03 November 2010

Book Review: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Title: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Author: Anonymous
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Release Date: approx. 2000 BCE
Date Finished: 30 October 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, Really Old Classics Challenge,

The Short and Sweet of It
Gilgamesh is the big man on campus in Uruk, sleeping with all the virgins and lording it over the population. No one is his equal is strength or good looks, so the gods create Enkidu to be his match. The two become fast friends and head off to have grand adventures with lots of killing and the such not. Then, tragedy strikes and Gilgamesh finds himself fearing his own death. How can he achieve ever-lasting life?

A Bit of a Ramble
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a fantastic story. One of, if not the, oldest narrative, The Epic's importance to literature cannot be overstated. Despite its brevity, the tale can be discussed, analyzed, and pondered over and over and over. Instead of generically reviewing the book - seems unnecessary due to its importance to our culture - I thought I would highlight just a few of the issues The Epic makes me think about.

The Great Civilizer of Man:
When the gods create Enkidu, they leave him roaming the wilderness, cavorting with the animals. He is a wild man, natural. A trapper sees him and determines to make him civilized. The plan? Get a courtesan/priestess/prostitute to sleep with him. That's right. Sex with a woman is what brings man from his natural, animalistic state to civilization. The only thing I have never figured out is if this is good or bad.

Enkidu is happy and free running around those woods, one with the animals. Then a prostitute - probably a priestess of some sort - shows him her bubbies and it's all over (seriously, the trapper actually tells her to bare her breasts; it's all about the bubbies). She makes him a man (that phrase is actually in the text) by "teaching him the woman's art", and now the animals won't come near him. He loses something by this transformation.

On the other hand, he gains a lot as well. He now has the company of humans, he befriends a king who is two-thirds god, he has sex.... I think the text portrays this woman's actions in a positive light. When Enkidu is dieing, he originally curses the trapper and the woman who brought him from the wilderness; but then the god of the sun, Shamash, rebukes him for this, and he blesses the woman.

Whether a positive or a negative, however, I do find it telling that the way to civilize a man is through a woman. Man = natural; woman = civilization: this has long been a metaphor.

The Flood Story:
The Epic includes a flood story that many readers will find familiar. In it, some of the gods determine to destroy humanity - because they are too noisy - by sending a flood. One man, Utnapishtam, and his family are spared. He is told to build a boat, given the appropriate dimensions, and he is told to bring the seed of all the animals. They survive the flooding and come to ground on a mountain. He releases a dove but it comes back to the boat because it can't find land. He releases birds until one doesn't come back. Sound familiar?

The story of Noah and his Ark is almost identical. And the idea of the gods getting ticked off because of noisy children, that's in the Enuma Elish, a Sumerian creation story which predates The Epic of Gilgamesh. Think on it for a bit.

Friends and Lovers:
Gilgamesh and Enkidu share a special kind of closeness. When Gilgamesh first dreams of Enkidu, "to [him] its attraction was like the love of a woman." His mother, Ninsun, tells him he will be drawn to Enkidu "as though to a woman" and that Gilgamesh will "love him as a woman". When Gilgamesh and Enkidu take a walk, they do so holding hands, and when they sleep, they sleep in beds together: "then they took each other by the hand and lay down to sleep."

Throughout the text, it is absolutely clear that the two love each other; they are great friends, no two ever as close. What is not clear is the true nature of their relationship. In the absence of the phrase "and then they had sex", some argue that inserting a sexual relationship is too heavy handed. Many scholarly sources, however, indicate that homosexual relationships were accepted in ancient times. An ancient Egyptian tomb from about 2600 BCE actually houses two men, buried together and images indicate the two were in a sexual relationship and even lived together. This sort of acceptance suggests to me that Gilgamesh and Enkidu's romance would not need to be directly stated in the text to be true. When something is common, it can be inferred, and really the text does give us quite a few hints even if the two never explicitly engage in coitus.

Relationship to The Odyssey:
I decided to re-read The Epic after finishing the first six books of The Odyssey for a read-along hosted by Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity. The concept of heroism finds its roots in such characters as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Odysseus, and reading their stories together gives me a chance to truly compare, to see how the ancient world created and developed the idea of the hero that persists to this day.

The Filmic Connection
As far as I know, The Epic has never been adapted to film in its entirety. To do so would require great skill on the part of the director. The book covers a gigantic chunk of time but is only about 60 pages long. I do, however, think it could be done, and I certainly would love to see a film version of the story, especially one that kept Gilgamesh and Enkidu a couple. They are the epitome of "manliness", literally part of the foundation on which the concept of masculinity is built. The juxtaposition would be beneficial to contemporary perceptions of homosexual men.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

Amy Reads; things mean a lot; Ready When You Are, C.B.; Jenny Loves to Read;
Echoes of Man is my month-long sojourn into antiquity. I plan on entering the ancient world and basking in its glory for the entire month of November.

