Uruk after Gilgamesh has rejected Inanna’s advances and insulted her also. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill this sacred beast. Here, it is ironical that Enkidu is now attacking animals, something that he would have previously protected with his life. It becomes clear that his distressing disassociation from his wild animal nature has risen to extreme proportions, and he is on the verge of self-annihilation. The gods are extremely enraged, and it is decided that Enkidu must die. He becomes gravely ill, and at his death bed, he curses both the hunter and Shamhat from detaching or separating him from his wild animal nature. He dies soon afterwards.
As observed in the discussion above, the human-animal separation is a constant feature throughout this literary piece. It essentially defines the ecological tragedy that takes place in the story. Enkidu, a former nature lover and protector whose e motivation was drawn from his primal and wild instincts become a destroyer of this nature that he once protected. His friendship with Gilgamesh is doomed because it emerged as a result of his detachment from his former self. His severance from his wild animal nature into civilized human nature comes with a lot of consequences as depicted in the poem. His shift from the wild animal nature to the civilized human nature sacrifices his bestial speed, prowess and identity.
Our writers will create one from scratch for
Mason, Herbert, trans. Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative. New York: Mentor, 1970.
Westling, Louise. The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction. Athens: The University of Georgia, 1996.
Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness, from Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Hansman, J. ” Gilgamesh, Humbaba and the Land of the Erin-Trees.” Iraq. 38 (1976): 23-36.