I’ve loved The Epic of Gilgamesh ever since I read it first in French a few years ago. Recently, I bought Andrew George’s Penguin Classics edition (from which all the references are drawn). I am by no means a specialist of Gilgamesh since my research in secondary literature wasn’t formal nor complete. These notes concern my interest in the story’s structure and characters’ motives. In this post, I will argue that the tension between duty and pursuit of glory plays an important role in the Epic. Moreover, this idea permits me to better understand other elements of interest.
The beginning of the epic presents king Gilgamesh as threatening social stability: fighting against young men and exercising droit de seigneur on young women. The gods are looking for a way to stop Gilgamesh from raping women and killing young men, so they create Enkidu to “let him vie with him, so Uruk may be rested” (MB Ni, 4). The effect of the encounter is a shift in focus from the pursuit of pleasure to the pursuit of greatness. Having “formed a friendship” (Yale, 18) with Enkidu, the king expresses the desire to kill Humbaba to achieve fame (Yale, 17). The text is damaged so it is hard to tell how exactly the shift occurs.
One thing is certain, however, even distracted from the cities’ young men and women, the king’s will is still bent towards destruction. His plan is to kill Humbaba and obtain cedars. When they return, after refusing to marry Ishtar for reasons that fluctuate from one version of the story to the next as we’ll see later, Ishtar releases the bull of heaven to kill Gilgamesh and destroy the city. Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the bull of heaven. As a result, the gods want to break their duo by killing one of them. Their council is not recovered in the standard version. It is known through Hittite prose only and their motives are still unclear. I’d argue that having killed the forest’s protector and the bull of heaven, they have begun to threaten stability on a new scale. While Gilgamesh’s previous behaviour was hurting the city, his later behaviour threatens the stability of the whole world.
The emphasis some adaptations put on the destruction of the forest emphasize this last point. The text doesn’t put a strong emphasis on the number of cedars they bring back to Uruk. Our present concerns with the environment, however, prompt contemporary adaptations to portray it as deforestation. The adaptation from the Marionettes de Genève that I saw a few weeks ago certainly did and Izumi Ashizawa mentioned ecology as one of the themes of her productions.
Parallel to the shift from the quest of pleasure to the quest of greatness that I mentioned earlier, some critics argue there’s a shift in the king’s attitude towards his governing duties. Even if many critics seem to think so, it is hard to tell from the standard version, whether or not the king’s encounter with Enkidu makes him suddenly aware of his subjects’ needs. Before his combat with Enkidu, the epic doesn’t give much detail about his governing style apart from his passion for sex and violence. After he forms a friendship with Enkidu, he is portrayed as caring for the city even though he engages in a quest for personal glory. When he leaves to hunt down Humbaba, he doesn’t simply abandon the city but gives instructions for its governance. The epic puts a strong emphasis on the religious duties of the king. Later, when Uta-napishti patronizes the king, the temples which he left without “a provisioner” (X 288-89) are among his concerns. However, it would be difficult to argue that Enkidu’s arrival in the city makes the king better.
When Ishtar tries to seduce him and threatens to distract him from both his duties and his quest for greatness, he refuses to marry her. In the standard version, he refuses because her lovers suffer horrible fates when she finally turns against them. Another version offers other reasons for his refusal. In the poem “Bilgames and the Bull of Heaven”, the reasons have less to do with self-preservation and more with his duties towards the city in general and the temple in particular. She tells him that she will prevent him from going “to [her] temple Eanna” and “to render verdicts”. The king’s speech mentions his duties in maintaining the temple among the reasons why he refuses her. He says: “Let me catch wild bulls in the mountains, let me fill your folds! / Let me catch sheep in the mountains, let me fill your pens!”. The king can not, therefore, devote himself entirely to a domestic life and even if he could, he wouldn’t choose to do so with Ishtar who makes her lover suffer.
In both the standard version and the Sumerian poem, the vengeance of Ishtar is primarily directed towards Gilgamesh. Yet, she unleashes the bull of heaven on Uruk, it devastates the city-state and kills citizens. In a reversal of the king’s attitude at the beginning, she pursues her own pleasure at the expense of the city which worships her.
The king’s second departure from Uruk can be interpreted as more selfish than the first and they need to be contrasted. The first time, he gives precise instructions on how to rule the city in his absence. The second time, influenced by grief over his friend’s death and fear of his own, he wanders the wild immediately after the funeral. Eventually, he fantasizes about immortality and traverses both the known and the unknown world to Uta-napishti’s abode. He fails to achieve immortality and comes back to Uruk empty handed. When he returns, however, he plans to serve his community and get a name for himself at the same time by building the city walls. Therefore, the conflict between his duty and his own desire for renown is resolved.