During this time, I will be reading and reviewing literature of the time and posting about related topics. If you have anything you would like to add - a review, an informative post, etc. - let me know. I would love to have you join in!
Echoes of Man Image from ~darkmatter257 at deviant art
Enkidu and Courtesan from Bible Origins
Utnapishtim and Bird from New World Encyclopedia
Gilgamesh and Enkidu from Neil Dalrymple
Gilgamesh Head from Zinda Magazine
Odysseus from Wikipedia


  1. What a really great review! I love it. So many great points that you picked out here. You are right that a movie version would be spectacular. And I really can't decide if I think it's a good or bad thing either that he sleeps with the woman and is civilized. Is it a good metaphor that women are civilization while men are nature? That sex makes him civilized? Yeah, I just don't know. haha

    And ahhh how embarrassing, a link to one of my earliest 'reviews' ;) I mean, thank you for the link!

  2. I'm glad Enkidu didn't get permanent spoiled by the "bubbies" episode!

  3. This sounds fascinating and I find the points of the story that you chose to focus on were very interesting. The idea that a woman tames man, and the similarities between this story and the Noah story are both intriguing and thought provoking to me, and make me want to read this book. I previously might not given so much thought to a story such as this one, but your review has given me pause. I am going to be looking for it.

  4. I love the story of Gilgamesh, and your initial description of the book makes me think that, if nothing else, it can be adapted to a high school comedy. Gilgamesh is varsity QB, playin' on and off the field. Then nerdy Enkidu gets laid, gets popular, and the two fight and then become friends. And then some adventures, and then, I don't know, a song by a popular band plays. Also, bubbies.

  5. I'm nor a fan of the nature/civilization metaphor because I'm not a fan of anything that exacerbates gender differences, but you're right, it's old and very prevalent. I love the glbt reading of the story. Gilgamesh was highlighted on an exhibition on the history of gay narratives I went to recently, which I thought was pretty awesome.

  6. I enjoyed this one particularly because of the biblical-like references. It made me think about the history that must have gone in to those old mythologies. My review is here: http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com/2009/03/gilgamesh.html

  7. Golly, I'm going to learn a ton this month following your reviews. COOL!

  8. Amy - Even your early views are awesome!

    Jill - It's a sad thing when the bubbies cause permanent insanity....

    Heather - It's a good, fast read, so you should definitely try it out.

    Brandon - I love it! As long as there are bubbies...

    Ana - That is so cool! The whole strange nature/civilization with gender is of course not good as far as stereotyping. I guess I'm still trying to find out what the intention was - positive or negative.

    Amanda - I agree. I find that learning about the stories that contributed to the biblical ones is a fascinating subject.

    Care - I certainly hope so! And I really hope you are inspired to pick one up at some time.

  9. Gah, why does your comment form hate me! ;) [be more patient Trish].

    I honestly can't remember if I've ever read this or not. I've taken enough history courses and literature courses that I know the history of it and the story well enough but I guess if I can't remember I need to at least re-read?

    The epic hero--it is amazing to think how many heroes are based upon these early models! Can't wait to hear what you think of Beowulf!

  10. I love that you reviewed this. I remember reading it (or pretending to?) in high school. It's a pretty important book and a good read, too!

  11. You've managed to make me want to read a book that I previously had no interest in. Well done!

  12. Trish - I know! I'm sorry. Doggie daycare and other spammers ruin it for the rest of us! The progression of themes throughout history fascinates me. I love seeing how similar we are to people who lived so long ago, and how everything we are comes from them.

    Marie - You should give it a go! It's really a fast read.

    Erin - Excellent! That is definitely my goal this month. :)

  13. When I read this I was surprised at how captivating a story it was. I listened to Stephen Mitchell's version, and then read the Penguin edition. I remember thinking how unchanging human nature is, and how we're still grappling with the same questions about life and death.

  14. Shelley - Exactly! Our similarities to our ancient ancestors always amazes me. It feels like they lived so very long ago, and yet it's really just a drop in the bucket.

  15. You've already read the first 6 books? I think I'm on page 2. I need to step up my game!

  16. I had to read this in high school - can't say that I appreciated it much then. I'm kind of hit or miss with the ancient texts and myths.

  17. I've never read this, but now I really want to. And I have lots more intelligent things to say, but they've all left my brain . . . :( Anyway, great review! You rock :)

  18. I rmemeber my husband buying this, but not his reading it. Hmm. Need to check up that.


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